Wednesday, 8 March 2017

Responding to Reviewers' Comments

Prof Sally Sheldon
Yesterday we re-ran a session for the Early Career Researcher Network on 'Getting Published: targeting top journals and writing book proposals.' It was led by Prof Sally Sheldon (KLS) and Prof Mick Tuite (Biosciences). I've written up some notes from it before, but I wanted to add to these by highlighting an important aspect of the process: how to respond to reviewers' comments. 'We don’t take it seriously enough,’ suggested Sally, and yet it's crucial if you want to get published - or funded.

The first step, when you receive the reviews, is to take a deep breath. Read them carefully and be honest with yourself about whether the criticisms are well-grounded. If you're not sure, share them with a colleague. Sally gave the example of a review she received early in her career that described an article she'd written as ‘boring, derivative and inordinately over long’. At the time she didn't have the self-confidence to question it, or even to seek an objective view. She hid it in a bottom drawer, and only years later was able to face it again.

Once you've had time to think about it, you can do one of three things:
Prof Mick Tuite

  • If the comments are unhelpful or misguided, and by adopting them would change your work substantially, unnecessarily and harmfully, either: 
    • consider submitting elsewhere;
    • or talk to editor. They are, after all, academics like you, and might understand that such changes would be detrimental to the article; 
  • Alternatively, if the changes are reasonable, take them on board. 

If you are going to do the latter, make sure that you: 

  • Show that you’ve made an attempt to respond to a comment in good faith. Make a substantive change to reflect it, revise language to ensure clarity, or add a footnote or a reference that shows you have taken the comment seriously.
  • Respond to each point in turn, logically and systematically, breaking down your response
    Sally's response to reviewers
    and demonstrating how you've met all of their concerns. Sally showed an example of one of her own responses, with each reviewer comment being matched by her response in red. You could even provide a version of your article with the changes tracked, to make it completely clear how it fits together with the changes adopted. Some journals actually demand this but, if not, it's still good practice. If there is a substantial comment that you can’t bring yourself to address, explain your reasoning clearly - and cross your fingers. 
  • Be courteous, clear and straightforward, and say that you're grateful for ‘helpful’ suggestions. 

Such a revised and well-framed response is quite hard for editors to turn down. However, make sure that you: 

  • Dont' make changes that seem damaging: the paper will have your name on it and be around for longer than you are;
  • Don't take is too personally. Remember Sally's 'boring, derivative and inordinately long' article? Putting it away didn't help her, or the potential beneficiaries of the research. Get a second opinion, consider revising it, or submitting it elsewhere. 
  • Don't sound off about the referees in the response. Editors can spot rogue reviews and if they believed that here was a problem with the feedback, they could have intervened, edited or just not sent it. A careful, courteous, professional response is  a far more effective way of highlighting the opposite qualities on a poor review. 

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