The zen of addressing reviewers’ comments

Here is the main trick: always respect your reviewers.

Yes, this can be tough – respecting even the arrogant referees or those who clearly did not spend much time reading the paper, did not understand a thing about your research. Often, this means taking some time to cool down after reading and re-reading the reviews. Do not fixate on bad reviews. Do not start responding emotionally.  By all means, it is most advisable to go and vent about “the third reviewer” to your friends over beers (two or three Indian Pale Ales coupled to a wild mushroom oven-roasted pizza work particularly well). Then – sleep it off and be sincerely polite and respectful while taking part in scientific discussion of your data. At the end, each reviewer is your colleague, at some point in life you can be – or appear to be – one of them. So, get the patience to “respectfully disagree”, clarify with both words and reasonable amount of experiments. At the end of the day, these two or three people actually took the time to read your paper and respond to it.

Here is another thing to remember: it is called a ‘peer review’ because a reviewer is your peer. You do not need to be submissive to every single request simply out of fear. It is important to evaluate each comment carefully.  Imagine your response as if you are in front of the audience of your prospective readers. Does or does not a particular reviewer’s concern shatter your interpretation of the data? Now… be honest with yourself. If you are hesitant – may be you do need to re-phrase your conclusions or do this one extra experiment to reject an alternative. If reviewers’ concern does not change what you think – spell out your logic.

In practice, I respond to reviews similar to how I used to go through short-answer questions on a take-home exam. I start by copying and pasting reviews to new file. If the review is written in a free-flow format, I divide it into smaller bullet-point sections. Then, I start writing the responses to each and every section. Sometimes, it is less demoralizing to answer easy points first, then come back to the tough ones. In my opinion, every comment deserves an answer, even something simple as “missing a comma on p.7” can be answered with a single word “fixed” or “addressed”. Avoid unnecessary battles: if there are two ways to spell or phrase something, go with reviewer’s suggestions, unless you are 100% sure that only your phrasing can truly convey what you meant to say. If there is an easy control experiment you can run – do it even if it seems redundant.

Ones everything is addressed, identify the meat of your dialog with a referee and write a short two-three sentence summary placing it in the beginning of your response. If the whole response turned out to be worth of Leo Tolstoy’s novel – you can also write a one-two sentence summary at the end. This would remind both you and your unknown discussion opponent that you are in fact on the same page.

Lastly, take a second to re-read your paper one more time after resubmission. With all the pitfalls of peer review, more often than not I sincerely found that my papers improved a lot due to the review process.

Other blogs on peer review:

2 thoughts on “The zen of addressing reviewers’ comments

    • Thanks Tim. I think your blog post is actually very much complementary to ours as it spells out many of the practical mistakes people very often make. Thanks for highlighting it here.

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