The Dos and Don’ts of How To Reply to Peer Review Comments
When that journal editor you have been waiting to hear from finally writes to say that the research paper you submitted cannot be published in its present form and includes with the letter a long string of comments from peer reviewers specifying all the problems they have detected and requesting far more changes than you could ever have anticipated, it is very difficult indeed to see the news as positive. Given the number of definitive rejections handed out by journal editors each day, however, and the rarity of manuscript acceptance without requests for revisions, it is good news – very good news indeed. The main objective at this point is to do everything you possibly can to address the concerns of those peer reviewers as you revise and resubmit your article. One of the most essential aspects of this process is replying to comments and suggestions in a clear, detailed and professional manner.
Understanding exactly what each comment or suggestion means, precisely what you are being asked to consider or alter and how you are going to address the issue is necessary before you can draft an effective reply. It is therefore imperative to read the feedback you received carefully, repeatedly and in close relation to your manuscript, seeking critical help from mentors and colleagues when you remain unsure of a reviewer’s meaning or how to proceed. You may want to draft your response as part of the process of revising your paper or revise your manuscript first and then describe in your letter what you have done. Either way, your reply will be best if it is written, read and revised with as much care and attention to content, formatting and wording as you dedicate to the paper itself. Remember that your letter can have an enormous impact on whether your manuscript will be published or not.
Clarity is absolutely central, so identify your manuscript by title and, if relevant, the identification number the editor has assigned it. Supplying necessary details should take precedence over any concerns about the length of your response, though it is also true that a response as concise as possible for each comment offered by a reviewer or the editor is usually best. If you are fortunate enough to have very few review comments to consider, you may be able to explain how you addressed them in a single paragraph, but in most cases a more structured approach will prove more effective. An excellent strategy is to copy each review comment into your letter separately, add your response below it and finish with an explanation of how you addressed the issue or fixed the problem. Some authors use different fonts and colours to distinguish the comments of reviewers from the responses of authors and the changes made, but keep in mind that fonts and colours can be lost in submission forms and other online exchanges. Clearly labelling each element as a ‘Comment,’ ‘Response’ or ‘Change’ is therefore the most reliable method. Numbering the comments can be helpful as well, whether your reviewers do so or not, and clearly indicating which reviewer you are addressing is imperative. The tree of a comment, response and change might look like this:
Comment 1: The abstract covers the necessary points, but is far too long and seems to have been copied from the conclusion. A thorough rewrite in accordance with journal guidelines is needed and I’d like to see some precise percentages for the key findings noted in the final sentences.
Response: Thank you for your helpful observations on the abstract. I agree that precise percentages would be more effective here. I also looked over the journal guidelines again and can see where I went wrong.
Changes: I have completely rewritten the abstract using the structured approach outlined in the journal guidelines. I believe it is now clearer and more precise as well as shorter. The revised final sentences read: ‘Quote those sentences here.’ I have also included the entire abstract in its revised form at the end of these comments.
As this brief response demonstrates, professional gratitude and an objective collegial tone are appropriate while explaining exactly what you have done to resolve problems and address a reviewer’s concerns. Even if you do not think that a suggestion will actually improve the paper or its conformity to journal guidelines, it is wise to make alterations, especially minor ones, to demonstrate respect and consideration for a reviewer’s thoughts and concerns. Misunderstandings may come as disappointing surprises when you have made every effort to report your research clearly, but they often indicate places where your explanations or presentation could be clarified further. Whatever confuses a specialist chosen by the journal editor to review your work is likely to confuse at least some of the journal’s readers, so treating comments of this kind as opportunities to refine meaning and style is a productive policy.
Only if you disagree with a suggestion or criticism because implementing the changes would be harmful to the paper, conducting the required research would be impossible or the matter is truly well beyond the scope of your study should you not make any changes. Then, however, you will need to explain why and your explanation must be reasonable, based on your research and that of other academics or scientists, and presented with the same tone of gratitude and objectivity. Try to start each response on a positive note and then turn to the more difficult meat of the matter along the lines of ‘This is an excellent observation, but….’ Some decisions and explanations will be far more difficult than others. A discrepancy in reviewer opinion on a specific issue can be particularly tricky, demanding that you decide which approach is best for your work, argue your point logically and courteously, find the middle ground of compromise in some cases and, if necessary, solicit the opinion and assistance of the journal editor who sent you the decision letter.
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