The first time I submitted a manuscript, it came back months later with a lengthy list of recommended changes and an equivocal response from the editor which implied that he was reluctant to hear from me again but might deign to respond if I proved myself worthy. I was devastated. It had been an immense amount of work and effort to prepare, and by now I’d moved on to other things. I glumly sloped into my supervisor’s office and was taken aback by his enthusiasm. Apparently this was what passed as good news in science *.
Since then I’ve been through the manuscript submission mill many times and always prepare my students in advance for the likely tone of what they will receive. It doesn’t get any easier. I still can’t read comments as soon as they arrive. Normally I’ll read what the editor says, skim the rest, then go for a short walk around the lake to calm down. Sometimes it takes several laps.
Eventually, however, you need to brace yourself and get down to the revisions. Clear your diary, close the door, unplug the phone (and the internet) and make sure there are no distractions. Don’t leave until it’s done. Unpleasant jobs are always the easiest ones to procrastinate from, and revising a manuscript comes pretty low on my list of favourite ways to spend an afternoon.
Assuming you have an invited resubmission (rather than an outright rejection **), here is a quick guide to how to respond to manuscript reviews that I wrote for my PhD students:
- Write back to the editor immediately, thanking them and the referees for their time and helpful comments. Even if you’re not grateful and they weren’t helpful. Even if they rejected the manuscript ***. Being nice works wonders in the long term because they will see your work again. They have also taken their own limited time, usually unpaid, to look at what you’ve submitted.
- Compose a response letter, starting in much the same way. List and address every single comment made by the editor and referees sequentially and in full. Keep in the positive ones too, it makes you feel better.
- Make it as easy as possible for the editor to tell that you’ve made the changes requested. This means that instead of saying ‘This has been done’, or ‘A paragraph on this has been added to the discussion’, say ‘This is a very helpful comment. We have therefore inserted a new paragraph in lines 283–292 which explains how…’ etc. Editors are busy and don’t like to have to work harder to check whether you’ve followed instructions.
- Tread carefully if you disagree with any comment. If it makes no material difference then make the change, even if it’s only a matter of preference. Only contest if you are convinced that the referee is wrong and you can back it up. Even so, apologise for not making the manuscript clear enough and specify where you have added clarifications or extra evidence in the text. If you’ve failed to convince them first time around then it implies that you need to change something.
- Try not to use track changes, comments, bold type or other formatting to note changes to the manuscript itself. In my experience (usually when requested to by editors…) this leads to errors in the final copy. Refer to line numbers instead.
- Take extra time on the figures. Clear, high-quality figures give your paper a greater chance of being read, cited and used by others. If the figures look amateur then no-one will bother reading the text. Use this opportunity to redraw and tweak them using proper tools (e.g. inkscape, sK1, ImageMagick, gimp). Don’t rely on Microsoft Office products to create publication-quality images.
- Never play referees off against each other. If they disagree on a point then compromise and ask the editor for guidance. Also note that if only one referee picks up on something, this does not imply that all the others are on your side. They may simply not have noticed.
Finally, in almost all cases reviewers are doing it because they genuinely care about maintaining standards in the scientific literature and improving the quality of work that gets published. There are some cases when a reviewer might block something too close to their own work, which contradicts them, or out of some personal vendetta against you or your collaborators. This is exceptionally rare though, and can seldom be demonstrated. Even if you suspect it, you’re most likely wrong, and should never say so in your response. No-one is out to thwart you.
Good luck, and remember, we all go through this. If it starts to get you down then go and vent to a colleague. Everyone has stories to share.
* A friend at a university in a developing country once related that the modal number of papers among his faculty colleagues was zero. Exploring the causes of this, it transpired that in many cases they had once submitted something to an international journal and been so offended by the audacity of the response that they had vowed to never subject themselves to such humiliation again. This was true of even senior professors.
** I would recommend doing all this even if you’ve been rejected. Partly because you have a high risk of coming across the same referees again at a different journal, but mainly because it forces you to confront the criticisms of your work.
*** Don’t contest a rejection unless one of two things apply. Either there has been a gross mistake made by one of the referees, and you can unequivocably demonstrate this. Or you’re submitting to one of the big journals (Nature, Science) when putting up a fight can make a difference. Apparently. It’s never worked for me.