How to respond to referees’ comments

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.


9 thoughts on “How to respond to referees’ comments

  1. Daniel Gruner (@GrunerDaniel)

    Overall I’d agree with these helpful points. It pays to be nice, and in response letters, authors should always include ALL editorial and reviewer comments in their original order, even comments that require no change or action. Do not leave anything out. Clearly delineate reviewer comments from responses using spacing, fonts, indents, etc. Respond to positive comments with a word of thanks because this is the polite thing to do, but also because it further underscores the positive aspects of the manuscript.

    However, as an editor I do not see that an email of thanks to the editor has any benefit. It comes a little too close to ‘brown-nosing’, and any good editor worth their salt is going to make sure it does not influence their final decision. So, save it for the response letter and don’t send unnecessary emails. Correspond with the editor if you have questions about reviews or need advice about ways to proceed, but not merely to flatter or praise them for their efforts.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. midnightrambler956

      I would agree with that. Especially in a case where (as recently happened to me) the editor rejects your paper in spite of favorable reviews, after taking four months to do so. TBH, my feeling is that too many editors take it on themselves to act as an additional reviewer, without necessarily having read the ms enough to do so.


  2. sleather2012

    Very useful post.

    As an editor and referee I think **point two is extremely good advice – nothing more annoying to a referee than being sent a paper that they refereed for another journal and find that identical unchanged paper has been submitted.

    I also as an Editor had a very angry letter from an Indian Professor who had obviously never come across a robust review before 😉

    I agree with Daniel Gruner, as an Editor I do not expect a thank you letter until you send in revised manuscript.


    1. midnightrambler956

      Well, from the perspective of an author, there’s nothing more annoying than having the same goddamn idiot make the same irrelevant criticisms again, forcing you to waste yet more of your time.

      To give an example from my own experience – a few years ago I submitted a paper on DNA barcoding and species discrimination success in a particular taxon. One of the reviewers demanded that we conduct extensive tests for selection and various other evolutionary effects on the gene sequences. These would be not only completely irrelevant to the point of the paper, thereby changing the focus, but also impossible to perform with the sample sizes available (some were extremely rare species with only a few individuals known at all). Fortunately in that case we were able to convince the editor that it was unnecessary, but if I were forced to resubmit it somewhere else I absolutely would not change it either.


      1. Markus Eichhorn Post author

        Yes, we all get bad or silly reviews every now and again. Sometimes we’re even responsible for writing them. It’s still important as an author to make the case for why you haven’t changed the manuscript.


  3. sleather2012

    Great post Markus

    All excellent points, but I agree with Daniel that as an Editor I see no need to send a thank you letter until the revision is submitted.

    Also the point about making the changes suggested by the referees even if you have been rejected. The referee pool is smaller than people think and there is nothing more annoying than being sent a paper that you have previously refereed for another journal and seeing that it has been submitted totally unchanged. Shows the author(s) up as either being very arrogant or very lazy – take your pick 😉

    As an Editor I too have had the angry letter from an Indian professor who had obviously never been through the international refereeing system before.


  4. midnightrambler956

    “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.”

    I know we’d like to think this, but it’s not really true. I’ve had relatively few papers that are more than taxonomy, in a relatively non-controversial field, but several of them have had reviews that were so out of line that the person could be identified from what they were saying. Two included demands that we throw out our analyses and instead use different programs that (purely coincidentally, I’m sure) were from papers authored by the reviewers. This was despite the fact that in one case the paper was not publish yet nor the program released, and in the other the program was never made publicly available because (as I later learned) it never really worked as described in the paper.


    1. Markus Eichhorn Post author

      It does happen, but I’d still maintain that it’s extremely rare. More to the point, convincing yourself that your work isn’t being published because of some personal slight is bad for your mental health and often likely to be incorrect. I’ve been bruised by the feedback on some of my own submissions. I’ve seen other colleagues have excellent work snubbed. I’ve seen many more colleagues build up festering resentments which spoil their relationships with others in their field. Far better to start from the assumption that most people are nice because, on balance, they probably are.



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