One of the key struggles facing early career researchers (ECRs), and especially new PhD students, is how they should respond to reviewers’ comments. I will answer this question in my capacity as both an author and an experienced editor. This article describes four key approaches to manuscript revision.
I remember my first foray into the peer review system. I had written a paper as a Master’s student and the first comment I received from my professor was, “You should try to get this published!” So, of course, I tried. I submitted the manuscript to the Journal of Sociology and Social Welfare, held my breath, and, lo and behold, it was sent out to three reviewers. The comments were devastating. I remember one of the reviewers said something to the effect of, “This paper looks like it was submitted by an undergraduate student.” Ouch! That one put a big dent in my confidence.
To his credit, the editor gave me a chance to revise and resubmit (R&R). At the time, I had no idea how extensive revisions were meant to me. I spent maybe an hour or two revising the paper, adding one sentence here and there. Unsurprisingly, after the second round, the editor rejected it. But don’t cry for poor little me. Eventually, the paper found a home in the Journal of Classical Sociology. Within this short story lies my first piece of advice for ECRs.
Learn to Let Go of Your Ideas
This one is huge. If what we write is an extension of our “selves,” then any critique of what we write feels like a critique of the self. This statement is much more profound than it seems at first glance. Our ideas are ultimately what make us “us.” We wrote the first draft that way because that’s the way we wanted it. If we had wanted it to say something else, we would have written something else. When a reviewer or editor tells us our ideas are wrong, it feels like an attack on the self. Only when you are willing to let go of your ideas and allow them to be shaped and changed externally can you succeed in the peer review system. In the above example, I resisted the fundamental change that was needed. Today, I don’t think twice about re-writing an entire paper if I need to. Just drop your defenses. You’ll thank me for it.
“If what we write is an extension of our “selves,” then any critique of what we write feels like a critique of the self.”
The Author’s Note is as Important as the Revision Itself
I am not exaggerating when I say that, on occasion, my author’s note is just as long, or even longer, then the manuscript itself. Don’t get cheap on the author’s note, just because you put a huge amount of effort into the revision. I recently sent a paper out for Round 2 of peer review and the authors did not even bother to include an authors’ note! Guess what. The reviewers rejected it, and so did I. Remember that we’re volunteering for this job. You’ve got to make it as easy for us as possible, which leads us to the next point.
Make It Easy for the Reviewers and the Editor
A long author’s note is pointless if it’s not user-friendly. I typically summarize each critique and then sequentially label them COMMENT1, COMMENT2, COMMENT3, ect., for each reviewer. Next, I immediately follow up each summarized comment with ACTION1, ACTION2, ACTION3, etc., wherein I explain clearly exactly how I addressed each concern raised by the reviewers. Importantly, don’t just say that you made a change. Explain how and why you made the change and point out where the change can be found in your revised manuscript.
You Don’t Have to Make Every Change Suggested
Finally, bear in mind that you don’t need to make every change that is suggested. Let’s be honest. Sometimes reviewers make pretty stupid suggestions. I would say, on balance, about three-quarters of reviewer comments are worth addressing. However, it does not follow that you should simply ignore those comments. You need to explain to the reviewer, delicately, but firmly, why you have opted not to incorporate those changes. I usually write something to the effect of, “Thank you very much for this comment. Although we can appreciate where you’re coming from, we believe that changes along these lines would take the paper in a different direction than we would like. However, we believe this comment is important and will certainly address it in future research.”
I hope you find this article useful as you navigate the peer review process. It’s a jungle out there, people, so stay safe and always seek advice from senior academics like me if you have questions.
Professor Andrew R. Timming
This article is published under a Creative Commons 4.0 License.