Author Suggestions for Addressing Reviewer Comments

To complement the tips for addressing reviewer comments that we shared yesterday, today we’re sharing suggestions from longtime Academic Medicine authors. This post is part of a series on tips for addressing reviewer comments during the revisions part of the publication process. You can read the other posts in the series here.

Daniel J. Schumacher, MD, MEd, Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center and University of Cincinnati College of Medicine

It’s important to not take reviewer comments personally. They want to see the paper published or they would not have asked for revisions. Remember this as you address their comments. My best advice for approaching the revisions focus on three tips. First, make the requested changes unless you have a very strong reason for not making them. I feel like one of the pitfalls of authors in making revisions is being too wedded to what they initially wrote. Let this go. It is better to have a published paper with a little less of what you initially said than a paper that is not accepted. Second, deleting things from your paper can sometimes be the best way to address a reviewer comment. This is particularly true if you do not agree with the comment. If this is the case, ask yourself: would the paper be fine without this in it? If the answer is yes, then just delete it. Finally, be open to adding to your limitations. If the reviewers raise a concern that you cannot address based on how you have conducted your work, simply add this as a limitation. Limitations are not a bad thing. All research has limitations.

Th.J. (Olle) ten Cate, PhD, Center for Research and Development of Education, University Medical Center Utrecht

When I receive a request for a major revision, first there is excitement and then usually comes a slight sense of being overwhelmed by the many comments, some of which impress as being hard to address. In the past, I would read them all and then put it away for a while for later attention.

Now, I find a different sequence more helpful. Even before reading the details I first pull up my home-made empty template table in landscape format for responses to reviewer comments, containing four columns: “#”, “comment”, “response”, “changes in text” and many rows. As I read, I copy each true comment and paste it in a “comment” cell. I leave out anything that does not require a response. Then I assign a unique number to each comment to enable cross referencing in my response. This provides me with such a helpful structure that it clears my mind. It is an easy step that actually makes me want to make all quick fixes in the manuscript directly and usually leaves me with only a few bigger tasks that suddenly seem very doable.

William C. McGaghie, PhD, Department of Medical Education, Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine

1.     A manuscript revise and resubmit (R & R) decision from a journal editor is a cause for celebration, not dejection. R & R means peer reviewers and the journal editor believe the manuscript has promise for publication, after suggested improvements. Take reviewers’ and editors’ comments as constructive feedback, prepare and submit a clear and prompt revision, and the probability of acceptance is increased.

2.     You need not accept all reviewers’ comments and revision suggestions. Disagreement is OK if you can argue persuasively that a [small or large] part of the manuscript should remain intact.

3.     Study other reports in the same category (e.g., articles, research reports) that your work aims to address in the target journal. Use these publications as examples of excellent manuscript structure, substance, presentation, and style.

Larry Gruppen, PhD, Department of Learning Health Sciences, University of Michigan Medical School

1.     The reviewer is always right – even when they are wrong. A reviewer concern or confusion may have merit in your opinion or it may not, but as an indication that you did not communicate clearly, these concerns cannot be ignored. Be very careful to consider alternative viewpoints from your own in interpreting reviewer critiques – this can be invaluable in expanding your perspective and highlighting connections you may not have considered before.

2.     When responding to reviewer comments, remember that you are talking to the editor(s), not the reviewers. The reviewer may or may not see your specific responses, but the editors will. So, write your responses with the editors in mind, recognizing that you are trying to help them make the decision about accepting your paper. The editors will likely identify the reviewer comments that they consider most important for your response, so make sure you cover those. Other comments are still important to consider but may not be as important to the editors. Parse the letter from the editors carefully to identify their priorities.

3.     Often, responding to reviewer comments means adding words, but this is often difficult to fit into the journal word limits. Again, you need to prioritize the changes requested, identifying those that may require more words than you consider feasible – but remember that the editors have the last word on this. You should feel free to point out the conflict between brevity and responding fully to the reviewer comments and offer a solution but defer final decision to the editors.

4.     Most of the reviewing, revising, and resubmitting is done in writing, but it is perfectly reasonable to contact the editor/editorial staff directly with questions and clarifications. Direct contact can be a major time saver when you are uncertain about the meaning of a reviewer comment or alternative responses you might be considering.

Javeed Sukhera, MD, PhD, DABPN, FRCPC, Centre for Education Research and Innovation, Schulich School of Medicine and Dentistry, Western University

1.     I always take time to read the comments twice before actually beginning to edit. The first time is a quick read, then take space and time to process. The second is a more thorough non-judgmental read without trying to respond. Then, I populate a table with each comment and begin editing.

2.     As a qualitative researcher, I often react in certain ways to comments that are clearly ontologically and epistemologically discordant from the position from which the research was conducted. These comments require tact, patience, and diplomacy to respond to. You can give yourself permission to disagree with the reviewer, however, I would advise discussing these comments with others and responding without jargon. Also reference your response. It is important to demonstrate that you understand the critique and explain why it is challenging to edit the paper from a perspective that does not align with the approach to the work.

Maria Athina (Tina) Martimianakis, PhD, Department of Pediatrics, University of Toronto and Hospital for Sick Children, and The Wilson Centre, University of Toronto, and University Health Network

Ensure that you clearly articulate why you have chosen to respond to reviewer comments the way you have. Sometimes a revision in the paper is shorter than the explanation required to respond to the reviewers. Justifying rationales that underpin our choice to accept or contest the reviewer’s suggestion is useful because it creates the conditions for a more informed final decision by the editor.

Responding to reviewers is a formal process. Always take a respectful and formal tone with the reviewer, even when contesting their judgement of your paper. (I recently saw a response to a reviewer by one of my students which sounded like they were conversing with a friend at the park.)

Write to the editor if you have questions about how to reconcile different suggestions from multiple reviewers.

Reviewer comments should not be written in a disrespectful way. If they are, bring them to the attention of the editor and request guidance in responding to them.

If you receive a “needs major revision” response, celebrate! It is rare to have one’s manuscript accepted in the first round of revisions or “As is.”

Check back tomorrow for advice on addressing reviewer comments from Academic Medicine editorial board members and later this week for advice from the Academic Medicine editorial staff and more.