Editorial Board Member Suggestions for Addressing Reviewer Comments

To complement the tips for addressing reviewer comments from longtime Academic Medicine authors that we shared yesterday, today we’re sharing suggestions from Academic Medicine editorial board members. 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.

Arno K. Kumagai, MD, Department of Medicine, University of Toronto Faculty of Medicine, and Wilson Centre, and Women’s College Hospital and University of Toronto

1.  Acknowledge the work and attention that the reviewers have paid to the manuscript and thank them for their efforts. (This sounds corny but no one gets paid, and it usually takes 2-3 hours away from one’s family, oneself, and other work to do a thoughtful job.)

2. Avoid being defensive or arrogant in the response. The editors felt it was worth peer review, so be persuasive about points rather than defensive about the whole. Also, even if you think that the reviewer’s an ignorant clod, it’s best to keep such comments to yourself…

3.  The reviewer isn’t always right. Sometimes the manuscript may provoke a new direction of thought by the reviewers (which is a good sign of the ability of the work to be thought-provoking and generative), and they may suggest new approaches, directions, and references. If you feel strongly that the suggestions go far beyond your intent in the paper, respectfully say so. This is of course a bit risky, but as long as you’re respectful, you can. It always helps to cite constraints imposed by the word limit if the additional changes are lengthy and detailed.

Colin P. West, Division of General Internal Medicine, Mayo Clinic College of Medicine

1. Points 3-9 in the AM Last Page “Ten Tips to Move From ‘Revisions Needed’ to Resubmission” are all great advice.

2. The reviewers are always right, at least to a degree. Even if a reviewer’s comments reflect an erroneous understanding of your work or of the field, you have an opportunity to clarify the manuscript, so other readers won’t fall victim to the same misunderstandings.

3. Do not feel obligated to accommodate every reviewer request. Does the revision request harm the integrity of your manuscript? If so, politely explain your perspective in your response. Asking the editors for clarification can be very helpful in this situation as well.

4. Reviewers are not your enemy. They are usually peers and colleagues, so be respectful and respond the way you would like to be responded to when you provide a review. Being argumentative or disrespectful is seldom a wise strategy in the revision process.

Chris S. Candler, MD, EdD, Department of Medicine and Office of the Dean, University of Oklahoma Health Science Center

Don’t rush through the revision phase by superficially addressing each reviewer suggestion. Take time to appreciate the reason that led to the concern and how the manuscript should be revised to fully address each reviewer’s suggestion.

Grace C. Huang, MD, Department of Medicine, Harvard Medical School, and Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center

1. Acknowledge its value: “We appreciate the reviewer’s insight…”

2. Restate to ensure that you have fully synthesized it: “…that we may have overstated our findings.”

3. Summarize your correction and its location: “In response, we have edited the text in paragraph 1 of the discussion…”

4. In rare cases, respectfully describe why you decline to make changes but still respond to the comment: “…we agree with this observation, however, given that this was beyond the scope of our research, we left the text as is.”

John Paul Sanchez MD, MPH, Department of Emergency Medicine, Rutgers New Jersey Medical School

When working with co-authors, send them the reviews immediately, divide questions/concerns among co-authors, and schedule a meeting within one to two weeks to discuss possible approaches/responses to address each question/concern. Timely teamwork ensures a quality re-submission.

Anthony Artino, Jr, PhD, Department of Medicine, F. Edward Hébert School of Medicine, Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences

1. Engage the peer-review process “early and often.” When you send your paper to a journal, that should not be the first time someone outside your research or writing team has read the paper. Find a friend or colleague who’s willing to take the time to read your paper with a critical eye and provide constructive feedback (and agree to do the same for him or her). You want lots of “red ink” on your draft; you typically don’t want a comment like “everything looks good,” as such comments don’t help you improve the paper. As we like to say in our research group: “feedback is love!” 

2. If you get conflicting advice from two or more reviewers, and if the editor does not provide clarification regarding which reviewer s/he agrees with, then pick the advice that’s closest to what you already believe or which seems to be the most appropriate or correct to you. Odds are, nobody outside your research team knows the work as well as you do. So, always consider constructive criticism and try to improve the work, but all else being equal, it makes little sense to prepare significant changes based on reviewer comments that are incorrect or simply don’t align with what you know to be true about the topic. In all cases, however, be sure to justify your decisions in a thoughtful and respectful way.  

3. Be persistent! The hardest papers to get published are the worst papers and the best papers. The worst papers are hard to get published because, well, they’re just not very good! And the best papers are hard to get published because often times really good scholarly writing/research is saying something completely new that reviewers and editors just don’t want to hear.

Monica L. Lypson, MD, MHPE, Department of Veterans Affairs, Office of Academic Affiliations

1. Reframe your initial disappointment as:

  • Here is my opportunity to really show off my work.
  • The reviewers are offering me a gift to improve my paper.
  • I’m excited to revisit this work.

2. Address the comment, even if you do agree with making a change, this is critical to letting the editors know that you have been thoughtful in your approach.

  • As the corresponding author, you must take charge of this process:
    • When working with your colleagues ask them to use the comment’s box or track edit changes as you circulate the paper, ensure version control.
    • Once you receive everyone’s comments, you must review and “clarify” the track changes to ensure the editors can clearly understand any changes or additions.
  • Use track changes on the body of the paper. It is to your benefit to clarify those track changes in a table attached to your decision letter.

Check back tomorrow for more content on addressing reviewer comments, including advice from Academic Medicine editorial staff.