Letter to the peer-reviewer

34: Seven features of a good response to reviewers

Are you at a loss for words when it comes to responding to reviewers? Do you wonder how you can respond in a way that increases the chances of passing peer-review? Do you have doubts about what would be the correct tone for your response and are looking for some help with wording it? You’re in luck! We’ve come up with seven features that make up a great response to reviewers and also provided great formulations that you can use in your next response. 

In our TRESS ACADEMIC course “How to publish in peer-reviewed journals”, this question comes up regularly: 

“Do you know a good way I can politely tell a reviewer what changes I have made in my revised paper and why I cannot actually implement all of their suggestions?” 

During the peer-review process of your paper, you’ll likely receive many comments from reviewers. They may ask you to change a lot in your paper, but sometimes their requests exceed what is possible for you to do. In our recent SMART ACADEMICS BLOG post #32 (How not to react when you receive review reports), we explained how you should NOT respond to review reports. In this post, we want to turn the tables and give you advice on what WOULD be a good way to respond and what the key features of such responses are. We suggest that there are seven essential features that create a constructive response to reviewers. Keep these in consideration and you will substantially improve the odds that the reviewers (and the editors) will agree with your revision and accept your paper. 

To make it clear from the beginning, this post is NOT about telling you how to politely reject any or all reviewer suggestions, quite the opposite. We absolutely encourage you to consider all reviewer comments as thoroughly as possible, because they might really help to improve your paper and ultimately lead to its acceptance by the journal. 

Yet, the quality and the tone of your response to reviewers is decisive for your paper’s success. Responding the wrong way or not responding at all will risk your paper’s rejection, whereas a good reply can make all the difference in getting your paper accepted. 

When you are in the revision stage of your paper, you may encounter a situation like this: A reviewer takes up a critical point in your manuscript, which you would love to address, but you probably cannot do it exactly as the reviewer suggests. In this case, it can be helpful to have a good formulation on hand that shows you respect the reviewer’s concern, but also explains why you did what you did (or didn’t do) in your revision.

Therefore we also present you with a free downloadable cheat-sheet “Phrases to use when responding to reviewers” that includes helpful wording and formulations for a good response. Then, you’ll have a treasure trove of phrases available for all kinds of response possibilities when getting back to the journal. Pick the right formulation, adapt it to your purposes and then writing the response letter will be easier than ever. 

Seven features of a good response to reviewers

1. Prepare an explanatory response letter 

One question we got on our last writing course was: “How do I actually tell the reviewers what I have done to my revised paper? Shall I send them an email and explain it?” This is a fair question. Not all journals explain how this process works, so how should you know it? 

The standard and probably most helpful way to respond to reviewers is to prepare a letter in which you refer to the reviewers’ remarks and explain how you responded to each of them. This should be a separate document and not be part of your revised paper. Editors and reviewers will want to study the document independently from your paper, so a separate letter would be the best option. You can attach it as a PDF document to your resubmission or copy it into the author response box in the editorial system of the publisher (from where you got the review reports). 

As we are authors, reviewers, and editors ourselves, our preference has always been for a separate letter in PDF format. The reviewers can more easily print it and you can format the letter better than if you would just paste everything into a form. It also looks better and is easier to read. 

2. Keep your response friendly 

The tone makes the music, as the saying goes. This also applies to peer-review. If you want to convince the reviewer of your specific perspective or viewpoint on one aspect of your paper, this is best achieved by addressing the reviewer in a friendly manner. 

We see peer-review as an exchange among experts, as communication among researchers who have knowledge in a specialised field of research that includes both authors and reviewers. As with any communication that we have in our professional lives, we achieve the best results if the tone of the communication remains friendly and polite. The same applies to communication between you and your reviewers in peer-review. 

Even if you receive harsh criticism on your paper (yes, we know it hurts and irritates you), do you think it really helps if you reply in an aggressive or provocative tone? Rest assured, it does NOT! 

Even if you feel like a reviewer has commented on your paper using a dismissive and negative tone, try to turn down the negative and respond cordially. Probably the reviewer was having a bad day or unintentionally picked the wrong expressions. If you respond good-naturedly to their concerns, they might recognise their own behaviour and in turn respond positively to you. It’s always worth trying! 

In our free cheat-sheet “Phrases to use when responding to reviewers” we give you some sample sentences and expressions that you can use and adapt to your specific needs. 

3. Respond respectfully 

In peer-review, reviewers do not suggest revisions that you are necessarily keen on doing or that you agree with. A common reaction is to assume that the reviewer is wrong or did not fully understand what you wanted to say in your paper. The reviewer will naturally see it differently, otherwise, you would not have received these comments. 

It might be difficult, but you should show your respect to the contrasting view of the reviewer. Why not just take one step back and reconsider your paper from a distance? What if the reviewer is right about some things? What if the way you wrote the paper did cause misunderstandings? 

Reviewers don’t accept a reviewing job lightly. They are usually quite aware of their role and their responsibility. It takes a substantial amount of time to review a paper. Some do it in their spare time, usually with the best intentions and to the level of expertise that they have. 

In your response to the reviewers, show them that you respect the time and effort they spent on evaluating your paper and come up with some suggestions for improvements, even if you don’t agree with everything. When they see that you value their input, they might be more likely to come around to a different point of view and you can then discuss more openly how to improve the paper with them. 

4. Respond completely 

Recently, we had a student ask on one of our writing courses whether it would be necessary to implement all the suggestions that reviewers come up with. No … and yes. No, you don’t have to do everything that reviewers ask for in your revised paper but, yes, you should respond to all their comments. 

No, you don’t have to agree with every suggestion and comment that a reviewer makes. The suggestion might be less than helpful, counterproductive or even wrong – sure, that’s possible! And on rare occasions, you might decide not to implement all revision requests. But then, you cannot just ignore this comment and assume there is no need to respond. 

So yes, you should respond to all requests, even if you decide exceptionally not to implement what the reviewer asks for. Write a friendly response back to the request explaining why you decided not to implement the suggestion. Our free cheat-sheet “Phrases to use when responding to reviewers” will help you to pick the right wording.

So, now you know that the journal wants you to respond completely to all reviewer comments. Whether you implement everything is a separate issue (although we strongly advise you to do so if the request is possible and reasonable). 

5. Respond in detail

“Is it OK to just write back to the journal that I implemented all their suggested revisions in my revised manuscript?” No, it’s not enough. Also the responses “Done” or “Yes” or “Changed” are too short. 

Put yourself in the position of the journal editors: They want to quickly find out whether your revised paper has made the requested improvements. They don’t want to look it up themselves by comparing your revised version line-for-line with the original one. 

You can help them a lot if you report HOW you changed the paper along the reviewers’ suggestions in your response letter. Take the time and provide a detailed response to the individual comments.

6. Respond in a credible way

A good response to reviewers should not only be complete and detailed but also credible. What do we mean by this? When you feel that a suggestion from a reviewer is unhelpful or factually wrong, don’t just state that it is unhelpful but provide evidence if possible. Tell the editor why you think that the suggestion does not contribute to a better paper. If possible, refer to another paper or study that helps you argue your viewpoint. 

It makes your response much stronger if you can underpin your view with credible evidence. It will also make it easier for the editor to reconsider or even overrule the reviewer’s suggestion. It could even help to convince the reviewer that your viewpoint is acceptable. 

7. Respond quickly 

You hate it when your paper is stuck in a long peer-review queue, right? You want your paper to be published as soon as possible? One way of achieving this is to make sure that you do not delay the review process more on your side. 

The journal will give you a time frame for revision. It could be up to three months. So what if you send your revised paper back much earlier? You’re helping yourself because it will shorten the time your paper is in peer-review. 

By responding in timely manner, you are also underlining that you are really keen to get the paper out. It’s not a fun job for journals to chase down authors who are obviously not in a hurry to get their papers published and who delay resubmitting their revised papers. If you respond in a timely way to review requests, the editor and the reviewers will still remember your paper and it will be easier for them to reconsider your manuscript for publication. 

Conclusion

Receiving review reports that require revisions to your paper are a curse and a blessing at the same time. You had probably hoped that you could get away with just a few very minor changes and send your revised paper back to the journal within a short period. If this is not possible and you have to make quite a few changes to your text, you still have a good chance of getting this paper accepted. 

Critically, you’ll need to think about the best way to respond to the reviewer comments. The safest option is, of course, to always implement what the reviewers want, but it is not always possible. This is when a good response can really help you. 

We suggest that you make sure you always respond in writing, using a friendly tone that’s respectful to the different opinion reviewers might have on your paper. Make sure your response is complete, provides enough detail, credibility for your viewpoint and responds timely to the request for revision. Then the chances of getting your paper accepted will definitely increase. Just imagine, as a reviewer, what kind of response would make you feel positive about a revised paper? This is exactly how your response should sound like. 

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