How NOT to react when you receive review reports

32: How NOT to react when you receive review reports

It is often a special moment when you receive the review reports of your paper from a journal. It feels a bit like getting your mark after a challenging exam. But once you open the message and read the comments from the reviewers, they do not always make you happy. Reviewers sometimes ask for a lot of changes and improvements, which means a lot of additional work on the paper you thought was already complete. It is easy to react dismissively to the criticism and understandable if your first thought is to label the reviewers ignorant or uninformed. However, this kind of thinking does not help your paper get published. We’d like to show you how NOT to react upon receiving reviewer comments, and also suggest ways that will help to increase the chances of your paper passing peer-review.

It’s Monday shortly after lunch, when you check your email to see that there it is – finally – the long-awaited message from the journal with the result of the review process for your paper. It took them a very long time (at least it feels like it) to get the reports to you. You’ve already waited for weeks because you wanted to get ahead with your paper. The waiting period was awful. Every day, you hoped to hear from the journal, and now, finally, you have a message. 

So you open the editor’s message and look at the attached review reports, where two reviewers have looked at and commented on your paper. All-in-all they wrote six pages of comments. Was it really so terrible?  You read through all the comments. Both reviewers have loads to say, including questions and criticism on your work. It feels as if they did not like the paper at all and suggested substantial revisions. The editor asks you for a ‘major revision’. You are first dismayed and then furious: “Those guys obviously have no idea! I submitted a great paper and they simply don’t get it! These reviewers are so stupid!” 

If this reflects how you feel after your last review, you might be close to ripping the review reports into a thousand pieces and burning them in the stove. We know this feeling too well. You know that your work is good and the reviewers simply did not get it! It really makes you angry to have done so much work and received nothing for your efforts. 

Watch out for how you respond now. You might be tempted to take the criticism personally, especially if you largely disagree with the reviewers’ comments, and believe us, that can be the case more often than you think. 

If you have never received review reports before or if you simply want to know what to do when you receive a request for substantial revisions of your paper, we can show you some critical ways of how you should NOT react. Although it might be very tempting to react in the way as we described above, we would not advise you to do so. It won’t help your case, because you will substantially minimise the chances of your paper getting published or at the very least, delay this process unnecessarily. We’ve seen many reactions from researchers who submit their papers over the years, ranging from hot to cold, but if you want to take your paper to the next level – be sure to avoid the reactions we list below.

Reaction 1: Ignoring the review reports 

The situation: 

You receive the review reports from the journal, where the reviewers, as well as the editor, ask you for a lot of additional work. This is not easy to swallow. It can sometimes be that the review reports all together are half of the length of your paper. You read through the comments and you get the feeling that perhaps it was another paper that the reviewers had been looking at. Who could blame you for the instinct to simply ignore these review reports? 

How not to react: 

Oh, we know how it feels to receive such a review. You are convinced that your paper is not so bad at all, and probably think the journal has just chosen the wrong reviewers. You would love to write back that they should just do the whole review process over again, but this time use different reviewers, right? 

This sounds a little bit like head-in-the-sand-behaviour, but honestly, closing your eyes and hoping you wake up tomorrow to discover it was all a bad dream is wishful thinking. You cannot simply go through the journal’s peer-review process once more and hope for a different result. That’s not nice to hear, we know. 

What will help: 

Even if it sounds very hard, don’t close your eyes to reality. There is a better solution for you. See, you’ve got the review reports, and okay, they are not as nice as you wanted them to be, BUT: you’ve got them because the journal has decided NOT to reject you. They would have had no issue doing so if they wanted to. So, this is actually good news in disguise! 

Think about it, your paper made it into the next round of peer-review. This is actually great. You now have a chance to revise your paper and get it published. Don’t give up at this stage, it would be a terrible waste. Why don’t you try to work on the required changes as far as you can? The trick is, the more you can fulfil the reviewers’ wishes, the greater the chances of your paper getting accepted. Don’t try to shortcut this process, but work hard on improving the paper! It is certainly worth trying!  

Use our free ‘Reaction-Response-Chart” to see how you can turn a negative reaction to the reviewers’ comments into a positive and helpful response to the journal.

Reaction 2: Assuming the editor does not like your paper

The situation: 

Imagine, you receive review reports where the reviewers ask you to do virtually the impossible. They want you to do such substantial changes that border the edge of what you are capable of doing, even if you agreed with them. The reviewers could, for example, suggest you do some of the data analysis anew, or run an extra validation process of your findings, or get some more interview quotes, or any other major research step which could be done in a few days or so. However, it can take a few weeks if not more to address all of these requests.

How not to react:  

Naturally, you start doubting whether you will ever get this paper published. It feels unreasonable what they are asking you to do. Probably, you even get the impression that the editors have sent you these reports because they don’t like your paper anyway and know that it would be so much extra work that they are hoping you’d give up! No way you want to play this game!  

What will help: 

Believe us, these are only your feelings and not a reflection of reality! If editors of a journal do not like your paper and consider it unsuitable for publication in their journal, they would have no hesitation to tell you this straight. So, instead of fearing that your chances of getting published are gone now, read the revision request as an invitation to improve your paper. 

Okay, you might already know that it might not be possible to meet all the requests of the reviewers. If you’ve got a good reason why you think you are unable to do what they ask you, you can relay this to the editor. If you can address at least a good share of the suggestions that the reviewers made, you still have a chance of being accepted. Again, try to respond as well as possible to the reviewers, don’t assume you can find a way around their comments and still get accepted… you won’t.  

Use our free ‘Reaction-Response-Chart” to see how you can turn a negative reaction to the reviewers’ comments into a positive and helpful response to the journal.

Reaction 3: Assuming the reviewer is wrong

The situation: 

It is possible that the journal sends you reviewer comments, where they seem to complain about everything in your paper and request changes, which in your opinion are factually wrong. For example, reviewers might be questioning how you analysed your data, or claim that you have used an inappropriate test to check the validity of your findings. They could also claim that your paper does not present anything new or that your work lacks any international relevance. Oh dear, that is very harsh criticism, which hurts and immediately makes you defensive. 

How not to react: 

A typical response would be to assume that the reviewer got it totally wrong! Obviously, they must have misunderstood and are most likely not qualified to review this paper. How on earth could they come to this kind of conclusion otherwise? 

While we were serving as Associate Editors of an international journal, we came across quite a few authors that wrote angry and energetic rebuttals, in which they basically protested against the reviewers’ lack of knowledge on their paper topic. Let us be clear, reviewers and editors also make mistakes and of course, there is a possibility that the reviewer is wrong in his or her suggestions to the author. However, it appeared to us editors more often that authors would claim a reviewer was wrong when they did not like or agree with the requested changes. 

In our experience, most of the time the reviewers were not wrong but had a good reason why they asked authors for more clarity or changes. They probably just missed an additional detail on an analytical step or any other method and therefore could not correctly understand what you had done in your paper and criticized you for it. 

What will help: 

Do not automatically assume that the reviewers are wrong, even if this is hard. If the reviewers are experts in the field of your paper, as the editors try to find such reviewers, they will be the appropriate persons to judge your paper. Therefore, the best way for you to get out of this situation would be to take a step back and do a critical reread of the reviewer comments. 

Are the reviewers really wrong or was it that you failed to properly explain what and how you did it? Think about what you could do to satisfy the reviewers and improve your manuscript. Often, a change of attitude can help to strike the right tone for the revision and your response to the reviewers. Since you want your paper to get published, show your good will by making an effort to improve the manuscript in the way suggested. 

If reviewers have misunderstood your paper, they are not wrong, so you need to improve the clarity of your writing so that your text cannot be misunderstood. If you still feel you know better than the reviewers, then write a friendly response to the editor and reviewer explaining why you think that what you did was fine. 

Use our free ‘Reaction-Response-Chart” to see how you can turn a negative reaction to the reviewers’ comments into a positive and helpful response to the journal.

Reaction 4: Withdraw your paper from the journal

The situation: 

We know very well that when a reviewer report is sent to you that requests a lot of changes and improvements for your manuscript, this is a pain. They can cause you a lot of extra work and you’ll need extra time to do this that you probably don’t have. You are already busy with other projects, working on another paper or preparing teaching assignments or other duties at your institute. There is just not always time available to go the extra mile to revise your paper according to what the reviewers want, even if you could fulfil their requests in the first place. 

How not to react: 

Let us tell you a short story here. We’ve heard from authors who received requests for substantial revisions from their reviewers who decided to simply withdraw their paper from the journal. What a pity! They submitted the paper instead to another journal and had hoped that they would receive reviewer reports that were more positive and required less extra work in the revision than the ones they had received earlier. So, they gave up the chance to revise and resubmit their paper. Instead, they submitted it – basically unchanged – to another journal in their field. 

Can you guess what happened? They received very similar review reports which requested substantial changes from the reviewers of the second journal. On top of that, they had lost about six weeks time that were needed by the second journal to process the paper in the first round of the peer-review process. Thus, they still had to revise the paper in order to get it published and pointlessly lost time. 

What will help: 

It is never a good idea to withdraw a paper after receiving review reports just because you don’t like what the reviewers told you or because it would require a bit of time to address their comments. Our advice is to revise as much as the journal wants you to and as much as you can do, then you’ll see whether it is enough to get your paper over the finish-line. Don’t look for a shortcut to get your paper through, you will save time in the long run by sticking to the journal and working on the revision as best as you can. 

Use our free ‘Reaction-Response-Chart” to see how you can turn a negative reaction to the reviewers’ comments into a positive and helpful response to the journal.

Conclusion

We know how it feels! It is hard to receive reviewers’ reports asking for a substantial revision, which causes you more work and swallowing your pride. We felt the same way when we sent authors the revision requests as Editors, knowing full well that this is no fun and can be a whole load of extra work. But, we only sent the revision requests because we thought the papers and the authors deserved their chance to improve their papers and see them eventually published. 

We understand also that it is natural not to like it when your paper is criticised by reviewers. You have spent a lot of energy doing the research and crafting the paper. Any criticism on this work is difficult to take. Yet, peer-review is here to help you create a better paper. 

So, instead of choosing confrontation with reviewers and editors, we’d really like to encourage you to adopt a collaborative attitude. As a SMART ACADEMIC, we are sure you will find a good way to cope with reviewer comments in the ways suggested above and get your paper through peer-review. If you haven’t done so, use our free ‘Reaction-Response-Chart” to see how you can turn a negative reaction to the reviewers’ comments into a positive and helpful response to the journal. We wish you the best of luck!  

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