Responding to Reviewers: What to Expect and How to Do it
Updated: Feb 29
Typical review periods after a manuscript has been submitted can last anywhere from 1-5 months (or longer), so prepare yourself to wait. Typically, manuscripts are reviewed by 2-4 different people. After you've waited this long to get feedback on your manuscript, it can be very stressful to read and figure out ways to respond to reviewers. In addition, it may be possible that your manuscript goes through more than one review and revision cycle.
In my experience, I've had three 'stages' of mentally handling reviewer comments. During the first stage, I open the reviews and find myself quite frustrated because my work (that I spent so much time on) has been nitpicked. At this point, I usually don’t look at the reviews again for a few days. During the second stage, I reread the reviews and realize they are not that bad. And lastly, the third stage, is when I can begin implementing the changes that reviewers were asking for.
There are typically three types of reviewer edit requests that you will see: (category 1) grammar and labeling text edits, (category 2) content text edits, (category 3) addition of new data and explanations. Categories 1-2 are the easiest to handle, but if your manuscript comments fall into a category 3, you need make the decision on what steps to take next- you can either perform the experiments or not. Sometimes a category 3 review can turn into a category 2 edit. We'll dive into some details below.
Formatting your Responses
Before diving into the details of how to respond to each of the categories, here are some notes for effectively answering reviewer comments. You want the edits you make to be very clear and easy for your reviewers to identify. There are two main ways that this can be done (or both). One approach is to use track changes within your word processor to specifically mark where the edit has been made for a specific reviewer comment. Usually reviewers will list out their comments by number (i.e. Reviewer 1 comment 5 could be written as R1-5). This is a nice and easy way for the reviewer to go back to the original document and see exactly where changes have been made.
An additional approach would be to list the line numbers within the document you are writing within your responses. Usually a word processor will have the option to list line numbers within the document (some journals require this for submission anyway), so as you are answering the reviewers in your response sheet, you can call out the specific lines with which you made the edit. It can be frustrating for the reviewer if they cannot easily see your changes- a happy reviewer is better than an upset reviewer- remember that!
Writing a Transparent Response to Reviewers
One strategy that I use when responding to reviewers is to type out my response to each reviewer comment before I have started editing my manuscript document. The responses I write are not well written at first, but these responses are a draft and give me a path for specific changes that I know I need to make. The responses can even be written as bullet points and can be polished later when you are closer to resubmitting.
I use these written responses and bullet points as a framework for my future editing. I find that I have a clearer head when I can sit down and just focus on answering the reviewer comments and questions than if I felt that I had to sit down and start writing and editing right away.
Another strategy you could use is to go through your document and highlight problem areas first. This again will help you lay a foundation of determining areas of your manuscript that you need to give attention to as you edit.
Category 1 Reviewer Comments
Category 1 reviews are the easiest to respond to. Sometimes reviewers will pick out typos or inadvertently missed information (abbreviations, company names for products, etc.) and all you need to do is just add the relevant information. Sometimes they will ask for clarification on certain topics throughout the paper. These are typically very quick and minor changes. Some examples of Category 1 reviewer comments are below:
· References are out of order
· Typos in different areas of the paper
· Company names for products, reagents, or equipment are needed
· Protein and gene text styling is incorrect
· Too many run-on or short sentences
· Incorrect Table of Figure number callouts in the text
Category 2 Reviewer Comments
Category 2 reviews are those that require additional information to be added to the manuscript. These are usually addressing a weakness in the study. Types of responses for category 2 reviews would include adding information in any section of the manuscript and providing the reviewer with a rational for why the weakness exists in the first place. Some examples of Category 2 comments are below:
· Clarification of control or experimental groups in text
· Expanding of specific weaknesses in your experiments
· Expanding on broader impact or implication of your work
· Expanding on necessary background for a reader to appreciate your work
Category 3 Reviewer Comments
If you have a request to add new data, there are typically four options you have for moving forward with the manuscript: (1) adding data that you’ve already collected, but didn’t have in the original manuscript, (2) performing the experiment, (3) addressing it as a category 2 or (4) withdrawing the paper and resubmit elsewhere. The decision you make will vary on a case-by-case basis. Sometimes the reviewer asks for an experiment similar to one that you have already done. In this case, you can treat it as a category 2 and provide the additional information about the experiment and results. If the experiment is relatively easy and can be performed in a timely manner, then doing the experiment may not an issue. These types of edits may be acceptable as well and lead to manuscript acceptance.
Lastly, sometimes the experiment that is proposed by the reviewer is not one that your research group is interested in doing due to either restrictions in staff and time, or if you feel strongly that the paper does not need the experiment. In these cases, it may be best to withdraw the paper, edit, and resubmit elsewhere. Examples of Category 3 comments are below (Category 3 comments will be very specific by discipline, but fall into three general areas):
· Adding/modifying a table
· Adding/modifying a figure
· Adding/modifying data within the text
Disagreeing with reviewers
While reviewers are experts in their subject areas, they may make mistakes. If you do come across a mistake or something that upsets you, make sure to be careful of the tone of your response to the reviewer. It can be very easy to let your responses to reviewers become sassy and potentially unprofessional in tone. Remember that you’re talking to a human too. It does not do you any good to have a negative tone in your responses- the reviewers are less likely to see your edits in a positive light if there is negative language in the responses. It is good practice to reread your responses and then let a collaborator read them as well. Remember to thank the reviewers for their insights and improvements to your manuscript.
These issues can typically be addressed by prefacing a statement with, "We respectfully disagree for X, Y, Z reasons". You can then add details on why you are disagreeing with the comment. Make sure that these are fact-based, and not subjective, reasons.
That said, I know there are instances when reviewers have a less-than-pleasant tone in their comments to authors. Typically, journal editors will weed these unnecessary comments out. If you come across a reviewer comment that seems unnecessary and uses derogatory language, communicate with the editor about these issues.
Submitting Your Review and What to Expect Next
Upon your submission you should have (typically) three documents prepared: (1) a document with your responses, (2) an edited manuscript with track changes and comments, and (3) a clean manuscript copy with all changes and accepted and in a publish-ready state. Since there are two copies of the manuscript, make sure to emphasize to reviewers exactly which document they should be looking at. For example, you may have decided to reference line numbers in the clean copy manuscript rather than the tracked change document. Just make sure to be clear to reviewers so they know where to look.
Initially when the reviewers submitting their responses to the journal, they may have opted to see the manuscript once more before making an accept or reject decision, or they may have decided that the decision could be made by the editorial board of the journal. There really isn’t an easy way for the author to see this decision on most online journal dashboards. However, you could email the editorial office for more information about the status and process that your manuscript will go through upon resubmission. Depending on what the reviewers had opted for may impact the time it will take for you to hear back about the responses. Long wait periods do not equate to rejections.
Now that you’ve submitted your revised manuscript, sit back, relax, and ease your mind that the review and revision process is over for now!
I realize everyone's experience with reviewers has been different. I would like to continue to update this page. Please share anything that I may have missed or share a personal story. Your experiences can help others too!
Leave a comment below! Thanks for reading!