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Handling Peer Review Feedback: Stay Cool, Calm, and Collected

By Daniela Kamir

Academic manuscripts generally require revision following initial submission. If the authors, agree to implement revisions, it is good practice to prioritize the requested tasks to tackle the revision process as efficiently as possible. Take the revision process as an opportunity to improve your manuscript with the help of experienced professionals.

A scientific journal decision letter usually consists of two main parts: the editor’s decision, with notes, and peer reviewers’ comments. Comments raised by more than one peer reviewer should be addressed in depth since chances are high that they will come up again, even upon submission to a different journal.

Below is a series of tips on how to tackle reviewers’ requests for major revisions:

  1. Add missing information:

In the response document, note that information was added and direct the reviewer to its location (line number) in the article. If you are unable to cite the requested literature, explain why the work supports your conclusion even in the absence of the requested information. If the requested information is already in the article, examine how the information is presented to make sure it is clear and coherent, and add a reference to this information in multiple locations, if possible. In the response document, note that the information exists or has been added within the article, that citations have been added (where applicable), and direct the reviewer to their location.

  1. A request to increase the sample size:

If the authors deem the sample size to be justified, expand the Methods section to argue for sample size selection in more detail and, if available, add citations from similar studies and sample sizes. Use tracked changes and/or text highlight to show your edits and indicate line numbers in the response to the reviewers. In the response document, write a robust justification of why the reviewer’s suggestion is being rejected. Answers such as: “recruitment for this type of trial is very difficult”, “this type of experiment is very expensive”, or “had the reviewer any experience in this type of research, he/she would have known that…” should not appear.

If the sample size is indeed too small, consider revising the manuscript as an exploratory/hypothesis-generating study that focuses on qualitative findings rather than on quantitative results.

  1. Tackling research queries:

In the response document, and perhaps within the Methods and Discussion sections of the paper, you should justify the choice of method as an appropriate means for studying the research question (including literature citations). If possible, add information that might better reflect the study conduct, in a manner that addresses the reviewer’s concerns. If necessary, consult with a statistician and/or more senior authors to develop a strategy on how to address such comments. Even if the reviewer’s comments indicate a lack of deep knowledge or understanding of the research topic, provide the necessary background to further the understanding of the method and its specific use in your described study. If different reviewers give contradictory recommendations, you can use the arguments of one reviewer to respond to requests made by the other reviewer. At times, reviewers exaggerate in their requests or may even be suspected of being professional competitors. In these cases, reach out to the editor directly, explain the situation, and ask for an additional round of review before declining publication in the present journal and deciding to submit to a different journal.

  1. Stylistic or grammatical errors in the article, ambiguous graphs/images, errors in citations/bibliography:

As per the reviewer’s request, correct each point separately and perform editing and proofreading of the text. Since there is no need to specify each language and style revision in the response document, there is no requirement to implement every change suggested by the reviewer. There is no need to argue about stylistic points and raise linguistic or other justifications. If a reviewer requests that a particular article be cited, cite it. When the request includes changes to graphs and figure design, you should not adamantly defend it but rather revise the figure to remove ambiguity. State in the response document that the article has been revised according to the reviewer’s suggestions, the requested article has been cited, and graph visualization has been improved. In cases where figures were revised, the revised version should be included within the response document.

  1. Contradiction between research results presented in the article and the reviewer’s knowledge and background information:

Read the comments and the articles cited by the reviewer in detail and compare with published literature. Address your findings in both the Discussion section of the manuscript and in the response document. Attempt to resolve the apparent contradictions while not underestimating the importance of the research articles cited by the reviewer.

Don’t know how to answer a reviewer’s comment? Don’t hesitate to reach out for advice or post here!