How to respond to comments of reviewers on your journal article

Eva Lantsoght
7 Jul ’22

You’ve finally submitted your first article, and a few months later you receive comment upon comment from the reviewers. You may feel angry, misunderstood, sad, or frustrated when reading the comments of the reviewers. At the same time, you know that eventually you will need to roll up your proverbial sleeves and start to address each and every of these comments.

Having gone through this process many times, I’m glad to share with you in detail how I work through the comments of the reviewers. Here are the steps I go through after receiving the comments:

1. Read and save

I usually immediately read the reviewer comments when I receive the email – something with curiosity and a cat… Then, I also immediately create a folder titled R1 inside the folder of the paper, and create separate MS Word documents for each reviewer. I paste the comments of each reviewer into a file and store these into the appropriate folder. Since I’m an Inbox Zero enthusiast, I also save the decision email into the file.

2. Plan

First, I check my writing pipeline, the deadline for returning the new version of the manuscript, and my upcoming writing commitments. Depending on the deadlines, I may need to reshuffle a few things on my writing planning in my calendar, and then I make sure I plan when I will be working on the new version of the paper. I hardly ever immediately get to work on the R1 version, unless it’s minor revisions and I just have to make some editorial changes. I need time to mull things over in my head, and to let All The Feelings sink to the bottom.

3. Prepare to make the new version

Before getting started with making my new version of the paper, I read again through all the comments of the reviewers. When the amount of comments is moderate, I make a list of the major things to tackle in my manuscript. I always start with the big comments, and leave the smaller ones for the end (as these may refer to sections that will have already been completely changed). When I get a lot of comments, I like printing out all the materials and using various colors of markers to identify the major themes that I find among the reviewer comments. Then, I proceed making the list of major things to tackle first. I start by addressing these major observations in the manuscript first.

4. Write the rebuttal

As mentioned before, the strategy I use is to create a separate file for each reviewer. I go through all the comments sequentially (after making already the first major changes in the paper). I use the following layout: I mark in bold all the comments of the reviewer, write my reply to the comments in normal font, and copy-paste text that was changed or added under my reply in italic. Where necessary, I provide additional figures, photographs, sketches, or lean on the literature and provide the cited references. If the various reviewers give conflicting advise, then I also copy the quote from the one reviewer into the rebuttal to the other reviewer, and my answer to this topic.

5. Read through everything

After making all the requested changes, I proofread the full rebuttal and the new version of the paper. Often, I need to make a few changes in the paper to maintain the flow, and then that also requires some last edits to the rebuttal (for the parts where I paste the changed sections).

For writing the rebuttal, I recommend the following:

  1. Explain thoroughly what you did: Don’t just tell the reviewer that you changed a section. Explain how and why you changed it, and paste in the new section. This approach makes it much clearer for the reviewer to see what you changed exactly.
  2. Remain polite: Even when your emotions run high, avoid being impolite or snarky to your reviewer. Don’t tell the reviewer that they obviously didn’t read the paper in detail, or anything along those lines. Politely point out why you disagree or what the reviewer may have missed in your paper. If you need extra support for your point of view, cite literature sources that are relevant.
  3. Analyze the reviews: As I mentioned before, I always look for the major remarks first. Comments related to methodology, requiring more information/analyses, or other main observations are important. And, sometimes a reviewer may write a very short review, but packed with major comments. Don’t gloss over the short review simply because of its length. Some short reviews require a lengthy rebuttal in which you address each comment at length.

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