Dealing with reviewers’ comments

More things I learned whilst being underemployed – this time (as the title suggests) about dealing with reviewers’ comments on your work.

  1. If your manuscript comes back from the reviewers with recommendations for change, bear in mind that someone needs to check that you have actually addressed them effectively, so it is really helpful if you include a note with the new manuscript that indicates how you think you have done what they asked. List each recommendation and then say how you have dealt with it. If you are not going to do what has been suggested, (and this is your right – reviewers are not infallible) it is crucial that you justify this. I personally would not bother prefacing this note with “the author(s) thank(s) the reviewers for their helpful comments” because (a) you probably don’t, since many of them are not tactfully phrased even if they’re correct and (b) in most cases, the reviewers probably aren’t going to be the people who check the revised manuscript unless perhaps the person who is checking it thinks you have done a really bad job of addressing the recommendations and one of the recommendations is that the paper only be accepted if it is radically reworked.
  2. Reviewers don’t always make sensible comments. One comment I read suggested that the paper would be better if it stopped trying to stretch itself to be relevant to distance education and confined itself to topic X. This was, in fact, true, but seeing the conference at which it is to be presented was on distance education, what s/he should have recommended was that the authors articulated more clearly how the  model they were advocating was (particularly) relevant to teaching by distance.  Reviewers may say that the paper would be much better if A was expanded, and this may well be true, but if the paper is already up to the word limit and you have already edited it very tightly to get it that short, you won’t be able to expand A unless you drop something else. An alternative is to flag A as something that would be worthy of being dealt with further in another publication.
  3. Reviewers don’t always agree and you sometimes have to read between the lines of their comments. You may be presented with one set of comments that says that the paper would be much better if it omitted all reference to X and another that says that the best bit of it was the section about X which needs to be expanded. Since you obviously can’t do both, you need to decide which reviewer to go with, but bear in mind, if you decide to expand the material about X, that you probably haven’t articulated clearly enough how X is relevant to the rest of the paper if the other reviewer thinks it can be cut out completely. See if you can make the links clearer.
  4. Remember that while you will probably never know who your reviewers are, they may well make a point of reading the final version of your paper when it is published, or of attending your conference presentation. They have expertise in your field or they would not have been asked to review it in the first place, so keeping them on side if possible is not a bad idea. Try to take as much of their advice into account as you can, or indicate subtly why you haven’t (eg “Some might suggest that A, but in view of X & Y, it seems more likely that B”). In particular, if they suggest that you might find a particular article or author’s work useful, include it in your revised version if at all possible. The published version of the paper is the right place to put your little note about thanking the reviers, if they did indeed make helpful suggestions.
  5. Once you have completed your revisions, check the manuscript very carefully – not just for typos and oddities of expression; also check the references very carefully. The editors will pick up your typos, but not incorrect references, and it is possible that in moving text around you have left some or all of the relevant citions in the wrong place, or removed a point without removing the relevant citations. This is particularly likely if you have initially said something like “Many sources demonstrate that A and B are important” and you then change the sentence to say “Many sources demonstrate that A is important”. You need to check that none of the citations are only relevant to B, which you have now removed. If what you have written is of any interest in your field, people will check those references because they want to read more about your subject matter (or because you have cited them and they want to see what you’re saying abou their work) and you will end up looking careless or silly.
  6. When you have what you believe to be the final version of the text, remove the bibliographic software codes and make sure that the formatting complies with the style guide. If the conference, journal or organisation provides a template you would ideally have been using it from the outset, because applying template styles to your headings, bullets etc is much faster than manually formatting each of them every time you use them, but it is still not too late to attach it to your text. Be a little wary about conference proceedings templates and style guides, though. If they have been adjusted from some well-recognised format, they may not be free of error because the adjustments may have been done in a hurry by a member of the organising committee whose primary expertise is in another area. I have recently been working on a paper for a conference, the template for which does not apply the level 3 header formatting prescribed in the style guide. The style guide is also fun. It says that references should be formatted to comply to APA 5, which I did. I then read it a bit more carefully and discovered that what they really wanted was APA 5 with modifications to the way electronic articles are cited. I agree that their method is more user-friendly but if they’d said up-front that they wanted a modified form of APA 5, I would have read the formatting examples more carefully the first time round.

What you are aiming to do with all this is to make your paper as easy to publish as possible. If you are not a Big Name in your field, you want to create a good impression with the editor(s) as someone whose work doesn’t take huge amounts of staff time and effort to get into publishable form. Even if you are a Big Name, I would argue that it is a courtesy to the people who are putting the publication together to prepare you paper well, but if you’re an early career researcher (aka beginner) being a pleasure to work with cannot do you any harm at all in the publishing stakes. 🙂 Especially since many of the people involved are doing their editing work on top of their other academic workload as part of their service to the academic community.


5 thoughts on “Dealing with reviewers’ comments

  1. A little post-pub prod on pre-pub pickles.

    1. “.. I personally would not bother prefacing this note with ‘the author(s) thank(s) the reviewers for their helpful comments’ because (a) you probably don’t, since many of them are not tactfully phrased even if they’re correct …”

    Thank you for this comment :). But I respectfully disagree. The tact or lack-of-tact in pre-pub and double blind peer review is not aimed to comfort your emotional aesthetics. “Better are the blows of a friend than the kisses of an enemy.” Pardon my ugly Darwin (please know I’m playing – this is tonal – tone of voice – please play along), but if you kiss enough girls (critics), you’ll eventually get one (critic) to kiss you back. Not that they will like you. Just thank you. So yes! Do say “thank-you” for the hard blows of critics. Thank those who do not kiss your textual- Balaam’s-ass. Always say, “thank you.” So, thanks! If it’s too hard, then say, “thank you, now I’m going to kill you.”

    2. “.. what s/he should have recommended was that the authors articulated more clearly how the model they were ..”

    Outstanding point. I know what you mean. The awful feeling that pre-pub peer reviewers may have some sort of omniscience just because they’ve mastered vagary! But in cases where your reviewers are clear – drop the amendations into footnotes to yourself and your readers as questions – hypotheticals (remember there are no dumb hypotheticals – not when properly formed) – and let your foot-noted questions become your interrogatory-friends. Maybe this works better in science writing? Or in the interstices between science and religion in lab tests? Why not too with text-stuff in history?

    3. “… Reviewers don’t always agree and you sometimes have to read between the lines of their comments …”

    I prefer this. Reviewers should not agree. Otherwise, why the plural? If you amend pre-pub – and listen in the meantime – this is your chance better to clarify the muddles of your reviewers. Win/win. Beware of binary – which reviewer to go with. I’m now killing myself ciphering a Supreme Court case with a plurality opinion (majority in vote – no majority in reasons why) using scientific statistical data – all the voices of the arguing and disagreeable Justices – and all the voices of disagreeable and dissenting hard data too (“the voices! – the voices are killing me!”) – all these voices put me – me – in danger of taking a least common denominator compromise and thus – killing all the voices into – muddle. It’s tempting here to totalize. By deciding to go with one voice or the other. Especially in anonymous double blinds. Under your breath you’re saying – “oh, I love you! – you agree with me! – uuh, I hate you! – you ignorant disagreeable male chauvinist peer pig!” I do agree that you need to read between the lines. But well-put questions back to your peer reviewers in your final text can read them off (tell them all off!) for making things so difficult for you. If you do decide (sometimes this is necessary) to go with just one reviewer only, and leave the rest behind, then it’s just your luck that this one beloved reviewer will be the very one – “love the one you’re with” – who gets cremated tomorrow by his/her POST-pub peers in review. Now you are at a funeral for two. You and your beloved. Dangerous, these courtships.

    4. Excellent. Nothing to add.

    5. “… The editors will pick up your typos, but not incorrect references …”

    I disagree. But I think you’re more correct than incorrect. You never know. I recently wrote about double checking the sheriff. I misspelled, sherif. Because my spell checker is set to accept sherif (Muzafer). Famous conflict sociologist. I know of no empirical data showing that double blind pre-pub reviewers are using or are not using their own spell checkers too.

    Aren’t typos the domain of copy editors?

    Do you really want your substantive editors to scour for typos?

    Open question.

    6. “.. but if they’d said up-front that they wanted a modified form of APA 5 ..”

    Now you’re reviewing me. Indirectly. I need to update my Citation. It handles hard sciences, social sciences, and law. Integrating law is tough. My problem is not in the stars of my software. It’s in me. Too lazy to update! Bring out the electric cattle poker. Ouch! Alas.

    Good article all around.

    A note on underemployed. I’m underemployed. By vow. And wouldn’t have it any other way. I get offers from firms. And from an occasional science or tech employer. And offers from some other authors too (to co-author). From time to time, but …

    … I rather practice and perish …

    … than publish and not!

    Be blessed in what you do!



  2. Thanks Jim.

    Re my point 1: I agree with you that it’s important to put thank yous to reviewers in the published version of your paper (see point 4). What I was attempting to say was that there is no point in also putting this in the note that you attach to your revised version telling the editor how you think you have addressed the reviewers’ recommendtions.

    Re 2: Yes – using reviewers’ comments to raise questions for further consideration when you don’t have the space to deal with them in the current text is an excellent idea (even when the style you use doesn’t allow footnotes).

    Re 3: Yes – you only need to make a choice like this when you get reviewers whose advice is diametrically opposed – one says “cut this entirely, it’s irrelevant” and another says “expand this – it’s the most important part of the paper”. And you certainly run the risk of taking the wrong advice here. On reflection, if you have a friendly colleague or two with expertise in the area, they might be willing to help you decide which way to go.

    Re 5: Yes, you’re right – typos are the domain of copy editors. The point I was trying to make was that while it is highly likely that your typos will be picked up by someone else somewhere in the editing process, no-one but you is going to check that your references are correct until after it gets into the public arena.

  3. Also – I’ve also done some work with law referencing – it’s very different to most others and I am told that most automated citation software doesn’t deal with it particularly well.

  4. Thanks for the play. Serious for you in research mode. And best wishes to you as you go. Good correction to me on forgoing thanks to an editor in that context. My misdirection! That’s a tough one. Know your editor if possible. Follow your best feelings. Editors are variably interactive. Sorta like needing to know judges in court. Knowing the unique quirks of each different judge is essential. But takes awhile in practice. As much a feeling as a science. Since editors are your first real judges (inter-subjectively). Editors like judges – well you know – who knows what kind of Alan Sokal-hoaxing fear an editor may suffer? Even subconsciously? Like judges sniffing cases – “who is pulling the wool over my eyes here?” – (if this is an idiom in Aussie-land? – God, help this yank idiom not be something for which I get my face slapped!?). Just a feeling – you are correct – thanks to editors as dicta is distracting. At best. Yes, law referencing is a pain. Biology referencing (my first love) is worse. Both are highly-cross indexed. History too from what I can see as an outside amateur looking in. You have your hands full. I’ve beta-tested various softwares running various regressions and algorithmic scans to detect plagiarism. And thought to myself how great it would be if these programs could reference check! How cool would that be? Maybe some do? Until then, referencing errors can get obvious post-pub. And embarassing. If not costly. The labor of love of scholars to each other. And to readers. Enjoying reading here – ever silently along. Cheers, ~ Jim.

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