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Responding to Reviewer Feedback

Posted on: October 11, 2022

Portions of this text are adapted from Doctoral Student Skills: Using Your Comparative Advantage to Succeed in Grad School and Prepare for the Job Market

How do you respond productively when a journal returns to you a decision of revise and resubmit (R&R) or accept with revisions on a manuscript you have submitted?  These kinds of decisions come with an implicit promise: if you can revise your manuscript in a way that satisfies the reviewers (who will generally review your manuscript again when you resubmit it), your work will be accepted for publication.  If you do not, your article may be doomed to another round of revise and resubmit or, worse yet, a reject-after-revisions.  How can you respond to reviewers in a way that will maximize the chances of your article receiving that coveted ‘Accepted’?  

The procedure for responding to a decision letter is fairly straight-forward.  You must prepare a revised version of the manuscript and write a response letter explaining how you have responded to reviewer feedback. Yet doing these things well can be a challenge.  In this blog post I will share a couple of key principles and a step-by-step process that can help you succeed.

The first principle is to show respect to the reviewers.  Recognize that they hold power in this process.  Unless the editor indicates otherwise, you should address every concern the reviews have raised by making changes in the manuscript. Only decline to make a change if you think it would worsen the manuscript in a significant way. The operative word here is “significant.”  Minor changes may feel like they disrupt the flow or elegance of your original writing. Adding the requested sources to your review of the literature, for example, may make it less concise. You must do it anyway. Your goal is to satisfy the gatekeepers. It is better for your manuscript to be clunky and published than elegant and unseen. Moreover, critiques of our work pique our pride, making it hard for us to be truly rational and objective. The reviewers’ comments may be improving your work in ways you cannot appreciate at the moment.

The second principle is to make re-reviewing easy.  Reviewers are busy and they are reviewing for free.  The best response letter makes the re-review of the manuscript as easy and painless for the reviewer as possible.  Ideally, it contains verbatim copies of all of the reviewer feedback and excerpts from the manuscript showing the material that has been changed or added.  Rather than digging up their original feedback and spending hours trawling through the manuscript to see if their concerns have been addressed (and perhaps finding new problems), they can spend a few brief minutes skimming through the response letter and confirming that you have checked the necessary boxes.  

To achieve the desired effect, I recommend the following approach:

1. Carefully catalogue all the changes requested by the reviewers.  If the editor has added comments of their own, include those as well.  Sometimes the reviewer comments are a bit rambling or have a mix of compliments and critiques.  Identify each specific critique and copy them into a new document, using numbers or bullet points. You should have a separate section for comments from the editor and from each reviewer. 

2. Match the requested changes to the relevant sections of your document. In other words, begin thinking about where the changes will go and what they need to be. You can make notes on your list of critiques or in your manuscript.  Copying reviewer feedback into comment bubbles in the manuscript can help you see where the edits need to go and how the critiques overlap.

3. Make your revisions. Start with the biggest and most substantial revisions first, since these may involve deleting certain arguments the reviewers disliked or significantly restructuring work they thought was unclear. Addressing these early will keep you from wasting time making minor edits to text that gets deleted later. Keep all changes marked using comment bubbles or track changes so that you can find them later when you are completing your response letter.

You may need to deal with comments from reviewers about issues that you think you have already addressed in the manuscript. For instance, they may ask you to consider a certain debate or perspective you have already incorporated. Rather than arguing the point, take this as an opportunity to clarify or foreground this material so that other readers do not also assume you have overlooked a key issue. Usually adding a few sentences, phrases, or citations to emphasize the material is enough.

4. Complete the response letter.  Take your list of critiques and add a short introduction thanking the editor and reviewers for their feedback.  Below this you should have sections, marked with headers, for the comments from the editor and each reviewer. Make sure that each item clearly records the editor’s or reviewer’s words.  For example, “Reviewer 1 states, ‘Rodriguez has addressed this issue and her views should be considered here.’” After the reviewer’s language, explain briefly but specifically what you have done to address this. For example, “On page 7 I have added a detailed discussion of Rodriguez’s (2019) study of this issue. The revised text reads: …” Then copy in your revised text and any surrounding sentences that are needed to frame it. Put this in italics or offset it as a box quote so that the critiques and the revised text are readily distinguishable from each other.  

If there are any changes you truly cannot make or are not willing to make, note those in the response letter too. It is best if there are only a very few places where you do not take the reviewers’ advice. (I try to limit myself to one per article.)  Explain respectfully why you have chosen to take a different approach or why a requested change or addition is beyond the scope of the piece. You may also add language to the manuscript clarifying the scope of your work or its limitations so that future readers, who may share the reviewers’ concerns, know that you have considered these issues. Note such changes in the response letter and copy in the relevant text.

If done well, this format will convince the reviewers that you have responded to all their concerns and make the response letter so comprehensive that they do not have to reread the whole manuscript. Do not worry if this makes your response letter very long. A good response letter can be more than 20 pages but, if properly structured and formatted, it will be very skim-able and make for fast reading.

5. Prepare a clean copy of your revised manuscript, which should still be anonymized.  Resubmit it, along with your response letter and any other required material, and wait for the next round of feedback.