Revising manuscripts – when to say no.

It’s been a busy week of responding to reviews of various manuscript from members of my group. Some comments have been good some bad but often the process to deal with them is the same.

When asked by graduate students how they should respond to reviewers comments (I think it important that grad students do this as it is a key skill to learn), it is often considered necessary to agree with all comments, but I recommend to argue if you think (and can give evidence that) you are right. I have a fairly solid publication history and have published with both big and smaller journals and I have had very very few (one), “this is great, we will publish as is, with no revisions”. Usually as a author you need to address certain points suggested by both reviewers and editors.

Think clearly and calmly, it is difficult especially for more junior researchers to not feel that this is personal, but If you have been given the opportunity to respond to reviewers, they don’t hate your paper and hopefully they are trying to improve it by spotting changes you didn’t think of making.
Genuinely thank the reviewers, it is a task we should all be doing if we consider ourselves true scientists and generally most of the time the reviewer has taken time to read and critique in good faith. The other kind of reviews I’ll return to later.
Often you will have multiple reviews that are conflicting. I find it useful to run through all comments and make a list of things to do.

These can be then sorted into categories

  • Can do, will do – typos, clarity errors things that will help readers to understand your paper more easily, format corrections etc.
  • Need to do, but more work required – This is a difficult category, many of the fairer journals discourage teh request for additional experiments this is because this can be a blocking technique where a rival lab may ask for additional experiments to stall your publication whilst theirs in in review or whilst they are conducting similar experiments. In my own field of bioinformatics and computational biology this often raises its head as reviewers requesting comparison to many different softwares or worst still using the reviewers own pet software without real need.  In assessing if requested changes in this category are absolutely necessary, be critical of your own work, does the addition of the work significantly strengthen your findings? and is the time required worth it? If the benefit doesn’t outweigh the costs, argue against doing the additional experiments.  I tend to think along the lines of… The requested experiment is covered by the original results, however if the reviewer didn’t spot the link the text probably requires rewriting to make this more obvious. If you suspect that an irrelevant method is being suggested state why you think it is irrelevant, give evidence preferably published to support your case.
  • Wont do – You do not need to make all changes. If you don’t agree, argue. I hope that the reader knows the difference of scientifically debating a point and being obnoxious. As i said above most reviewers do the task in good faith to better your paper. Occasionally other problems arise. If you suspect that the review is biased and has a conflict of interest, politely call them on it. The review should be and responses assessed by the editor before a decision is made.  If you feel that the editor needs to be aware of your concerns, make a clear case why you feel the review is poor.

Other tips

  • Even if the journal doesn’t specifically ask for it, keep a version of the paper where changes are evident with track changes or font colour change etc.
  • Respond to all points from the reviewers, even if it is to say you are not making changes. This makes it easer for the editor to assess your response.
  • Be polite, concise and make it easy for the editor.
  • Use supplemental figures judiciously, it is tempting to answer all requests by adding another supplemental figure or table, as this requires less effort on your part to re-edit the manuscript. But, if it is really important, it needs to be in the main text.
  • Grow a thick skin, even after changes manuscripts can be rejected. Don’t hide the results away, reformat and resubmit.

Good Luck


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