Research Tips & Stories for Everyone
After your paper is sent out for external review, the upcoming weeks to months are long waiting for the peer review comments and the next editorial decision. When I only had waiting experience, it was sometimes hard to understand why the peer review takes so long time while most journals say their recommended period to solicit comments from reviewers is 2-4 weeks. The closest experience to waiting for the peer review reports and the editorial decision in my life outside of academia is waiting for items purchased from the opposite side of the planet during the Christmas season. But, as I am in the shoe of a reviewer more and more, I gradually understand the agonizing slowness of the review process (but not for all cases though). It’s basically goodwill-based voluntary free service to the community and career researchers are often flooded with routine works to flush every day, often pushing peer review tasks down to the priority in their to-do list (if not completely forget about it). While I have tried to meet the review deadlines as faithfully as possible, I confess that I also delay a lot sometimes regrettably.
But don’t worry! – the editors and editorial staffs of most journals are amazingly good at chasing delaying reviewers with endless reminders to the level of spam, so it will eventually come to you with the editorial decision (at least based on my experience). One tip is just forgetting about the paper during this period and let the editorial decision with peer review reports visit you like a surprise event. Once your surprise day comes, what matters is what type of surprise it is – like a surprise birthday party with super positive referee comments accompanied with the editorial decision of acceptance or minor revision; or like a sudden disaster with super negative referee comments accompanied with the editorial decision of rejection; or like mixed feeling with partly positive and partly negative referee comments accompanied with the editorial decision of major revision or resubmission. After surprise calming down, life has to move on – so let’s talk about these to discuss and share some tips on each scenario.
Scenario I – Acceptance/Minor Revision
If most reviewer comments are positive with only minor points for revision, you may get the editorial decision of acceptance or minor revision before acceptance. This is the best outcome you can expect, and your paper is just a step before publication. Based on my personal experience, it is not very common to get acceptance or minor revision in the 1st review round, especially in highly competitive journals. More commonly, you may need to undergo several rounds of major revision/resubmission until getting to this point, sometimes taking many months to over a year.
In this case, you may be requested to do minor revisions to address the editorial comments (on format, style, publication-quality figure preparation, etc) as well as any remaining minor concerns from the reviewers for the final revision. There is not really much tip on this case as it is pretty straightforward most of the time (as you might already address all hard things in the prior steps). One good thing to remember is that it is important to carefully check and correct any remaining errors in your paper that were missed during the scrutiny by the editor and the peer reviewers before submitting the final revision package. In most cases, your paper may not return to the reviewers in this case before the production stage (typesetting for publication, etc), so you have to make sure everything is correct. Borrowing some fresh eyes from your colleagues for proofreading can be a good idea.
Scenario II – Major Revision/Resubmission
When the reviewers’ comments are mixed in opinion while the editor thinks that they are still reasonably addressable, you may get the editorial decision of major revision or resubmission. Major revision and resubmission are different in principle, but their difference is often not very clear depending on the journal’s policy and the editor. In some sense, they are quite similar as the task you have to do is essentially the same – performing the art of rebuttal to address the editor’s and reviewers’ comments in full. The major revision is typically the most effort and time-intensive part of the publication journey. It is a professional and collegial written debate between you and your reviewers judged by the editor with the stake of deciding whether your paper is suitable for publication in the journal. Like sports matches, the major revision can go multiple rounds until the reviewers being satisfied or the editor calls the end of the process like a judge (although very rarely).
The revision of each published paper has been pretty much behind the curtain without public disclosure, but the recent transparent peer review policy in many journals starts to allow people to take a look at the reviewers’ comments and the authors’ response published together with the paper (for example, below image from Nature Communications website) if the authors decided to opt-in. I think it is a very nice way to learn a variety of successful revision examples (as the paper was eventually published).
Considering the diversity of reviewers’ comments in different papers, fields, and journals, it would be impossible to have a universal strategy for the revision. However, there can be several tips to consider in general.
Tip 1. Be professional and polite. As mentioned earlier, the peer review process in the form of the review comments and the response or rebuttal letters is a professional and collegial debate. Hence, it is absolutely important to keep a professional and polite tone throughout the revision process in your response/rebuttal and cover letters even though the reviewers might give unprofessional comments (sadly sometimes it happens). Keep your rebuttal of the reviewers’ critiques in your highest standard of professionalism based on science and evidence-driven rational thoughts.
Tip 2. Be objective not subjective. Views and opinions can vary a lot even in science and engineering where data, logic, and rational mind should prevail over personal opinions. Hence, it is not rare to find that the reviewers disagree with your findings or a certain part of the work based on various reasons and reasonings of their own. Really sadly, although rare, some review comments might contain more subjective disagreement or criticism than they should be due to many reasons (academic competition or some other form of conflict of interest – despite most journals’ policy ask the reviewers not to accept review invitations in such case). But it is of utmost importance that your rebuttal should be objective not subjective in any case. To be objective in your rebuttal of the reviewers’ critiques, you can rely on science and let the science speaks for you – for example:
Tip 3. You can disagree but do it in right way. It is not always possible or the best to agree with all of the reviewers’ critiques, so you can definitely disagree. However, it is important that you have to do it in the right way when you disagree – disagreement based on scientifically justifiable reasons not your personal objections. While the reviewers of your paper should be experts in their own field, but it is possible that they might misunderstand your work or simply mistakenly miss some important aspects during the review resulted in some erroneous critiques (as common human errors). In such case, you can politely disagree with the erroneous critiques and provide scientifically justifiable reasons (for example, data, analyses, references in the literature, etc) to help the reviewer to notice their error and facilitate the improved communication with a better understanding of your work.
Tip 4. Focus on fundamentals. Since the reviewers’ comments can be highly technical based on their expertise, it is often possible that the critique becomes unnecessarily peripheral. Based on my experience as both an author and a reviewer, a high technicality of the peer review process can yield comments expressed in a peripheral technical manner (referring to the technique, material, analysis the reviewer is familiar with) even though there are more fundamental aspects to be addressed behind perceived by the reviewer. Hence, although the basic principle of the revision and rebuttal is fully addressing the reviewers’ comments, it is possible that you lead the discussion wisely to avoid being peripheral by focusing on the fundamental issues to be addressed based on the reviewer’s critique instead.
For example, the reviewer might recommend and insist on a certain experimental technique because the reviewer thinks that your original manuscript lacks information from such technique/analysis to offer a better understanding or support to your findings/claims. It can be a very tough comment to rebut if the recommended technique or method is very specialized or hard to access in your research environment. However, you can always focus more on the fundamental aspects of the reviewer’s critique and try to address it in a way you can reasonably and realistically do. For instance, if there are more accessible alternative techniques/methods to you that would provide similar/equivalent information like the recommended one, you may try them and explain in your rebuttal response by focusing more on the fundamental aspects of the critique.
Tip 5. Use figure/table wisely. Most of the time, the response/rebuttal letter to the reviewers is a separate document from the revised manuscript (and the revised supplementary information). However, it is not always intuitive or easy to keep tracking the referred revision in the response letter if it requires checking the revised manuscript and supplementary information back and forth whenever encountering the mention of newly added or revised figure/table/sentences in the response (yes – this is very personal experience as a reviewer – but I believe this is pretty commonly shared experience). It can be a great idea to include the revised figure/table/sentences as part of the response/rebuttal letter when you mention them to help your tired reviewers and editor to go easy on checking your revised manuscript. I believe that they will appreciate your kind help.
Tip 6. Use cover letter wisely. While the most important part of the revision is well preparing the response/rebuttal letter to address the reviewers’ comments/concerns/critiques in full, the revision cover letter to the editor is also an important part of it. Since the editor is a judge who makes editorial decisions based on the external reviewers’ comments as well as your revised manuscript, it is important to ensure the editor understands and knows the scope, extent, and thoroughness of your revision in response to the reviewers’ comments. The revision cover letter can serve as an effective way to summarize your revision for the editor and aid their next editorial decision to accept or send out to the original/additional reviewers for further peer review.
There can be various ways to prepare the revision cover letter, but I wish to share a template for revision cover letter that I frequently use (also below image):
Scenario III – Rejection
Sorry, this is something you definitely don’t want to see. But sadly, it is very common to see the rejection editorial decision after the external review, often many times for one paper during its journey to publication. Most researchers would have an acceptance-to-rejection ratio (or ATR, just made up similar to signal-to-noise ratio (SNR)) far lower than 1. So, you don’t need to be overly frustrated – you are part of the disappointed researcher club. However, the rejection email on the paper that you poured love and tons of effort (especially after multiple rounds of major revisions) would break your heart and crush morale. I believe that it may need more dedicated discussion in the next post.
Part I: Overview
Part II: Presubmission Inquiry & Initial Submission
Part III: Desk Rejected, What Can be Next Step?
Part IV: Revision, Art of Rebuttal (this post)
Part V: Rejected After Review, End of World?
Part VI: Acceptance & Post-Acceptance Jobs
Disclaimer. The contents are my personal opinion and do not represent the view of any institution or company I am affiliated/employed. If you find any incorrect information, please feel free to let me know via my email.