The Final Hurdle: Persuasive Responses to Peer Review
The revision process can represent a golden opportunity to enhance your work based upon input from the reviewers. With this in mind, you can respond in a way that maximizes your chances of having your paper accepted upon resubmission.
Updated on November 3, 2014
Peer review can be one of the most challenging aspects of publishing your work, and many people find the process frustrating. Like many researchers and academics, you may find that after working hard to gather your data and findings in a manuscript and sending it to your chosen journal, the journal's response is “maybe,” rather than the straightforward acceptance you had hoped for.
The vast majority of manuscripts are not accepted without revision, and the process of revising a manuscript in light of the comments from the reviewers can greatly improve its quality. In this sense, the revision process can represent a golden opportunity to enhance your work based upon input from the reviewers. With this in mind, you can respond in a way that maximizes your chances of having your paper accepted upon resubmission.
Responding appropriately to reviewers' comments and criticisms
Responses to reviewers' comments can take different forms. Perhaps acceptance of your paper will require that you do additional work to strengthen your study and support your arguments. Perhaps changes to the manuscript are necessary to provide a clearer description of your work and convey your ideas more effectively. Alternatively, perhaps the reviewers' concerns can be addressed through discussion via your response letter. Careful consideration of the reviewers' comments is therefore necessary to determine the type of response that is appropriate.
Don't miss our companion article, "Responding to Reviewers: You Can't Always Say What You'd Like"
Writing your response letter
Whether or not additional work is required to address the reviewers' concerns, a key element in achieving publication is the letter you send to the journal editor detailing your response to the peer review. Typically, this response letter opens with a short letter to the editor, which begins in a similar way to the cover letter that you included with your original submission (for more on writing a cover letter, see this article) but goes on to summarize your response to the peer review. It is an opportunity for you to briefly list what you have done to improve your manuscript and answer the reviewers' criticisms, and it provides the editor with an important first impression of your response. Following this summary, the letter might close with an invitation to discuss your manuscript further if the editor wishes.
The opening letter to the editor should be followed by your detailed, point-by-point responses to the reviewer's questions and criticisms. In writing these responses, remember that your goal is to convince the editor and reviewers that your manuscript should be published by the journal, and your responses should therefore convey a number of impressions. It is very important that your responses convince the editor that all of the reviewers' concerns have been appropriately considered and addressed, whether through further work, changes to the manuscript, or polite and robust rebuttal.
The editor acts as the gatekeeper in the review process, but it is important to remember that he or she is on your side. Editors want to publish high-quality, high-impact papers, and they are using the peer-review process to determine whether your work meets their quality standards and is aligned with the interests of the journal's readership. The editor will likely read both your letter to them and your specific responses to the reviewers to determine whether you have met the required quality standards in your work. As such, by striking the right tone in your responses to the reviewers, you can cast your work in a positive light and make a positive impression on the editor.
Making a positive impression
How do you strike the right tone when responding to reviewers? First, remember to thank the reviewers, regardless of the nature of their comments. Give them the impression, true or otherwise, that all of their comments were welcomed. Thank them for their positive comments and repeat these positive points before moving on to your responses to their concerns. Remember, the editor will be reading your responses, and this gives you an opportunity to highlight the reviewers' positive impressions of your work.
Structuring your responses to the reviewers
It is a good idea to begin each response by quoting the reviewer's comment before providing your answer. Then, you can describe the corresponding changes you have made to the text, give details of any additional work performed to address their concerns, or provide a polite rebuttal. While the first two types of response are relatively simple, making a robust but polite rebuttal is often more challenging.
Perhaps the reviewer's criticism is the result of their failure to understand a particular aspect of your work or a statement made in your manuscript. In this case, the best strategy is to apologize for the confusion and provide clarification. This situation might highlight an area of your manuscript that needs further work to better convey the details of your study or its findings, and as such, you should view it as a chance to improve the quality of your manuscript. The ability to point to a change made to the manuscript can help give a positive impression not only to the reviewer but also to the editor.
In other cases, you may simply disagree with the reviewer's point of view on an issue related to your work, and in this situation, a counter-argument that is well supported by your results or by the published work of others can support the validity of your work and your findings. This can have a major impact on how the paper is perceived by the editor, which in turn can affect his or her decision to either publish or reject your manuscript. It allows the editor to gauge whether your work is robust, i.e., will it be able to stand up to scrutiny in the field, which can ultimately affect the reputation of the journal. Some specific examples for phrasing your responses to reviewers in a polite and effective way can be found in the article "Responding to Reviewers: You Can't Always Say What You'd Like" and in our downloadable resource on this topic.
Using simple stand-alone responses
As a final point, it is a good idea to include specific details of any changes made to the manuscript, quoting any changed sentences or passages, rather than simply giving page and line numbers, etc., to locate the changes. This provides the reviewers and editor with an easily understood, stand-alone set of responses, and they will not have to hunt through your revised manuscript to track down your changes. Similarly, be sure to define any abbreviations that you choose to use in your responses. This is especially important when writing about highly technical work.
Maximizing your chances of publication
In summary, peer review can be a lengthy and uncertain process, and receiving a list of criticisms of your work can be a negative experience; however, by viewing it as an opportunity and taking a positive approach to writing persuasive responses to the reviewers, you can impact the editor's perception of your work and greatly increase the likelihood that your manuscript will be accepted for publication.
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