The peer review system is simultaneously rewarding and frustrating, with good suggestions for improving your manuscript often hidden among less useful comments. What do you do when responding to a reviewer who clearly didn’t read part of your manuscript or completely misunderstood one of your conclusions? It can be tempting to simply tell the reviewer that they didn’t read the paper thoroughly and not leave any other response.
However, peer reviewers are working in good faith and provide a critical service to the advancement of discovery worldwide, so give them a thoughtful and thorough response. Reviewers offer a fresh take on your work and can sometimes find critical flaws before your manuscript reaches a broader audience. In the end, the author gets the credit for the final product, but reviewers often contribute substantially to the shaping of the manuscript.
How to respond to reviewers
Of course, you do not have to agree with every suggestion that a reviewer makes, but responding politely will help you when you want to refuse a suggestion or two. How you respond to reviewers and editors can also go a long way toward a favorable decision about your manuscript. When you engage in a civil and objective discourse with reviewers, you signal your commitment to scholarship and willingness to allow the peer review system to improve your manuscript.
Here are some comments that you probably want to tell a reviewer, followed by more polite ways to get your point across. It is likely that you have reviewed papers from other authors (and if you haven’t yet, you will soon), so make your responses a chance to treat your reviewers the way you would like to be treated!
These sentences are just examples; you should form your specific comments in your own words.
- What you want to say: You just didn't understand what we wrote!
- What you should say: Several statements that we made were more ambiguous than intended, and we have adjusted the text to be clearer.
- What you want to say: No one knows the answer to that question.
- What you should say: This is a valid question, and we are actively pursuing the answer in our lab. OR This is a valid and important question, and we are curious what the results would be. However, we are unaware of any studies that provide the answer.
- What you want to say: That experiment would take forever!
- What you should say: The suggested experiment is interesting and would provide additional information about..., but we feel that it falls outside the scope of this study.
- What you want to say: We're not saying we proved anything – that's just our hypothesis!
- What you should say: We agree that this explanation is speculative at this time, and we have edited the text to state that our conclusion is only suggested by our results. Note: you will need to make some changes to the text to further emphasize that you were stating a hypothesis, even if you felt it was obvious before.
- What you want to say: You didn't even read what we wrote!
- What you should say: We did not intend to indicate [insert mistaken assertion by reviewer here], and we have therefore altered the text to specify that [insert correct conclusion here]. Note: As before, you'll have to change some wording.
- What you want to say: You are being so picky about grammar or formatting!
- What you should say: We apologize for this error, and we have corrected the text as suggested.
- What you want to say: My English writing skills are better than yours; why are you complaining about my typos?
- What you should say: Our manuscript has been reviewed by a colleague and revised to improve readability.
If you have questions, you can e-mail [email protected]. Best of luck with publishing your research!
For more on the topic of responding to reviewers, check out our related article, The Final Hurdle: Persuasive Responses to Peer Review.