Navigating peer review: How to respond to peer reviewer comments – Major revisions
Research articles submitted to journals are initially evaluated by an editor, or an editorial board member, in a process we call ‘editorial triage’. It’s just like in a hospital: if you get hit by a bus, you are taken to the emergency room and a ‘triage doctor’ will assess the extent of your injuries and decide what follow-up treatment is needed. Hopefully, you won’t be dead on arrival. [Part of Charlesworth's role in the academic publishing cycle is to help you to ensure your articles are well-written and effective in their use of English. We can also help you to select appropriate journals for your submissions.]
Journal decisions following submission
So, you need to get past ‘editorial triage’, that initial decision about whether or not to send your submission out for peer review: for this reason, outright rejection is rare following an initial round of peer review, because an editor will have already decided your submission is interesting to the journal readership and that it should be formally evaluated. Similarly, acceptance is also very rare in article publishing following initial peer review. Almost always one of two editorial decisions will come back to you, the author – ‘major revisions’ (also often formulated as: ‘reject, but with an option to resubmit’) or ‘minor revisions’ required.
It’s well worth taking a look at what these different decisions actually mean because your responses to the editor should be quite distinct in each case. Take a careful look at the wording of the letter you’ve received from the journal following peer review.
Please also keep in mind that journal ‘rejection rate’ is one of the metrics used to calculate impact factor. Thus, maintaining a high rejection rate is important for academic journals and is one of the reasons why leading outlets often initially ‘reject’ following peer review but will send a letter to an author that ‘invites resubmission if review comments can be adequately addressed’ (or words to that effect). This should be thought of as being the same as receiving a letter from an editorial office asking for ‘major revisions’ after initial peer review. Why? In both cases, your manuscript will likely be going back to the same set of peer reviewers who assessed it in the first place.
Responding to a major revisions decision
You obviously need to have this in mind when formulating your ‘response to reviews’ document. Editors will process your resubmitted manuscript and are very likely to at least approach the peer reviewers from the first round to see if they are willing and able to look again:
‘Dear Dr. x, we have received article y which you worked on for us in initial peer review. We were wondering if you had time to check this paper again: are you happy that the changes you asked for in the first round of peer review have been adequately addressed by the authors?’.
Knowing these facts about the peer review process helps you, the author, more effectively formulate that dreaded ‘response to reviews’ document. Indeed, it is this aspect of the peer review process that we find authors are most confused about:
- How can I write this document?
- What sorts of things should I include?
- How can I maximise my chances of success?
The most important thing to keep in mind at this stage is: you need to convince both the journal editor and peer reviewers you are taking the process of revising your paper seriously. Thus, create a response document that:
1- Includes a ‘summary of changes’ at the start so an editor can quickly and easily see what you’ve done to your article, and;
2- Interleaves reviewer comments with your responses. Make sure you address ALL the comments that have come back from peer review, even the small, seemingly insignificant ones such as spelling mistakes and formatting issues.
A good approach that works well when writing these documents is to interleave your responses to comments in a different colour. Your response underneath each comment appears in red, for example. A quick scan down a document like this will imply you have comprehensively addressed all comments and that you are taking the process of peer review seriously.
Keep in mind that given ‘major revisions’ (‘reject with an option to resubmit’), it’s highly likely that at least some of the same reviewers from the first round will be looking over your paper for the second time. Make them feel good: start your responses to their initial comments with phrases like: ‘excellent point’, or ‘thank you for this insightful comment’, and then tell them how you have made a change.