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What does a ‘revisions required’ editorial decision really mean?

What does a ‘revisions required’ editorial decision really mean?

A research team of one of our editors has a paper working its way through the submission system with a major biology journal; the editor helped to write the paper alongside a PhD student who works with the group. This student is handling manuscript submission and thus all communications with the journal editorial office.

Their paper came back from review the other day with a decision of ‘major revisions required’.

‘Dear Dr.,

I have now received referee reports for your paper entitled "xxxx”, which are detailed below. As you can see, the reviews suggest that MAJOR REVISION of your paper is required.’

Is this good news? What does this really mean? We've often found myself explaining these kinds of journal editorial decisions to students.

Obviously, this is good news. Consider the range of decisions available to a journal editor following initial peer review of your paper:

  •     Accept - almost never happens after the first round of review

  •     Minor revisions - the best you can hope for after the first round of review

  •     Major revisions - the decision we received in this case

  •     Reject – clearly, the one you want to avoid

Editors are most likely to write back to you after initial review and recommend either ‘minor revisions’ or ‘major revisions’ to your paper. The big difference between these two decisions in our experience is whether, or not, your paper will be returned to the peer reviewers for further comments once you have made changes to your work.


Minor revisions explained

An editorial decision of ‘minor revisions’ on your paper means that your work will almost certainly not be going back to the original peer reviewers for a further round of comments; indeed this is policy for many journals. The journal editor will most likely make their final decision about your paper based on the changes you now make to the work as well as the contents, its originality and the way you write your response letter. We've written about rejection and how to manage this experience before in earlier posts; many of the world’s most famous scientists had papers rejected early in their careers.


Major revisions explained

In contrast, an editorial decision of ‘major revisions’ almost certainly means that the peer reviewers of your work are going to be asked to take another look at the paper. The reviewers who provided the initial first set of comments are going to be asked by the editor:

‘Do you think that the authors of this paper have made the necessary changes to their work, in light of the first round of comments, such that this manuscript can now be accepted for publication?’

This is a very important insight and something to have in mind when you respond to the changes asked for in the first round of review.


Responding to a Major Revisions decision

To answer the student’s question about the paper, ‘Yes, this is good news. It’s positive to be asked to revise the study and it’s good to be asked to make ‘major revisions’ to the work’. The group must, however, bear in mind that their paper is likely going to be seen again by at least some of the same original peer reviewers: they must make sure to confidently address (and, if possible, make) all the changes requested in this first set of reviews, and, critically, clearly explain their changes to both the editor and reviewers in their cover letter.

Be polite, structure your response letter so that you thank the editor and reviewers for the time they have spent with your paper, and then clearly explain how you have addressed the ‘major revisions’ deemed necessary for your paper to have a chance to get accepted in your target journal.

Our top tip here is to take the letter from the editor containing the reviewer comments you are being asked to address, cut and paste them into a Word document, and then work over the list using a different colour.

  • What did you change?

  • How did you make changes?

  • Are there requested changes you don’t agree with? And if so, why?

It’s important to make clear that you’ve made as many changes as possible, even if these are minor issues of spelling or punctuation. [Templates for cover letters and our other Charlesworth Knowledge training materials can help.]

Remember: any decision on a paper you’ve written that is not ‘reject’ can only be good news!

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