You are glaring at your computer screen with a million thoughts in your head. You just got back the reviewers’ comments on your first manuscript. You don’t know where to start or how to respond. You are angry, frustrated, but mostly confused. The manuscript was supposed to be perfect, how could anyone find anything wrong with it? What you might not realize is that this reaction is normal . . .
Publishing your first “first” author manuscript can be a nightmare. It was for me! Between repeating experiments by a previous lab mate, generating new data, and trying to manage the project collaborations, I was happy that I was finally ready to submit my first manuscript. We had initially targeted a high-impact journal. But because of the urgency to get our study published, we chose a journal that would allow us to publish quickly, but wasn’t necessarily highly ranked. We spent weeks on data analysis, formatting to fit the journal’s requirements, and incorporating collaborators’ revisions, and finally submitted the manuscript. After months of waiting, on what was supposed to be a rapid peer review process (so much for publishing quickly!), we finally received the reviews: a slew of criticisms and demands for additional experiments. The journey from here on was definitely not a cakewalk, but it taught me a lot about maintaining diplomacy and keeping calm while responding to reviewers.
The most important thing to keep in mind is that reviewers will read your response to their comments. You should see this as an opportunity to improve your study rather than being an obligation. Being cognizant of this fact while responding to reviewers is critical since communication with your editors and reviewers can go a long way towards a favorable outcome. There are a few main things to remember that will make the process as positive and effective as possible.
Step 1: Take the time to let the comments sink in
Although you will be itching to defend the manuscript and respond as soon as you open the reviewers’ comments, it is advisable to hold back. Acknowledge that you have received the comments, adding that the manuscript will be scientifically stronger the next time. Discuss the reviews with the authors and collaborators. Draft a layout highlighting what revisions are required and how the concerns will be addressed. Think about each comment constructively; thoughtful revisions based on editorial and reviewer feedback really do improve manuscripts. If there are additional experiments to be performed, plan out the experimental design and consider how they would enhance the work. Once the plan and design are in place, get started with executing those revisions.
Step 2: Conduct the revisions
Be smart about time management and prioritizing experiments for the resubmission. Reviewers do not necessarily suggest the exact experiments essential for publication; the author must decide the course of action and conduct suitable experiments. If it helps, gather additional collaborators to speed up the work. They may bring expertise that your lab lacks, and having collaborations suggest you don’t work in isolation. Laying out newly generated data or information beside each of the comments while preparing the draft is a practice I have often found very helpful. If you feel some requests are unreasonable, explicitly explain why you feel a certain experiment is unlikely to yield the answer. Try to make an earnest effort to improve the manuscript, paying attention to requests to improve the clarity of the presentation as well as the scientific grounds.
Step 3: Maintain a healthy communication with the editor
Editors are active participants in the peer review process. When crafting a revision, authors should feel free to discuss their revision plans with the editor, especially if they feel that the requested experiments are redundant, irrational, or less likely to be productive. However, before doing so, evaluate each comment and come up with a rationale as to why it does not contribute to the manuscript. Editors are often very helpful and neutral when communicating the reviewers’ and the journal’s perspectives on the suggested revisions. In the end, authors, reviewers and editors all benefit from a reciprocal and collaborative peer-review process.
Step 4: Be polite and attentive to the reviewers’ comments
When ready, let the editor know that you are about to resubmit. In the cover letter, thank the reviewers and the editor for taking the time to review the manuscript and mention how their suggestions have helped improve the quality. List the number of new experiments and figures that have been included and describe how all questions and issues have been addressed. A cover letter is your chance to sell your perfected manuscript. You do not have to implement everything that the reviewers and the editor have suggested. Just like authors, they are fellow scientists who are likely to respond better if the case is built by putting forth well-reasoned and logical arguments as to why certain experiments are unnecessary, or why your opinion differs from theirs. The tone of the argument should be polite, respectful and professional, without being overly deferential. Even if a reviewer has overlooked some data or drawn erroneous conclusions, this does not nullify the rest of the concerns. As a scientific reviewer myself, I get frustrated when authors do not pay attention to my comments or simply dismiss them. Disregarding a concern is not helpful; it simply makes both the editor and reviewers feel that they were ignored.
In the end, there is no single formula for the best response to reviewers; different scientists have different approaches and it can take time to learn the “art” of resubmitting manuscripts. Personally, I feel authorship and peer review skills should be a focus of early graduate student coursework, in addition to the traditional mentoring process from professors when students submit their work for publication. It is becoming extremely rare, especially in high-impact journals, for a manuscript to be published without any revision. Responding to reviewers is a daunting task and a hard truth that authors will have to endure (unfortunately!). Consider the editors and reviewers as a pair of fresh eyes who will pick up flaws before the manuscript is published. Answering the comments point by point constructively and diplomatically is in everyone’s best interest.