Part of the process of publishing a manuscript is revising the manuscript in response to reviewer comments. Assuming you are resubmitting to the same journal*, you include a cover letter and a detailed response to reviewers. With these, the key message you want to send is: my coauthors and I take your feedback seriously, and we have thought carefully about the suggestions made by reviewers.
A few general points: Making snarky comments in response to a reviewer is ill-advised. ;) As Stephen Heard says in that post, you should keep in mind that the reviewers are likely to read your replies. They’ve devoted their time to reading and commenting on your manuscript; you should be gracious. As a reviewer, I try hard to be thorough, reasonable, and timely. So when the response to reviewers seems combative, that’s frustrating. A combative tone in a response to reviewers shouldn’t affect the recommendation or decision, but it sure doesn’t make the reviewer feel his/her efforts are appreciated.
Okay, now on to more specifics. Things that I generally include in the cover letter are:
- a brief discussion of any major comments that came up;
- a statement thanking the reviewers for their feedback (usually saying that the manuscript has been improved by incorporating that feedback, because this is almost always true);
- a note saying that detailed responses are in the “Response to Reviewers” section;
- a statement thanking the editor for considering the revised version.
If the revisions were pretty straightforward, the cover letter is short. However, if it seems, based on the initial decision letter, that the manuscript really needed to change in order to clear the bar for publication, the cover letter is longer, and should include a paragraph laying out the major changes that were made in response to reviewers.
I work on the “Response to Reviewer” document at the same time as I edit the manuscript. I find it helpful to have a pdf of the original submission open at the same time, to figure out what lines the reviewer is referring to (since those will shift around in the revision). This can make it tricky to work on this on my laptop! In the Response to Reviewer document, you should paste all the comments from the reviewers, and then put your responses immediately below each one.** Sometimes the responses will be short (even just one word, such as “Changed” or “Done”, when in response to a suggested wording change). Sometimes the responses will be longer.
One type of longer response is explaining how the manuscript was changed in response to a reviewer’s comment or question. For example, if a reviewer asked for clarification regarding a point, it’s good to give a brief clarification in the response to reviewer document, and then to explain how the manuscript was changed in response to the reviewer comment. As an example, if the reviewer’s comment was “Line 193: More information is needed on how birth rates were calculated. Did you use the Paloheimo method?”, in the response, you could write “Yes, birth rates were calculated according to Paloheimo. The manuscript has been edited to make this more clear. (Note that this section is now on lines 200-205.)” As another example, a reviewer might have suggested reframing part of the introduction. In the response to reviewers, you would then explain how you had done that.
Another type of response – and one that I argue should be used sparingly – is one where you say that you did not do something a reviewer suggested and explain why. Yes, some reviews are really bad. Fortunately, though, they are rare in my experience. If you have the misfortune of receiving such a review, hopefully the editor handling the paper gives you a guide about what parts of the review to focus on. Assuming the review is one that is reasonable overall, but where you disagree with a particular suggestion: when saying that you did not make the suggested change, you obviously should explain why you are not making that change.*** (I wonder how often Brian’s post on statistical machismo gets cited in response to a reviewer’s request to add in some fancy stats.) As a few examples of where I’ve done this:
- a reviewer suggested I remove an experiment that I thought was a key part of the story;
- a reviewer suggested adding in a different kind of analysis, but we lacked the sample size to pull off the analysis reasonably;
- a reviewer suggested adding in discussion related to topic X, but that felt too far afield and speculative.
In the first, case, we explained why we thought it was important to include, but explained to the editor that we could remove it if he agreed with the reviewer that it should be removed. In the last case, we gave our speculation in the Response to Reviewers, explained that we felt adding it in would not be appropriate, and said that, if the editor disagreed, we could add it in. In all cases, in the response to reviewers, we explained why we were not making the suggested change. It’s okay to respectfully disagree. But if you find yourself fighting every suggestion the reviewer made, it’s worth considering whether you are not being sufficiently open to (hopefully constructive) criticism.
Another situation that often comes up when writing these responses is what to do when reviewers disagree. Sometimes, the reviewers are both suggested that something needs to be changed, but have different suggestions for what to change. This is a pretty clear indication that something isn’t working with that part of the manuscript. In these cases, I choose which one I think makes the most sense and explain why in the response to reviewers. When responding to the reviewer whose suggestions I did not take, I explain that the reviewers suggested different changes and that I changed this section in accordance with the other reviewers’ suggestion and give a brief explanation for why. In other cases, one reviewer disliked something and another reviewer liked it. (This is why it can be helpful to include a section noting strengths of the paper at the beginning of a review!) Assuming you agree with the reviewer who liked it, you can explain that in the response when saying that you did not make the suggested change.
Finally, a few very specific things that I think are important:
- Format your response so that it’s easy to read. (This is sometimes only possible if you can upload a pdf, since many online submission systems will remove formatting if you just paste it into a text box.) One thing that works well is to italicize all the reviewer’s comments and then not italicize your responses (or vice versa).
- Update the line numbers. Generally, reviewers use line numbers to refer to a section of text. Don’t change the line numbers they used, but, in your response, tell the reviewer and editor what the updated line numbers are. (I included this in one of the examples I gave above.) They should read the whole thing anyway, but it’s nice to be able to spot check a few things quickly, and line numbers help with that. And, yes, this is a major pain as you prepare the letter, since the line numbers change as you edit it. Making sure the new line numbers are all correct is generally the last thing I do before submitting the revised version.
- If it’s a substantive change (that is, not the sort of thing that can be addressed with a “done” or “changed” sort of response), you might want to paste the revised text into the cover letter, especially if it’s an important point. But this obviously makes even more for the editor and reviewers to read through, so there are arguments for doing this and for not doing it. But, as an associate editor, I find this helpful.
Coming back to what I said at the beginning: the key message you want to send is “my coauthors and I take your feedback seriously, and we have thought carefully about the suggestions made by reviewers.” The associate editor and reviewers are volunteering their time, and are trying to help strengthen the paper before it is published. Work with them.
* If you aren’t resubmitting to the same journal, you should still address the reviewer’s comments, but wouldn’t write detailed responses when submitting it to a new journal.
** Sometimes reviewers start out with a summary of the manuscript and/or a section with praise related to the manuscript. You can leave those sections out, leave them in but not have a response to them, or leave them in and just have a brief statement along the lines of “We are glad that the reviewer appreciated the study” or even just “Thank you”. The twitter consensus seemed to be for the last of those options.
*** “I didn’t feel like it.” is not a recommended reason to give. ;)