One of the often frustrating things about the scientific process is finally getting the manuscripts published. This is true of reports, theses, journal articles, white papers, and more. Anything that undergoes any mechanism of external review where a response is needed. Journal manuscripts are the most common in my line of work, so that’s where I’ll focus, though this applies elsewhere, too.

When scientists submit manuscripts to a journal, journal editors who think the submission is suitable for their journal (in terms of scope and quality) will send it out to other experts in the field to comment on and provide an assessment. But in a throwback to the pre-computer age, where carbon copies of types manuscripts were mailed and returned, reviewers provide this feedback by referring to page or line number in a separate document rather than, say, a tracked changes function in a word processor.

If the manuscript isn’t rejected at this stage, authors are invited to respond to these comments, and either comply, rebut, or present new arguments to convince the editor that the work is publishable in that particular journal. Again, as a separate document, often called a “response to review”. And it’s this document that is the focus of this post because seldom is any guidance given, and how one approaches it can be one of those “unwritten rules” about science.

Steve Heard has this covered well on his blog as well, and in his excellent book on science writing (and I hasten to add, he was the first person who explained this process to me when I was a wee masters student, n years ago!).

Here’s an example reviewer comment:

L283 – while this may be true for chocolate cookies, what do the authors expect in their study system of apple pies?

As reviewer comments go, this one is pretty good. It’s specific, and makes a clear suggestion, highlighting what they see as a weakness (in this case, perhaps applying an incorrect interpretation from a different system).

So, how to respond?

If the journal system lets you upload a response to review as a separate document (my preferred method!), then my approach has 3 parts:

  1. Put the reviewer comment in boldface. Just copy & paste it. It’s then easier for you, your coauthors, the editor, and other reviewers to see which comment you’re replying to. I dislike colours because some folks print things out, and bold text is easily distinguished.
  2. Immediately below, explain what you did (or didn’t do) to address the comment in normal type.
  3. Quote ANY new or changed text in italics. Don’t refer to line numbers (which can get easily muddled); just put it right here for everyone to see.

So if we take our example above, it might look something like this:

L283 – while this may be true for chocolate cookies, what do the authors expect in their study system of apple pies?

We thank the reviewer for pointing out this comparison. Indeed, the approach for consuming chocolate cookies (i.e., using one’s hands) is less often applied in the case of filled pastries, including apple pies. We have changed the text to: “Desserts are easily consumed with hands (Monster, 2018) or can be eaten with assistance from cutlery (Garfield 2015)”

Garfield [The Cat]. 2015. Refined dining for modern felines. J. Arbuckle Press, Samoa.

With a quick look, the editor (or reviewer, as it often gets sent back for Round n+1) can see how the comment was addressed, and doesn’t have to wade through the entire manuscript, comparing it to an old version. And a happy editor/reviewer is often a kinder reviewer/editor.

For minor suggestions, like word choice, typos, or where the reviewer comment is obvious, it’s fine to respond with “Fixed” or “Changed as suggested”. But when in doubt add more information rather than less.

At the end of the day, though, the precise formatting doesn’t matter. What matters is that the information is presented clearly and can be easily assessed. Some journals (or some programs) use plain text for responses to review. In this case, I paste the reviewer comment, and below start my comment with “Response” or “R:”, and sadly the new/inserted text part gets left off.

Few things frustrate reviewers or editors more than a response of “Changed” without indicating where or how. I just stumbled on these formatting methods, and I’m sure there are others. The general advice of clearly indicating a response (to each and every comment) and marking any new or inserted text can be accomplished in many ways.

Happy responding!