Replying to Reviewers – Striking the right tone

Sorry for the brief blogging hiatus. We have the best of intentions to resume regular blogging now that things are settling back down post-graduation.

I know that when I was first starting out on my PhD I had loads of questions about how to go about getting published. Questions that remained largely unanswered after attending a workshop targeted at social science PhD students purportedly designed to help get us started.

In future posts we will address topics likely to come up when you first begin to consider publishing your work, including how to choose a journal and designing your article. However, today I am getting ready to resubmit a revised article already provisionally accepted by my chosen journal. The article is finished and all that remains is to write individual responses to my reviewers.

I’ve been through this process a few times now, but still get a bit anxious about striking the right tone when replying to reviewer comments and criticisms.

The first thing I always do is go through the reviews to distil the main points, underlining specific items to be changed and making comments to myself in the margins. That done, it becomes very clear what revisions are non-negotiable (i.e. changes advised by more than one reviewer), and which are mere suggestions. Either way, in your response it is important to point out where you have made changes to address the reviewers concerns and provide a diplomatic explanation for the suggestions you opted to ignore.

Replying to positive and constructive feedback is easy and can usually be done in a few short paragraphs. Thank the reviewers for their guidance and any additional citations they may have provided, acknowledge (with page numbers if possible) where you have taken on their suggestions, and (if applicable) politely justify why you have opted out of any recommendations.

Responding to long-winded criticisms is far more difficult. Twice now I have received feedback (for different articles) that exceeds two, single-spaced pages. (Most reviews seem to come in at around 2/3 of a page.) The first time I made sure to address every point; temporarily forgetting, perhaps, that the reviewer is a real person with a real life (and, consequently, things to do apart from review my article). The reviewer admitted to only skimming my somewhat lengthy remarks in the next round of communication notifying me that my article had been accepted for publication.

This time I have opted for a different approach. Instead of addressing the review point-by-point in my reply, I have tried to consolidate my response into three bullet points that all fit on a single page. While I don’t I don’t comment on minor issues highlighted by the original review, I do provide a summary indicating how the reviewer helpfully influenced my rewrite. Only time will tell how the reviewer will respond to this new technique, but it strikes a more constructive, appreciative, and – dare I say it – grown-up tone than is possible when obsessively(?) answering every point.

When it comes to getting published, I’m inclined to conclude that it’s a process you can only really learn by diving in headfirst. As you struggle to keep your head above water, you will eventually learn how to swim.

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4 responses to “Replying to Reviewers – Striking the right tone

  1. It’s laborious to find knowledgeable people on this topic, but you sound like you understand what you’re talking about! Thanks

  2. Youre so cool! I dont suppose Ive read anything like this before. So nice to seek out any person with some authentic thoughts on this subject. realy thank you for starting this up. this website is something that’s needed on the internet, somebody with a bit of originality. useful job for bringing something new to the web!

  3. very nice post, i certainly love this website, carry on it

  4. UPDATE: The approach to replying to reviewers outlined in this post seems to have worked. I just received notification that the article discussed has been accepted for publication without further revision.

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