The Three Golden Rules of Replying To an Editor

Updated: May 24

Responding to referees' comments before an article can be accepted for publication in a peer-reviewed journal is a time-consuming and labor-intensive process1. There is little guidance in the medical literature on how to respond to these kinds of criticisms. The aim of this essay is to help novice authors learn how to handle peer review feedback in a manner that maximizes their chances of getting their work accepted. Instead of sending an article elsewhere, authors must consider revising and resubmitting their work. A structured layout for responding to referees' comments is suggested that includes the 3 golden rules: (1) Provide a thorough response; (2) respond politely; and (3) respond with evidence. The writer must conquer any feelings of personal attack and instead focus on attempting to address referees' concerns in an objective, courteous, and evidence-based manner.



THE 3 GOLDEN RULES OF RESPONSE LETTER STRUCTURING

Rule 1: Provide a thorough response.

It's critical that you react to all of the referees' remarks in order, no matter how frustrating or ambiguous they may seem. Number them, and use titles like "Reviewer 1," "Comment 1," and "Response," to reiterate them in your cover letter2. What you're doing here is keeping the editor's and reviewers' jobs easier; they won't have to hunt and cross-reference a bunch of scripts to figure out what you've done; everything will be in one tidy document.

Typing out or paraphrasing the referee's comments to itemize the points does two things: (1) it compels you to listen to what the referees actually said, rather than what you believed they might have said when you first read their comments; and (2) it makes you grasp how many independent points the referee is making. Quite often, you'll just get a paragraph with a bunch of comments thrown in. In this case, you can divide the paragraph into two or three individual comments, and then respond to each one separately. Even if some of the remarks are simply compliments, include them in your cover letter, along with a sentence like "we thank the referee for their comments."


Rule 2: Respond politely.

Remember that almost all referees have volunteered at least an hour of their time to review your paper without being compensated. If you receive a long list of comments, it's likely that the reviewer is working extremely hard to assist you strengthen the manuscript so that it can be accepted3. Rejection statements are often brief and do not provide you with an opportunity to resubmit. When responding to referees, it's fine to disagree with them, but do it in a way which makes your referees feel appreciated. Remarks that are pretentious or arrogant should be avoided. Although it is natural to be insulted when someone tries to criticize your prized work, this must not be conveyed in your response. Your response should be methodical and scientific. Before forwarding your responses, have someone else read them.

Avoid using statements like "we completely disagree" or "the referee obviously has no knowledge of this field." Instead, try to find some common ground and utilize statements that begin with the words "we agree with the referee, but.... "


Rule 3: Provide evidence in your response.

Don't just remark, "We disagree," and move on if you disapprove the referee's comments. Explain why you disagree with a well-thought-out argument or, better yet, back it up with facts and sources that you can quote in your response. Those new references may be included to the amended article to support the argument you raise in your cover letter, but they may also be added to the original article. Some helpful reviewers go to the effort of providing missing references or rephrasing key sections of your text. If supplying references or rephrasing makes sense to you, go ahead and include them. If the referee's comments need it, it's quite acceptable to put their comments to add some extra text and data; but, if this amounts to more than a page, you should present it to the editor as an alternative. Another alternative is to request that the large additions be moved to a later article.

You can consult an expert in the field when there are no clear published evidence to strongly back your methodologic approaches. If he or she agrees with your strategy, you might mention it in your response. "While other procedures have been utilized in the past, we have examined this statistical methodology with Professor So and-So, who agrees that it was the proper analysis," for example.


CONCLUSION

Referees are people like you and me. Making your referees feel respected without neglecting your own standards is the key to a successful resubmission. Make your referees' and editor's lives easier by sending them a well-organized, numbered answer letter. Many referees and editors are too weak at the point of resubmission to open another round of disagreements and resubmission, even if you have made a strong effort to respond to all of the referees' remarks in a reasonable manner by following the three golden rules. However, if you entirely overlook any suggestions or your manuscript revisions do not match what you say you did in your cover letter, your referee will be enticed to spend hours reading over your manuscript with a fine-tooth comb. If he or she discovers a slew of minor flaws, the result could be a well-deserved rejection. Resubmitting your manuscript in light of your referees' remarks is a process of give and take.

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