Tuesday, September 8, 2009

How to respond to reviewers

Anonymous raised some interesting questions about responding to reviewers in a comment on a previous post. My response was getting quite rich in content, so I thought I would submit a full blog entry instead. Bottom line to Anonymous: I think you are approaching your response to reviews correctly.

As a reviewer and generally as an editor, I would be thrilled if every author responded positively to all the reviewer concerns and the manuscript was improved as a result. We could have one round of reviews, and the paper would be published. That situation would be easiest for everyone (reviewers, editor, authors). :-)

Although reviewers generally provide more useful comments than not, reviewers are not always 100% right in their reviews. Therefore, I tell authors that they should usually accept the majority of reviewer comments---especially the major comments---if they want to have smooth sailing through the review process on the way to eventual publication. I call this knowing how to play the game. A positive response to 70-80% of the comments, including intelligent responses to the major issues, usually makes me feel pretty happy about the way the review process goes. No one gets everything they want, but the result is a dramatically improved manuscript that should be acceptable for publication. When authors and reviewers know how to play the game, they submit decent manuscripts that are improved during the peer-review process and are published after one or two rounds of reviews. As an editor, I don't have to write long decision letters for such manuscripts---I trust that the authors will know how to take the reviews and revise the manuscript accordingly.

If an author does not meet these standards with their revision (isn't playing the game), then I as editor am put in an awkward and potentially compromised position. I am trying to balance competing effects: publish good, if not the best, manuscripts and publish them quickly. In most cases, I respect the reviewers (I selected them!) and their opinions, so I want to see that the authors have listened to what the reviewers said and have made positive changes to their manuscript. But I also want to give the authors some license to write the manuscript as they envision it and to publish their work quickly. I am handling 20-30 manuscripts at any given time, and the more peer-reviewed manuscripts that I can send to the publisher, the fewer are in my in-box, so to speak.

Like most conflicts in life, you have to know when to pick your fights. If you are going to battle the reviewer on a major comment or two, then accepting most of the other comments will give me as editor some relief that you are taking the review process seriously. That is why I say 70-80% as an estimate. I don't expect reviewers to always be right or provide exceptional comments all the time, and I feel authors should be able to defend some of their material against possible reviewer misunderstandings. But, if an author blows off half or more of the reviewer comments, then I think the author is being too resistive to change and I get annoyed. I am particularly troubled if the author blows off too many minor comments, which should be relatively straightforward to implement in a revised manuscript.

Good editors know when to bring this back and forth between reviewers and authors to a close and quickly. For manuscripts for which major revisions are required (about 50% of manuscripts submitted to MWR require major revisions), I try not to go more than two rounds. If I have to have a third round of reviews, someone didn't do a good enough job (usually the author).


Anonymous Steve Guimond said...

Dr. Schultz:

I am Anonymous. Thank you for your insightful, detailed comments. I agree with just about everything you said. I wish all editors had your view! I especially agree with your comment..."But I also want to give the authors some license to write the manuscript as they envision it..." Sometimes I get the feeling that the reviewer is trying to push his/her view on me. These are the comments I reject (after a lengthy explanation of why).

One thing I wanted to point out is that in graduate school they really don't teach you how to handle the review process and publishing in general. I learned the hard way (rejections) how to handle "the game", but I am still learning a lot. I know that some of this information should be passed down from advisors, but often this doesn't happen (usually too busy). I think what you are doing here on this blog (clarifying the review process) is vital for young scientists (and some seasoned veterans, too). We are expected to publish to get just about anywhere in science. Without the necessary styles/methods for reviewing and publishing passed down, good students with good research are left in the cold. I really think a short class (or at least a few lectures) should be given on "how to handle the peer review process" at every University.

Would you say that all the MWR editors would agree with your statements? If not, then when I submit to MWR (or any journal) in the future, can an author request an editor up front?

Thanks again for all you are doing. I will continue to check this blog for advice.

September 12, 2009 at 9:27 AM  
Blogger David Schultz said...

Hi Steve,

Thanks for your comment. It may be hard to do, but always try to put yourself in the reviewer's shoes. Look at your manuscript as objectively as possible and ask yourself whether it is possible that you are wrong and the reviewer is right.

Often, I find a scrap of truth in nearly all reviewer comments. Even if they misunderstood what I wrote, I need to ask myself why. Could I have written some part of the paper more clearly to avoid that misconception?

If you have taken this step seriously and have still concluded that you are right and the reviewer is wrong, then rebut them as best you can.

September 14, 2009 at 5:57 PM  
Blogger David Schultz said...


With regard to your second point, the field needs a lot of improvement. For example, at MWR, 34% of manuscripts are rejected, which is just a little bit higher than average for the scientific journals at the AMS. A third of manuscripts are rejected! Given that MWR gets about 400 manuscripts a year, that's a lot of rejections.

What's worse is that some of those rejections come from big names. University professors with years of experience. NCAR senior scientists. You would hope that wouldn't be the case. So, unfortunately, not all professors may be giving out good information to their students! Many of the professors may not have been taught well by their own advisors or they might not have learned the lesson. There's a lot of gaps in the system, and no guarantee that you will get good mentorship when you need it.

I can't say whether the other editors would agree with 100% of what I've written, but I suspect that there would be a lot of head nods about what I've said, not only at MWR, but other journals, as well.

When you submit to a journal, you can always request a certain editor, but because of who has the best expertise to handle your manuscript, who has the lightest load at any given time, and other factors, your request may not be granted. I suspect that such requests are usually granted if there are no major issues, however.

Finally, watch the AMS Web site this winter for an announcement of a new book on scientific communication skills that you may find useful.

September 14, 2009 at 6:08 PM  

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