On first receiving a set of manuscript reviews, you might feel that your reviewers must be either hopelessly ignorant of the field, actively malevolent, purposefully obtuse, or all three. The thing you must remember, though, is that a request for revisions is as good as acceptance…but only if you’ll put aside your burning desire to see the wretches who did not appreciate your brilliance crushed for their impertinence.

Give it a few days, and then try the following techniques to respond in way the reviewers will appreciate, while avoiding a cerebral aneurysm:

  • Form a mental image of the reviewer as a close colleague, who is sitting down over a cup of coffee or a beer with you to discuss your paper. His/her comments are thus all meant in the best possible way. Their goal is to improve your science, not destroy it. Respond in kind – the tone of your responses should be friendly and collegial. Remember that these are the guys that get to decide if your paper is accepted or not.
  • Every comment by the reviewer should change something in the paper, but to the extent possible the changes should just be text. When a reviewer asks a question to which a definitive answer would require six months of experiments, the right way to respond is to just acknowledge their question in the discussion. Say, “That is a great question! We’ve added a discussion of that issue as follows:” When a reviewer makes a comment that’s flat wrong, respond with “That’s a tricky issue, so we’ve clarified it as follows:” or, “We’ve tried to improve our description of that…”.
  • Try to use data you already have in the lab to answer calls for new experiments. You probably continued to do experiments after you sent in the paper, or you have data on the same topic that you didn’t feel was quite right for the manuscript.  At worst, do experiments on things you can pull out of the freezer. We always keep all of our mouse parts, blocks, cDNA, etc. until the paper is published. Do not do extensive new experiments – for instance, new animal experiments – unless the journal is very high impact. You have to decide for yourself where that line is. The trick here is to interpret the reviewers’ comments so that your new data answers the question. Sometimes this requires a very creative interpretation, but I have almost never had a reviewer object – they are just happy that I validated their concern by doing a new experiment.

Reviewers are human, and will usually be happy if you just validate their concerns. To paraphrase St. Augustine, they probably have not “made a covenant with the devil to darken the spirit and confine your manuscript in the bonds of Hell.”  Your reviewers genuinely want to improve the quality of the scientific discourse. Following the above rules allows you to respond to a request for major revisions without raising your blood pressure or expending a great deal of effort.

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