In the Royal Society Publishing Editorial team, we are often asked by early career researchers for advice on how to respond to reviewer comments and decisions on scientific papers. Whilst in many cases our advice would be specific to a particular situation, we felt that it might be useful to go through a few scenarios and provide some general suggestions for researchers who submit to journals published by the Royal Society.
Scenario 1: your paper is accepted.
Well, congratulations! You are one of a minority of people whose papers are accepted straight away or with only a few small edits to make. Sit back, celebrate, and wait for our production team to send you a proof to check.
Scenario 2: your paper is rejected before peer review.
Sometimes our Editors reject papers without sending them for external peer review. This usually means they are out of scope for the journal, too specialised, or unsuitable in another way. A rejection made at this stage helps to reduce the time that you are waiting for a decision and reduces unnecessary work for the reviewers and Editors. Though we understand it can be a disappointing decision, it is usually best in this scenario to look for a different journal to submit to, even if you do not agree with the decision. The Editor may suggest a more suitable venue in their feedback or offer a transfer to one of our other journals, if appropriate.
Scenario 3: you receive a rejection with peer review reports, but do not understand why it was rejected based on the comments.
Firstly, remember that reviewer comments are a guide for the Editors rather than the sole decision tool. Editors also consider the paper’s suitability for the journal, and aspects such as statistical reliability, general interest, or novelty. The reviewers may also have provided confidential comments to the Editor that you cannot see. The Editor should have provided some of their own comments to help to explain their decision, but if you really cannot understand why the paper was rejected you can contact the journal for clarification or submit a formal rebuttal. It is usually only worth doing this if you feel that the reviewers or Editors have not understood a key aspect of your work or have misinterpreted your paper.
When writing a rebuttal letter, you should adopt a professional approach clearly explaining your reasons for challenging the decision. An angry or aggressive letter is not likely to achieve anything. It’s worth leaving a little time after first receiving the decision to write your rebuttal, once the initial disappointment has passed.
Scenario 4: you receive a ‘revise’ decision, but you do not know how to implement all the reviewer comments.
You are likely to receive a lot of requests from reviewers, and some of these may be conflicting, or ask for work that you do not feel is feasible or appropriate. Remember that this is your work, and the reviewer comments are suggestions only. If you do not feel that a particular request is something that you want to do, that is potentially fine. You should prepare a thorough point by point response to all the reviewer comments. If there are points that you have decided not to implement, you should explain your reasoning in the response document – don’t just ignore it.
Be aware that your revision may be sent back to reviewers who will be able to view anything uploaded as a response, so please ensure that you are happy for any letter or material uploaded here to be seen by them, i.e., think about how your response is worded, particularly to critical comments or where you do not agree with the reviewer. (Also remember that some journals operate open peer review which means that your response document will be published online alongside the paper if it is accepted.) It is recommended that you also upload a ‘tracked changes’ version to help the Editor and reviewers see exactly what you’ve done (in fact, this is a requirement for some journals).
If you want some guidance on how to respond to the reviews, the handling Editor should be able to advise you, but we would recommend you approach the journal’s Editorial Office to organise this, rather than directly contact the handling Editor.
Here are a few final general thoughts:
- If a reviewer or Editor appears to have misunderstood an element of your paper, don’t just dismiss them as an incapable reviewer. It may instead be that some of your work could be presented more clearly, so objectively review your paper to try to understand how they came to their conclusions.
- It is worth asking a colleague or supervisor to read the decision letter and your response document before you submit them.
- The reviewers and Editors have your paper’s best interests in mind. Feedback should be seen as constructive, and even if a paper is rejected, this is likely to be because it could be improved or because that particular journal is not the best home for it. By going through this process you should eventually publish a great paper in a suitable journal.
- Remember that everyone, even the very top people in their field, have papers rejected from time to time.
We hope that this will be useful for when you next receive that eagerly awaited decision letter!
You can find more useful information by reading any of our journal websites.