Tips for revisions of a scientific journal article

A scientific journal decision letter usually consists of two main parts: The editor’s notes, with the current decision, and comments of peer-reviewers.

It is hard to calmly address criticisms leveled against an article into which you have poured your blood, sweat and tears, but this is the only way to get through the difficult process of publication. In an instructive lecture given by Dr. Jaap van Harten, a senior editor at Elsevier, he advised listeners to set the response letter aside and read it a few days later, presumably after the waves of outrage have subsided.

My recommendation is to deal with reviewer comments one step at a time.

First, copy all the text received from the reviewers into a clean document, to be used as a Response Document, and divide it into separate bullet points. Following each point, leave room for the authors’ response.

All revision work should first be done in this separate document, and then implemented into the article text. Try to identify points raised by more than one critic. Those notes will probably need to be addressed even if the article will eventually be submitted to another journal.

Several tips for responding to common types of reviewer comments:

1. Missing information in the article:

If the information is indeed missing, add it (assuming that the information is available) even if the original consideration was that this information is unnecessary. In the Response Document, note that information was added and direct the reviewer to its location in the article. You should not argue and declare that the information is unnecessary, or that it may be confusing. However, if you are unable to obtain the requested information, you can explain in a respectful way, with quotes from literature, why the work supports the conclusion even in the absence of the requested information.

If the information is already in the article, examine the way the information is presented to make sure it is clear, and try to find places in the article in which you can add references to this information. In the Response Document, note that the information exists within the article and direct the reviewer to its location. In addition, it should be noted that the presentation of the requested information has been clarified and references added. You should not leave the subject unaddressed and only refer to the location within the article. It is certainly ill-advised to write "Had the reviewers read the article more carefully, they would have noticed ..."

2. A request to increase the sample size:

If, upon a second reading, the authors deem the sample size to be justified, the explanation for sample size selection in the methods section should be expanded, including quotes from the literature. In the Response Document, this should be justified in even greater detail. A note should be made that the explanation in the article body was expanded and the reviewer should be directed to its location. You should avoid answers such as: "recruitment for this type of trial is very difficult" or "this type of experiment is very expensive." The justification must be as scientific as possible. Of course, you should not write "had the reviewer any experience in this type of research, he would know that ..."

If the sample size is indeed too small, you can add text to the article and Response Document which positions the research as “a pilot study" or "a proof-of-concept study" and qualify the conclusions with the need to show similar results in a larger sample.

3. The absence of references to important works in the field, stylistic or grammatical errors in the article, graphs / images are not clear, errors in citations/bibliography:

You should try to fix each point separately as the reviewer requested, and perform a general editing and proofreading of the text. It may be wise to acquire the assistance of a professional (e.g. an editor/ proof-reader) for this process. There is no need to specify each language and style revision in the Response Document, and therefore you do not need to implement every single change of this type suggested by the reviewer. You should state in a general way that the article has been revised according to the reviewer’s guidance. It is not advisable to argue about stylistic points and raise linguistic or other justifications that the authors’ style is the correct style. If a reviewer requests a particular article to be cited, you should do so, and indicate this in the Response Document. When the request includes changes to graphs / figures, you should not adamantly defend your design. When there is someone who does not understand what you mean, it might actually be necessary to revise the figure for the purpose of improving clarity. In cases where figures were revised, include the revised version within the Response Document.

4. There is a contradiction between results presented in the article and the reviewer’s own knowledge and background information:

If it is possible to check the reviewer’s comments against the literature, do so, and the articles cited by the reviewer (and other relevant ones) should be addressed in the Discussion section of the article and within the Response Document. You should attempt to offer possible ways for resolving the apparent contradictions. You should not underestimate the importance of the works cited by the reviewer or raise suspicions about their findings. Address the comments in a practical and sensible manner.

5. There are flaws in the selected method, flaws in the way the study was performed, the analysis of results is inappropriate, flaws in conclusions drawn from the data:

In the Response Document, and perhaps within the methods and discussion sections of the paper, you should justify the choice of the method as an appropriate means for studying the research question (including literature citations). If possible, add information that could better reflect the study conduct, in a manner that addresses the reviewer’s concerns. It is helpful to acquire the assistance of a professional (e.g., a statistician) to address such comments. Even if the reviewer’s comments indicate a lack of knowledge or understanding, you should not respond aggressively. You should provide the necessary background materials for understanding the method and its specific use in your study. If different reviewers give contradictory recommendations, you can (respectfully) use the arguments of one reviewer to respond to requests made by the other reviewer.

Despite all the advice to keep calm and to the point, sometimes reviewers can go too far, sometimes you can identify that a reviewer is a professional rival or competitor of one of the authors or that a reviewer is operating under irrelevant considerations.

In such situations, before deciding to submit to another journal, you can try to contact the editor directly, explain the problem and ask for a round of review with another team.

In the next post I will offer some aspects of the pharma industry operating procedures of review and revision of documents that can be successfully implemented into the work process on a multi-author journal article.

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