The Lost Art of the Response to Reviewers

OK- this is slightly tongue in cheek, but all this stems from things I’ve seen coming in to MEC. We all do our best to make sure that we evaluate papers from an objective standpoint, but sometimes the response to reviewers causes so many problems that I thought it worthwhile to make a post about it.

There are three sins:

1) Sin of Attrition

The peer review process can be adversarial, and the temptation to defend yourself against the people criticising the product of three years of your life can be very strong. However, reviewers are a bit like a prescreening audience for a film, and their opinions (irrespective of how they are expressed) are a subsampling of broader opinions about your paper once it is published. Unless you plan to track down and yell at all the subsequent readers who didn’t like that aspect of your paper, it doesn’t make sense to have a go at the reviewers.

Penance: Explain to your cat or an inanimate object that the reviewers are misguided fools, then write a charming and polite response letter.

2) Sin of Omission Type I.

“Many thanks for the positive decision on our paper- we found the numerous criticisms, opinions and caveats raised by the reviewers very helpful. We have dealt with all these comments in the new version.”

or, my all time favorite (this was the entire response to reviewers):

“Dear editor, many thanks for the useful recommendations on our paper. We did them.”

Roughly translated, these add up to “Dear reviewer and editor. Many thanks for spending hours carefully itemising issues with our paper. We made some changes but not others, and we would now like you to spend additional hours playing ‘hunt the edits'”. There’s nothing quite like a lazy response to reviewers to drive editors and referees up the wall, and I’ve seen borderline accepts end up rejected because the authors didn’t make it easy for the referees to see how the paper was changed.

Penance: Respond to each and every comment made by the editor and reviewers. Online systems like ours often remove text highlighting, bold type or text colours, so the best and simplest approach is to take the decision letter and insert your responses beneath each comment, starting your text with something like “>>>”.

3) Sin of Omission Type II.

The response letter is immaculate: “Please find our responses to the editor and reviewers below…” followed by a long and careful list of the changes made to the manuscript. Unfortunately, not all of these edits made it into the paper. This one prompts a painstaking scrutiny of the new version- the bond of trust that the authors have improved the paper in good faith has been broken (even if it is unintentional), and once that trust is gone all sorts of difficult questions about the authors’ propriety have to be asked and answered. Needless to say, all the extra work this makes for editors and reviewers never leaves them with a good feeling about the paper.

Penance: Include a version of the ms with the changes tracked, so that the response to reviewers can be quickly checked against the ms itself. This is particularly true if you’re using LaTex, as we can’t run a ‘compare documents’ check on the pdf files.

Other, more venial sins:

  • Cover letters written in pink or purple fonts are not a good sign.

  • Hitting ‘Reply All’ on the decision letter or notification emails and casting aspersions on the journal, even if it’s in another language.

  • A classic way to annoy the editor is to address your cover letter to the wrong journal. This is doubly true if you address it to a competitor or (worse still) a journal with a much lower Impact Factor:

“Dear Dr Vines,

We are delighted to submit our paper to The Russian Journal of Dandelion Science and we hope that you agree that this paper is worthy of publication.



“Dear X,

Many thanks for your interesting letter. It looks like you have accidentally submitted this paper to Molecular Ecology, and not The Russian Journal of Dandelion Science, and hence I am returning it to you so that you might quickly submit this important study there instead.

All the best



About Tim Vines

I'm the managing editor of Molecular Ecology and Molecular Ecology Resources.
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