PhD Life

Responding to peer review comments.

Publishing is integral to being an academia. Knowing how to effectively respond to peer review comments can be the deciding factor. This post gives a breakdown of our top tips and provides a template and guide to writing a response letter.

During our time in academia, we’re likely to experience the peer-review process for the first time. With such pressure and increasing demand for academics to publish, it’s important we master the peer-review process to ensure a successful publication. This post assumes you’ve already looked at our other post on how to publish. If you haven’t, be sure to check it out as it’s got some guidance on how to select a journal, how to format your paper, tips on ensuring you don’t procrastinate, and a quick overview on the peer-review process. Here, we’re going to go that one step further and provide more detailed guidance when responding to peer-review comments.

Before we dive into it, make sure you have a mini celebration. The hard work is far from over, but it’s increasingly difficult to get a paper through to the peer review in process. Some journals, depending on your field of speciality, have success rates of less than 10-15%! To even get to the next stage is not to be taken for granted and is something to be proud of. Depending on the journal, you’ll hear back from the designated peer reviewers anywhere between 3 weeks – 8 months.

Generally, it’s normal to have to wait around 3 months to get peer-review comments back – again this may vary, so feel free to check with your supervisor beforehand. Once you’ve passed the ‘expected’ time period, you’re well within your rights to email the editor to ask for updates on the progress of your manuscript (after all, you could have submitted to another paper in that time but have had to wait as you shouldn’t submit to two journals at once). Usually, you can check the status of your manuscript via the journal’s submission portal.

Once you eventually do get your peer reviewers comments back it’s important you make a mental note of when the amendments/responses are due by. Some journals give you some breathing room to make amendments, most want the changes completed within 4-weeks or so. This can be quite time pressured. You also want to factor in time for your supervisor to review the amendments before you reply. This can slash your 4-week review period in half, requiring you to get it polished and ready within 2-weeks!

The clocks’ now against you (or not if you’ve got a nice review period) and it’s important to focus on your time management and prioritise the amendments. If you miss the deadline or need to request for more time, this can mean your manuscript ends up with different peer-reviewers. This isn’t ideal as it means all the amendments you’ve made may now be irrelevant, and your new reviewers may request for more/different changes.

Depending on the journal, you’ll receive your peer-review comments in a particular format – either via email, a web-portal, or something else. The key thing is you check the guidance and respond as exactly how it’s been stated in the information you’ve been provided with. Our general guidance, to really maximise success, is to do this but to also prepare what we refer to as a ‘response letter’. Your response letter should effectively contain a message directly to the editor and/or the reviewers thanking them for their time to review the manuscript and provide their valuable feedback. Most academics do peer review on the side of a full-time academic job meaning they’re short of time themselves. Being appreciative of their comments really helps set the tone for the rest of the peer review process.

Peer review comments can be brutal, and peer reviewers are usually quite critical. By being courteous and grateful of the time they’ve invested in your manuscript can help at least put them in a positive mindset when they review your comments. Your specific peer reviewers are now the only gatekeepers left to convince to formally publish your paper. Your peer reviewers are what we consider stakeholders with ‘high impact and high influence’, meaning, if they’re unhappy/not convinced by your amendments, they can reject your paper for good and you’ll have to start the entire process again. We want to avoid that as much as possible, and the best approach is really to just implement their suggests. Choose the path of least resistance to maximise both chances of success and time by avoiding a contentious debate.

Inevitably, you may have differing opinions on some aspects but ask yourself if getting into a debate with your reviewer over that specific comment is worth it. 9 times out of 10 it’s likely that you’ll have to just take it on board.

Within the response letter, your goal is to simply reduce the burden for the reviewers as much as possible – remember they’re going to be short on time and patience. Typically, if you can save the reviewers from having to read the full manuscript again, you’ll get a response faster, be viewed more favourably, whilst also making it explicitly clear what amendments you’ve implemented.

The response letter should contain a list of bullet points for each specific amendment/question a reviewer has asked. They may have provided a paragraph of suggestions containing 3 points. You should aim to break these down into 3 separate points which you can explicitly address in your response letter. Again, removing any chances of ambiguity.

Under each bullet point provided, you should provide a response from the author (i.e., you), thanking them for their feedback but then also clarifying any questions or queries raised. Effectively, justifying what you’ve done so they’ve understood your perspective clearly. Having said that, you should then caveat your own comments by saying that you’ve taken it on board and made amendments to the manuscript. In short, it might look something a little like this:

Reviewer comment: The first paragraph, while attempting to be region-specific (UK) is poorly constructed and could take a much broader view, especially given the audience of the journal. While [reference cited in the manuscript] is a good resource, there are other papers which will better explain your argument.”

Author response:We appreciate the reviewers suggest on making the introduction broader. This has been addressed with the intention to broaden this issue globally and then focusing on Western countries, referring to the UK, US and Australia. Additional references regarding this narrative have also been included to strengthen this argument.”

Text added to manuscript: [here you would insert the paragraphs you’ve added to the manuscript]

By doing this consistently throughout your response letter, for each point, you’re incredibly likely to address the peer reviewers’ comments successfully. By submitting this response letter in addition to the revised manuscript with tracked changes there’s no room for ambiguity and your manuscript is more likely to be accepted. Furthermore, in the event you have a particularly challenging reviewer, this response letter helps highlight your efforts to address their feedback and so the editor has a clearer view of whether you’re the problem for failing to make the amendments, or of someone is just giving you a hard time.

Once you’ve prepped the response letter and your supervisor has given you all clear, you can proceed with attaching the document to the submission – usually as an additional file for the reviewers. Equally, if you have a web-portal where you provide the changes, you can copy and paste the response letter into said portal.

All in all, it’s nothing too exciting but it’s imperative that you give your peer reviewers comments as much attention and reassurance as possible. The better you are at doing this, the more likely your paper will be accepted and published! Just be sure to celebrate afterwards!

To really kick start your peer review process you can download a free response letter template here.

If you really want to supercharge your peer review comments you can also check out these three publications with some top tips. We appreciate you’re probably short on time getting back to those peer-reviewers, so we’ve done our best to summarise them below too.

Paper 1: Critical Tips on How to Respond to Peer Reviewers.

Reference: Min, S.K. (2022). Critical Tips on how to respond to peer reviewers. Vascular Specialist International. 38. doi: 10.5758/vsi.223811

Top tips:

  1.  Include a response letter and thank both the editor and reviewers. Seek to demonstrate that you have taken the comments on board. Provide an overview of changes, any new data, any new analysis, and key amendments.
  2. Be polite and respectful. You don’t have to agree with all the comments, but politeness will help obtain a favourable decision.
  3. Respond point-by-point to each and every comment raised by the reviewers.
  4. Make the response self-contained. Provide sufficient detail so the reviewer does not need to go back to the manuscript. Reviewers are busy so highlight the changes you’ve made so it’s easy for the editor/reviewer to see how you’ve addressed their comments.
  5. Remain optimistic. Sometimes take a moment to digest the comments before responding to the reviewer.

Paper 2: A Template for Responding to Peer Reviewer Comments.

Not much to summarise here, but it’s handy to see other templates!

Paper 3: Ten Simple Rules for Writing a Response to Reviewers

Reference: Noble, W.S. (2017). Ten simple rules for writing a response to reviewers. PLoS Computational Bilogy, 13(10), e1005730. doi: pcbi.1005730

Top tips:

  1. Provide an overview, then quote the full set of reviewers. Summarise the changes, highlight any new additions – especially for the most essential comments.
  2. Be polite and respectful. Even if you think a reviewer lacks intellectual capacity, you are likely to be part at fault for failing to explain your point clearly in your writing.
  3. Accept the blame. If a reviewer failed to understand something, accept the blame for not making it clear. In general, even if the request seems unnecessary, it is usually better to go ahead and revise the manuscript with the goal of showing them that you listened to them.
  4. Make the response self-contained. A response letter makes it easier for the reviewer to understand what you did. This also reduces the reviewer going back through the paper and finding new things to complain about.
  5. Respond to every point raised by the reviewer. You should not try to avoid a difficult point by ignoring it. If a reviewer raises 2 separate issues in one point, be sure to address both points explicitly.
  6. Use typography to help the reviewer navigate your response. Use typeface, colour, indenting, and more to discriminate between 3 different elements – the review itself, your response to the reviewer, the changes you made to the manuscript.  
  7. Wherever possible, begin your response to each comment with a direct answer to the point raised.
  8. When possible, do what the reviewer asks. Avoid giving the impression you couldn’t be bothered. You’re usually in a stronger position to do what the reviewer has asked.
  9. Be clear about what changed relative to the previous version. Respond explicitly to the previous and revised versions and explain what changes have been made.
  10. If necessary, write the response twice. The first version can be a place to vent your frustrations and analyse what the reviewers actually mean. The second version can be started a few days later which is more professional for the reviewers.

Just remember, it’s no easy feat getting a paper through peer review, but when the time comes, be sure to give it your all using the tips covered above.