Interpreting reviewer comments

Before thinking about interpreting peer reviewers’ comments, it is good to remind ourselves what they look for when they assess a manuscript. They look at the manuscript from two perspectives: 1) the science/scholarship and 2) the manuscript itself. 

When you receive your reviewed manuscript from the journal editors, you can expect comments from the reviewers and a letter from the journal editor explaining what needs to happen next. Journal editors act as moderators of reviewer comments. Be aware that an editor might screen reviewer comments, so you will not necessarily see every reviewer comment. The editor should provide you with a clear message about the next stage of the publication process.

Rarely, your manuscript will be accepted exactly as it is. More likely, editors will ask you to make minor or major revisions to your work, or they may reject your manuscript after receiving negative feedback from the reviewers. If the rejection is because your work does not match the journal’s aims, they may suggest that you resubmit it to a sister publication from the same publisher. But if the rejection is based on the consensus that your study is not scientifically sound, you can use this as an opportunity to re-evaluate your work, perhaps redesigning experiments to increase the statistical power of the results or their applicability to different patient groups. 

If you think the editor and reviewers have made a mistake in rejecting your manuscript, you may lodge an appeal (but you need a valid and convincing reason). You may be able to submit the manuscript of an improved study to the original target journal. But this will be classed as a new submission involving a new manuscript, not a resubmission of the original one. In such cases, it is important that you disclose your previous correspondence with the journal.

If you are confused, try communicating

It is possible that different reviewers will offer conflicting opinions about your work. Many journals ask for the opinion of three reviewers, so a consensus opinion can usually be reached even if one reviewer disagrees with the other two. But if you are unsure how to proceed after receiving unclear reviewer comments, ask the journal editor about their expectations before you spend time revising your manuscript. 

Good correspondence is very important at this stage to avoid misunderstandings. Remember to be prompt with your questions and responses, as you will often be given a deadline in which to resubmit your revised manuscript. Read the reviewers’ comments several times before beginning to respond to them. This will help you to understand their main concerns and to separate longer comments into individual points. If you have the time, it can be helpful to read the comments once, and then put both the comments and your manuscript away for at least a day before you draft your response. This will allow you to approach any changes with a clear perspective. 

Forward all comments to your co-authors. You can ask for their opinions on how to respond to any comments you find confusing.

Positive vs negative comments: how to tell the difference

Some decision letters can be confusing! It can be difficult to know if an editor wants you to revise and resubmit. Watch out for the sentences like these, which are actually positive:

  • “It is not possible to consider your manuscript in its current form”
  • “I hope the information provided will be helpful when you revise your manuscript”
  • “I regret the outcome has not been favorable at this time”

What these sentences are really saying is “Your manuscript is not acceptable now, but please revise it according to the comments and send it back to us.” If they do not describe how to resubmit the revised manuscript or give you a deadline for resubmission, then they expect you to resubmit the revised manuscript as a new submission. 

Equally, the following examples indicate the journal editor is not interested, regardless of any other comments:

  • “We wish you luck in publishing your results elsewhere”
  • “We will not consider your manuscript further”
  • “This study does not contain novel enough results for publication in this journal”

If you are asked to revise your paper, the reviewers may ask you to rewrite sections of the manuscript for clarity, or to present your data in alternative formats. You may be asked to improve the quality of the writing in your manuscript, in which case it may be beneficial to request the help of a native English speaker or an English language editing service. Other requests may include improving your statistical analysis or carrying out additional experiments. 

You will probably be given a deadline for revising your manuscript and responding to the comments. It is important to carefully assess how long these revisions are likely to take. You can ask the journal editor for an extension if you think that you will not be able to meet the deadline. Otherwise, you may have to resubmit your work as a new manuscript, which will delay its publication. 

If you receive a decision letter that is unclear, discuss it with your colleagues. They may be able to help you better understand what the journal wants you to do.

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