Journal Said “Major Revisions” Needed? Here’s What to Do

A customer asked us: “What does ‘major revisions’ mean? The journal sent me this reply after I submitted my manuscript.”

“Major revisions” may sound like a major undertaking. And it might actually be a lot of work. But you can and should do those revisions. In fact, when a journal requests major revisions, it’s actually good news.

Wait… What?

Consider that Elsevier only accepted 14.7% of all submissions last year. You’re not in that other 85.3%.

Of course, not all papers will make it through the revision stage, but the same publisher also reports that major revision requests only reduce the chance of acceptance by about 16% compared with minor revisions.

Not too bad.

So, what does a journal’s editorial decision of “major revisions” mean?

In short, “major revisions” means you’ve got work to do, but you’re still very much in the game.

Your target journal’s editor has sent your manuscript to two or more peer reviewers. At least one of them felt that some substantial changes were needed before the journal can publish your work.

This is not the “kiss of death”. The kiss of death is “Reject”.

If you deal with the major revisions the right way, you can get published. So, how did it get to this point? And what should you do?

Manuscript submission, and the decisions you’ll get

The peer review process is always a bit of a black box for authors. It’s subjective by nature, but it does generally follow the same path.

You write a scientific paper, chose a target journal (or the other way around), and submit your manuscript.

Then you pray, hope, cross fingers, whatever may bring you good fortune. If it’s taking a long time, don’t be afraid to ask the journal why.

Here’s some advice from Dr. Gareth Dyke on how long to wait.

What do peer reviewers and editors actually do after you submit your work?

Typically, it goes like this:

  1. Submit your manuscript to your target journal (need help selecting one? use this free tool).
  2. The editorial office team reviews your manuscript to make sure it complies with the journal guidelines and its aims and scope.
    If there’s an issue (e.g., incorrect formatting, clinical trial reporting guidelines not followed, paper outside of journal scope), your paper may be rejected right there.
    A professional desk editor working for the publisher of does this whole process before your paper is passed to the subject-area specialist editor. If there’s a problem, you may get a desk rejection, and the process stops there. Time for you to revise (if possible) and find a new journal.
  3. The journal’s subject-area specialist editor decides whether your manuscript should be sent for peer review. If they think it’s interesting enough, it’ll be sent along.

This initial checking process is called editorial triage. In the same way medical staff have to strategically deal with accident victims, journal editorial staff have to delegate resources and prioritize.

Peer reviewers’ decisions

If you pass to an initial peer review, the reviewers will make their individual decisions.

This is not Starbucks. There are just four options on the menu.

  • Accept – Great! But it almost never happens after the first round of review.
  • Minor revisions – Typically, this is the best outcome after first submission. 
  • Major revisions – OK, you’ve got more work to do, but you’re still in the game.
  • Reject – Obviously, this isn’t good; but it may come with comments on how you can improve.

Minor revisions and major revisions are the two most common editorial decisions after peer review.

A decision of minor revisions means your work will likely not be going back to the original peer reviewers for another round of comments. This is actually a policy for many journals. Do the revisions and resubmit.

The journal editor will probably make their final decision about your paper based on the changes you now make to the work, as well as the contents, its originality, and the way you write your cover letter.

A decision of major revisions means you’ll need to do some heavier work.

How to handle major revisions in your manuscript before re-submission

You’ll probably get an email like this. Often, these are auto-generated. Don’t take it personally.

Dear Dr. _______ ,

I have now received referee reports for your paper entitled “xxxx”, which are detailed below. As you can see, the reviews suggest that MAJOR REVISION of your paper is required.

This will be followed by details on the necessary revisions.

Sounds scary, but it’s really not. What does this actually mean? Let’s break it down.

The journal’s editor sent your manuscript to two or more reviewers, and at least one of them felt that substantial changes were needed. However, some added work and/or explanation can resolve these issues.

That’s interpreted as major revisions. That’s why you’re still in the game. You can make it better. If you do that well enough, you stand a good chance of being published, or at least another chance at revision.

What do you do after getting a major revisions request?

In short, you do the revisions that are requested. You may or may not agree with them, but it’s best not to get argumentative. If the reviewer misunderstood your intent or insisted you perform an unnecessary or inappropriate test, you’ll need to professionally, thoroughly, and politely explain why you disagree.

A good technique at this stage is to:

  1. Take the letter with comments and copy it into a Word document or Google Docs.
  2. Highlight the changes you’ll make in one color. And make them.
  3. As you make them, draft your response letter detailing how and why you revised.
  4. If there are requests you disagree with, put those in a different color. You’ll need to respond to those too.
  5. Highlight any of the minor changes, such as spelling or punctuation, and make those changes, too.

You’ll then need to put it all together for re-submission.

Tone and structure of your response to a request for major revisions

Be polite, structure your cover letter so that you thank the editor and reviewers for the time they have spent on your paper.

Then, clearly explain how you have addressed the major revisions deemed necessary for your paper, and your hope that it’s now suitable for publication.

Important here is that you address each reviewer personally and politely, because they are almost certainly going to read your responses and assess your revisions.

For example:

Reviewer 1 commented: “This is indeed an interesting discovery. However, the lack of an ABC3 Test makes it hard for me to accept the validity of the data. I suggest you perform the ABC instead of the XYZ.”

If you agree, start your response with: “We thank Reviewer 1 for this suggestion. Accordingly, we performed an ABC3 Test…”

If you disagree, start with: “We thank Reviewer 1 for this suggestion. We understand the rationale of performing an ABC3 Test; however…”

The re-submission format can vary depending on the software your target journal or publisher is using.

How does the journal handle re-submission after major revisions?

As mentioned, the same peer reviewer(s) will likely be asked to review your manuscript.

The editor will ask them, “Do you think the author(s) of this paper made the necessary changes to their work, considering the first round of comments? Is this manuscript now acceptable for publication?”

At this point, they’ll go back to their four-choice menu. Hopefully, you’ll be accepted. Possibly, you’ll need to make some more revisions

As long as you’re in the game, keep playing hard.

That’s why any decision other than “Reject” is a good thing, and “major revisions” is in fact good news.

If you need some help with responding to peer review

This process takes time, and especially if English isn’t your first language, it can be very hard to understand peer review and find the right tone for your response.

Edanz has a service to help with revising and responding, and increase your chances of acceptance. We think it’s great, and the results back us up, but there’s plenty you can do on your own. Hopefully this article gave you some hope.

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