Thursday, May 23, 2024

The nuts and bolts (and emotions!) of responding to reviewers

EcologyThe nuts and bolts (and emotions!) of responding to reviewers

Almost 10 years ago, I wrote a post about writing a response to reviewer comments. It focused on the overall structure of a response to reviewers, with suggestions on what to include and how to address things like if reviewers disagree. That post – which I think is still relevant – focused on the response itself. In this post, I want to focus more on my process for actually writing the response to reviewers and making the revisions. As I said in the earlier post, I’ve generally had the good fortune of responding to reviews that are thoughtful and constructive. Even with that, it can be…. an emotional journey. So much so that, when I saw this cartoon by Liz Fosslein* it immediately made me think of responding to reviewers:

The decision letter arrives in your inbox! Anxiety goes to 11! Quick scan of the email. Does it say it’s possible to resubmit?! Do the reviews seem overall positive or negative? Once I’ve established that, I’m pretty much done with my ability to process anything.** It seems a little silly to me that I have this reaction after this many years of receiving decision emails, but ¯\_(ツ)_/¯  

Okay, fast forward to the point where I am through that jumble of arrows that is at the top of the right side of that cartoon – which can take anywhere from a day or two to more than a week. What I want to focus on in this post is some of the nuts-and-bolts kind of approaches I take as I work on the acceptance –> improvement part of the process.

Read all the reviews carefully

Once my brain has reached the point where it’s willing to engage helpfully with the feedback, I read all of the reviewer comments in one sitting. I think it’s important to read through the whole thing in one go because it helps to pick out commonalities (e.g., the overall framing of the manuscript isn’t working for the reviewers) and also to pick out differences. For the latter, sometimes they are truly different, but other times they might be making suggestions that seem opposite but that, if you step back, indicate that something about one particular part of the manuscript wasn’t working. Reading the reviews all in one go helps me identify those things.

Adjust my mindset

There is a small, admittedly delusional part of my brain that holds out hope that the reviews will all come back saying “This is amazing! Well done! Publish immediately!” That is….not how it works. And, to reiterate something I said above and in the earlier post: it’s generally a good thing that there are comments to respond to! They pretty much always lead to a better paper. It’s part of why I love the cartoon above – the acceptance leading to improvement arrow is so real, but only if you get your brain to acceptance. I try, as much as possible, to get myself into the mindset that this person thought carefully about the manuscript and the review contains lots of useful information about how to do that. Sometimes it’s the specific suggestion they make that gives the solution, but sometimes it’s because a suggestion they make or a question they ask indicates that we weren’t clear enough about something in the original manuscript. For example, if they say that we didn’t mention X but we did, it often means we didn’t convey that point clearly enough, or we didn’t have it at the point in the paper where the reviewer needed/wanted the information (or both!) I sometimes feel like I have to physically shift my mindset into the one that views the comments as constructive suggestions, but it always helps when I do that.

Bird by bird it

I have talked about the book Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott multiple times over the years (e.g., here and here) – I love it! The title comes from a story she relays about her brother:

thirty years ago my older brother, who was ten years old at the time, was trying to get a report written on birds that he’d had three months to write, which was due the next day. We were out at our family cabin in Bolinas, and he was at the kitchen table close to tears, surrounded by binder paper and pencils and unopened books about birds, immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead. Then my father sat down beside him, put his arm around my brother’s shoulder, and said, “Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.”

That advice works for so many things, and is particularly good advice for responding to reviewers. Having to deal with all of the comments can be daunting, so thinking about them individually can be really helpful. Liz Fosslien has a cartoon for this, too!

Set up a document for the response

In a sign of my age, I used to print out a hard copy of the reviews, draw a horizontal line under each separate comment, and then annotate in the margins. Now, my first step is to copy the reviews from the decision email into a google doc or word document where I work on the response to reviewers (R2R). Once that is set up, I then go through and, under each of the individual comments, I paste in “RESPONSE GOES HERE”, usually in the blue font that I tend to use in the R2R file to indicate my responses. It can also be helpful to number the reviewer comments (if they haven’t already done so), which can lead to a general structure in the R2R file initially along the lines of:
Reviewer comment 1: <pasted text>

Author response 1: RESPONSE GOES HERE

Post it note tracker

Numbering the reviewer comments can be helpful so that you can refer to them in other parts of the R2R (e.g., “As we said in response to comment 3 from Reviewer 1 above,…”). I also find it helpful because then I make myself a list of what needs to be done, usually on a post it note. Here’s an example:

(I don’t recall why I added extra letters to some of the numbers!)

Set mini goals & rewards

The post it note makes it easier to track my bird-by-bird progress. It also helps me set myself mini goals. When I sit down to work on something, I might say that I am going to deal with all the minor comments from Reviewer 2, or with 1 major comment and then 2 minor comments, or with all the comments that relate to the statistical analyses. When setting that goal for a work session, I try to take into account how much time I have, and how much brain power I feel like I have. I also try to set myself a reward: sometimes it’s having some chocolate or taking a break and going for a walk or saying that I am done with work for the day once I get through <insert goal here>. 

Recognize that, in many cases, it will be a process

Especially if you got 3+ reviews and they are all detailed, or if the reviews indicate that a whole lot of work needs to be done, it can be overwhelming. I sometimes literally say “bird by bird” out loud to myself in my office – that’s my reminder to myself that I need to just focus on one comment at a time.*** 


Scientists have gotten better at recognizing that emotions are a part of science, but we still have a long way to go, and it can feel silly to feel flattened emotionally by negative reviews or like everyone else just busts out the revisions without a lot of angst and gnashing of teeth. If you’re feeling overwhelmed by reviews and revisions, my advice is:

  • Give yourself some time to feel those emotions. It’s okay and not a sign that you’re not a ‘real’ scientist.
  • Come up with a plan for responding to reviews, then bird by bird it. (For early career folks in particular, I suggest running the plan by a mentor before tackling those birds!)
  • As much as possible, try to view the reviews as guides to how to improve your manuscript.
  • And, as I said in my earlier post, try to write your response to reviewers in a way that sends the message that you took the feedback seriously and thought carefully about the suggestions.
  • Give yourself rewards along the way!

I’m curious to hear strategies other folks use! 

* I had a Friday Link to her LinkedIn recently. You can see many of her illustrations on her webpage here. They are wonderful and applicable to so many things in academia & science!

** I recently read a description that said that acute anxiety can cloud the ability to think clearly, leading someone to be unable to articulate a cogent response. I laughed because that was a clear, formal description of what I describe as my brain falling out. My brain totally falls out when I first get a decision email.

*** Well, okay, sometimes it makes more sense to address two at once or, better yet, addressing a comment from one reviewer also addresses a similar one from another!

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