What do you do when you submit your paper to a journal, and you receive a letter asking you to revise and resubmit it? As a copyeditor, I have read a fair amount of these messages to various authors. And sometimes the authors of the reviewed paper complain quite bitterly that the editors/referees are being outlandish and unfair in the criticism. Admittedly, an occasional referee may be too harsh, critical, arrogant or unprofessional in the tone of their message. Why would they do this? Who knows why people in general may do rude things, no less a journal editor or referee who should show professional etiquette. Yet more importantly, I feel your response to such messages should “take the higher road”, being generous, calm and diplomatic as possible, and not stooping to the same level by writing back angry insulting comments in response.
I recommend a cautious diplomatic response because your ultimate goal is to get the paper published, and if they are just asking you to make some reasonable changes, it is not worth responding to the rude comments of the referees.
Another reason I recommend a moderate diplomatic response, is because I have also seen situations where the authors respond to what they perceived as an insult or slight by the referee, but when I read the message of the referee, I saw no such slight. Perhaps it is easy to misread an insult where there is none if English is not your native tongue. Also, I think this may occur because authors are very close to their research, having put their “blood, sweat, and tears” into the work, so when they hear criticism of something they are generally pleased with, if not quite proud of, they may be overly sensitive when they expected a more positive reception from the editor, and so they may not be able to hear nuance in the criticism, and instead of hearing the positive, they hear only the negative, which is all perfectly natural and understandable.
I have seen some cases where authors are quite defensive about a study’s shortcomings pointed out by the referee, yet the authors will assume it is a nationalistic differences between the authors and the referees. I have heard many accusations about referees from developed nations not respecting the research from certain developing nations. While there may be some truths to these claims, I think there is also quite a lot of defensive reactivity when author’s receive critical comments. As Swales and Feak recommend, it may be best to just read the comments, and let some time pass before responding. Not much is too be gained by a vitriolic response.
Most of these referees are volunteering to do this work, so I think they mostly have good intentions, yet perhaps they may not realize their tone is overly harsh or possibly arrogant. I think sometimes it is most difficult for a junior researcher who may be submitting their first research paper, and they may have inadvertently brought unrealistic expectations, believing their work is beyond criticism and without problems. In most cases journal editors can be quite positive about a paper, but they seem to be nitpicking when they go on and on for pages pointing out every minor error they see. Although this may be tough on some egos, ultimately, I think they have the best intentions and want the final research to meet high standards. You can even see such attention to detailed criticism as a compliment ultimately, since they are showing a certain care and concern. And even in cases where ultimately the comments of are referee are entirely irrelevant, incorrect, impolite, biased and prejudices, I still recommend using cautious comments like this in response:
While we have fully considered referee B’s comments about X, we respectfully disagree and wish to refer him to recent studies demonstrating X.
We politely beg to differ with referee A’s criticism of our method. We wish to note that our method is fully consistent with the literature on this method.
Here are some general guidelines for corresponding with the journal editor quoted directly from Navigating Academia: Writing Supporting Genres (John M. Swales, Christine Feak):
1. Remember that an invitation to revise is usually a positive sign. So do not take criticisms personally.
2. Read the editor’s letter and reviewer’s comments carefully.
3. If the editor suggests getting help with the English, choose someone who has some understanding of you research area as well as a good knowledge of the language.
4. Respond to each of the major comments. (Minor ones such as spelling corrections or corrections to references do not need detailed commentary).
5. In your response, help the editor by using detailed references to the text such as “p. 2 first para.”
6. Thank people for useful suggestions but do not automatically defer to the editor or reviewers. If you disagree with a comment, explain why.
7. If you have made additional changes not suggested by the reviewers briefly explain what they are and why you have made them.
8. If you have been asked to revise and resubmit, do so as quickly as convenient.
9. Explain what you are doing about any page charges or fees, if this is appropriate.
10. If you do not plan to revise, inform the editor of you decision.
Other issues to think about include, careful consideration of what the editors want you to change, and whether you chances of being accepted for publication are good after these changes are made. As Annesley puts it,
"...Some rejection letters (Example 2) offer an opportunity to resubmit. You still have your foot in the door, but you need to carefully consider whether there is a realistic chance that you can improve the paper to the reviewers' satisfaction. After finding numerous deficiencies, reviewers sometimes stop providing comments because their recommendations are clear by the time they are partway through the paper. If you decide to resubmit, it is possible that (1) the reviewers already have a poisoned view of the work and (2) you will receive additional criticisms of your work when the reviewers look at other parts of the paper they did not read carefully during the first round of reviews.
The third example is also a revise-and-resubmit letter, but it tells you that the paper should be acceptable after you have satisfactorily responded to the reviewers' comments. In that case, it is in your best interests to improve the paper and send it back with minimal delay."
Another point to consider is what issues are worth defending and insisting upon. Again, as Annesley points out,
"If your scientific paper is typical, the reviewers will ask you to make more than one modification. Some changes you will agree are worthwhile, some you will think are irrelevant, and some you will disagree with. Even if you do not fully agree with the reviewers on some points, you need to choose your battles wisely. If a change to a sentence or paragraph requested by the reviewer does not affect the intended meaning, do your best to make the change. It does not hurt you and sends the message that you took their suggestions seriously; however, if you believe that a requested change will negatively affect the paper, go ahead and respectfully disagree. It is your name on the title page. But do not respond by stating that the reviewer is wrong without allowing the reviewer, wherever possible, to save face. Explain where the reviewer may have misinterpreted the section and that you want to keep the text intact. You might find, however, that as you explain the rationale for keeping the text as is, some of the wording and logic you use to respond to the reviewer might be worth adding to the paragraph in question to help the reader better understand the paper."
For further consideration also see:
If you the journal editors request a review of the English of your paper, consider our service which provides a full guarantee that your paper will not be rejected due to the English:
Finally, I am very curious to hear your experiences and suggestions about responding to editor’s requests to have your papers revised. Do you have any advice for the readers's here?