Your Manuscript in Review: It is never an idle question

I was trained to respond to peer review of my submitted manuscripts as straight up as possible. By this I mean I was trained (and have further evolved in training postdocs) to take every comment as legitimate and meaningful while trying to avoid the natural tendency to view it as the work of an illegitimate hater. This does not mean one accepts every demand for a change or alters one's interpretation in preference for that of a reviewer. It just means you take it seriously.

If the comment seems stupid (the answer is RIGHT THERE), you use this to see where you could restate the point again, reword your sentences or otherwise help out. If the interpretation is counter to yours, see where you can acknowledge the caveat. If the methods are unclear to the reviewer, modify your description to assist.

I may not always reach some sort of rebuttal Zen state of oneness with the reviewers. That I can admit. But this approach guides my response to manuscript review. It is unclear that it guides everyone's behavior and there are some folks that like to do a lot of rebuttal and relatively less responding. Maybe this works, maybe it doesn't but I want to address one particular type of response to review that pops up now and again.

It is the provision of an extensive / awesome response to some peer review point that may have been phrased as a question, without incorporating it into the revised manuscript. I've even seen this suboptimal approach extend to one or more paragraphs of (cited!) response language.

Hey, great! You answered my question. But here's the thing. Other people are going to have the same question* when they read your paper. It was not an idle question for my own personal knowledge. I made a peer review comment or asked a peer review question because I thought this information should be in the eventual published paper.

So put that answer in there somewhere!

*As I have probably said repeatedly on this blog, it is best to try to treat each of the three reviewers of your paper (or grant) as 33.3% of all possible readers or reviewers. Instead of mentally dismissing them as that weird outlier crackpot**.

**this is a conclusion for which you have minimal direct evidence.

5 responses so far

  • Morgan Price says:

    I mostly agree, but, sometimes it is difficult to find a good place in the paper to put the response. Sometimes these questions are about what the reviewer (and probably many other scientists) think are interesting, but do not need to be answered to support any of the major claims of the paper.

  • Grumpy says:

    I've been on both sides of this and agree it is frustrating to be the reviewer in this situation. but as an author the following scenario has come up:

    reviewer asks good question about data interpretation I don't know the answer to.

    I respond : dunno, but perhaps [insert speculation/estimate based on flimsy evidence].

    I then decide to leave the speculation out of the manuscript.

  • Odyssey says:

    I have a colleague or two who have complained that a) authors haven't responded to their wise and elegant criticisms in manuscript reviews they've submitted, and b) the reviews they just received for a manuscript of their own were written by lobotomized sewer rats and they refuse to waste electrons typing up responses to the criticisms of those worthless denizens of human waste products. In one case in the same conversation.

    Academics are always right about their own pontifications. Except when they're not.

  • ginger says:

    As a reviewer I do not ask questions for funsies - I spent all that goddamn precious time reading and engaging with your manuscript and I am not just trying to come up with some potted number of questions to impress the editor, I am trying to make your manuscript better. I could have done a lot of other more fun or more important things with that time! Fix the manuscript or persuade me it’s not a problem, don’t just treat my questions as trivial exercises to satisfy my insatiable curiosity about this world of wonders we share!
    In short: YES Y E S yesss

  • ginger says:

    And also even when a lobotomised rat has reviewed my beautiful perfect manuscript, I still answer every point, as courteously as I can stand, and then, if I can, I have someone who isn’t as close to the ms as I am read my response for courtesy and whether I actually addressed the idiotic questions.

    But seriously the frame of mind to try to live in, with peer review, is that we all want to make the manuscript as good as possible before it is released into the cold cruel wild. Even when the reviewer is obviously a jellus h8r or the manuscript was clearly written in thoughtless haste by an inexperienced dummy.

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