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Writing and Publishing Scientific Papers

Gábor L. Lövei

Part III. Publishing the paper

23. How to Write Revisions

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1At this point, let us think about editors. First, jokingly (I am paraphrasing Day’s (1999) joke here): “The editor dies and goes to heaven. After due scrutiny of his deeds and some questions concerning his profession from a puzzled St. Peter, he is allocated a small apartment with a balcony. Here he adopts the habit of enjoying the sun that always shines in Paradise. One afternoon, a pope walks nearby, and, spotting him, he asks who he is. More questions follow, as the puzzled pope obviously has no idea what an editor does. The conversation does not last long, though; the pope curtly says farewell, and proceeds to St. Peter. There, he starts complaining about his own accommodation, which is smaller and without a balcony. “This is not fair” — says he — “after all, I did my earthly duties well, on your behalf; that is why I am here. And then... this lowly editor... gets such lavish treatment”… to which St. Peter replies: “Well, acknowledging your good deeds, there is nothing so overwhelmingly special about you. There are about fifty popes here. But this is the first editor who made it to heaven!”.

2The editor and her crew of reviewers are sometimes viewed by aspiring authors as the defenders of that desirable castle, the journal. They are “in” and their task is to keep as many of the aspiring authors as possible “out”. Get rid of this combative attitude. Allow more editors to reach heaven — do not send them to the opposite side of eternity. The interests of the editor and that of the authors are the same: to publish the highest quality new results, in the most understandable and convincing way. If that were not so, you would soon find yourself like the American actor Groucho Marx, who is claimed to have stated: “I do not want to belong to a club that accepts me as a member”. You will not want to publish in a journal that accepts everything you write without hesitation or correction.

3 Remember though, when the outcome of the review is a request for revision, this is not an obligation. Check the suggestions, requests or recommendations carefully. Is the manuscript worth revising? The answer is: not always. Remember too, that until you sign a copyright transfer form, you can decide about the fate of the manuscript — including withdrawal from a journal.

4Once you decide that you will revise a manuscript, avoid two extreme attitudes:

5The first is trying to prove, however systematically, carefully or methodically, that every single comment, criticism or recommendation is wrong, and you do not want to accept any of them. This is the “zero acceptance” standpoint. An editor will not accept this approach.

6Do not believe, either, that if you accept all suggestions without dispute (the “100 % acceptance” attitude), the editor will be happy, and the manuscript will swiftly be accepted. Such a slavish attitude will not get your work published more easily, especially not in good journals.

7An editor expects careful consideration of the reviewers’ suggestions so that a compromise emerges, and she is quite open to partial acceptance of the reviewer suggestions. In her letter of evaluation, she often indicates which of the suggestions should be considered carefully. The editor appreciates the work of her reviewers, but knows that they are not always correct. Thus, you are not obliged to accept all suggestions. In some cases, they are contradictory anyway, so you will have to decide — you cannot accept both. An additional fact is that you, the author, are probably pretty much convinced that the manuscript is well written, and naturally reluctant to re-write it extensively.

8Give careful consideration to the reviews, especially if they are good and factual. Sound criticism contains three elements. It indicates what is, in the opinion of the reviewer, incorrect or wrong. Second, it supports this opinion with arguments. Third, it indicates how to improve the areas of concern. If a reviewer only indicates her dislike, or disagreement, about something you wrote, but provides no justification, I suggest you acknowledge the difference, but do not change anything — the reviewer must justify her criticism. Simply declaring that your opinion happens to be different, or that you disagree with something the authors wrote, does not advance science.

9 It is natural that the author feels that the phrasing, tests chosen, and other, often criticised, elements are well phrased, calculated, or carried out. However, do not be rigid about this. While it is natural that you want to avoid extensive re-writing, accept suggestions if you feel they are not inferior to your original ones.

10You do not have to agree to every suggestion (and I repeat: this will not help you to get your manuscript accepted); be careful and objective when you do not want to accept a suggested change. The best course of argument is to cite published evidence in support of your stand-or viewpoint. In such cases, the reviewer’s opinion is countered by published evidence. This implies not only that another author shared your view or came to the same conclusion — so did the reviewers and editor(s) of that published paper. Thus, there is a group to support your view, method choice, or result. Remember that different types of published information carry different weight; try to find the highest quality evidence to support your view — this would be a peer-reviewed primary paper.

11The key to a good revision lies in considering the editor’s work. How does she treat your revised manuscript? Once it arrives, potentially, she has to scan and compare several documents: the original manuscript, the original comments, your replies and the revised manuscript. One by one, every single one of them. This is complicated work, and a task that requires concentration and time. You can help the editor if you prepare a very detailed reply that combines the original reviewer comments and your replies, point-by-point. Reply to every single comment. If relevant, do not only write your reaction, but indicate the place or line number where you changed your manuscript and how. Naturally, indicate the line number of the relevant sentence of the revised version. If you changed a sentence, it may be a good idea to cut-and-paste it from the revised manuscript. This way, the editor has most of the necessary information collected into one document, and this makes her work easier. Also, you may be remembered fondly as the rare author who considers what others must do to get her work into print. You cannot bribe the editor — but you can gain her goodwill, and that is not to be neglected.

12Above all, remember that the peer review process is voluntary, and that all those people often used their own free time to try to help you to improve the presentation of your work. Reviewers and editors are often highly experienced, intelligent people, with more than a passing understanding of the topic of your work. Their comments will nearly always improve your paper.

13The process is long, not without frustration, and is far from perfect. Yet the editor is on your side, and strives to get the best quality from every manuscript that is submitted. If you really feel you must object, be as restrained as you possibly can. If you must, blame the reviewer, not the editor.


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