Previously in the series: how to write the cover letter.
After several weeks or months of letting your paper out of your hands and into the cold and hostile world of scientific publishing, the dreaded moment of judgment finally arrives—if you haven’t been desk rejected by the editor in a few days, that is. There is a letter from the editor in your inbox, telling that you are either rejected outright or requested to revise your manuscript so that it can have a second chance. This statement is followed by detailed referee comments that may or may not make sense to you (or anyone else, for that matter). In theory, it is also possible to have the paper accepted as it is, but this is very rare: it has happened only once or twice during my career. Therefore it is safe to assume that there is more work to do now and that you have to get back to your paper. Often, this feels, at least to me, inexplicably painful, because the submitted paper has been neatly wrapped up and archived in my mind. I’ve gone on to think of other things, and now that perfect and beautiful wrapping has to be torn open – what a pain!
When receiving the letter, my suggestion would be to first take a few deep breaths and to try to calm yourself. This gets easier after dealing with tens of rejections and criticisms, but it never gets easy. Especially to PhD students who have put a lot of effort into their work and to whom this manuscript may represent 100% or 50% of their publication record, the moment of realising that someone is critical of their work is a difficult one.
What often happens at this stage is that you directly rush to the referee comments, and read through them at top speed. This is because you want to know RIGHT AWAY what it is that the referees find wrong with your beautiful work. And because you really speed through the comments, you only see the surface, and only pick up words that criticise your work. Your view is distorted.
Then, being a human, you get all emotional: angry, embarrassed, frustrated, depressed, or any linear combination of these. You may feel that your work is worthless, and therefore you are worthless. Please do not worry, feeling like this is as normal as it gets. You are certainly not worthless! We have all felt like this. This is what a career in science is about. Those who survive learn to persist and to deal with these emotions. It will get easier, and part of why it gets easier is that you learn that the process of peer-review can be very noisy and the referees can be wrong (they often are). And when they are not, you can use their criticism to learn and to improve your work.
When faced with a letter from the editor where referees UNJUSTLY criticise your work, my recommendation is to take a few more deep breaths, relax, calm down, and maybe do something else for a while. In particular, if the reviewers are very critical, your fight-or-flight-response prevents you from seeing what is really being said and what the really important problems are, and from assessing how difficult it would be to fix them for a revised version. So, get some distance first. Breathe, get a cup of coffee, look at a video of playing kittens or cute animals, and only then read the letter again, this time more slowly and analytically.
First, focus on what the editor says because this is the most important thing of all. As an example, I and my colleagues successfully got an article published where the referee hated the paper and asked for a total rewrite from a different and quite alien perspective. This rewrite would have been impossible for us to do. But the editor seemed to like the paper and told us that only a few minor things remain to be done. These two requests were completely at odds, but we chose to listen to the editor instead of the referee (nevertheless, we picked some of the referee’s points and cosmetically revised a few sentences, just in case). The paper was immediately accepted after resubmission.
So always listen to the editor! If the editor encourages you to submit a revised version, she is already on your side. Do it. If the editor uses less encouraging words like “should you wish to resubmit a revised version”, do it nevertheless, because even in this case the door is still open. Sometimes what you receive is a standard, copy-pasted response, and the editor takes no stance but leaves you to deal with the referees. In this case, just move on to the referees’ comments. But if there is anything in the editor’s words that you can use, use it.
Next, read through the referee comments carefully and with an analytical mind. First, look at the science and look at the positive side of things: did the referees spot any obvious flaws in your work? If so, great, now you can fix those flaws! Did they misunderstand your results? If so, great, this shows that you need to be more clear in your writing (even though referees often miss explanations that are already there in the manuscript…) Do the referees require some extra experiments or calculations to back up your conclusion? Do these make sense? If so, great, these experiments or calculations will make your paper more solid and you should do them, even if this takes time.
After you have gleaned useful and actionable information from the referee comments, look at what is left. There may be comments that you do not understand, comments that you understand but that you know are wrong, and all kinds of weird debris. The worst comments read like “I am sure that I have seen a similar result somewhere but cannot be bothered to find a reference”. Now, take off your scientist hat for a while, and put on your psychologist hat. You don’t have one? Get one, it’s tremendously useful. It pays off to realise that the referees are human. Humans are not analytical machines; humans have feelings. Your referees have feelings too. Figure out how they feel and what to do about it.
It is really worth the while to try to see the world through the eyes of the referees. Read the negative comments again, and try to understand what the referees think, feel, and expect from you. Do they feel irritated? Left out? Bored? Insecure, needing to bolster their confidence? Confused? Just plain cranky?
The key to getting your revised paper accepted to understand what makes the referees happy, and then give them this (while maintaining your scientific integrity, of course).
TO BE CONTINUED…