The ABC’s of Responding to Critique from a Journal Editor

Publishing Advice

Academic writes on whiteboard in lecture hall

After hours of research, writing, rewriting, and academic editing, you’ve finally crossed the Rubicon and submitted your manuscript for review. The customary academic review process begins with an initial review from a journal editor. The editor reads the entire text and then decides what to pass on to reviewers. Because those reviewers — two, three, and sometimes even more — determine whether a piece moves forward in the publication process, they act as the gatekeepers to publication. 

Oftentimes you may feel discouraged by reviewers who send a lengthy critique, question the novelty of your study, or attack your methodology. You may feel that they don’t even understand your research. Rather than responding with a curt email or being discouraged by comments and critique from reviewers, consider these ABC's of responding to criticism.

A: Always be polite

It’s easy to get frustrated with comments, questions or endless back-and-forth with reviewers.  Remember that the peer review process is designed to improve the quality of your research, not to “win” or demonstrate to the reviewer that your knowledge of the subject is deeper than theirs. Reviewers are critiquing your work, not critiquing you. Your responses should not reflect any bitterness or anger, but should be objective responses to their feedback.

Remember that editors and reviewers are acting with the intent to help authors improve their study. Take advantage of their advice! In fact, a long list of detailed reviewer comments usually means that a reviewer has spent a lot of time evaluating your work and attempting to provide constructive feedback. Most reviewers are volunteers who don’t get paid for their work but do this work in order to promote research in their field. Be sure to thank reviewers for their effort, even if you disagree with some of their feedback.

B: Be open to suggestions

After spending countless hours working on your text, you likely have a special affinity for it. An outside observer with a fresh set of eyes is sometimes best able to look at your article and point out areas for improvement.

As anyone that’s gone through the academic editing process knows, few submissions are accepted unconditionally. Virtually all journals require authors to address and respond to the reviewers’ comments. You do not have to make all the changes that the reviewers suggest, but you do have to address all of their concerns. If you are unwilling to change something, you should provide a compelling reason. Therefore, consider strongly all of the suggestions you receive.

C: Critique the critique?

The purpose of a review is to identify ways to improve your research and to help you think critically about your findings in a new way. It is easy to poke holes in an argument; however, it is much harder to suggest how to fix it. 

A good review is more than just a simple “revise,” “reject,” or “accept.”  It should be multifaceted and meaningful and should guide you to a better argument, structure or content. If your review is curt or cursory, it may lack the ability to do that. Politely push your reviewers to provide these details if they haven’t done so already. If you disagree with a reviewer’s critique, you should say so in a polite way. Be clear and focused, and provide as many details as necessary to help the reviewer understand your line of reasoning. Addressing a reviewer’s critique doesn’t always mean accepting his or her opinion. Oftentimes it means better expressing your own. 

D: Deep breath

Initial irritation is only natural. Put the review away for a few days and then read the comments again carefully and objectively to ensure that you have clearly understood the reviewers’ concerns.

Once you have taken a moment, focus on the particular details the reviewers discuss. These details are important because they will help the reviewer understand how you have addressed their expressed concerns. A methodical, step-by-step response to any comments will help polish your work and impress your reviewer or editor. Becoming defensive and rejecting all of the reviewers’ comments out of hand will likely do more harm than good.

E: Establish if it’s “revise and resubmit” or rejection.

You can receive three types of responses to your submission: outright rejection, an invitation for you to revise and resubmit, or, ideally, unconditional acceptance. Because unconditional acceptance is rare, it is important to determine if you have been given an outright rejection or an opportunity to revise and resubmit.

If your work is rejected altogether, you may have chosen the wrong publication. Do some further research into the journal, its readership, and what they publish. Alternatively, a rejection may mean there is a flaw in your work. Use this rejection as an opportunity to think critically about your findings. In this case, any initial reviewer comments will be helpful in figuring out how to reconfigure the piece, if you decide to do this. In these cases, re-submitting the same article to the same publication is not recommended. However, there may be other avenues for publication — don’t get discouraged!

If it is a case of revise and resubmit, you should implement the suggested revisions and prepare your response describing what you have done. Address each point in order. If reviewers number their comments, use this system for your responses. If you have not made a suggested change, give the reasons. Where you have made changes, provide page and paragraph references so that the editor or reviewer can find them easily. You’re well on your way to publication — and helping the reviewers see that their changes have been implemented will speed up the process!

F: Follow up

If you submitted your manuscript but still have not received a decision, consider checking with the editor about the status of your submission. Because the standard amount of time from submission to decision making varies among different journals and fields, reach out to colleagues with experience or check the journal website to determine whether you have been waiting longer than usual.

Even if you have heard from the reviewers, following up is still critical. A thorough, clear, and polite response to editors’ and reviewers’ comments will help to reduce the likelihood of rejection or another round of review, saving you additional time and moving you closer to acceptance. If they set you a deadline for re-submitting your article, be sure to do so on time. If you are concerned that you won’t be able to, ask for an extension as soon as possible.

Being able to accept and embrace critique, whether from journal editors, reviewers, or peers is critical to personal growth — and to the development of strong academic work. Keeping these ABC’s in mind will help you navigate the review process and continue on the journey to publication.

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