The review process is something of a dark art, as despite its importance, very little advice is publicly available regarding how best to do it. Our notes are broken down as:
The main idea
It can be easy to think of the interaction with the referees as a debate, or even worse an argument, about the correctness and quality of the work. However much the process might feel like this, it is crucial to guide the process into a cooperative effort to improve the manuscript.
The review process often involves some degree of frustration. It is imperative to stay cordial even if the reviewer is rude. Bite your lips if you have to. It is often helpful to re-read what was written after a cooling-off period.
Structuring a reply to referees
Replies should aim to make it very clear and easy to see that you have comprehensively responded to every criticism from each referee.
- Break down and quote all comments from each referee and generate a numbered list, as numbers will help everyone involved keep track of different issues. Use a different color or font to distinguish comments from the referee and your reply.
- Make replies self-contained by quoting changes i.e. say “We have changed [original text] to [edited text]” or similar. Don’t write that you have made a change (somewhere) in the manuscript and don’t refer to an answer given to another referee, as the referee won’t want to search around for your response.
Things to keep in mind
- Take care to ensure that you are directly responding to the question posed by the referee. If a long response is necessary or desirable, make sure that your opening sentence signals the main point of your response. Using the same terminology as the referee help ensure a clear connection between the question and the response.
- Try to respond to almost every point made by a referee with a change in the manuscript. If a referee’s comment is incorrect or ill-informed assume that this happened because the manuscript did not provide a sufficiently good explanation and change the manuscript as best you can. This process almost always improves the manuscript and puts the referee in a much better position in terms of potentially reversing any negative opinions they have while saving face.
- Consider using phrases like “thank you for the chance to clarify our text” as a means to convey the idea that the referee is reviewing an improved manuscript and to avoid undue emphasis on whether the original text was right or wrong.
- Pick your battles. It is usually best to comply with linguistic or stylistic changes. If you get an annoying request to cite a marginally relevant paper it is usually best to do so.
- It is standard practice to thank each reviewer, so follow this tradition. More importantly, it is often good to thank the reviewer in the body of the reply. This can be especially helpful if the report is overall negative or even outright nasty. Highlighting one constructive comment within a sea of negativity can help a lot in keeping the process cordial and constructive.
- Avoid CAPITALS and red text as ways to emphasize text as this can imply anger. Italics usually works best and bold is usually okay as an alternative.
Although most of the technical evaluation of the manuscript will be done by the referees, the editor holds the cards for the final decisions.
Keep in mind that they are usually very busy and that they almost certainly have a much better understanding of manuscript writing and the review process that you. They usually have a very good overall foundation in physics, even if they are not specialists in your area. Grandiose or verbose messages probably won’t get you very far.
Keep in mind that editors often have to reject a large fraction off submissions, so their tone will often be negative, and maybe more negative than their true feelings. They will, however, almost always be willing to read direct evidence-based arguments.
Do not make the mistake of assuming that the job of an editor is to count yea versus nay votes. In the case where a referee recommends publication, but does not provide a good explanation why, they are entitled to ignore this advice. In this case it can some be helpful to press the editor to obtain more reports that do contain reasoning behind their decisions, perhaps invoking the reputation of the journal. If reports directly contradict each other on a scientific matter this can make it self-evident that one referee is right and one wrong and one can using this to suggest the journal is not well served by taking the advice literally.