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Academic Scientists at Work: I Can't Believe They Didn't Like It!

"What do they mean, it's 'too ambitious'? How do they think I am going solve the Big Problem if I'm not ambitious? Who are these idiots? They aren't qualified to review my work! None of the experiments they say we need to do will tell us anything! They are just giving us busy work!"

Whew! Wasn't it a relief to get that out of your system? If you have made statements like these, you know that within a few minutes, or days, you will collect your thoughts and decide on a reasonable response to that negative grant review or rejected manuscript.

Almost everyone in science has received a nonfundable grant score or had a paper rejected, usually both. If this is your first experience with such a rejection, congratulations and welcome to the club! The key now is to know how to move forward, to understand the appropriate roles of the reviewer and the reviewed, and to determine how to respond to critiques so that you get that grant funded, eventually, or that paper accepted. In Part 1 of this series we will discuss the ins and outs of dealing with manuscript peer review. Part 2 will focus on responding to grant critiques.

The Job of the Reviewer

The reviewer is just fulfilling a role. It's not personal. And although you may think that you know the name of the person who reviewed your work--you may even be sure of it--you're probably wrong. Journal editors tell us that when authors blame Dr. Stukittume for a negative review, Dr. Stukittume usually wasn't even on the list of potential reviewers. Besides, even if Dr. Stukittume did in fact review your paper, it doesn't matter. The need is the same, whoever the reviewer might be: to move the work forward and figure out how to satisfy the reviewer.

The job of the reviewer is to determine if the work is suitable for publication in the journal to which it is submitted. As discussed in "Publishing at the Top of the Heap," different journals have different criteria that the work has to meet. Reviewers must justify their opinions on acceptance, revision, or rejection of each manuscript. Reviewers justify their recommendations to you through their critique of the work.

However, what you see and what the editor sees are two different things. As you most likely are aware, as a reviewer you get to provide a numerical score or qualifying statement ranking the significance and novelty of the work, the quality of the data, and so on. Reviewers also recommend to editors whether the work should be accepted, returned for revisions, or rejected. But almost all journals have a section where reviewers can make "top-secret" comments to the editor about what they really think about the work. Because you don't get to see these comments, you must infer what you must do from the editor's letter and the anonymous reviews. Sometimes it's easy. Sometimes it's not.

The Job of the Reviewed

That's you. Your job is simple: to get the work published. The reviewer of your manuscript expects that you will at the very least address his or her comments. This is very important, since most revisions are re-reviewed by the same people, so they will be looking for you to acknowledge and consider their comments. Reviewers' comments address a range of categories, including novelty, significance, and relevance; the quality and novelty of the experimental design; data interpretation; and style and presentation of the data. The approaches we recommend for responding to each of these categories are discussed below.

Assessing Comments on a Rejected Manuscript

If your manuscript was rejected, the first question to ask is "Why?" Consider the categories listed above. Rejections based on novelty or significance and relevance to a field indicate that the paper was submitted to the wrong journal. To correct this, reassess your work and choose a more appropriate journal. If the paper originally went to a top-of-the-heap journal that publishes only work of broad significance, then consider sending the manuscript to a journal closer to your field, such as the journal of your scientific society. But if the work was rejected for these reasons from a journal that represents your field, you will need to point out the work's significance and how your work adds to what has already been published before you send it out again. However, if you cannot point out how your work adds to your field, then perhaps you will need to wait on publication until you results do in fact add to your field.

Some top-of-the-heap or near-the-top journals reject all manuscripts they do not immediately accept--that is, there aren't any conditional acceptances--and the letters they send out do not explain this fact. If you need clarification on what a rejection letter really means, call the editorial office and ask. If you still can't figure out what to do, seek the advice of a senior colleague in your department. Your colleague may be able to suggest some options that did not occur to you.

Before you press the reformat button and hit the print keys to produce another version of the manuscript for a different journal, you may want to consider the rest of the comments. You may think it unlikely that Dr. Stukittume--the one who really stuck it to you, not the one you thought it was--will get your manuscript again if you send it to a different journal. But the world of science is small, and even if you're changing journals, you aren't changing disciplines, so there's a good chance you might get the same reviewer. Some of those comments may improve your work and increase the likelihood that it is accepted. All in all, responding to those comments would be prudent, even if you send the paper elsewhere.

Reviewers almost always comment on the experimental design and the quality of the data. While everyone has a different way of doing an experiment, in the end the data and method of data collection must support the conclusions that you draw. When reading the comments and looking through your paper, ask yourself these questions:

  • Is the title of the manuscript supported by the data?

  • Do the data support your interpretation?

  • Is your interpretation the only interpretation the data support?

  • What controls are necessary to nail the point you're making?

  • Is there a better way to collect the data?

  • Are the results statistically significant?

  • Can you get a better autorad reading, etc., than the one that you submitted?

If the reviewer comments on any of these issues, you will need to address them either by doing additional experiments or by providing more information, discussion, or justification before resubmitting your manuscript.

Assessing Comments for a Major Revision

Many journals provide authors with a second or, sometimes, a third chance to get their work accepted. This is most likely when the work is sound and interesting to the reviewer but is incomplete in either experimentation or interpretation. The letter you receive will likely state that the work is not acceptable in its current form. The letter may also state that if you wish to submit a revised manuscript after more work has been done, you will need to indicate how you responded to the reviewer's concerns. A journal editor's assumption is that you will follow the reviewer's advice whenever possible, even if you aren't happy about it.

Responding to experimental/data issues requires work--sometimes lots of it--and work takes time. To minimize the amount of time and effort, you must prioritize: What are the most important points that the reviewer wants addressed experimentally? Start doing those experiments right away. But sometimes the experiment being recommended simply can't be done in your system. This is not the end for this paper; you may be able to perform a different experiment that would support the conclusion just as well. Often reviewers and editors are happy with this "bait and switch" tactic. If a requested experiment is easy to do, just do it, even if it doesn't tell you anything you did not already know. This sends a message to the reviewer and editor that you are doing your best to follow their advice.

Assessing Comments in a Minor Revision

Sometimes you will receive a letter that tells you that the work is "accepted upon satisfactory responses to the reviewer's concerns." Congratulations! You are almost there. Don't mess it up now! The concerns here usually can be addressed by doing simple experimentation, acknowledging the reviewer's interpretation in the manuscript, or adjusting a few words here and there. These are all easy to fix, so do it. You can actually say: "The possibility exists that the system may also include the brilliant interpretation of reviewer 74; however, much of the data presented here and also by Superstar et al. argues that the system will behave as predicted." It might be best to leave out the "brilliant" part, though; the reviewer may think you're being sarcastic. If a reviewer suggests that you change some of the wording to make it more palatable, do it. In the end, the copy editor may change the wording to something completely different, anyway.

Responding to Critiques

Your letter to the editor should start politely. Response letters should state that the author thanks the reviewers for their time and effort and their contributions to the work. Moreover, almost all say that addressing the comments of the reviewers and/or doing the recommended experiments strengthened the work. This is basically true, and it tells the editor that you paid attention. Of course, if you decided to do nothing, do not say that you followed the advice of the reviewers. Instead, you should provide a point-by-point response to each reviewer's concerns. If your response is supported by the literature, quoting papers and supplying references will strengthen your point. In places where you and the reviewer agree, you should note in the manuscript where you have made revisions reflecting the reviewer's concerns. This will help the editor and the reviewer (if the manuscript is sent out for re-review) locate your changes and determine if you have really addressed the issues. These point-by-point letters are often very long, sometimes longer than the article itself. Be as succinct as you can be while also being clear, and avoid derogatory remarks about the review.

Rebutting a Decision

Yes, you can rebut a rejection decision: You write the editor a letter explaining why you believe the reviewers came to the wrong decision. Note how the above sentence is phrased. It doesn't blame the reviewers for not doing their job. If the rejection was based on a misinterpretation of the results by the reviewer, or the lack of an experiment for which you have the results but did not include, then you may have a shot at getting the manuscript re-reviewed. There is the chance that Dr. Stukittume may see your work again, so saying that the reviewer is an idiot and missed the point won't help your cause. You may, however, say, "Reviewer 2 did not realize that the results said blah, blah, blah, and therefore we have now reworded the section to make it more clear."

Before you rush to rebut your rejection, realize that there is a good chance that rebuttal will be rebutted. Your best bet may be to make the changes and submit your manuscript to another journal.

Data Presentation and Poor Writing

Sometimes reviewers have trouble with the way a figure or table is assembled or presented. Certainly, if a reviewer comments that data are not presented clearly, you should fix it. However, to avoid such statements, show the figures to colleagues and ask for their suggestions before you submit your paper.

Receiving a comment that the work needs to be edited by someone who speaks and writes English as his or her primary language is one that should be taken seriously. There are professional science writers who can help. Use them.

Bottom Line

As hard as it is to receive a rejection letter, the key to success in science is to receive criticism as openly as possible and without bitterness, and to respond by incorporating or debating the critique in your revised manuscript. It isn't personal. And remember: You can always revise the work and resubmit it to another journal. Good luck, and happy publishing.

Jeremy M. Boss, Ph.D.

Professor of Microbiology & Immunology, Emory University School of Medicine

Susan H. Eckert, Ph.D.

Associate Dean for Finance and Research Administration, Emory University School of Nursing

Authors of Academic Scientists at Work: Navigating the Biomedical Research Career (available at

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