Peer Review: Writing Rebuttals

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les-satinLes Satin, is a professor of pharmacology at the University of Michigan Medical School, and is currently doing a sabbatical at the Department of Medical Cell Biology of Uppsala University in Sweden, where he is studying signal transduction mechanisms in pancreatic beta cells.

I have a guilty pleasure to report: I like to write point-by-point responses to the critiques of my papers. Ok, before you question my sanity, let me point out that I have not lost my mind—yet. Writing these responses is essential to our work, but more to the point, I find them fun to do!

You know what I am talking about. You have critiques that were written by usually three reviewers, “experts in the field” who have read your manuscript and have criticisms, suggestions, requests for new data or clarifications, or perhaps they just want to rain on your parade, destroy your ego, etc.  But they have to be dealt with if you want your paper to be published.

Now, when most of us read these things we feel like cursing or throwing objects across the room–at least at first. No one likes to be told how to do something, let alone a professional scientist. But you have to respond or no paper! So what do you say? And how do you say it in a polite way?

This is the part that is fun for me, the challenge! Can I convince them? Do I have good enough arguments? Can I strike just the right tone in my response? Yes, of course I can!

The first part of a successful rebuttal is getting yourself into the right mood. This is essential. You have to be willing to swallow your pride and tell the reviewers straight off (and with a straight face) that you appreciate their careful consideration of your paper and their ”constructive criticisms” (even if you do not really appreciate them in the slightest). After all, you want your paper to be accepted don’t you? So you have to play the game.

Once I am in the right frame of mind, I make a list of the critical points of each of the reviewers, quoting directly (but carefully) from the review itself and extracting the most salient points that were made. I then leave a space under each point and proceed to address the criticism in a polite, sometimes contrite, and always careful and objective manner. This is the part I find to be so much fun; gosh, I am getting excited already just writing this!

“We thank Reviewer #1 (2,3…) for his/her (don’t assume gender) insightful suggestion that we revise our statistics strategy, include an additional control, or consider mechanism Y instead of our preferred mechanism X, etc.” And I personally stress the major points as it is important to be very concise and clear and not get bogged down by extraneous or more minor points of the critiques.

Of course, the more substantive points of a critique do require careful thinking and often, new data as well. You should carefully point out any findings that clarify the scientific matter in question, and address the points that were made: No reviewer wants their concerns to be dismissed, or to put it more casually, blown off. That, you most assuredly, must not do.

At this point, you might be saying, “Well, what if I don’t agree with the points made by the reviewer, what do I do then”? You can and should “respectfully disagree” and then make a very clear and convincing argument as to why you don’t agree. It is critical you do this using the right tone and in the proper spirit. You have very good reasons for thinking what you think and they would too if they were privy to the information you have access to.

Another issue that often comes up is that one reviewer will echo the point made by another, even though in almost every case this is not because they communicated with one another beforehand, but likely because they are right (!). Or since they have the same bias (you decide!). So, in this case you need to simply state: “See my response to Reviewer #1 that addresses this point.” And then add “Thank you.”

Reviewers and authors have much in common. Often a good review can be very helpful to the ultimate paper, especially if the reviewers accurately identify the weaknesses of the paper and help identify errors. In fact, the vitality of our peer review system depends on objective, critical, and constructive criticism.

Just as reviewers need to review papers critically and fairly, authors need to communicate our rebuttals to their critiques clearly, calmly, and with consideration for the reviewers’ time and sincere efforts. Everyone benefits from robust, fair, and rigorous peer review.

Look at it this way. If you develop a liking for writing rebuttals of your manuscript’s critiques, then you will have even more reason to write a lot of papers. This will be good for your career, and you will also learn to better cope with rejection and temporary defeats. You will also become a better reviewer yourself.

It’s all part of the learning process!

Good luck, and please send me your comments at lsatin@umich.edu.

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