How NOT to Write a Response to Reviewers

Last year I outlined my strategy for writing a response to reviewers.  It was intended primarily for early-career scientists, and the strategy I outlined was most relevant for a paper that had generally positive reviews.

One piece of my advice was to try to view every comment as constructive, even if you disagree with it. Reviewers are often mistaken on some points; indeed, one of the major benefits of the review process is that it calls attention to where we, as authors, have not explained ourselves clearly to the reader.

In my experience as an author and editor, it is pretty rare for a reviewer to say things that are truly hostile or otherwise inappropriate. However, it does occasionally happen that reviewers are unfair. 

I’ve blogged previously about one particularly aggressive and unconstructive review that my coauthors and I received. It was a harsh critique of the very first paper on the long-term evolution experiment with E. coli.  Fortunately, the other reviewer was very positive, and the editor requested a revision.

For some time I’ve thought about posting my response to that negative review. However, I thought the response was perhaps somewhat ill-tempered and overly long. Now, more than 30 years later, if I were advising a young scientist facing a similar review, I’d probably say: “Forget revising it for that journal. Just move on and try again elsewhere.”  But I didn’t do that myself, and I guess it worked out alright in the end.

Without further ado, here’s the response to that reviewer. (You can click on the image for each of the 4 pages to enlarge it.)



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3 responses to “How NOT to Write a Response to Reviewers

  1. I liked your response, which was obviously deeply felt, well written, and presumably did the job. But I would advise your readers that while sometimes you should “go ballistic,” greater brevity would help your cause!

    While I try not to contest hopeless cases, I’ve often argued with reviewers like this, and even editors, and I get around 50% success rate, so you, the Telliamed reader ,should trust your judgment and if you have good reason to doubt reviewers’ damning and unconstructive assessments, you should say so and why.

    • I agree. But like you, I encourage readers to think carefully about which battles are worth fighting, and which ones are not.

      With so many journals today, and the ability to share preprints and reprints so easily, I find it’s often easier to move on rather than fight.

      Fortunately, though, most reviewers and editors are sensible. :>)

  2. Pingback: A Blast from the Past | Telliamed Revisited