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Responding to Reviewer Comments on Your Manuscript: Example from a Climate Science Journal Rebuttal Letter

Handling Comments from Manuscript Reviewers

Becoming a successful researcher in the natural sciences means not only conducting novel and important research, but also responding effectively to the comments of the journal editors and reviewers in an appropriate and proactive manner. Knowing how to respond properly to their comments on your manuscript becomes increasingly important, as such comments can have a tremendous impact on the editor’s decision to ultimately publish your paper. The majority of atmospheric and climate science journals to which I’ve personally submitted have demanded thorough and complete answers to questions specifically about the scope of my work. I learned early on that answering a particular comment with a one-sentence response was not going to cut it. I needed to make sure I understood the questions the reviewer was asking so that I could answer their questions and address their concerns effectively.

At this stage of the submission of your journal, the editor will determine how well and thoroughly you responded to the reviewers’ comments in order for your paper to be worthy of publication. If the editor’s expertise is very closely related to the topic of the paper, the editor will sometimes intervene and suggest whether it is appropriate or not to address the comments of a particular reviewer. If the editor’s expertise falls far from the topic of the paper, they will rely more on the recommendations of the reviewers

This article will (1) help you understand why it’s important to respond properly to such comments; (2) what exactly should be included in a response or rebuttal letter; and (3) how to respond appropriately to reviewers’ comments. We will include an example from an actual comment made by a reviewer during a manuscript submission to a climate science journal.

Why is a Journal Rebuttal Letter Important?

In addition to having many years’ experience submitting manuscripts to journals for publication, I have also been a reviewer for atmospheric and climate science journals since 2008, including such publications as Journal of Geophysical ResearchEnvironmental Research Letters, and Climate Dynamics. Having been on the other side of the “fence,” I have seen firsthand how authors respond to my questions and comments, and so I understand how important it is to address these comments thoroughly. Knowing how to deftly handle a rebuttal letter is one of the most important skills you will need to become a successful researcher.

After you have submitted your manuscript with a cover letter to the editor stating the significance of your work, carefully followed all of the journal’s submission instructions, you can only wait and hope that the editor has initially accepted your work and considered it good enough for a formal review. If you pass this stage and the paper has not been flat out rejected, a rebuttal letter will be attached to the review of your paper. Hopefully, the aim of your paper matches closely to that of the selected target journal and your paper has enough merit not to be initially rejected.

What Should be Included in a Rebuttal Letter?

Much of the time, especially if you are new to research, you will be faced with such a rebuttal letter from the editor that can include many comments from up to three or four reviewers. How you respond to this letter determines whether or not the editor accepts or declines your manuscript. Below is the information that should be included in the rebuttal letter for a continued and successful review of your manuscript:

Essential Information to Include:

  • Title of the manuscript
  • All authors of the manuscript
  • A brief “thank you” note addressed to the editor and reviewers stating your gratitude for the review.
  • Write responses to the comments in separate sections according to the first reviewer, second reviewer, and so forth.
  • Distinguish the reviewers’ comments from your own responses by using either bold or italicizedversus normal text or using different fonts for specific sections.
  • Be sure to answer each and every comment made by the reviewers.

Language Specifics:

  • Use formal language in all responses to the reviewers’ comments.Be sure to set the right tone in your rebuttal letter. Responding with anger or outward criticism of the reviewer’s comments certainly won’t win you any favors with the journal.
  • Avoid taking a strong or argumentative tone if you happen to disagree on any issues. Instead, state that the reviewer has raised a good point and try to argue in a more positive tone why you do not agree, providing as many facts as possible to support your argument.
  • If you do not agree with a reviewer when they recommend that another methodology should be used, for example, state clearly why you think the original one is better and provide references if possible.
  • Though there is not a limit in the word length of your responses to the reviewers, do try to keep them as concise as possible.

Example of Editor Comment and Response from a Climate Science Journal

In my fourteen years of submitting manuscripts to journals, including, I’ve had to answer hundreds of questions from editors and reviewers. This includes everything from comments pointing out minor errors such as leaving out the year in a citation, to questions about the appropriateness of methodology. On one occasion, I attempted to convince the editor that the scientific method I applied was the one most appropriate for testing the research hypothesis.

Below is an actual example of a comment my co-authors and I received from one reviewer submitting our paper to a geophysical research journal. Pay close attention to the structure of the response of the reviewer’s comment considering the font, line spacing, tone, and how we have addressed the reviewer’s main concerns. We did not fully agree with the desired requests of the reviewer, but we clearly stated our reasons along with relevant arguments and references. We also did a quick check to give further confidence to our findings. Notice as well that we placed the original reviewer’s comment in italics and our response in regular text for clarity.

Reviewer’s Comment

Dimming and brightening: I found this part less convincing than the rest of the paper. The comparison of the radiation trends to the satellite products is surprising, given that they generally use non-time-varying aerosols, whereas aerosols are likely to explain the dimming/brightening mechanism. The authors should instead use ground-based measurements, such as stations from the BSRN and GEBA networks, that have been recently homogenized (Sanchez-Lorenzo et al., 2013).

Our Response Letter to the Reviewer

As explained in section 2.2, changes in the AOD through time are implied and its signature in the SRB dataset was seen with the Pinatubo eruption (Stackhouse et al., 2011). The CERES dataset as explained in section 2.3 uses the same method. Thus, this is the reason we use these satellite products and our reason for going in detail in the dimming and brightening section between trends of these datasets. We also wanted to show how useful such satellite products are in these modeling assessments because as we point out in lines 44-49, satellites provide a greater spatial coverage than ground based measurements with better precision than reanalysis data (Qin et al., 2006). As a check however, we have evaluated the available BSRN stations over the common period 2001-2007 for eight different stations in Europe.

Quick Checklist before Submitting

  • Use single spacing between all lines.
  • Stick to Arial or Times New Roman using 12-point font.
  • Do not indent paragraphs.
  • Use double-spacing between paragraphs.
  • Use a spelling and grammar check throughout your whole letter.

Final Considerations and Take-Home Message for Authors

From my many years of experience of answering the comments of editors and reviewers, I will argue that it is very important that you respond to ALL comments made by the reviewers. It is worthwhile to make sure you have left nothing out for any comment, even if it concerns a minor issue. There will be times when you will completely disagree with a reviewer, but it is better to show that you have at least considered their recommendation; and if you still disagree, provide clear reasons why you disagree and provide references. This is critical, as it shows that you are willing to work with them to improve your paper, and at the same time it demonstrates your expertise and knowledge of the literature in that scientific area.

One last thing to check before you submit your rebuttal letter is to make sure you have written a short note to the editor indicating that you have addressed all of the editors’ and reviewers’ concerns and thanking them all for their feedback. If you strongly disagree with the editor or a reviewer on a particular major comment, for example, and one that would require major revision, you can always let the editor know first—but remember to use a softened tone in your writing and argue your point in a way that clearly shows your expertise.

The more you adhere to the advice provided in this article, the greater the likelihood of your paper being published. Writing a successful rebuttal letter is one of the most important steps you will take during your research career. Good luck!

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How to Decrease the Length of a Research Abstract

Decrease the Length of your Research Abstract

The abstract is perhaps the most important section of your research paper. Apart from the title, it may be the only part of the paper anyone reads. Whether they read further depends in part on how good an impression your abstract makes.

The abstract may also be the only part of your paper that has a word limit. Most word limits specify a maximum of between 250 and 300 words, and some journals require that abstracts be as short as 150 words. Writing a great abstract is almost an art—but writing an abstract that meets word limits is, well, a science.

 Why do journals impose word limits on abstracts?

There are several reasons your abstract needs to be short and concise. Journals want readers to buy your article, and they want other researchers to cite your study in their own articles. More citations means a higher impact factor for the journal. The best way to sell your study is to grab the reader’s attention with a great title and abstract. Finally, there is the issue of space. Journals want your abstract to fit on half a page so that a reader won’t have to scroll to read all of it.

When it comes to abstracts, less is more. Only essential information needs to be presented. A short, powerful abstract will draw readers into your research and help the journal attract more readers and receive more citations. The trick is how to trim your abstract to get under the word limit. Here are some time- and researcher-tested ways to pull that off.

Omit needless hedge words and adverbs.

In their acclaimed guide to English writing, The Elements of Style, William Strunk, Jr, and E. B. White teach the key to meeting abstract word limits: Omit needless words. Many writers, especially academic writers, pepper their writing with words that simply don’t need to be there.

A “hedge” is a word or phrase you use when you are concerned about making a claim instead of stating a fact. It’s always a good idea to be careful, especially in academic writing, but many authors use hedge words when they don’t need to. Among the most overused hedge words are the verbs “seem” and “appear.” In the examples below, you’ll see why taking away the hedge words does not alter the meaning.

Hedge: Maroney syndrome seems to impair quality of life.

No Hedge: Maroney syndrome impairs quality of life.

Hedge: Ibuprofen appears to diminish pain in most patients.

No Hedge: Ibuprofen diminishes pain in most patients.

In both pairs, the first and second sentences have essentially the same meaning, except that the second sentence omits the hedge word. Notice how the second examples are more powerful and straightforward without this extra verbiage.

Cutting out needless adverbs is another easy way to limit the number of words in an abstract.

With needless adverbs: We slowly and carefully dissected the vagus nerve.

Without needless adverbs: We dissected the vagus nerve.

By definition, “dissection” is slow and careful (or should be!). Removing the needless adverbs “slowly” and “carefully’ leaves you with a sentence with the same meaning and three fewer words. Same your adverbs for situations in which they truly impact the meaning or have an impact on the reader or interpretation.

Remove awkward and unnecessary transitions.

Conjunctive adverbs are better known as “transition terms,” and although they can be very usually in creating structure and flow within the body of a paper, in the abstract they are often redundant or even incorrectly used. Among the more commonly used conjunctive adverbs are: however, moreover, therefore, furthermore, additionally, and thus.

The conjunction “moreover” is perhaps the most commonly used needless adverb in scientific papers. Some writers use it because they believe it makes them sound more “academic.” Others use it because they may know that it’s a grammatical faux-pas to start a sentence with the conjunction “And.” Nevertheless, “moreover” can virtually always be removed from a sentence without altering the meaning. Watch what happens when we remove the word “moreover from these sentences.

With a transitionMoreover, we dissected the vagus nerve.

Without a transition: We dissected the vagus nerve.

In the instance above, “moreover” does not really make sense as a transition term. Even other transition terms (furthermore, therefore, in addition, etc.) would be somewhat unnecessary when discussing how the study or experiment was performed.

With a transitionFurthermore, patients with Boney-Maroney syndrome are likely to experience hot flashes and fatigue.

Without a transition: Patients with Boney-Maroney syndrome are likely to experience hot flashes and fatigue.

Note that these two sentences have exactly the same meaning with and without the transition term “furthermore.”  These transitions can be much more useful in the longer sections of the paper’s body, especially in the Introduction and Discussion/Conclusion sections.

Use the active voice instead of the passive voice.

One way to shorten your abstract is to apply a rule you might have learned in primary school: use active voice instead of passive voice. In active voice constructions, the subject carries the action. In passive voice, the subject is acted upon, usually by an unnamed actor. Scientists seem to be in love with the passive voice, as it can be found in many papers, simply adding to the word count and making the write less engaging. Because of this longstanding convention, many believe it makes them sound more “scientific.” Others shun active voice because they feel as though it is too personal. That is a shame. Your sentences will often sound more convincing and powerful in active voice, as the following examples demonstrate:

Passive voice: Pituitary cells were grown in dishes that had been subjected to irradiation (12 words).

Active voiceWe grew pituitary cells in irradiated dishes (7 words).

Passive voice: Three-hundred and forty-five patients who had undergone ovariectomy at our institution were enrolled in the present study (17 words).

Active voiceWe enrolled 345 patients whom we had ovariectomized (eight words).

Remember, studies don’t conduct themselves; scientists conduct studies. Avoid using the passive voice in the abstract—save it for the Methods section!

Do not include statistical methods or findings in the abstract.

Most scientific articles include statistics. Usually, the statistical methods are described in detail in the Methods section of a paper. But many authors feel compelled for some reason to mention statistics in the abstract, perhaps to get the details out first. But unless your paper is primarily about statistics, it is best to keep statistics out of the abstract and stick to language that expresses the most important use and findings of the study. Not only do statistics add to your word count, but they also interrupt the flow of your argument. You certainly do not need to tell the reader what statistical tests you used or the version of the statistics program you used—that is what the Methods section is for. And never go into detail about EXACTLY which findings your study yielded—that is what the Results section is for.

Consent, approval, and other stuff that doesn’t belong in an abstract

Some authors place information about patient consent and institutional review board approval in the abstract. Whereas this information is indeed essential, it is not necessary to put it in the abstract. Like statistics, consent and approval statements interrupt the flow of your argument. Readers expect to find information about consent and approval in the Methods section. Leaving this out of your abstract will certainly free up your space to describe the importance of your study.

Word limits are not targets

Keep in mind that a limit of 250 words does not mean that you should attempt to come as close as possible to the limit. The best abstracts include all essential information well before reaching word limit. Use the above tips to help you create a leaner, tighter abstract that will hook readers and entice them to read your full study.

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