[This post is based on the editorial in the December issue — the full text can be accessed here, available for free to all registered users. We welcome feedback on our editorials in the comments section below.]
Revising a manuscript in response to the comments of referees should not be about doing the bare minimum to get a paper published. Addressing criticisms that are genuine and constructive can lead to much more compelling research articles.
An e-mail arrives in your inbox from the journal to which you sent your last research paper and it has a subject title that begins ‘Decision on manuscript xxx’. Your heart leaps as you quickly find the phrase ‘we are pleased to inform you’ in the first paragraph, but then it sinks as you scroll down through the referee reports…and keep scrolling…and keep scrolling…and keep scrolling. You finally reach the end of the e-mail and it seems as though, to answer all of the referees’ queries, you’ll need another three years, two more post-docs and a fresh pot of grant money.
This situation is not uncommon and the process of revising a manuscript has the potential to be a frustrating one — but if authors and referees are prepared to engage in a constructive dialogue (mediated by the editor), then it can be a rewarding experience that results in a much improved paper.
Peer review can — and should — play a significant role in improving not only the presentation, but also the rigour and quality of research reported in articles. A fresh pair of eyes looking over a research paper is likely to spot holes in logic or data that, if filled on revision, could significantly strengthen the conclusions drawn from a study. Aside from flaws, referees can also ask questions or make suggestions that help guide the future direction of a research project.
Armed with a list of suggestions from referees, an author must revise their manuscript and then convince the referees and editor that it is now ready for publication. To help those involved judge the changes made during revision, Nature Chemistry ask that authors go through them point-by-point in a letter written specifically for the referees. Trying to discuss all of the changes in a long-winded essay style can make it more difficult for the editor and referees to follow.
The editors understand that some referees may have unrealistic expectations as to what extra work is required before publication and also that sometimes there are genuinely no right or wrong answers — merely progressive scientific debate. The editors also appreciate that busy authors would prefer to make as few changes as possible, and even though carrying out all of the referees’ suggestions may not be required for publication, all authors are expected to take each technical and scientific concern seriously.
Those authors who choose not to carry out extra experimental work or data analysis as suggested by a referee must provide a compelling argument for why that is the case, convincing the reviewers that their conclusions are fully supported without the additional work. In cases where authors and referees disagree on the revisions required, it is the editor who is responsible for making the final decision.
As a closing comment it is worthwhile remarking that the ‘honesty’ involved in peer-review can sometimes be abrasive and hard to ignore as an author, but we very much advise both authors and referees not to personalise the process. Remaining polite and professional throughout, even if others involved are not, is unquestionably the best option and enables the review process to remain focused on the science.