Revising a paper? Here’s what I do…

The first paper I ever submitted to a journal was accepted without revision. Brilliant. Choose a journal, write the paper, send it in, sorted. Oh, my poor deluded younger self. Imagine my surprise when my next paper was summarily rejected, painfully revealing the reality of Getting Your Paper Published. Somewhere. Anywhere! Now well versed in the submit/revise/resubmit/grit your teeth and don’t give up cycle, and having just sent off my latest response to those lovely reviewers’ comments that dictate whether you are In or Out, I thought I would set out some brief thoughts on how you might approach this task.

1. The Email from the Editor

When you see that long-awaited email from the journal editor in your inbox, take a deep breath. Read it through. Take another deep breath. Try not to scream. If you are lucky, the journal will have sent your paper to two or three carefully selected reviewers with some knowledge of your field and method. If you are doubly lucky, those reviewers will have taken their task seriously and responsibly and given you a fair, thoughtful and helpful set of comments which could dramatically improve your paper. Of course, we are not always lucky. If, as has happened to me, a journal editor has sent your qualitative paper to an RCT specialist who has never heard of phenomenology, then their response may not be ideal. It is likely to make you really upset and cross. I sympathise. You could complain to the editor, but they get cross with rubbish reviewers too (that’s why journals like the BJGP keep tabs on us: I would love to know my “reviewer score”). So, rant to colleagues, send the response to your co-authors, then put it aside for a day or two.

2. Your options

When you are calmer, read everything again. You are likely to have received one of four responses:

  • “Yes please!” (unlikely)
  • “Yes, probably” (quite likely)
  • “Yes, maybe” (most likely)
  • “NO!” (oops)

If you receive a straight acceptance, celebrate wildly and realise it is unlikely to ever happen again. If you are required to make revisions (minor or major) and re-submit, then think when you are going to do this. Has the journal set a deadline for you to respond to? This is useful. If not, set yourself one (the sooner the better), and stick to it. If your paper is rejected, then talk to your co-authors to agree the next target journal, and amend the paper so it fits their requirements. Do not be tempted to send it in the journal without checking their word length, referencing and formatting requirements – you will only annoy the editor before they have even read the paper.

3. Making revisions.

I always make revisions and write my response letter at the same time. For the paper, I use track changes in Word to make it super clear what I have amended. * My response letters usually start along the lines of:

“Thank you ever so much for the terribly helpful and insightful comments your wonderful reviewers have made. We are eternally grateful for their wisdom and obvious world-renowned expertise. Below, we have set out how we have obsessively responded to each tiny squeak they have made. We thank you thank you thank you for considering our paper in its new and wonderful revised form.”

I then copy and paste the reviewer’s comments into the response letter, and divide them up into single points to address. Now comes the hard bit: you need to go through the actions one by one, making changes to the paper, whilst in the letter setting out exactly how you have responded. Do feel free to disagree with reviewers’ suggestions. Just do it strategically – it does not look good if the entire covering letter disagrees with every point made. And do it politely and with a good argument for why you have kept it the same, or made a different alteration.

4. Re-submitting

When you have finished revising your paper, do check the word length again. Usually, you are now 7,000 words over the limit. You have two options. One, clearly tell the journal in your covering letter what your new word length is in the light of your revisions, and suggest you can always edit at a later date if required. Two, (my preferred option), edit the paper again to get it under the required word length, and tell the editors you have done so. Usually, each sentence in the paper can have one word removed from it: this can get rid of a surprising amount of text. If at all possible, it is better to send in something you know is publishable, rather than risk rejection for it being overly long. Before you submit, check the referencing, figures, tables are all still correct, and send everything to your co-authors for their comment and approval. Follow the instructions for re-submissions (to the letter), cross your fingers, and make yourself a nice cup of tea. You might even deserve a biscuit.

* STOP PRESS. So, it seems not everyone likes track changes in Word, as they can be hard to follow. This is true – if your revisions involve great swathes of moving text around and deleting chunks, your paper (if you are showing the mark-up of changes to highlight what you have done) can rapidly become gibberish. Sometimes you can submit two versions of the revised paper to a journal – one clean copy, and one showing the changes, although not always. I prefer track changes whilst you are batting changes around co-authors, it’s so much easier than maintaining a table of changes and cross-referencing old and new versions the whole time. However, there are of course alternatives, and those nice people at Palliative Medicine have been in touch to say they prefer highlighting, with “tables of comment, response, page/line ref”. I think the lesson here is – journal editors are people too, and you can always ask them exactly how they would like you to respond. It can only help to keep them happy which is, of course, a Very Good Thing.

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