We're a little crazy, about science!

Another response letter

There’s a surprise paper I haven’t talked about much. Mostly because I’m “only” second author on it, but also because as I keep mentioning things are hectic. However, we’re almost a full six months into the year and I currently have three papers (two first author, one second author) to my name and this will be number four! It’s been a good year for me, but we’re not done yet! Today I’m going to once again talk about response letters.

So typical flow for journal paper, you submit it. Then you wait… and wait… and wait… eventually you get a response. If you’re lucky it’s not a desk rejection (been there, done that!), but I have yet to see a paper be accepted the first submission. That means you fall the category most of us fall into, which is that it’s decided the paper is a good fit for the journal you submitted to, but they want changes.

Now even after changes the paper could be rejected (fun, right?!) and journals typically provide statistics letting you know what the chances of that happening will be. For reference, with my latest paper, the journal has a 42% acceptance rate (here). This means there’s no guarantee that your on your way to publication even if they don’t reject it outright. So you submitted, you’re a good fit, but they want changes. This is where most of us fall, I’m almost (like 94.216%) sure that they never accept a paper the first time.

So you get an email from the journal saying, “hey, how you doin’ we like what you’re doing and want to accept it, but…. we need some changes.” Attached to the email (or after you log in) you’ll find reviewer responses to your paper. Your job, like it or not, is to respond to the critiques the reviewers give you point by point in a polite and professional manner. Note, some of the responses my neither be polite or professional, been there too. But for the most part, I’ve had very professional and polite responses, so chances are you will too. That’s the good news, the bad news is the critiques could be very comprehensive.

For my last paper, my response letter was 14 pages, single spaced, 11 point arial font with normal margins (0.5 inches all around) and no figures, just pure text. They can get loooooong my friends. It depends on the journal and the reviewers. I’ve had some less than 10 pages with three reviewers or the last paper was 2 reviewers and 14 pages (longer than the actual paper!!).

I’m not sure what other fields do, but I was taught that when a reviewer leaves you a comment, it results in a change in the paper. It doesn’t matter if it’s a small change, a big change, or a change to avoid addressing the actual thing the reviewer wants (we’ll get into that momentarily), but a change should occur. Not only that, but you should quote the change directly into your response letter, which is why they get lengthy, you have the original text from the reviewers and your point by point response, it adds up quickly.

I’ve also been taught to avoid fighting with reviewers, so basically if they want a change, you make it. It’s just a better practice really because arguing with someone who holds the say over what happens to your paper never ends up going anywhere. That doesn’t mean you do everything they want though! In some cases reviewers will suggest additional experiments, changes to methodology, changes to analysis, etc. things that would be impractical at best, impossible at worst. We work with human participants for example, I can’t expect everyone to come back in for additional experiments a year after the fact! (that’s also assuming they still live nearby)

Which means we get creative. Normally when a reviewer suggests additional stuff, if it cannot be done easily (or at all), I throw it into future work. As in future work should look into the effects of stress caused by reviewers asking for all sorts of weird and niche additions to your experiments.” This takes into account the reviewers suggestion while not setting up an impossible job for yourself.

To be fair, if they ask for additional analyses of the data, you should do it. The exception is if you have a good reason not to do it, some of the comments we got on last paper included things that we literally couldn’t do with the data because it wasn’t part of the experiment or the comparison didn’t make sense with the experimental design we used. So I was polite, explained that it would be difficult to make sense of the comparisons or that the data didn’t exist and the reviewers were happy with my answers, so I call that a win. Not only were they happy with the answers, they had no further suggestions/edits, so double win for me.

This new paper, which I really am trying to avoid calling second paper (as in second author paper) because that will just confuse me and everyone else, is really interesting and probably really niche (like a lot of the stuff I do apparently), but the reviewers comments were mostly positive. They were also very thorough and as of right now our response letter sits at 11 or maybe 12 pages long. We’re not done yet though so it could get even longer before we submit it in the coming weeks. Unlike last paper, this journal didn’t give a hard deadline for submission, just the sooner the better and a rough time frame they thought was appropriate. The email said something along the lines of, typically author responses take xx months.

Even though I’m second author, I’m helping with the response. One because despite what snooty academics suggest, second author (or any rank author for that matter) is still important and needs to do some work for the paper, not just assist with the data collection. So I’ve helped with the writing and now I am helping write the response letter.

Since I’ve got a lot going on and had some “free time” today, I spent the better part of the day editing and revising the response letter using basically the exact advice I gave above. The first author, who’s a postdoc in our lab, will be leaving for a small vacation soon, so we want to get the response in ASAP, plus we really want to get it published. Thankfully I’m done with my bit for now, so I just have to wait to see how the rest of the authors respond and probably help with one more round of edits before we submit.

Yep, this year is off to a good start. I’ve also got another first author paper on the way (whaaat?!), at least one very important paper I’m working on with “big idea” and of course my dissertation paper(s) that need to happen. I’ve been hoping to write two for my dissertation (both of which go into my dissertation itself, another story for another time). So that’s what, four more first author papers?

No wonder I’m so busy….

But enough about us, what about you?

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