Navigating the Peer Review Process as an Author: 10 Steps to Converting Your “Revise & Resubmit” into an Acceptance

In this second post of our three-part series on navigating the peer review process, we provide a 10-step process to convert your “revise & resubmit” into an acceptance. 

At long last – after (im)patiently waiting for a determination on your manuscript submission, you receive an Outlook notification from the editorial office! You excitedly click open the email message, anticipating the reviewers and editor will concur that your manuscript is brilliant and should be accepted. Instead, you see a long form letter.

If you are lucky, the form letter will end with, “We cannot accept this manuscript in its present form but we encourage you to revise it.” If you are unlucky, the letter will conclude, “Due to the high volume of submissions we receive, we cannot accept this manuscript but hope you will continue to consider the journal for future submission.” In either case, you will also see what seems like an endless list of criticisms from the reviewers. Your excitement quickly turns into a sinking feeling in the pit of your stomach.

The sting of editor decision letters is so universal that there is no shortage of cartoons depicting the agony of this experience (see here, here, and here).

In this second post of our three-part series on navigating the peer review process, we provide a 10-step process to convert your “revise & resubmit” into an acceptance. (We encourage you to first read our post that explains how the peer review process works.)

Step 1: Take a deep breath and recalibrate your mindset

Criticism can feel bad after working so hard on your research project. While some comments may feel “doable,” others may appear insurmountable (eg, requests for new analyses, additional literature, or major reorganization to the text). You may end up with reviews that provide conflicting feedback. Some comments may leave you angry and perplexed because it appears as though the reviewer didn’t read the paper carefully or didn’t understand your key point. This can lead to agitation, anxiety, or brain freeze (or some combination thereof) – none of which are conducive for the careful focus required to address the revision.

At this stage, it can be helpful to set the reviews aside for a couple days until you can look at them with a fresh perspective. Some reviewers really are jerks. However, most reviewers are humans who took extensive time to read your article carefully and their comments are designed to improve your manuscript.

Step 2: Organize each comment into a list

Ultimately, you need to: 1) address each comment and 2) make it easy for reviewers and the editors to see how you were responsive. Your resubmission will require both a revised manuscript and a response letter. A fantastic template for writing the response letter is here.

In this step, make a Word document that will become the backbone of your response memo. Take each comment from the editor and reviewer and divide them into numbers (eg, reviewer 1’s comments would be A1, A2, A3, …. etc.; and reviewer 2’s comments would be B1, B2, B3, …etc.). (Pro tip: Some reviewers write their comments in a bulleted list whereas others might have a few comments embedded within a single paragraph. It is easier to split apart the comments so each comment is a new item.)

Step 3: Review your list of comments to identify patterns and create manageable tasks

At this stage, you may need to repeat Step 1.

It is overwhelming and inefficient to start working on comments without a clear game plan. Review the comments a few times. It can be helpful to sort them into different categories, such as “easy editorial,” “hard conceptual,” “coauthor consultation needed,” and “requires additional analysis.” This is also a good time to start reading across reviewers. Are there any comments that are on a similar topic? Are there near-identical comments? Are there points that converge?

This will help you set up tasks to complete in Step 4:

  • Low-hanging fruit that can be done relatively quickly
  • Harder things that require additional analysis or discussion with coauthors
  • Groups of comments that are relevant to multiple reviewers

Step 4: Follow Step 3’s game plan to implement changes in the manuscript

There are different philosophies (and variation in norms across fields) but generally try to make an edit in response to each comment. Pick your battles.

If you feel the reviewer is asking for something that is already in the text or irrelevant to the article’s stated purpose, revisit Step 1 and consider whether the manuscript needs clarity. If that is the case, the manuscript might simply need a clarifying phrase or sentence, or else rearranging some text. If the reviewer asks for things that you feel are outside the scope of the paper (eg, turning your cross-sectional analysis into a longitudinal study) then you can address the comment by adding clarifying text in the introduction to be more precise about your research question and the gap you are filling and then adding a sentence to your limitations section.

If there are comments that group together, it can be helpful to tackle all at the same time as part of a large set of edits.

Step 5: Do a careful proofread of the revised manuscript

If you have made it this far, congratulations! You are in the homestretch. Edit, maybe more like mile 20 of a marathon, when it really starts to get painful. But there really is an end in sight!

Do a careful proofread for inadvertent typos introduced during the revisions and to ensure the revised text flows. Check that you are still within the formatting guidelines. Mostly likely, you added more text during the revision (Step 4) and you may need to streamline text throughout the manuscript to meet the journal’s word count limits.

Step 6: Finish your response memo

Underneath each item in Step 2, write a short response about how you addressed the comment. Be as specific as possible including listing page and line numbers and reproducing relevant text in the letter (see samples).

Your goal is to make it very easy for reviewers and editors to skim the response and feel satisfied that you addressed each comment. Reviewers are busy and providing vague responses can create cranky reviewers (who did additional work to investigate whether you made revisions) and potentially new comments (as they will be reading the manuscript fresh). Be very mindful of your tone and be polite. Fighting back against your reviewers is a bad strategy.

There are mixed opinions on whether you should say, “this was an excellent idea” in specific comments – because then responses where you don’t editorialize to thank for the specific suggestion may be interpreted by reviewers as you not appreciating their feedback. There are also mixed opinions on the expected length of the response under each item. In health journals, a nice strategy is to streamline your response memo to help your reviewers skim the revision. However, other fields may have an expectation for a longer response memo in more of an essay format – if you publish in multiple disciplines, ask your mentors for guidance.

Step 7: Provide coauthors an opportunity to review the final draft before submission

If you are lead author, the revision is ultimately your responsibility. However, some coauthors may be particularly helpful with addressing some groups of comments or can assist with a final proofread.

If you are working with a government agency, it is important to let your colleagues know about the changes in case they raise questions with the agency clearance process.

Step 8: Create “clean” and “track changes” versions of the revised manuscript

The “clean” version will have all revisions accepted and look, well, clean! The “track changes” will have the mark-up showing the revisions from the original. Journals vary in what they request – some will explicitly ask for both versions and others will only ask for a clean version.

Pro hack: Use the “compare documents” tool in MS Word (under the Review tab) to automatically generate a track changes version.

Step 9: Final formatting tips

You may want to avoid MS Word’s automated formatting that adds spacing between paragraphs and instead keep the document as single-space and insert paragraph breaks manually. When you go into the editorial management system in Step 10, you will likely be asked to separately upload the response memo (as an attachment) and then copy/paste the main text (into a text field). MS Word’s automated formatting will not be carried over into the text field. If reviewers only see that text (and not the formal letter), it may be hard for them to quickly skim to understand the changes.

Step 10: Log into the editorial management system and submit!

Plan for this step to take 30 minutes or longer to double-check the uploads worked properly, to update the title and abstract in the system, etc.

Following our post that demystifies the peer review process (add link), if it is a “minor revise & resubmit,” then you might only receive a review from the managing editor. If it’s a “major revise & resubmit,” it may go back to peer reviewers.

Be patient and wait for additional reviews. (Consider revisiting Step 1!) If you truly addressed all comments, then you may have minor additional comments. However, be prepared that reviewers might identify more fundamental items they missed the first time.

Wrapping up

While this 10-step process may not convert all revise and resubmits into an acceptance, they should get you there most of the time.

Stay tuned for the final post in this series on writing constructive peer reviews – and how doing peer reviews can help you improve your writing.

Erika Martin, PhD, MPH, is Professor and PhD Director at Rockefeller College of Public Affairs and Policy, University at Albany-SUNY. As an applied health policy researcher, she uses mixed methods to evaluate issues related to the allocation of scarce public health resources, the adoption and impact of public health policies, with a focus on domestic HIV and related syndemics. She also studies ways to improve the sustainability and impact of open data platforms. Articles she’s written have appeared in an array of leading health and public policy journals such as the New England Journal of MedicineJournal of the American Medical AssociationHealth AffairsAmerican Journal of Public HealthPublic Administration Review, and Journal of Policy Analysis and Management.

Justin B. Moore, PhD, MS, FACSM is an Associate Professor in the Department of Implementation Science in the Division of Public Health Sciences at the Wake Forest School of Medicine in Winston-Salem, NC, USA. He holds joint appointments in the departments of Family & Community Medicine and Epidemiology & Prevention. Dr. Moore also serves as the Director of the Implementation Science Affinity Group within the Clinical and Translational Science Institute at Wake Forest University. He conducts community-engaged research focused on the dissemination and implementation of evidence-based strategies for the promotion of healthy behaviors in underserved populations. He also conducts epidemiological research examining the determinants of health behaviors and related comorbidities across the lifespan. He serves as the Associate Editor of the Journal of Public Health Management and Practice as an Associate Editor-in-Chief for the Translational Journal of the American College of Sports Medicine. He previously served at the chair of the editorial board of the American Journal of Public Health. Full bio