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I have received a reviewer comment that is not understandable. Specifically, the comment asks that I show that X is true, but I never mention X in the whole paper and X is not even related to my work. What should I do in this situation?

Should I:

  1. just ignore that comment? or
  2. ask for clarification when I submit my revised manuscript? or
  3. ask for clarification before submitting my revised manuscript? or
  4. try to respond to the comment even though it is not related?

The other comments by the reviewer are legitimate comments fully related to the submitted work, it is only this one comment that is a problem. I do not know the identity of the reviewer and can't ask them for clarification outside of the review process.

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  • 13
    My practice is to always quote each reviewer comment before I address it. That way, the editor, other reviewers and possibly the specific reviewer himself can see if a reviewer's comment doesn't make sense or even is downright gibberish. I don't comment on such issues but respond to each comment to the best of my ability. You should never ignore parts of a review.
    – Roland
    Mar 15 at 5:46
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    Are you sure it’s nonsense? Perhaps you’re being asked about something slightly related that isn’t quite in your field, so you aren’t aware of it? This is unlikely, but possible, and worth due diligence on your part. Mar 15 at 6:13
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    Andrew is right. "When you are arguing with a fool, chances are he's doing the same." Courtesy has won more duels than the sword. Mar 15 at 9:21
  • I often feel that the peer-review process is not communicative enough. Wish there were channels on both ends to ask for clarification before submitting final recommendations and revisions. Maybe a slack channel or something. I definitely replied to comments from a very critical reviewer once by politely saying that certain suggestions were, unfortunately, not feasible within the scope of the study. The editor agreed and published.
    – MikeyC
    Mar 15 at 14:12
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    No, do not ignore the comment. Every single comment must be accounted for or answered in some way.
    – Tom
    Mar 16 at 12:52

8 Answers 8

74

You should not ignore the comment --- just respond to it in a polite and sober manner and state the facts. If the comment doesn't make sense to you then it is likely that it also won't make sense to the editor, so you should feel free to say that.

Disagree - no revision: Unfortunately we were unable to understand this comment. The comment appears to want us to demonstrate that frogs experience chemically-induced hallucinations during mating, however our paper is about monkeys; it makes no mention of frogs or their mating habits, and we do not see an analogy that would benefit our paper. We do not propose to make any revision to the paper in relation to this comment.

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  • 48
    Do frogs actually experience chemically-induced hallucinations during mating though? Mar 14 at 16:54
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    I'm not a native speaker, but, in this situation, "We propose not to..." would sound more correct to me than "We do not propose to...".
    – Heinzi
    Mar 14 at 17:16
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    @Heinzi Slightly different meanings. "We do not propose to" is a very formal way of saying "We do not intend to" - in other words, unless someone comes up with a really good reason then it isn't happening. But "We propose not to" means you're not sure and you want someone else's opinion to confirm it. As is so often the case, English is the worst language for clarity! :)
    – Graham
    Mar 14 at 17:22
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    @Graham In that case I would suggest to check whether the editor is a native English speaker or better yet use a formulation that a non-native speaker understands the way it is meant to be understood.
    – quarague
    Mar 14 at 17:48
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    @Graham Right, because every other language is famously clear in every utterance Mar 14 at 18:37
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Firstly, if the reviewer got the wrong idea about your paper you have to seriously consider whether you are to blame. Play devil's advocate. Did you write something in the paper that led the reviewer down the wrong path? Could you revise the manuscript to make it clearer? It is often possible for the reviewer to make a wrong suggestion which comes from a misunderstanding that you could prevent in the revised manuscript.

If that doesn't help, then you should consider using the magic words "X is beyond the scope of this work". This is a polite but firm way to refute a comment. Even better is to offer some small token, like mentioning X as a possible future work. See the example below.

We thank the reviewer for the suggestion that we consider X. While it is an interesting suggestion, unfortunately, it is beyond the scope of the present work because XYZ. We have added a sentence that mentions X as a possible future work in the conclusion of the revised manuscript.

The problem with outright ignoring the comment (your option #1) or seeking a clarification (#2 and #3) is that you open a can of worms. Now there is the possibility of a big email exchange about the topic. Assuming you got "minor revisions", the revised manuscript usually only goes to the editor for the final decision. So your job is not to convince the reviewer. Your job is the convince the editor that you read the comments, you understood the comments, you took the comments seriously, and you made a reasonable response.

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If the reviewer is asking you to show that X is true but X is not related to your paper, then it sounds like you received the wrong review - in the sense that the review is actually intended for another paper. This should not happen in a properly configured editorial management system. If it does happen my guess is that the reviewer uploaded the wrong review.

Hence #3 is probably the best option. Chances are the reviewer did write a review that's applicable to your paper, but you need to know what the review is to respond to it.

Edit: since the question was edited to say the other comments are relevant - in this case, the reviewer definitely submitted the right review, but they misunderstood your paper. In this case you should improve your paper to remove whatever was causing the misunderstanding (option 4). Depending on what X is, you could also say it is out of scope of the current paper, is not relevant, or even it is something you will be saving for the future. You definitely do not want to ignore the comment - this will aggravate both the editor and the reviewer since you don't seem to be taking the review seriously.

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The reviewer may be asking you for a natural extension of your data that you haven't chosen to make. If this is the case, you might say something like

"Reviewer X ask for Y. Unfortunately, we feel that our data does not directly address Y, and we wish to not address this point at this time."

Alternatively, ""Reviewer X ask for Y. Our data peripherally addresses Y, and we now include discussion on this point"

3

In this situation, it's helpful to remember a few things:

  1. Peer review is often an iterative process. You submit a manuscript, reviewers make suggestions, you improve the paper based on their suggestions, they may have additional suggestions after seeing the revised version, and so forth.

Knowing this, your goal is not to make sure that you can provide a final, unchanging response to each question or request from the reviewers. Your goal is to identify what changes will actually improve the manuscript and to make those changes, and then respectfully address the other comments. And if a reviewer's request is unclear, it's fine to state that and ask for clarification.

The reviewer has asked for data on average rates over time. In context, we are unsure whether they are interested in average hatching rates or average daily velocity. If the reviewer can clarify what rates they are interested in, we are happy to provide the requested data.

  1. Editors are often scientists as well, and they have discretion to decide whether you have adequately addressed the reviewers' concerns. They are also (generally) capable of judging whether a question is confusing or off topic.

I've had many times when a reviewer's question either didn't make any sense in context, or where the meaning and the requested change was ambiguous. In those cases, I've tried to make clear what about the question was confusing and to express a willingness to further edit the manuscript if the question can be clarified. In nearly every case, the editor has accepted the manuscript without going back to the reviewer for another round of comments.

This question concerns the migratory habits of starlings, while our focuses on the feeding habits of seagulls. We are unsure how the reviewer's proposed modifications fit with the aims of the manuscript. If the reviewer can clarify the changes they would like to see, we would be happy to update the manuscript accordingly.

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I would say option 3, but keep in mind that asking for clarification can be difficult, as miscommunication is often due to assumptions on the part of one or more party that are not shared by the other, and requests for clarification often result in responses that continue to be based on that assumption, rather than explicitly presenting the assumption so it can be challenged. For instance, if the wrong paper got sent to the reviewer, the reviewer is likely to present an explanation that assumes that you are the author of the other paper, and will continue to not make sense without that assumption. In trying to resolve the miscommunication, you'll be faced with the task of trying to get the other party to make explicit the assumptions they have made that they may not be aware they have made, or are not aware aren't shared.

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Tell your reviewer that you can't understand the essence of the question because it's not related to your paper. And if they insist on your giving the answer, try to find right words, if it's possible.

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    There usually isn't any informal conversation between authors and reviewers in the journal peer review process. Authors are ordinarily expected to return to the editor a complete set of responses along with modifications to the paper, and then the editor decides how to proceed.
    – Bryan Krause
    Mar 14 at 23:41
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  1. You kindly explain to the reviewer what they misunderstood.
  2. You raise a private complain to the program chair/editor if you think it negatively impacted the reviewer's final score.

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