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I need to resubmit a revised version of my paper to a journal. While submitting, I was asked to provide a list of responses to the reviewers' comments. I've started wondering about an accepted way of organizing these responses.

Should it be a text in free form? Or a bullet-point list?

Given the reviewers' comments in a free form, how would they know to which comments I provide a response? Should I copy the text of the reviewers?

Also, as for responding to changes in the manuscript, what tense is usually used? For example, how should I say that "The introduction has been/is/was modified ..."?

6 Answers 6

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Although there are no rules (unless there are rules... read the decision email properly!), I'd always copy the review text, normally without leaving anything out (the reviewer may not like the impression that you try to sweep something under the carpet), and respond to any specific thing directly after. For example:

Symbol x has not been defined.

Done now on p. 4, l.11.

I suggest shortening and re-organising Chapter 4.

We have removed the last paragraph, however we think that the current organisation is fine because (...), and the reviewer hasn't explained what kind of re-organisation they want.

(End example.)

As reviewer and editor I find this way of doing it most easy to handle. I have seen authors adding something like "Thank you for this important remark" to every single response, which is bad as it makes reading more difficult. But starting with a general "We'd like to thank the reviewers for their valuable suggestions that led to an improvement of the paper" note can't hurt. Regarding the use of tenses I'm in favour of "The introduction has been modified", but then I'm not a native speaker. Also language errors in the response to reviewers are hardly important.

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    I agree entirely. Although one might have carte-blanche, an ad-hoc approach is only likely to annoy the reviewers when they come to look once again at the paper. Reminding them of what they said, and then saying what one has done about it seems by far the best way to go. Feb 3, 2023 at 12:12
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    I think it is also very useful to accompany such a revision with a diff file, visually showing the changes made in the paper. It helps the reviewer/editor to see what changes were actually made and they do not have to try to track them by themselves. If you use latex, latexdiff is great for this.
    – Sim
    Feb 3, 2023 at 12:46
  • @Sim Similar in intent is a check of submitted pdf files is for example diffpdf (the free, frozen version, basis for Debian's package) and diff-pdf.
    – Buttonwood
    Feb 3, 2023 at 21:51
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    Spot on. It makes the reviewer's life much easier to explain how exactly you reacted to their review, and you want to make your reviewer's life easier. I currently have a revision to review where the authors simply submitted a Word file with review mode turned on, so I need to read my original review in parallel and figure out whether all my points have been satisfactorily addressed. I already saw that some points were not addressed - but without a response letter, I will need to deduce the reason for this from the revision itself. Don't make the reviewer's life harder than necessary. Feb 3, 2023 at 22:04
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    Would someone like to post these suggestions (provide some kind of graphical diff of the original vs. revised versions) as an additional answer? (Please?)
    – Ben Bolker
    Feb 4, 2023 at 19:37
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While I agree with Christian Hennig's answer, I would like to focus on one specific aspect of your question which I believe is the crux---you mention that the reviewer's comments are in the form of free text (not structured as a list).

My technique for this situation is to convert the free text into a list and then address the list items.

Say reviewer 1 submits:

Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipiscing elit, sed do eiusmod tempor incididunt ut labore et dolore magna aliqua. Ut enim ad minim veniam, quis nostrud exercitation ullamco laboris nisi ut aliquip ex ea commodo consequat. Duis aute irure dolor in reprehenderit in voluptate velit esse cillum dolore eu fugiat nulla pariatur. Excepteur sint occaecat cupidatat non proident, sunt in culpa qui officia deserunt mollit anim id est laborum.

and reviewer 2 submits:

Sed ut perspiciatis unde omnis iste natus error sit voluptatem accusantium doloremque laudantium, totam rem aperiam, eaque ipsa quae ab illo inventore veritatis et quasi architecto beatae vitae dicta sunt explicabo. Nemo enim ipsam voluptatem quia voluptas sit aspernatur aut odit aut fugit, sed quia consequuntur magni dolores eos qui ratione voluptatem sequi nesciunt. Neque porro quisquam est, qui dolorem ipsum quia dolor sit amet, consectetur, adipisci velit, sed quia non numquam eius modi tempora incidunt ut labore et dolore magnam aliquam quaerat voluptatem. Ut enim ad minima veniam, quis nostrum exercitationem ullam corporis suscipit laboriosam, nisi ut aliquid ex ea commodi consequatur? Quis autem vel eum iure reprehenderit qui in ea voluptate velit esse quam nihil molestiae consequatur, vel illum qui dolorem eum fugiat quo voluptas nulla pariatur?

You can break the sentences into a list like so:

R1.1 Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipiscing elit, sed do eiusmod tempor incididunt ut labore et dolore magna aliqua.

A: Your response

R1.2 Ut enim ad minim veniam, quis nostrud exercitation ullamco laboris nisi ut aliquip ex ea commodo consequat. Duis aute irure dolor in reprehenderit in voluptate velit esse cillum dolore eu fugiat nulla pariatur.

A: Your response

R1.3 Excepteur sint occaecat cupidatat non proident, sunt in culpa qui officia deserunt mollit anim id est [here I used square brackets to clarify some term that the reviewer used that doesn't make sense out of context].

A: Your response

R2.1 etc

The power of this method is that it allows you to swap around the order of the reviewer's comments, or to group comments together, or even to group together a comment from reviewer 1 with a comment from review 2. It is highly flexible. The only rule is that you must include all text of the reviews. This technique has been highly valuable whenever I received a long rambling review.

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    This is the best answer so far +1
    – justhalf
    Feb 5, 2023 at 18:43
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I agree with the answer by Chrisitian Hennig --- it is best to copy the entire referee report and respond directly to all comments that require a response. I highlight all the referee comments in a different colour (and use black for my own responses and contextual information) so that it is clear which parts are from the referee and which parts are my responses. To add further to that answer, I will note that I use a practice of giving a simple bold statement of the general tenor of my response (agree, disagree, partially agree, revised, no revision, etc.) and then I elaborate more on what I think of the referee suggestion, what I have done, and why. This helps the reviewer see up-front where I have revised things and where I disagree with them or chose not to revise. Typically I have four types of main responses:

Agree - revised: Used when I agree with the referee and have revised accordingly.

Partially agree - revised: Used when I partially agree with the referee and have revised accordingly.

Disagree - no revision: Used when I disagree and see no way to improve the paper from the comment.

Disagree - revised anyway: Used when I disagree but the point raised in the disagreement allows me to improve the paper (e.g., tighted up my own argument to head off a misunderstanding).

Here is an example of what a response to referees might look like (using italicisation of referee comments, since I can't change their colour):

The paper is well-written and I like the writing style of the author. However, I am concerned that the introductory parts lack sufficient literature review and they author does not do a good job of making it clear what parts of their work are novel and what parts are existing knowledge. I recommend that the author provide a more comprehensive literature review and be more specific about the novel aspects of the contribution of the paper.

Agree - revised: I am glad the referee liked the writing style of the paper. I have now revised the introductory section (Sec. 1, pp. 1-3) to provide a more comprehensive literature review. Specifically, I have added reference to James et al (1981), Harrington (1983), Xi and Wang (1990), Wang and Evans (1991), Craig and Watts (1992) and Bonjorno (2013). I have also revised aspects of the paper to be more explicit about the main contribution of the paper. I have added a paragraph discussing the contribution of the paper on p. 3 and I have also revised Section 3 of the paper to say which of the theorems I give are new and which are repititions or variations from existing literature. This new material should allow the reader to see which parts of the paper are novel contributions and which parts are contextual information using results from previous literature.

...

I also found the presentation of the simulation analysis on p. 16 to be unusual. Usually a simple barplot would be used. The violin plot used in Figure 4 is unusual in this area and it has not been used in other literature in the field. I recommend using a simple barplot instead.

Disagree - no revision: I have constructed a barplot of the data to see if it is an improvement over the violin plot used in Figure 4. While I appreciate the suggestion of the referee, my view is that a mere barplot of the data obscures important information about the shape of the distribution that is discussed in pp. 16-17. The existing violin plot already has an embedded barplot that shows the median, quantiles, etc., and this is noted in the caption for the figure. The use of the violin plot shows the estimated shape of the distribution in greater detail than a barplot would, and this is necessary for my later discussion (e.g., my discussion of bimodality, etc.). I am aware that other literature in this field has typically used a barplot for this kind of simulation analysis, but I consider the use of a violin plot (with an embedded barplot) to be an improvement. For this reason I have not revised this figure.

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The general rule, similar to any document, is to make it easier for the reader to find the necessary information.

To this end, I use a different color for reviewer comments and my responses. I use a bullet list to highlight key facts. Further, I include relevant background from the paper in my responses; this ensures my responses are self-contained.

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You can decide all of these things according to your personal preference. Enjoy.

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Unless the journal specifies a particular format, it's almost entirely up to you.

Here's a formula that has worked well for me. The goal is to convey that a) you've taken the feedback seriously and b) show how the manuscript has changed in response, so that the decision-makers can quickly and easily accept it--hopefully!

Start with a short summary of the reviewers' comments and the changes made in response to them. This should highlight any major themes: "All three reviewers asked about X, so we performed experiment Y and analysis Z; two reviewers asked us to comment on A in light of B, so we've added a new section to the Discussion on page 9". This does not need to be comprehensive, but should serve as an overview for the editor.

Next, go point-by-point through each reviewer's comments. I reproduce whatever they've written (in a distinctive font/color), and then write my response to that point below it in another style. These responses vary in length: a simple "fixed" is fine for comments about typos or minor errors. A major point might require an entire page, possibly with a bespoke figure. If you have changed the manuscript in response to address this comment, include the location of the changes (e.g., "Discussion, p. 9--10"). If the change is 1--2 paragraph or less, quote the revised text in the response too.

If the review is "free-form" text, break it into discrete "issues" however you see fit, but do not remove or paraphrase text and try to keep the points in the same order. Some people number them, using RX.Y to refer to the yth comment raised by Reviewer #x. Write something for every comment. If you feel certain that the reviewer is incorrect, it may be tempting to rant about their apparent ignorance. I would avoid doing this unless it's an objective, factual error. Instead, consider the possibility that there's a germ of a good idea, badly expressed, or that the writing failed to properly convey your own brilliance. At the very least, your text can often be revised to make points more clearly.

Try to make each Reviewer's section self-contained. If a reviewer repeatedly returns to the same point, it's fine to occasionally say "As mentioned above in R1.4", especially within a single reviewer's section. If several reviewers ask for a small change, I would just list them in each section. Prefer repeating "We now include the participant's ages, heights, and weights on page. 9 [quote]" to "See R1.3." For longer responses, references are fine but if multiple reviewers have the same major comment, address it in your overview. Some of your responses may rely on specific data from references. It's sometimes helpful to include relevant quotes or figures from those. Give the citation as well, obviously.

Here's a complete example of this format from one of our papers. A growing number of journals now publish peer review files, so it might be worth checking whether examples are available from your field or target journal.

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