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Our paper has gone through peer review and is now back to us. As I was collecting the different responses to the reviewers comments, I noticed a pattern from some of my co-authors, which was to thank the reviewer a lot and add a lot of sentences/titles/adjectives that were very positive/respectful/...

I am very grateful of the free time the reviewer gave to our paper and their comments, but I feel like starting every sentence with "We thank the respected reviewer for XXX", "We appreciate the constructive feedback of the reviewer on XXX" or "The reviewer accurately highlighted XXX and we appreciate their feedback" is maybe too much.

I naturally matched the tone and languages the reviewers used in their comment as I thought it would be natural to reply in the same way, and now I find the different responses we have very different to this, especially when the answer stretches to 2 lines just to thank the reviewer before finally saying we disagree with this specific comment.

My inclination would be to go for a middle point, thanking the reviewer at the introduction of the response for example, and then later highlighting particular comments or feedback that are particularly important or noteworthy.

Question:
What is the correct language and tone to use when answering to reviewer? (as a secondary question, is being overly respectful/thankful considered "too much"?)

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    The day you will receive a mean review from an asshole, then you will be as grateful as your co-authors. that the review is coming from what seems to be a normal person :D .
    – EarlGrey
    Sep 6, 2023 at 12:36
  • @EarlGrey I guess that one way to understand it! :D
    – JackRed
    Sep 6, 2023 at 12:39
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    As a reviewer and editor, I hate these endless phrases of gratitude as I'm interested in the content and not in this kind of thing, so they waste time and space and diminish my reading pleasure. So if you convince your co-authors to do away with them it's for sure a good thing in my view. That said, when it comes to any relevant decision, it probably won't make a difference. There is no "correct" and "incorrect" in this regard. Anyway, I'm on your side. Sep 6, 2023 at 14:07
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    In my experience collaborating with various group, sycophancy in responses to reviewer comments seems rather extensive, which leads me to believe that it is effective (or at least perceived to be effective). As a reviewer, it always make me uncomfortable, which might be part of its effect. Sep 7, 2023 at 13:16

5 Answers 5

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when the answer is 2 line to thank the reviewer to finally say we disagree with this specific comment.

I suspect this is an excess of courtesy, because reading (and writing) is a time-consuming activity. If the 2 lines add nothing to the discussion, they are excessive. There is a time to address the review (and the reviewer tone) in general, and that it is in the introduction and in the conclusion of your response to reviewers, but saying thanks at every line is like not saying thanks at any line and it may be perceived as "boot-licking".

Propose to your co-authors a draft of the response, where you sum-up their corteous contributions in the opening of your response, and then proceed to discuss amicably but to the point the various reviewers points. Check their reactions and if questioned about being too direct, express your doubts as you did here.

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    "boot-licking" that the word I was looking for. That what I was afraid it could be perceived as, even if it is not. Thanks also for the insight on "to the point" for the answer, it makes more sense, especially when not adding anything unnecessary.
    – JackRed
    Sep 6, 2023 at 12:45
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    @JackRed Personally I'm more concerned with my reading pleasure rather than whether somebody is boot-licking or not. For me as a reader (reviewer/editor) the recipe is: write interestiung things and don't write uninteresting things. This stuff is generally uninteresting and wastes my time. Sep 6, 2023 at 14:10
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    @ChristianHennig I shall make it interesting and not wasting times, thanks for the confirmation. I sincerely thank you for your comment which gives great insight on how reviewer and editor perceives things, and the constructive feedback you, the respected user of academia stackexchange, gave us.
    – JackRed
    Sep 6, 2023 at 14:38
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    @JackRed I should probably add a word of caution. I'm German and the answer by Sursula makes sense. Maybe in other places of the world people see things differently. Sep 6, 2023 at 15:00
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Actually this feels a lot like a cultural thing. I am from Germany where excessive praise and curtesy are not really a thing and people rather tell what they want to say straight away, which some people can interpret as harsh even though it is not meant harshly. Every time a receive an overly polite reply like this, I just think that the person is probably from a part of the world where such excessive politeness has a much higher value and it is perceived as rude to not do so.

Personally I think this is too much and I don't need it. But it also doesn't hurt me. I also do not want to start overly praising others in reviews myself, but rather write in my dry and to the point German style with minimal praising. So in general I think as long as you are not actively rude or add so much praise and thanks, that the point of what you are going say is lost in the noise, just write reviews however it feels best for you. Research and peer review is an international affair and there will always be differences, so it is best if we all manage to get along with those differences.

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    This is what I was thinking. I harbor the stereotype that Asians tend to be overly deferential and polite.
    – Barmar
    Sep 7, 2023 at 15:02
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Thank your reviewers once and then get down to business

When I construct my response-to-referees document, I give an introductory paragraph where I thank the referees for their work, any clever suggestions they had, etc., and after that I get into the nitty-gritty of the review points in a simple agree/disagree format, without continually re-thanking them each time. If there is a particular point where the reviewer did an especially good job in identifying an important point/error that I hadn't spotted then I might briefly re-thank them (or just point out that this was well-spotted), but it is nowhere near as obsequious as what you are putting forward in your question.

Here are some general suggestions on approach and tone:

  • Give a sincere and well-written thank-you to the referees for their work at the start of your response. This should typically acknowledge the work that the referees have done in reviewing the paper and a general thanks for their useful suggestions and interest in the paper. Think about the thanks that you would like to receive if you worked hard reviewing a paper and then give that type of thanks. There is no need to go overboard, but you should take the time to write a sincere and meaningful thank-you for the time given to you by another professional.

  • Avoid any form of positive feedback that sounds like insincere flattery. For example, in a submission using anonymous review, I would never refer to a referee as "the respected reviewer". (I don't know who they are, so how can I know if they're respected?) Similarly, ask yourself if you really need to augment your adjectives with "very" --- automated use of this form of emphasis is widely regarded as a form of lazy writing and it can come across as insincere when giving thanks. (Are you really "very grateful" for a review, or just "grateful"?)

  • As you proceed point-by-point through the individual pieces of feedback, clearly state whether you agree or disagree with the point made, and what (if any) revisions you have made to the paper in response to the suggestions. You have already thanked the referee, so now the focus is on the merits of the suggestions in relation to your paper --- get down to business and focus on the task at hand.

  • When you agree with a point/suggestion, there is no need to re-thank the referee for this point/suggestion. If it is a particularly insightful or interesting point (e.g., if they point out a useful piece of literature you had missed or an important argument you should incorporate) then you might decide to re-thank, but this should be done sparingly.

  • When you disagree with a point/suggestion, there is no need to blunt this by kowtowing to the referee. Just be candid and objective about your disagreement and proceed accordingly. It is okay to disagree with a referee suggestion/remark, but you should always proceed in a friendly tone that respects the work the referee has put in to reviewing the paper.

  • Excessive/obsequious praise for the referees throughout the response document has two potential negative effects. Firstly, it distracts from the discussion of the academic issues in the paper and the revisions to the paper. Secondly, it can come across as sycophantic, which is typically perceived negatively in academia in the Anglosphere. Things may certainly be different in other cultures, but that would be my advice when operating in an academic environment in the US, UK, Australia, NZ, etc.

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  • that's a lot of very good advice, thanks for taking the time to write them. I'm still a PhD student and new to this thing, and getting such insights and advices helps a lot
    – JackRed
    Sep 7, 2023 at 10:23
  • "take the time to write a sincere and meaningful thank-you" - assuming that the authors thank the reviewer only once as recommended, how does the difference between a "meaningful" and "not meaningful" thank you look like? (+1 anyway) Sep 7, 2023 at 13:38
  • @ChristianHennig: What I mean by this is that the superlatives used to describe the work of the referees should be things that make sense in the context of the review (e.g., avoiding calling them the "esteemed referees" when you don't even know who they are).
    – Ben
    Sep 7, 2023 at 21:34
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    @JackRed: You might also find the linked answer useful.
    – Ben
    Sep 7, 2023 at 21:35
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I think it is useful to recognise that - at least in the usual peer review model - your response is primarily addressed to the editor. There is no guarantee that your letter will ever be seen by the reviewers themselves.

Some journal systems do make response letters available to reviewers, though (in my experience) only if the reviewer chooses to log in and look for it. Otherwise, they will only see it if the editor asks them to undertake a second round of review, and they accept. Even then, they are reading a letter that you addressed to the editor.

The editor does not want to read obsequious and meaningless expressions of profound gratitude; they want to know what you have done in response to the reviewers' comments. It is courteous to begin your letter by thanking the reviewer and editor for their time, but after that it is entirely appropriate to be brief and direct in responding to each point.

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    Good point and insight about the peer-review model. I was missing the point of answering to the editor
    – JackRed
    Sep 6, 2023 at 12:47
  • Oh, I now realize that this may be part of the explanation of why many authors address the response without mentioning reviewers directly, as in "We thank the reviewer for X" vs "Thank you for X". Even so, in many journals in my field, the author response will typically be forwarded as-is to the reviewers for a second round. I thought it was out of politeness, but it may be the reason. (Note that this is distinct from the question of reviewers writing reports in the third person -- that question has been discussed on academia.SE already)
    – a3nm
    Sep 7, 2023 at 19:01
  • Often in replies, you're writing to the editor, but sending a strong message to reviewer 2. Sep 8, 2023 at 11:45
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One practical aspect in addition to the other answers:

One effect of perpetual thanking is that it increases the chance that the editor and reviewers think that you have done something. This particularly applies to the lazy reviewer, who already is positively inclined towards your manuscript and just briefly rushes through your comments and at best checks particular concerns that were important to them.

Now, using this is a double-edged sword:

  • On the one hand, this may appease certain reviewers and editors as described above. But then, so should thoroughly addressing each and every comment.

  • On the other hand, some editors and reviewers have become accustomed to this approach and are thus may be more skeptical of replies employing it.

I am clearly in the second camp due to my experience (beware of small sample size and confirmation bias): I observed a strong overlap between revisions where the authors overly thank me for every remark in the reply and those where a considerable portion of comments was not addressed at all, be it because the authors did not understand them, could not address or rebut the criticism, or did not want to weaken their claims. I expect that this is often intentional.

For a blatant example, if I point out a minor typo in your manuscript (the kind that copy editors cannot fix), and you reply with a simple “fixed”, I am inclined to believe you. However, if you spend several lines on thanking me for this, I will become skeptical and check whether you actually fixed it. (And yes, I was already rightfully skeptical in such cases.)

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  • Interesting. I didn't think it could be perceived this way and it feels like an additional reason to avoid it (small sample size, yes, but still)
    – JackRed
    Sep 7, 2023 at 10:25

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