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A student co-author drafted a response letter to the reviewers in which they apologize numerous times. I found this strange, but I can't pinpoint why.

Question: Should one apologize in response letters to reviewers? If not, why not?

I'm not sure if this is just my personal feeling, or if there are some underlying, tangible reasons for not apologizing.

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    Would you clarify what the student co-author apologized for? – scaaahu Jul 30 '15 at 12:45
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    It's a weird habit that is extremely common in my community. I would say one should not (especially since 95% of the time one isn't actually sorry), but it is nevertheless standard to do so. – xLeitix Jul 30 '15 at 12:49
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    Here's an example: "[blah blah blah] should be discussed and evaluated." "We are very sorry for our negligence..." (It's a computer science paper, by the way.) – Rebecca J. Stones Jul 30 '15 at 12:49
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    I think it would be very awkward to apologize in this way. The correspondence should be purely professional. – Jair Taylor Jul 30 '15 at 21:34
  • Never apologize for anything. It's everybody else's fault! – CaptainCodeman Jul 30 '15 at 22:47
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My rule of thumb, generally in life as much as any specific aspect of it, don't apologize for something you haven't done wrong. This is of course highly debatable but an apology is a formal acceptance of a mistake made, not a figure of speech to be polite. So I'd say don't apologize for something if you don't believe you "f*ed something up".

It does have a cultural component however, as a British friend of mine once put it:

buying a bag of crisps in England involves 4 "Excuse me"s, 7 "Sorry"s and numerous "thank you"s.


In this scenario specifically, I think it'd be an insincere apology, and might even be taken as mockery to apologize in response of a comment made by a reviewer. I'd rather advocate for a respectful and appreciative response, something like:

Re: "[blah blah blah] should be discussed and evaluated."

We would like to thank the reviewer for pointing out the lacking discussion on [blah blah blah], this has been added in the revised version of the manuscript, see page X, paragraph Y.

or, if you disagree with the reviewer about that particular comment because it's not missing

Re: "[blah blah blah] should be discussed and evaluated."

We would like to thank the reviewer for pointing out the lacking discussion on [blah blah blah], however this topic has been covered in page X, paragraph Y.

OR, if you disagree with the reviewer about that particular comment because it's not necessary

Re: "[blah blah blah] should be discussed and evaluated."

We would like to thank the reviewer for pointing out the lacking discussion on [blah blah blah], this topic has been omitted because reasons A,B and C.

Of course these examples are grossly simplified and generalized, usually a bit more context regarding the proposed changes would be appropriate to give in the response. Remember the response is aimed primarily at the editor, not the reviewer. If you can convince the editor, you might even bypass a second iteration to the reviewer.

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    I would add to the point about doing something wrong also that if I have caused in inconvenience to the Editor or other persons involved I would apologize – arkiaamu Jul 30 '15 at 13:24
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    I do not understand how thanking the reviewer for something that you do not feel thankful for (pointing an omissions which is not actually an omission, etc) is better than apologizing for something that you are not sorry for. – Boris Bukh Jul 30 '15 at 14:27
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    @BorisBukh good point, however you can angle it like this, you can be thanking for the attention they have given to manuscript and the comments to make it a better. You don't necessarily need to say "well, thank you for your useless comment" :) – posdef Jul 30 '15 at 15:58
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    I do not suggest to be rude. No commentary is best in this case. – Boris Bukh Jul 30 '15 at 16:01
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    But you should consider that written word in E-Mails don't convey tone as good as speaking to someone. I've read that in many cases a written mail will be received a lot harsher in tone than intended by the writer (and can easily be misinterpreted) - so you should usually write your email a lot nicer and with more politeness than a normal conversation. So an additional thank you doesn't hurt at all. – Falco Jul 31 '15 at 10:51
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I think there is an important distinction to be made between acknowledging mistakes and apologizing.

Reviewers often notice genuine problems with our work, and I think that it is entirely appropriate to acknowledge the mistakes that we have made and to express (genuine!) gratitude to a reviewer for pointing out the problem. For example:

Whoops - you're right, figure 3's legend and caption don't match. Apparently, we forgot to update the caption when we changed the figure presentation. Thanks for the catch; it's now fixed.

Apology, however, should be reserved for the places where one has actually caused problems and/or pain for a reviewer (as opposed to just problems for one's own science). For example:

We are sorry that our original description of the method was apparently so difficult to understand. We have revised and clarified and believe that it should be much more intelligible now.

Given this, I find that gratitude is frequently appropriate, while apology is sometimes (but rarely) appropriate.

  • We are sorry that our original description of the method was apparently in some way we find difficult to understand so difficult to understand. – Michael Jul 30 '15 at 18:56
  • @Michael Yeah, that's not apology territory. But I've certainly had times where I agree with the reviewer, as I come to realize something was written with way too many assumptions about reader knowledge. – jakebeal Jul 30 '15 at 19:53
  • Ah, I may have misread the intent of the second statement to suggest that sometimes "apologies" are less than sincere due to the writer of said apology not really understand why they need / are supposed to be apologizing. – Michael Jul 30 '15 at 20:48
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    "I apologize for failing to explain clearly enough why we found your description of how our original description was difficult to understand so difficult to understand." – JeffE Jul 30 '15 at 22:39
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That you are writing back to the journal suggests you got an "accept with revisions" or "revise and resubmit" response. You are writing to the editor, not the reviewers. I would suggest an overall appreciation to the reviewers for their time and attention (reviewing papers takes a lot of time): "We offer our thanks to the reviewers for their suggestions and corrections. A list of revisions follows," and then do a list coded to page number or section. Don't apologize, unless one of the criticisms was that your proofreading wasn't good and you had errors throughout the paper. That kind of inattention drives reviewers nuts and it's worth acknowledging that you could/should have done that better.

An editor doesn't want to wade through a lot of blah-blah apology stuff. S/he wants to know whether you've improved the paper enough to make it acceptable. Get to that point.

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