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I have submitted a paper several years ago and its referee process took about three years and I had to revise the paper six times to get the final approval. The paper had two helpful and knowledgable referees and I appreciate their comments and suggestions, but I have also had the following problems with their suggestions:

  1. sometimes their comments contradicted each other. For example, one of them wanted me to add a discussion and when I added that part he wanted me to remove it in the next revision.
  2. they often wanted to expand the scope of the paper, but due to some technicalities I had to consider some restrictions to get the expected result.
  3. they gave me new comments and proposed new modifications after every single revision, while they could suggest all their comments in their first report and this made the referee process this long.
  4. one of the referees wanted me to address some related works in other papers in my paper, which was actually unnecessary.

I pretty much obeyed all their suggestions and comments and finally the paper was accepted and now it has been published. Although I learned a lot during the referee process, I wished I could negotiate with referees and do not have to obey them in every little detail. Besides I had this feeling that I have somehow lost my freedom as the author of the paper during this process and I have no control on my paper any more. I had to do whatever they asked me even if I was not completely convinced it is a right thing to do. I have also had some of the abovementioned problems with the referees of my other papers. You perhaps know that journals often have this policy that you either should implement all the changes suggested by referees or withdraw the paper. This policy leaves little room for negotiation. So my questions are:

An author, in order to discuss his/her points with referees and do not obey some of their suggestions and comments or ask them to not delay the referee process further, what is the best strategy to negotiate with referees? Is there any diplomatic way for this negotiation or we have to obey referees all the time? Have you ever had similar problems with referees of your papers? How did you overcome these problems?

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    While I claim not to be an expert, one strategy I've used when trying to clarify confusing issues is to ask the editor for clarifications. As the reviewers tend to be anonymous, the only way to get at them is through the editor. Another action is to "rebut" or comment on how you chose one of two conflicting routes in the "summary of changes" document where you write where you made the changes in the manuscript to address reviewer comments. In my experience though I've never had outright conflicts or terrible suggestions in multi-phase reviews. – Irwin Mar 13 '13 at 14:39
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    @Irwin: Thanks for sharing your insight. Actually I discussed some of my points after every revision in summary of changes (I used to call it the list of changes). But again, I was receiving new comments about other things in the next report. – user4511 Mar 13 '13 at 14:45
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    You don't negotiate with the referees. You negotiate with the editor. – JeffE Mar 13 '13 at 15:28
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    You don't negotiate with referees. You just answer their comments and remarks (and it is typical that to some of their points the answer will be "no" (e.g. "We consider this section important (because [...]) and decided to keep it as it is in the next version of manuscript.")). – Piotr Migdal Mar 13 '13 at 15:47
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This is a response drawn from my combined editor/author/reviewer experience (for what it is worth). As has already been stated, you negotiate with editors not with referees. In most cases (there are likely always exceptions) the reviewers provides reports to the editor who makes decisions based on these and should, in my opinion, also evaluate the review reports and provide you with some direction for how to proceed. Reviewers will also provide the editor with comments that you will not see and which can influence the editors final remarks. I think some editors are not taking their responsibility seriously when they let the reviewers "dictate" changes. A review is an (educated) opinion (in the best case) and not a truth (we have to remember that as reviewers). The editor is not a god (or a semi-god) either and it is always possible to disagree with him/her (I have to remember that). Keep in mind that the editor still has the power to reject papers if he/she thinks it is in the best interest of the journal.

  1. If reviews conflict, a good editor should provide you with some guidance. You can also weigh the conflicting views against each other. Sometimes one or the other are based on misconceptions which may result from unclear writing so always explore that avenue when you disagree with a comment.
  2. Expand the scope. Again, I would expect an editor to provide some final direction. If none is given I think it is fair to approach the editor and state your opinion and ask for clarification.
  3. Extending the process. This sounds quite unacceptable to me. I can possibly see this happening when getting new reviewers in after each round but again, the editor should put an end to the process at some point (sooner rather than later). I wonder what your expected turnover time would be for the journal you describe. Several years is completely unacceptable to me and within my field.
  4. Requests to quote. If not necessary then they are not necessary. I would make my case to the editor and hope that it is clear why no additions will or should be made.

So if your journal is run well, you should be able to get some direction out of your editor by asking short direct questions about whatever issues you have (suggest how you would like to solve them as well). If you have severe problems like what you describe, I think you need to re-evaluate where to publish in the future. As with all of us include some self-evaluation as well to see if you can improve from any of the problems you have encountered. I certainly have learned and hopefully improved my writing and publishing skills from publishing experiences.

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    The average time distance between submitting a paper and getting acceptance in that journal was about 1-1.5 years, but in my case it took about three years. – user4511 Mar 13 '13 at 17:39
  • @VahidShirbisheh I guess turnover times can vary between journals and possibly between fields but even 1-1.5 years sounds on the high side. – Peter Jansson Mar 13 '13 at 17:41
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    In mathematics, it is okay. – user4511 Mar 13 '13 at 18:02
  • boggle. Man, in my field I get cranky after six months. – Fomite Nov 7 '13 at 18:18
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    @Vahid Shirbisheh: even in mathematics, 1 to 1.5 years in average is only ok for very selective journals. I consider it too long for regular journals, and do not hesitate to send a reminder after six months. – Benoît Kloeckner Jan 17 '14 at 20:52
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You perhaps know that journals often have this policy that you either should implement all the changes suggested by referees or withdraw the paper.

Which journals have such a policy? I don't think this is the case for any AMS, MAA, or SIAM journal, for example, and I'm not aware of any journal with such a policy (although of course I have direct experience with only a small fraction of the journals in mathematics). Here's how it works in the cases I'm familiar with:

Any changes suggested by the referees are merely suggestions, which do not need to be followed if the author and editor are in agreement. If the change involves fixing a mistake or correctly attributing work, then no responsible editor will accept the paper until the situation is resolved (either by making the change or establishing that it is not needed). Matters of clarity are also taken seriously. However, some referee suggestions are just opinions that the author may reasonably disagree with.

It's perfectly reasonable to write to the editor and say "Here's a new draft of my paper. I've made changes A, B, and C proposed by the referees, and I'm grateful to them for identifying these issues, but I have not implemented D and E. I think those changes are not truly needed, because ..."

what is the best strategy to negotiate with referees?

I'd think of it instead as negotiating/discussing with the editor. The editor is the one who makes the decision, with the referees providing advice and expert opinions. Ideally, you'll be able to convince the referees that not all of their proposed changes are necessary, but the editor is the only person you need to convince if the referees are stubborn.

Editors are used to this. As an editor, I've occasionally written an acceptance letter (conditional on revisions) that says explicitly that only some of the changes are really needed, and even when I don't say so authors certainly don't always make all the changes.

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    In journals published by Springer, after receiving every referee report, the author has this option to submit a modified version or refuse further revision. I have been considering this option as withdrawing the paper. But I suppose I was wrong. – user4511 Mar 13 '13 at 15:27
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    It would be unusual to make no changes at all in response to referee suggestions, but you can make just a subset of the changes. – Anonymous Mathematician Mar 13 '13 at 15:32
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    Even if you make no changes at all (which would be unlikely), you'd still have to write a cover letter explaining why you made that choice. And in any case, the referees are a good sample of the typical readership of your paper, so if you are explaining something to them in the cover letter, often you'd better move the explanation into the paper in the first place. – Federico Poloni Mar 14 '13 at 8:26
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Though they make valid points, I feel that the existing answers (esp. by @Peter Jansson and @Anonymous Mathematician and the comment by @JeffE) put too much weight in the role of editors. I think this might be misleading for some folks, and (coming along quite a bit later) I want to try balance those answers out with another perspective informed by own experiences.

Not only can you negotiate with reviewers, but any time you submit a revision with a response letter, you must negotiate with them.

In my experience, editors are largely hands-off. Typically they won't read the paper in detail, but instead they try to provide a meta-review: a consensus verdict from the reviews given to them and a summary of the main points to address. The editors make the final decision about rejection/acceptance based on the information they have.

But crucially, when you submit a revision and an accompanying response letter, it is the reviewers that will look again at the paper and the treatment of their comments and decide how to proceed with their next review (and it is those reviews that are, in turn, considered by the editor). When you submit a response letter, you are implicitly negotiating with the reviewers: you are telling them which comments you addressed and how; more importantly you are telling them which comments you only partially addressed or didn't address at all and why; and you are effectively negotiating with them as to why your paper should now be considered ready for acceptance.

To be clear (and this is mentioned in other answers) it is not a good idea to only address the comments given by the editor. Your response letter should be aimed primarily at the reviewers. If the reviewers are happy, the editor is typically happy, not the other way around.

And yep, sure, reviewers will frequently give you comments you disagree with, but you must respond to everything and I highly recommend at least compromising by partially addressing every comment. Sometimes it is even sufficient to treat the spirit of the comment, not the literal content. For example, a reviewer might push you to do additional work that you feel is very clearly out-of-scope; but then you should ask yourself why the reviewer brings this up? Maybe it wasn't made clear in the paper that it was out-of-scope? In the response letter you can state that you did not present the additional work, but instead that you better clarified why it is considered out of scope in the introduction. This way you acknowledge that there was a flaw in the paper and that the reviewer has a point, but as an author, you chose a different solution to fix it.

(From the other side of the fence, I know that as a reviewer, I get p*ssed off when the comments I volunteered are not even responded to or are dismissed without good reason. Yes probably some of the comments I give are not useful to the authors but I want to at least see that they considered the suggestions.)


In summary, though the editors co-ordinate the revisions and the verdicts, it is the reviewers that provide the feedback and, in my experience, it is the reviewers you should aim to negotiate with towards getting your paper ready for acceptance.

Sometimes you may have genuine disagreement with a reviewer or will encounter the infamous adversarial reviewer. Making your case to the editor is then the best course of action. (If reviews are going around in circles for three years, as in this case for example, then it is the responsibility of the editor to step in. In fact, in the terminology of the adversarial reviewer, this is known as the "Iterated Goldilocks Method".)

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    Thank you for sharing your insight and the link to "How NOT to review a paper". – user4511 Jan 17 '14 at 20:46
  • Peter Jansson and Jeff E are both on the editorial boards of journals; Anonymous Mathematician says s/he is, too. I expect they have a pretty good idea of the relationship between editors and referees. – David Richerby Feb 25 '14 at 11:44
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    @DavidRicherby, thanks for leaving a comment along with the downvote, but your comment makes it sound like you downvoted by answer because other users are on editorial boards (and appeal to authority is a poor form of argument). If you have a direct criticism of my answer I would be glad to hear it. For what it's worth, I'm on the editorial board of a journal too. Not every journal is the same, my perspective and experience is different from theirs, hence why I felt contributing an answer was important. In my opinion, you typically please the editors by pleasing the reviewers. – badroit Feb 25 '14 at 22:50
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Read the editorial practices and author guidelines of your chosen journal carefully. The details will depend on the field, but I suspect most journals do not require authors to implement all changes suggested by referees. However, you are required to address all the points raised by the referees. (For example, Physical Review Letters does this; see their editorial practices and author guidelines.)

Referees are human and are not immune from making errors. If you believe a criticism of your paper is incorrect or a proposed change is superfluous or erroneous, you should state this (politely!) in your response. You alone are responsible for the quality and integrity of your publications, and you should not implement changes you disagree with. If you present a solid argument for why the changes should be rejected, a reasonable editor can and should let your version stand.

(Regarding multiple proposed corrections on material a referee has already seen, I feel that a polite request to the editor, after the first occurrence, that they expedite the review process by preventing such multiple corrections, is well within your rights.)

Most importantly, know the rules of the game. Read your chosen journal's editorial practices and all the author guidance at least once during the preparation and submission process of your paper, ideally before you submit, and certainly before you reply to a referee report. If a journal states that you must incorporate all referee proposed changes, and you are uncomfortable with this, choose another journal!

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