How to tackle a major revision

Now that you’re finally over the disappointment of receiving a major revision (and not a rejection!) on your cherished paper, it’s time to start working. My strategy is based on Tanya Golash-Boza’s post and is modified slightly to suit my workflow. The use of a spreadsheet may sound crazy to some (it did to me!) but it really helps to see things visually and chances of missing something are greatly minimised.

Step 1: Keep Calm and Read the Comments

As I mentioned in the last post, read the all the comments made by the reviewers and the associate editor without any bias or emotion to get a sense of what they require of you. If your supervisor has read the comments too then get a feel of what he or she thinks. It is quite likely that they may spot something that you’ve missed (based on their experience).

Step 2: List the revisions in a spreadsheet

Following Tanya’s suggestion, make a spreadsheet to list all the revisions, one comment per row. Also wrap the text in the cell otherwise its hard to follow long comments. I use the following columns in my spreadsheet (few more than her) that are explained below:

  1. Reviewer: ID of reviewer i.e. 1,2,3, etc. or AE (for associate editor).
  2. Comment: Reviewer’s comment. I paste it exactly as it is so that I get to read it multiple times (regardless of how heartbreaking and mean it may be). This also helps me to ensure I haven’t missed anything and understand the comment more clearly.
  3. Type: Whether the comment is major or minor. Helpful when reviewers say it themselves.
  4. Difficulty: I colour code this as green, orange or red depending on the relative effort required to answer the comment. Sometimes a major revision requires less effort than a minor comment!
  5. Response: My initial response to a particular comment.
  6. Section: Which section in the paper will this be addressed in?
  7. P_Status: Status of changes made in the paper. Traffic light colour coding with red for not started, orange for in progress and green for finished.
  8. R_Status: Status of reply in the response letter to reviewers. Colour coded as above.
  9. Estimated Time: Roughly approximate number of hours/days needed to address a reviewer’s comment.
  10. Notes: Any extra notes related to this particular comment.

Step 3: Find links between comments

Some issues may have been flagged by multiple reviewers that are exactly the same. There may be multiple comments by the same reviewer as well that are saying the same thing essentially. I colour the cells of these comments on my spreadsheet using very light colours (different for each comment, but one colour for the group).

Step 4: Rearrange the rows

I’d usually put the easier bits on top. These are the rows with green/orange cells in the Difficulty column. But you’re free to choose any order you’re comfortable with. When rearranging make sure all the columns are correctly moved up or down. Also put the linked comments next to each other (same coloured rows). My final spreadsheet looks something like this:


Step 5: Estimate total time

This is essentially summing up the time column to see what your next couple of months are going to look like. If you’re sure you need more time then there’s no harm in asking for an extension. I find this step really important because it gives me an instant idea of whether I can delay my work on the revisions or not.

Step 6: Frame the response for each comment

In the response column, write detailed notes on how you’re going to answer each comment made by the reviewer. I use this column first to put my initial thoughts about every comment.

Step 7: Go green!

The red cells in the status column need to go green! The way I work is that I first make the change in the paper and change its status in the spreadsheet. I also write a proper reply to a particular reviewer’s comment at the same time in a different file.

Step 8: Review

This is the most boring part. Once all the red status cells are green, make sure that the changes you’ve made actually make sense. Get someone to read, if possible. Check the grammar too. Ensure you have made all the changes in the paper and have a corresponding response for each change. If you disagree with something, you must justify it very clearly.

Step 9: Submit

And wait, for the good news!



Major Revision? It’s NOT a bad decision!

I’ll be very honest here. It sucks to get a Major Revision (or Revise and Resubmit) on any manuscript. It really does! An optimist would say that its better than an outright Reject. That’s true but the amount/nature of work a major revision can entail is usually unpredictable. Also, by the time you get the reviews back, you’ve probably moved on to something more interesting. You are then dragged back in time where the first task is to locate the files you used to create the final version manuscript in the first place. Its horrible. Add to that, you can be given anything between a month to six months to make the revisions and submit it.

So what should you do when you receive that long e-mail full of hurtful comments asking you to make major changes to the manuscript?

Well, to start with, if you’re having thoughts of not revising it then get rid of them. The fact that your paper wasn’t rejected indicates that there is some merit in it and is a very very small acknowledgement of your work. Following that, take time in reading the comments. There is no hurry. In fact the first couple of times you read the comments you’ll be pretty pissed and think that the reviewer is either crazy, being mean or just doesn’t understand your work. Either can be true, of course. But when two or three reviewers are raising some points then be open to accept that there is something that needs attention. What I have started doing now is to read the comments quickly and then forget about it for a day. This is because my first reaction to comments is always clouded by the disappointment in getting a major revision. The trick here is to read them objectively, without any emotion. This is hard too, because you’re almost always emotionally attached to your work. In your mind, your research is great and you just see the positives in it. But whether you have expressed it in the same way as it is in your head is always a big question mark.

I really cannot stress how important it is to read the comments over and over again to understand what they exactly ask of you. I once prepared a detailed reply to a comment only to realise later that I misunderstood it. Some comments may even sound mean or dumb. But think about it, what if the reviewer is asking something only out of curiousity? Something that will add value to your paper, making it more informative to the reader? Just because you understand your paper doesn’t mean anyone who reads it will understand it. Also, the reviewer doesn’t have anything personal against you. Even if he or she does, you can’t really find it out!

Having said that, try to address ALL of the issues raised by the reviewers. Unless you have a very strong reason not to do so, and the reason should be sufficiently explained, just make the changes that they have asked for. It may change the outlook of the paper somewhat, and probably, for better. Also, it is likely that the same reviewers will have a look at your revisions so if you do make the changes based on their suggestions they will be happy to let it through – unless there is something wrong.

Finally, it may turn out that only one of the reviewers think your manuscript needs a major revision while others consider it close to being ready for publication. From my experience, you can tell that from the tone of the comments made by each of the reviewer. This will help in estimating the time needed to make the changes. If they are minor then they don’t warrant spending a lot of time. Most journals will assign a decision of major revision if at least one of the reviewers think that major work is needed (this link gives a good idea about how the final decision is made). So if you think only one of the reviewer may have given you a major revision then you’re pretty close to crossing the line. Even if not, there is no reason to be disappointed because you already have a foot in the door and all you need is a little bit of motivation to make the required changes.

I know…easier said than done.

In the next post, I will write about the strategy I follow in tacking a major revision.