A Few Tips on Revising Academic Papers

If you’ve been asked to revise and resubmit a paper for an academic journal, congratulations! There is no guarantee the paper will be accepted, but it becomes more likely the further along in the process you get (see my post on rejection). Here are some tips for people new to the revision process about what you need to do and how it works. My as-ever disclaimer is that my experience is limited to my area of science and academics, and publishing in other fields may be different.

The revise and resubmit request may look like a rejection at first, but it’s not. It’s a chance to address the reviewer comments and put the article back into consideration for publication.

Typically it will have a main body of text written by an associate or deputy editor, or someone who is in charge of making a final decision on the manuscript. This will be followed by the comments from the peer reviewers.

The expectation is that you will address all of the comments, stating clearly how you have done so, in a separate revision letter, and resubmit both the revision letter and the revised manuscript–with changes highlighted so they are easy to see.

You need to address every comment in your revision. Sometimes “addressing” the comment might be noting “this would indeed be interesting but is outside of the scope of this paper” because sometimes reviewers (myself included) can get carried away with the shiny ideas and start asking for more than can really fit. When you put together your revision letter, something that helps me is to copy and paste the reviewer comments in and then note how I addressed every one of them.

Unless you have been otherwise instructed–for example, one of the revision comments is to cut the length of the manuscript–is totally fine to extend the length of the article to address comments. HOWEVER, that expansion should not exceed, say, another 500ish words. As in, the word counts are there to keep people from going wild and to constrain the articles not as a pass/fail hard line thing. We can’t publish novellas, but it is totally okay to go over a bit to address comments.

Comments by the managing / associate / deputy editor are more important than by the other reviewers. The main editor may ask you to make changes that contradict the other reviewer comments, that instruct you to pay particular attention to a reviewer comment or set of comments, or ask you to do additional things outside of what the reviewers have said. Sometimes reviewers make notes that the main editor does not like or that are incorrect or bad advice. The main editor represents the peer review from the journal and their comments should always take precedence.

Here are some of my ideas about process and word count, because keeping the revision from expanding into an enormous monster is often really hard:

When I approach a revision, I usually divide up my comments to address with colored markers into “small typos and minor clarifications” and “substantive content changes” (I divide them up further by section and other stuff but we don’t need to get that deep into my head LOL). How this connects to word count is that first what I do is address all those typos / clarifications because they typically will not add to word count and often even reduce it. Often the fix for something muddy is to simplify the sentence or remove extraneous ideas that are causing the muddy. Then I’m just left with comments that might add word count.

Of these some will add a lot and some will add just a little. Some may also take words away. For example, someone wanted me to expand on the idea of hopelessness which I had introduced in the discussion section of a paper but did not seem to connect directly to the study’s results. Instead, I removed the discussion of hopelessness from the article. It was an easy way to reclaim word count and eliminate a big messy comment, and honestly removing it focused the paper much better. So look for places where maybe you want to cut something that’s not contributing as much so that you can add in more depth on something that is contributing a lot.

My process is then to the just address the remaining comments top to bottom. I keep an eye on my word count as I do so, but am usually not super-concerned with how many words I’m taking in the early re-drafting. I just need to get the fixes done.

Then I go and do an editing pass to condense the fixes, remove extra stuff, tighten the writing, take out any extra phrases or words that aren’t really contributing.

If you get through that pass and it’s still too long, reconsider content and the reviewer comments. Can you address a comment in a different way that does not add so many words? Which comments are priority? Which make a better paper?

The more of this kind of thing you do, the easier revising within word count on the first try will become. People assume that because they can write, they can just do this stuff. But it’s a real skill that only comes fully with practice.

Happy editing!

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