Read between the lines of editors’ comments

This month I’d like to discuss editors’ decisions on manuscripts. I recently ran across a stack of comments from editors and reviewers of my own manuscripts, and I use them as examples of how to interpret these often cryptic communications between journals and authors.  Here’s a look back at some excerpts taken from my letters from the editor (E) followed by my interpretation (I):

“Your work is more suitable for a specialty journal.”
I: While we publish specialty articles all the time in the JCI, we just don’t like yours for some reason.


E: “While the three reviewers had some positive comments, each had major concerns that must be addressed with new experiments.”
I: You cannot rebut these concerns. You need to do some more work, and, I am sending it back to the reviewers, rather than trying to figure out if you have done what they want.


E: “While there are a number of concerns expressed by the reviewers which need to be addressed, please note with particular attention comments #1 and #2 of reviewer 1.”
I: Feed me a bone for most of the comments; you need to perform additional experiments only for the indicated concerns.


E: “(Reviewer) While some portions of the paper are interesting, my degree of enthusiasm is significantly reduced due to…”
I: I hate your paper, and I doubt that you will be able to satisfy me.


E: “I note that the majority of the comments are favorable; however, I need you to address the first concern of reviewer 2.”
I: I will accept your paper if you feed me a bone for this concern, and I will not send it back to the reviewer.


E: “The paper is of interest, but is not acceptable in its current form due to the significant concerns of the reviewers.”
I:  You have a lot of work to do, but it is possible that you can get the paper accepted.


E: The Editorial Board carefully considered your paper and felt that, even after revision, it would not rise to the impact level for this journal. However, it may be appropriate for our sister journal. Using this link will convert your paper to the format of this journal and submit your manuscript.”
I: We are promoting our new sister journal.


E: (Reviewer) “This is one of the worst manuscripts I have reviewed for Nature, and this is evident from the first sentence of the abstract.”
I: (Observed while I was a postdoctoral fellow.) This is an angry reviewer, who is so inappropriate that his comments might be ignored. His negativity can be exploited, and a confidential letter to the editor should be sent. (Note: This paper was in fact accepted for publication.)


E: “Your paper is not acceptable for publication (followed by lots of sentences). However, note that I have attached an edited version of your manuscript in the style for Science.”
I: I really like your paper, but I just can’t come out and say it because of the multiple concerns of the reviewers. However, if you can satisfy the reviewers, this is how the paper would look in Science. (Note: It took four submissions before this paper was accepted).


A few important concepts can be derived from these letters.

First, I suggest reading the letter and comments and then putting them away for a day or two. The personal effect of being initially rejected can cloud your judgment. Secondly, identify any overly harsh or sarcastic comments and deal with them discreetly with the editor.  Also, it’s a good idea to read the entire letter from the editor.  In the last example, I never saw the reformatting sentence until someone brought it to my attention.

While I have added some humor to the subject, it is important that those serving in editorial capacities recognize the impact that we have, and the responsibility that we accept, in communicating with authors. At a recent meeting in San Francisco, someone approached me and shared that I was the JBC editorial board member who accepted his first paper, and he appreciated how I handled the situation. It seems that one reviewer was particularly acerbic, and apparently in my letter to the author I strongly encouraged him to resubmit.

And finally, as recipients of editor letters and reviewer comments, be sure to:

                  T3   L
      R1       H     I
B2 E T W E E N
      A                E
      D                S

Stephen Liggett, MD
Vice Dean for Research
Professor of Medicine, Molecular Pharmacology and Physiology
USF Health Morsani College of Medicine
Co-director, USF Health Heart Institute

Stephen Liggett_2015_Preferred_headshot