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In the R&R comments from both the report and the editor's report, I was told that they would greatly prefer for my paper to be shortened/condensed. This is at a journal where the word count is already very low, and my paper was nearly 1000 words shorter than that limit. So I am curious whether they might have an approximate number in mind. I am happy to make my paper as short as possible. But for certain aesthetic/stylistic reasons, I may want to keep a paragraph or two in there. May I ask the editor to clarify the approximate length they have in mind, or would this not reflect well on me?

Overseas TT

I agree with most of these, with two exceptions.

1. [In response to two positive but critical reviews] "it is a very bad idea simply to go through the paper and make a series of local amendments."

I think it's a bad idea when the amendments are superficial and come across as hand-waiving through the referees' objections. E.g. I think it comes across particularly badly when the author just sprinkles footnotes all over the paper to deal with objections (suggesting, perhaps unintentionally, that the objections are pesky and unimportant).

But sometimes I think it's perfectly fine to keep the paper's structure largely as is and address objections as they come up. (In every case I received two positive and critical R&R and did this, the paper ultimately got accepted).

2. "Don’t play the game of “placate the referee”."

I think this depends on what you prioritize. Sometimes one needs to make a compromise to actually get the paper published where one wants to. When the R&R is from a very high-prestige journal, there's great pressure, especially for early career scholars, to do whatever it takes to publish the paper.

To put it bluntly, some referee reports are just bad. Such reports don't give rise to any dilemma when it's a rejection; I ignore them and send the paper to the next journal. It's greater headache when the report is bad but recommends R&R. In that case, a response to the report that declines to address all of the referee's substantive objections can easily lead to rejection even if the responses are otherwise fully justified. In such cases, one can be excused for picking one's battles and placating the reviewer to the extent that one can without sacrificing the paper's integrity.

David McCarthy

In reply to S: if the report and the editor's letter strongly recommend shortening your paper, just do it! They are saying that you are making an interesting contribution, but it doesn't merit the space you are using. As authors, we can get very attached to things we have written, and letting go of those can be psychologically very difficult. But most likely your attachment to a certain paragraphs for aesthetic reasons is really not in line with an objective assessment of their contribution to your argument. I wouldn't trouble the editor with precise word count. The editor will be very busy, and is not there to micromanage your rewrite; you will probably just annoy them. It's your job to figure it out. Perhaps you could imagine how you would present the paper as a very short presentation, just some bullet points, then add in only the detail that is strictly relevant.


I've also gotten the flipside of the editorial intervention described in the OP; two positive referee reports, but the editor saying he'd only publish the paper if I excised the last section.

While I myself liked the last section of the paper, and thought the editor's criticisms were based on a misunderstanding--the paper wasn't in his area of specialization--it was at a very prestigious journal, so I placated the editor.

While I can see the appeal of the principle that people shouldn't do things like that, as a pre-tenure faculty member at a school with a demanding tenure standard, I can't say that I regret my decision.


Dear David McCarthy,

Your advice was very helpful; it is psychologically difficult to let go to some of things we've written, but in the grand scheme of things, I don't think I'd regret excising the unnecessary bits. Thank you for your response.


Most of this is super helpful, but I think I disagree with the "total re-write" advice. This both contradicts all the advice I have ever been given (make minimal changes that respond to the comments, don't risk giving referees/editors new things to complain about) and it also goes against my experience. I have had 11 r&'rs in the last few years (not a huge number, but not a tiny sample either). 10 were eventually accepted (with only one requiring more than one round of revision). In no situation have I ever re-written my paper at the r&r stage. I have almost always added material in response to the comments (at least, when I considered the comments worthy of response).

David McCarthy

Thanks to everyone for the feedback, from here and other places. I agree that "total rewrite" is much less often a good idea than I seem to be suggesting it is. I do think it is the right thing to do in some circumstances, typically for long papers sent to super top journals where you might get 3 ref reports that say quite different things. But those are much more the exception than the rule. I will revise the post to clarify this, if they'll let me!


Is there more to be said about how to write the letter to the editor that details the revisions made in response to the referee report? I suppose that it is pretty self-explanatory: say or explain your revisions in light of and with reference to the review, and justify what you did not change. But in case there are non-obvious tips on how to word and structure the letter in a pleasant manner for time-crunched editors and reviewers, I thought my question might be worth asking.

David McCarthy

In reply to S: personally, I just write a very short letter to the editor, indicating that I am attaching the revised paper plus a separate document listing responses to referees.

In "Responses to referees" I will parallel the syntax of the reports so that everyone can look these up efficiently. E.g. if reviewer 1 has listed points 1, ..., 10, I will mimic that structure and indicate my responses in note form with page numbers. I try to keep everything brief. E.g. my "Response to referees" might look like:

Reviewer 1.

1. References to utilitarianism need to be added.

Response: References added (note 3, page 5).

2. Why is the author presenting Proposition 2? It seems tangential. If the author does insist on it, s/he needs to define a Boolean algebra.

Response: The Proposition has been removed.

If the paper has changed significantly, I will also probably preface responses to referees by writing a section entitled "Summary of major changes." Again, I will try to be brief.

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