On editor’s instructions

Lewis Powell writes in from our Suggest a Topic page:

Sometimes the editors give an author fairly vague guidance on what changes to make in accord with referee reports, saying “take some account of the objections raised in the referee’s report” or the like.  How should an author interpret such advice?

I’ll certainly be interested to hear the range of responses, especially from other editors. To start us off, I’ll say just say a few things.

If there is something from the referee reports that I definitely want the author to address, I will say so in my note to the author. But there are times when either I myself wouldn’t require that an author address any one particular point by the referees (though of course the referees themselves might when making a recommendation to the editor), or the paper is not in my area and so while there may be really important points for the author to address, I’m not certain of it.

In both cases, I still want the author to take very seriously all the comments of the referees. (They are, after all, the experts on the topic of the paper from whom I’ve asked for recommendations.) Taking seriously the comments does not always require agreeing with them and making changes accordingly, however. Sometimes it involves explaining why you think the referee’s point is mistaken. But it is almost always a good idea, even for referee comments that seem to misunderstand your point, to use them to improve your paper. (At the very least you can now see how someone might misunderstand what you are trying to say, and so a brief clarification can be added to forestall such a misunderstanding.)

So I would interpret that advice from an editor as something like the following: “Please take seriously all the referees’ comments. Consider each of them fully, and then determine whether, in your considered view, making changes to your paper in light of them would make your paper better. If they would, please do. If they would not, please explain your thinking about it to me.”

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