Responding to peer reviewer comments
Updated on 7 July 2023
Before your proposal is considered at the review panel stage, you may be invited to respond to the reviewers' comments. This gives you the chance to address any criticisms and questions raised by the reviewers, and your response is submitted to the panel in confidence. This guide is modelled on the process for Research Council applications.
The role of responses to reviewers in the peer review process
Responding to the reviewers' comments is an important part of the peer review process. Panel members consider the responses carefully when discussing the issues raised by the reviewers to see how the applicant addresses them. A good response can make a significant competitive difference at the panel meeting.
An applicant can choose not to respond to the reviewers’ comments, although this is unlikely to be a successful strategy, as the panel will be left with unresolved questions about the project. This is your chance to reassure the panel about any doubts they may have.
If the comments are so good that there's little to respond to, view it as an opportunity to re-emphasise the importance and promise of the work, and to give an update about any important new work of yours or others, or any new topicality.
How to respond
- Your response should usually be in A4 format with a maximum length of 2 pages, written in a minimum of 11pt font (Arial or equivalent) and with a minimum of 2cm margins. Check the format guidelines very carefully – your response may be returned if it is too long or in the wrong format.
- Find the reviewer’s response form if you can; this shows how your proposal will be judged and you could use this to structure your response.
- If this form is not available, another approach is to look for (1) themes that are in common between the reviewers; (2) any major issues; and (3) minor criticisms, and address them in that order (see below).
- If issues are very minor, it is unlikely to be worth going through each one. Use the space to make your case on any larger points.
Get the tone of your response right
- Your initial response to receiving reviews will probably be quite negative and it can feel like a personal attack; this is completely natural. If you can, set the reviews on one side for at least 24 hours to give yourself time to draw breath. One very good tip is to write down what you really want to say, then throw it in the bin and start again!
- Remember that your reviewers devote a lot of (unpaid) time and effort to reviewing proposals. Be positive and calm – the tone of your response is important and demonstrating that you are open to feedback will reflect positively on your proposal.
- Committees will consider your response in their discussions and it could significantly improve your chances if you respond well.
- When you do respond, the key is to sound authoritative rather than defensive; be respectful but don’t be afraid to take on board any genuinely good ideas or flaws pinpointed by the referees. Make the panel think that you are the expert and that any negative comments were simply due either to misunderstandings or to risks that you can mitigate etc.
- An aggressive response is likely to appear arrogant and less considered. In particular, dismissing a reviewer's criticism as ‘obviously’ wrong may make panels feel that the issues of concern have not been properly addressed.
How to structure your response
There is no right or wrong way to structure your response; the way you do this will be dependent on the number, length and nature of the reviews.
- One possible approach, if you can find the reviewer’s response form, is to structure your response in the same format, using the same headings as a top-level structure. This will mean that responses to comments made by more than one reviewer on single issues can be grouped. This is also helpful if the comments have a topic in common; for example, the critique might converge on experimental design or methodology.
- Another possible approach is to address each reviewer in turn. This has the advantage that the members of the panel will probably read each review in turn and so the relevant response will be at hand. However, things can become very confusing if reviewers have issues in common or issues that overlap (which is very likely), in which case you will have a lot of repetition which will use up valuable space.
- It may make sense to use a mixture of the above, addressing issues that are mentioned by more than one reviewer in one section, and then go through individual points by reviewer.
- Whatever structure you decide on, be clear about what issue(s) you are addressing and use reviewer reference numbers to be clear who you are responding to.
How to respond
- Be concise – only include relevant information that adds value to your argument and clearly addresses the points made by the reviewers. Remember, the panel already has your proposal and peer review comments so avoid duplicating these unnecessarily.
- However you chose to structure your response, tackle the issues raised by the reviewers concisely and with a calm, measured tone. In some cases, reviewers may suggest ways in which the project could be improved that you may want to respond to. It is important to respond to reviewers’ comments on all the sections, not just the Case for Support. For example, if a reviewer has questioned the research area(s) the proposal addresses, this can be discussed in the response.
- Respond to the reviewers fully and positively. Having negative reviewer’s comments will not necessarily harm your chances of funding if you deal with them appropriately.
- Identify criticisms clearly and respond explicitly to negative comments.
- Don’t dismiss a reviewer’s comment as uninformed or irrelevant. Instead, provide an explanation to reassure the board or panel that you have considered their point. Never criticise the reviewer and or play off one reviewer against the other.
- View this as an opportunity to demonstrate your knowledge, clarify experimental approaches and add new supporting data (if asked).
Some tips for drafting your response
- Always have your responses reviewed by colleagues. Our experience is that their advice is often to cut down on wording, have evidence/references to back up your points, and not to use argumentative language.
- Explain it differently – if a concern is raised by more than one reviewer, it may be that your proposal could be presented more clearly. Consider finding another way to put the point across.
- Be open and honest about any limitations that may have been highlighted by reviewers.
- Refer to parts of your proposal that you feel already address the reviewers' concerns.
- Use references to publications to add weight to your arguments.
- Back up your claims, but only include figures if they are genuinely helpful. If you have new data that will allow you to respond to a comment, show the reviewers that you have this. If you can fit the data in within the permitted page limit, include it in your response. Alternatively, if the data is published, cite the appropriate reference.
- Avoid blank statements – if you don’t think you can address a specific comment, it’s better to provide an explanation than ignore it completely.
- Keep to the issues and avoid wasting space by, for example, thanking the reviewers or including details of what they have already said.
- Appeal to your audience – think about who will be reading your response. In this case, it will be a busy board or panel member who will also be reading your funding proposal and peer review comments. These are the people who will make the final judgement on your proposal – make your response easy to read and make every word count.
- If the reviewer did not understand what you are planning to do, it is very likely that the panel won’t either. Now is your last chance to clear up ambiguity.
- Seek advice from your peers and from the Research Development Team in RIS. Treat your responses as you did the application itself. A second opinion is always valuable.
DOs and DON’Ts
- DO use a concise and measured tone. DO NOT take an argumentative tone.
- DO answer ALL questions raised by reviewers.
- DO structure your response in a systematic way using clear headings.
- Where appropriate, DO use references to peer-reviewed publications to correct any factual inaccuracies.
- DO NOT question the credentials of the reviewers or dismiss their opinions.
- DO NOT argue that the strengths of other aspects of the proposal (e.g. potential impact) outweigh some of the weaknesses identified by the reviewers.
- DO take some time to allow your disappointment to subside before reading the reviewers comments carefully. Read in anger, get a good nights’ sleep, respond with patience.
- DO treat the reviewers’ comments as a means of improving your next proposal.
- DO contact the Program Officer to learn as much as you can about the review of your proposal.