Publishing well is key to a successful research career yet, like many aspects of modern academic life, it is an activity that has intensified and industrialised over recent decades. An abbreviated version of this article appeared in Times Higher Education and can be found here. The full version is offered below:
The editors of top-ranked journals face a deluge of new submissions whilst struggling to convince their colleagues to take on reviewing work and to do so in a timely fashion. Rejection rates have soared and surviving 3 or 4 rounds of the revise and resubmit cycle is an exercise in creativity and persistence. The attitude of aspiring authors in the context might best be summarised by Baumeister’s observation that “in view of the misanthropic psychopaths you have on your editorial board, you need to keep sending them papers, for if they weren't reviewing manuscripts they'd probably be out mugging old ladies or clubbing baby seals to death."
What follows is some advice on how to survive and thrive in the land of revise and resubmit.
Have a Tantrum
If you’ve received a revise and resubmit (R&R) the world is telling you something. If it comes from a low-ranked and/or new journal, things are really bad. They should be thanking you for your wonderful research and asking if you have any friends that have papers looking for a home. If it emanates from the editorial offices of a prestigious journal, an R&R carries confirmation of your talent since the vast majority of poor quality submissions will have been instantly desk rejected. Journal editors the world over long for an editorial bot that can generate thousands of “Dear [name], thanks for your paper on [topic] which we’ve rejected because [select from a short list of socially polite reasons]” per hour because they currently have to draft them by hand. Logically however, an R&R from a good journal indicates that you took a piece of well-executed research and spent a reasonable amount of time working on version 1.0 of something that is dear to your heart. To see it eviscerated by an editor and three reviewers is traumatic and outrage is a normal human response. Have a tantrum, howl at the injustices, rail at the minor technical inaccuracies or the typos littering the pages of insults masquerading as “advice”. Nothing will change but it will get the inner toddler out of your system.
Take Time Out
Continuing the Super Nanny theme, once you’ve had your initial tantrum, take some time out. You’ll no doubt have been set a deadline by which the editor(s) would like to see a revised version of your paper. Take the first week of this to get some perspective on the situation. As an author you need to move from a place of indignance to one of perseverance and willingness to try, try, try again. The temptation of course, is to obsessively read and re-read your R&R over those first few days but this tends to further foster the heat and hurt of your initial reactions. Put the paper, the project and the R&R to one side and do something else for a while. If you have co-authors, form a pact to abstain from group therapy for a time but only on the proviso that you come back together at an agreed time. Break the time out into two phases. A few days of complete abstinence from the paper, the anger and the worry over the consequences for your career. Then a second phase in which you allow yourself to begin to move forward by gathering together copies of anything that the editor or reviewers might mention in their voluminous notes. The better the journal, the better qualified and more experienced the reviewers. Each will likely have noted several of their own papers as well as schools of thought, bodies of theory or methodological traditions that they’ve used to poke holes in your argument. The editor, motivated by the citation stats for their beloved journal, will also likely have mentioned several things from previous issues to which you could usefully refer.
Think Learning Opportunity
In all probability, your R&R will have come with a cover note from the editor pointing out that you are invited to undertake a high-risk resubmission. Don’t be despondent; few people receive a low-risk resubmission these days even at rounds two, three or four. Instead, allow yourself to be excited that you’re still in the game. Eventual publication is still possible and you’ve had somewhere in the region of half a day of free consultancy from some of the very best qualified people on the planet. An editor, who will be an exceptional scholar and a very experienced publisher, has read your work at least twice in round one. The first would be a relatively quick skim read to establish that your paper was worth reviewing. The second would be a more careful process of triangulating between the two and three reviews that s/he received. Individual reviewers will have spent at least an hour, and likely more, reading your paper, thinking about it deeply and generating anywhere between a page and a paper’s worth of commentary. What a fantastic resource. These individuals might sound like they want to incinerate your paper but in fact, they are merely doing what you do to every student essay that you receive. They’re pointing out how it could be improved. Yes, they’ll have spent a great deal of time showing where and how those improvements might occur. Yes, it is unhelpful that they have divergent views on some things. No, they won’t have been as gushing in their praise as you’d like. Remember this and embrace the free advice.
Ask for Help
Having survived the initial indignation just accept that your ultimate goal of publication rests on completely rewriting your paper, gathering new data, undertaking more and/or different analysis, connecting to different literatures or possibly all of the above. These new things might require some outside help. Even if you know the literature(s) well enough, some outside help can be invaluable in terms of the nuanced difference between reviewer #1 who says “add more blah” and reviewer #3 who says “not so much blah, thanks.” Your colleagues can add a tremendous amount simply offering a new reading of a subtly constructed sentence or endorsing that you have got the gist of what you’re being asked to do about right. In extremis, you might even write back to the editor seeking clarification on how to handle “blah-gate” given the divergent views of the reviewers. However, before doing so consider the following. First, the editor is busier that you are (at least in their world view). Second, the editor will be rightly wary of what they might perceive as an attempt to get into negotiations over acceptance. Third, whilst the editor will know that reviewer #1 is a genuine silverback in their community whilst reviewer#3 is more of an aspiring alpha, they certainly won’t tell you this. Fourth, if the editor has given any thought to this they will have offered their view in the cover letter. Finally, if they haven’t given any thought to the dilemma that you’re drawing to their attention, they might not react well to you pointing this out.
Write a Detailed “You said, we did” Letter
As you work on version 2.0 of your paper, create a second document into which you cut and paste the editor’s cover letter and the comments from each reviewer. This “response to review” document will have as much bearing on your success or failure at the next round of reviewing as the paper itself. Therefore, spend as much time crafting the detailed, forensic, hyper-linked and cross-referenced “you said, we did” letter as you do the revised paper. Use this as the basis for politely pointing out that reviewer #1 requested “more blah” whilst reviewer #3 wanted less. Speak to each independently by offering a point by point response to each reviewer’s critique. As you do so however, cross reference using your diplomatic skills to say that “we have added a few drops of blah in relation to your request but we done so mindful of the request from reviewer X to remove blah from our argument.” Most reviewers will read their own review and your account of how you’ve responded first. Often, this is the first time that they’ll see what the other reviewers said about version 1.0. Understandably, this colours their judgement about whether to advise that your paper is accepted as is, proceeds to round two or is rejected. However, other reviewers will read version 2.0 of the paper on its own merits before settling on their recommendation. Therefore, both the revised paper and the accompanying “you said, we did” need to read well both independently and as a pair. As your paper makes its way toward eventual publication, it is a question of eat, sleep, revise, repeat.