Taking Time for R&R

January 08, 2008

Many of the steps you must take before submitting an article to a scholarly journal are self-evident and can objectively increase your chances of acceptance. It's what happens afterward -- when the journal's editor sends you reviews that may be mixed or even negative, and asks you to revise the article -- that requires a far more nuanced reaction.

Helping tenure-track professors get past the "revise and resubmit" stage, or even overcome a not-so-categorical rejection, is the subject of this column.

The rise in the number of journals has made the publication game ever more complex. In just the past few years, I have seen almost a dozen new research periodicals in my own field. With profusion comes confusion. Which one should I submit my work to? Which one will "count" more, come tenure time? Which one is more, or less, likely to accept my work? What are the guidelines? What are the editors' and reviewers' predilections?

At the same time, publication expectations for tenure-track faculty members are higher than ever across the humanities, sciences, and social sciences -- even at small, teaching-focused colleges and universities.

And although there may be more journals to which you can submit your work, there is greater competition to get into the elite few. Many top journals have acceptance rates in the single digits. Perhaps worse, the time it takes to get an article through the review process and into publication can stretch into years. (Online journals often maintain much faster turnaround times.)

An academic journal, although presumably profitable for its publisher, is essentially a voluntary enterprise. The published authors are not paid, and editors and reviewers receive, in most cases, few material benefits for their exertions. The result is an uneven work ethic among them.

We all know editors and reviewers who are conscientious and perceptive and deserve considerable credit for their unsung efforts. Every university should have a monument to the "unknown reviewers" who have helped assistant professors on the road to career advancement and better scholarship.

Most reviewers have stories to tell of authors who shoot themselves in the foot because of simple mistakes that leave the reviewers shaking their heads in frustration. "Authors often fail to follow the instructions the journal provides (usually online) as to how to prepare their manuscript," said Melvin DeFleur, an emeritus professor of mass communication at Louisiana State University who has reviewed hundreds of articles in his career.

Indeed, many manuscripts scream "reject me" just by their appearance, although the conscientious reviewer will still read them.

At the other end of the spectrum are blockhead reviewers who befuddle authors and mishandle manuscripts. The wording and content of their reviews can be devastating to a tenure-track professor.

Over the years, assistant professors have shown me many mean, useless, incomprehensible reviews they have received; I have been at the sharp end of not a few myself. My favorite eye-rollers are those in which the reviewers offer completely contradictory advice on how to improve the paper and then the editor, who hasn't read the reviews, instructs the author to "follow their counsel carefully."

The problem here is scatterbrain editorship, not necessarily poor authorship. But young scholars do not have the experience to know that.

Worse than getting conflicting advice from a journal editor is being on the receiving end of insults from a reviewer. A top periodical in my field, for example, recently rejected a paper by an assistant professor I know at another university. She forwarded some comments to me from a reviewer that were downright vile. I'll paraphrase to protect the privacy of all involved, but the reviewer said things like, "This paper reads like it was written by an uneducated person" and "If I were you, I would consider getting some lessons in basic thinking skills."

I have read the article in question and disagree with the reviews, but, more to the point, what purpose does cruelty serve? If something is wrong with a paper, the faults can be identified without sweeping indictments.

My response to those responses is to advocate a philosophy of publication summed up by the ancient poet Callimachus (in translation): "Fatten your animal for sacrifice . . . but keep your muse slender." In other words, do whatever it takes to get published (within moral, ethical, and legal limits) while retaining the integrity of the work itself. Form counts as well as understanding the psychology of editors and reviewers.

Plenty of books have been written on how to get published in academe, but a few strategies stand out.

Before you submit a paper to a journal, seek out a "prereview." Contact at least two top scholars in your area of specialization (preferably people on the publication board of the targeted journal). Ask if they would be willing to look at your paper. Their feedback can head off obvious errors that reviewers might flag.

That step adds a certain amount of time and bother to your publication schedule, but waiting six months only to be hit with a journal rejection is much worse.

And if you do end up receiving an unambiguous rejection letter, you might be able to put it in context using what you have learned from the prereview. Then go back to your senior gurus and ask them to guide your next move. They may be even more supportive because, in effect, the journal has rejected them, too.

Responding to reviewers requires subtlety. Whether you receive an acceptance, a revise and resubmit, or a rejection, write a "thank you for your time" note to the editor. Show you are a good sport; keep the door open for future submissions.

In rare cases, even rejection is not the end of the game. Once, I was rejected outright by a major journal. Then I found out that a new editor was taking charge. I wrote to him, assessing the reviews of the manuscript and asking whether I could resubmit if I took up a whole new analysis of the data. He agreed and eventually my article was published.

Whatever the response, read the editor's letter and the reviewers' comments. I know scholars who don't read past the initial verdict: If it's a "yes" they read further; if it's a "no" or a "revise," they give up, especially if the required changes seem substantial. Others think, wrongly, that "accepted but with revisions" means not having to do the revisions. But even the most inept review will likely find some real problems in your manuscript: typos, poorly thought-out conclusions, faulty calculations, missing citations.

When you are advised to revise and resubmit, first break down exactly what you are being asked to do. Create charts listing the main points offered by the editor and each reviewer. Note their agreements as well as their contradictions and divergences. Then go through the manuscript and make all the easy corrections, from grammatical errors to mismatched citations.

Now, before you make the actual changes, write the first draft of a letter to the editor responding to the reviews. The editor and reviewers may not reread the original paper, or they may just skim it. They may not even remember your manuscript or their earlier comments. But they will read your response letter.

Better still, when the changes are fairly straightforward, editors might take it upon themselves to accept the new version of the manuscript without even sending it out for review, simply because the response letter was so copious and comprehensive.

Writing the letter first will also serve to guide your revisions. Begin the letter by thanking the editor and the reviewers. There is no need to be obsequious. Avoid boilerplate greeting-card appreciation; get specific. Mention some point from each reviewer that improves the paper. There is always at least one.

Next, retype in your letter each major comment from the reviewers (in italics) and address them sequentially. I often craft a long response in the letter to show that I paid attention and am taking action.

If you disagree with a suggestion for change, that need not be fatal for your article (unless you are dealing with a truly clueless or egomaniacal reviewer). Explain your thinking in detail. If the reviewers have contradicted one another, avoid making it sound like one is the victor in an intellectual battle. I try to be tactful and say something like, "Reviewer A and Reviewer B gave me two choices about the best theory to apply to understand the phenomenon under study." Don't dismiss the one you don't use, but suggest that it might apply to further research or another case.

Be specific in the letter when citing the changes you have made. When you revise the paper itself, insert the page numbers where you made alterations in the next draft of your response letter. Some people go a step further and color code changes for each reviewer.

With revisions, the devil is in the rewrites. Let's take a familiar situation: A reviewer asserts that a line of research is missing from your literature review. You suspect that what is missing is either his own work, or material of which he is supportive. What to do?

Take the advice of Callimachus. Even if the articles and books in question seem to be of borderline relevance to your essay, cite them -- perhaps in the literature review or in a footnote -- as other work that relates to the topic at hand. If a few extra references won't hurt the paper (and may well enrich it), why not include them and satisfy the reviewer?

In responding to journal reviews, substance counts. Good reviews will improve your research; even bad ones may help, if you take them from the right perspective. But form, structure, and style are important for publication as well. The harried assistant professor who sends out a manuscript too early or full of obvious errors will end up hindering, not accelerating, a publication schedule.

The "revise and resubmit" or "accepted with changes" response should be treated as an enterprise requiring as much due diligence as preparing the original submission.

David D. Perlmutter is a professor and associate dean for graduate studies and research in the William Allen White School of Journalism and Mass Communications at the University of Kansas.