Today I started the first of the workshops sponsored by the Carnegie African Diaspora Fellowship Program at the University of Johannesburg. The group was responsive and engaged and I could see that what I had to say resonated with them. One of the topics covered was dealing with reviewer’s comments and how to cope with rejections from journals. In these discussions there is often the perception that the relationship is one way where the writer has little recourse or power. Of course this is true. But on my way home after the workshop I thought that perhaps if we saw the review process as one of dialogue, (rather than gate-keeping) then this might shift our perceptions and affect what we take from the review.
The dialogue is not only in what the reviewers say but in reading between the lines as well. Why is the reviewer saying my research is too tightly focused? What does he/she mean by this? Where can I see that in my paper? What can I change? Staller (2013) argues that when two reviewers give different perhaps conflicting comments that this can be seen as a positive result because it leads the writer to reassess, to ask questions, to make meaning clearer and to ultimately write a better paper.
Staller (2013) suggests that in her field reviewers on the whole don’t like to reject papers. They prefer to give the writer the opportunity to rework the paper and often ask for major revisions. While editors would prefer a decision to reject because they want to get on with the job of publishing the journal. She outlines a list of times a rejection is necessary:
- When the paper is out side the scope of the journal
- When it offers nothing new to existing conversations
- When the underlying project is seriously flawed in its conceptualisation that it can’t be fixed
- When it needs so many revisions that it will be an entirely new paper
- When it is so muddled that even revisions won’t fix it.
While seeing these results as part of a dialogue may be difficult, it is helpful to focus on the dialogue rather than the rejection.
As I said several times today, publishing academic articles is like fishing. You have to send off articles ( put your line in the water), get rejected (pull up an empty line), rewrite (put more bait on), and send it off again (drop the line in) – until you get published. Paying attention to reviewer’s comments is one way to speed up this process.
There’s no doubt about it, it’s a painful process. My way of dealing with negative reviewer comments is to rant and rave first, (there may even be some name-calling), I always reject everything they say, I often throw the comments in the bin, sometimes forcefully and I’m pretty grumpy for a while. Then once the initial reaction is over, I take out the crumpled papers from the bin and see if I can make changes – this I do reluctantly. Then when I start working through the changes, I start saying ‘Ok, maybe they have a point here’ and finally at the end, I’m thanking the reviewers for their wonderful insights.
I hope this provides you with something to think about the next time you recieve a negative reviewers letter…
Satller, K. (2013). Writing and reading peer reviews. Qualitative Social Work, 12, 715-721.