Dealing with the review process – The artist and the PhD

Thijs WillemsBy Thijs Willems / Reading Time: 6 Minutes

Imagine you’re an artist. You’re a painter currently carefully transforming an empty canvas into a magical landscape. No less than eight months you spent inside your musty little attic room to paint. But without complaining for a second, as you believe to be creating what will become your masterpiece. Autumn passed, as you were convinced that the colors of the leaves falling off the tree would be inspiration enough to turn the white canvas into a mosaic of playful colors. Winter was spent inside, to reflect the shadows and contrasts in the sky onto your painting in order to give it that necessary touch of drama. The summer passed and, instead of enjoying warm, long evenings in the park with your friends and a bottle of wine, you spent hour after hour to capture the right hue of color for the sunbeams behind the clouds.

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Eight months passed and, after much deliberation, you decide the time has come to show your masterpiece to the public. You invite an eclectic bunch of experts, big names and hotshots in the world of art, to give their initial thoughts and suggestions. They seem to love it! “Amazing colors, I can see you put your heart in it”, says one. “This is really interesting, it tells the Big Story of Life”, another adds.

The conversation continues for a while, and after all the compliments have been shared, the Cubist starts: “But…” As an artist you’re used to critique, so you recognize this word as the start of some, hopefully constructive, commentary.

“But… you really need to add some straight lines to make it more contemporary.” The others nod. The Minimalist: “I agree, but I also think you’ve painted way too much. Too much is happening on the sides of the painting, way too much.” Finally, the Impressionist adds: “I agree with the aforementioned comments. And yet… You haven’t captured the true essence of the sun. There’s too much detail and I’d rather see short, thick strokes of paint.” The experts leave and, slightly blown away, you start redoing your masterpiece with care. To satisfy the Minimalist, you cut off three inches from the sides of the painting; for the Impressionist to be happy, you transform the subtle colors of the sun into thick, broad patches of yellow and red; to make your painting more contemporary, as the Cubist requested, you fill the sky with random squares. You slowly step back to ponder your masterpiece and in awe you come to realize that this is not your work anymore.

This story could easily be told in a different context, where the PhD is the artist, the painting his/her paper, and the experts the reviewers of a journal. Getting your work published may be a daunting task, especially for new scholars. You spent a great deal of time, energy, and sometimes even love, in writing about your research. You are the proud artist of this text and you feel it is a worthwhile read for others in your field. You know you will have to reach this broader public by getting your paper published in one of the journals in your field. You finish the paper, submit it to a journal, wait, wait some more, wait a bit longer, and then you finally receive the review reports. It may be a desk rejection (the most common response of journals), a major or minor revision, or a straightforward acceptance (that seldom happens).

In my opinion, the major revision is the most challenging kind of review report to deal with. It often implies the editor and reviewers see, somewhere hidden between the lines of your text, the merits or contributions of your paper. The reviewers, then, often ask questions, critique your argument or provide suggestion on how to make the still implicit contribution of your paper more explicit. This may often involve serious and even impossible requests: “You position your paper in the context of Theory A, but we think it is more appropriate for Theory B, C or D. Please write a new paper”; “The theoretical point is really interesting, but the research is not convincing enough. Do the research again”; “We need much more detail in the theoretical and empirical part of the paper. Also elaborate your discussion further and include points 1 to 7. Oh… and please shorten the paper with at least 2,000 words”; “I don’t like your chosen methodology. Can you make a survey study out of your ethnographic data?”

I exaggerate a little bit, but the point I’m trying to make is that the review process is challenging, especially when you realize ‘your’ paper turns into a text that is different than you had intended. Below are some suggestions that may help you deal with this process:

  1. Even in case of a major revision, realize the reviewers and editors see considerable potential in your paper. Congratulations!
  2. In case of truly rigorous revisions you need to deal with a dilemma: re-write your paper to satisfy the reviewers with a chance on publication, re-write the paper and still end up with a rejection and a paper that only remotely looks like yours anymore, thank the journal and find another outlet (although the chances are pretty high the process at the other journal might be quite similar)
  3. When do you submit your paper? It might be easier to re-write a paper that was good enough but not yet perfect than a paper in which every word or punctuation mark has been deliberated at least three times. Maybe write a paper that is good enough to be taken in review? The perfect paper does not exist and reviewers will always have certain demands for a revision
  4. Make a careful choice about the fit between your paper and the journal you plan to submit to. Be aware of the current debates, what interests the readers of this journal, what is their writing style, etc. The reviewers need to understand why they should publish your paper instead of one of the other 50 submissions.
  5. Turn the problem around: journals have a ‘problem’ too (see Hollenbeck, 2008). They often have very limited space to publish interesting work, so the role of editors is to find the right paper to attract readers.
  6. Use footnotes. Sometimes, the reviewers want you to expand on certain concepts while you simply do not have the space to do so. You can still acknowledge their comments (and show the readers of your paper you have considered alternatives), without taking up too many valuable words.
  7. Treat the reviewers as experts, as in most cases they will be (provided you chose a respectable journal). So, their suggestions are not meant just as critique but are actually potential ways to make your paper more interesting.
  8. However, do not follow all suggestions religiously. Show some guts and refuse certain points of critique if you do not agree with them. However, always write an extensive cover letter when you submit the revision. Here you can explain choices made, how you went about revising the paper, and carefully argue why you did not follow some of the reviewers’ suggestions. In the end, this is all of help in constructing a more convincing argument.
  9. Leave the review report for a while. The moment you receive a report that contains more pages than your initial submission, it is quite difficult to digest it all at once. Read it, leave it, and then read it again after a week or so.
  10. Read the reports together with colleagues. They are a little more distanced than you are and will probably be able to distinguish the reviewers’ main points from only minor remarks.
  11. If all still does not go well, ventilate your aggression. I highly recommend the Facebook page ‘Reviewer 2 Must Be Stopped
  12. There may be many more tips… Please share your tips below!

In the end, the goal is to end up with a paper that has become better. A part of becoming a scholar is, perhaps, to learn how to deal with critique and use it to your own advantage. Even Albert Einstein’s applications have been rejected.

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Thijs Willems is a Phd candidate in the Organizational Science department. His research projects focuses on ‘The role of collaborative routines during disruptions in the Dutch railway system’.

References:

Hollenbeck, J. R. 2008. The role of editing in knowledge development: Consensus shifting and consensus creation. In Y. Baruch, A. M. Konrad, H. Aguinus, & W. H. Starbuck (Eds.), Journal editing: Opening the black box: 16 -26. San Francisco, CA: Jossey Bass.