Career advice: how to handle ‘revise and resubmit’ requests

In an increasingly competitive publishing environment, responding effectively to criticism is key to getting published, says Robert MacIntosh

February 1, 2018
Crawling through mud
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Light at the end: ‘revise and resubmit’ requests bring you closer to publishing

Publishing well is key to a successful research career yet, like many aspects of modern academic life, the practice has intensified and become industrialised over recent decades. The editors of top-ranked journals face a deluge of new submissions, and rejection rates have soared. Surviving three or four rounds of the “revise and resubmit” (R&R) cycle is an exercise in creativity and persistence: here is some advice on how to survive and thrive in this environment.

Have a tantrum
If you’ve received an R&R request, the world is telling you something. If it comes from a low-ranked or new journal, things are really bad. But, 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 rejected instantly. An R&R from a good journal indicates that you have produced a piece of well-executed research so, 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
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.

Think ‘learning opportunity’
You’ve had somewhere in the region of half a day of free consultancy from some of the 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. Individual reviewers will have spent at least an hour, likely longer, 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
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 well enough, some outside help can be invaluable in terms of the nuanced difference between reviewer one who says “add more blah” and reviewer three who says “not so much blah, thanks”. Your colleagues can add a tremendous amount simply by offering a new reading of a subtly constructed sentence or affirming 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.

Write a detailed ‘You said, we did’ letter
As you work on version two 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 in the next round of reviewing as the paper itself. Therefore, spend as much time crafting the detailed, forensic, hyperlinked and cross-referenced “you said, we did” letter as you do the revised paper. 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 one. 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 two 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.

Robert MacIntosh is head of the School of Social Sciences at Heriot-Watt University. He writes regularly about academic life on the Heriot-Watt blog

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