Ilana Gershon asked nine anthropologists for their approaches to the many daunting tasks of publishing an article in a journal, based on questions generated by Sandhya Narayanan. This installment explores the following question:
When you receive a revise and resubmit, how do you typically approach the reviewers’ comments? How many of those comments should be included in the revised draft?
Deborah Gewertz: I approach a reviewer’s negative comments with profound disbelief—for the first thirty minutes, maybe an hour. Then having overcome this first immature response, I read them carefully. After a day or two of contemplation, I tackle what must be done. I should say that I have rarely found a reviewer’s comments to be irrelevant or even trivial. Most, in my experience, take reviewing seriously and do an excellent job. The articles I have revised with their comments in mind have invariably become stronger. Concerning how many of a reviewer’s comments should be addressed in a revised version, the answer is all of them, if not in the body of the revision, then in footnotes. It is more than likely that the revised paper will be sent back to one of the original reviewers, perhaps even the most negative of them.
Jason Jackson: It is hard to answer this question without wearing my editor’s hat. As an author, I want to make the work of the editor easier and I want to show good faith vis-à-vis the peer review process. Within whatever editorial processes a journal uses, I want the editor to be able to easily see all of the ways that editorial and reviewer feedback has been taken into productive account. For those aspects of the reviews that were contradictory, inaccurate, optional, and so on, and that are thus not represented in the revised version, I try to provide a clear account of the what and why to the editor in my author’s response. I do not have a good example of my own, but I can say that reading a couple of hundred peer review reports and author responses a year really drains most of the emotion out of the thing, even relative to one’s own work. The work of the Indiana University Press Faculty Editorial Board as well as experience editing three journals has driven home for me how much good courtesy, timeliness, attentiveness to detail, and following instructions can do for an author. These investments contribute to your reputation, but they also often create the space to successfully argue your case against doing some Reviewer 2-like thing that you would rather not do.
Daniel Monterescu: Revise and resubmit is always a dramatic and challenging moment of encounter between the author and the external readers. My reaction really depends on the confidence I have in my argument and my sense of control over the situation. In certain situations, especially earlier in my career I felt compelled to include most comments in the revised draft. Now I feel more confident to explain my position even when it diverges from the reviewer’s comments. If the arguments I present are well substantiated, in most cases they are accepted. This is especially challenging when one writes on cases which are politically divisive like my current research on wine and border politics in Israel/Palestine and Central Europe. While most editors are distanced from the review process and usually send the author a schematic decision letter and the reviews, some editors are personally engaged in the writing and revision process. On two accounts, editors like Niko Besnier of American Ethnologist provided a close reading of the manuscript which allowed us to communicate directly and more efficiently without the guess work involved in standard revise and resubmit.
The second example of a special experience I want to note is with Comparative Studies in Society and History, an interdisciplinary journal working with a more collective model. Here the interdisciplinary framework provided my geographer coauthor and myself with an opportunity to expand on aspects that transcend our respective professional fields. Also we received constructive comments on the actual Word document which focused our attention to arguments that need elaboration.
Carolyn Rouse: I take a reviewer’s comments very seriously. I’m one of those writers who is open to radically rewriting drafts in response to even the gentlest reviewer feedback. But the comments have to make sense to me. Once I received extensive suggestions for an article that indicated that the reader did not really understand the story I was trying to tell. It was suggested that I authorize a history of our discipline that was not my sense of the history of our discipline. As a result, I never sent in my revisions.
Janelle Taylor: This works differently in different kinds of venues. You do have to respond to the reviews, and usually they contain advice that can make your article stronger. I try to accept the advice that I think benefits the article, and explain to the editor the choices I’ve made in revising. In my experience, reviewers for medical or science journals are much harsher, and for those journals you also have to submit a cover letter explaining point by point what you have done to respond to the reviewer’s criticisms or why you haven’t made changes.
Matt Tomlinson: I have an extremely rough estimate of comments’ utility. Seventy percent of all comments are useful, whether in a big picture sense or regarding details. (Of course, some comments are phrased nicely and some not so nicely, but they are useful nonetheless.) Fifteen percent are based on misreadings: the readers were hasty or hoping for a different article than the one you actually wrote. But these can still be useful by suggesting how you might revise to limit similar misreadings in the future. Ten percent of all comments are neither here nor there, and you’re not sure what to do with them. And five percent of all comments are insane, and best ignored. A key task in revision is not only to adapt your text based on useful comments, but to explain clearly to the editor which changes you have made and why, and which comments you have not been able to respond to and why.
Claire Wendland: This process has really evolved over the years for me! I read through the comments carefully once, schedule a time a couple of days later to get back to them, and then set them aside. That “compost” period allows me to get over the elation induced by the positive comments and the injury of the negative ones. I have more equanimity and a better perspective when I return to them later.
I’ve found Wendy Belcher’s Writing Your Journal Article in Twelve Weeks chapter on revision very helpful, and typically follow a modified version of her process. When I return to the comments, I print them out, number them (e.g. R1 may have comments R1-A, R1-B, R1-C, and so on while R2 has R2-A, R2-B and so on), and make a chart that includes the number, my summary of the recommendation, its level of difficulty (easy, moderate, difficult) and room for notes. An essential step: I mentally divide recommendations into those with which I agree, those that indicate that a reviewer has misread my article, and those that suggest a reviewer would have liked me to write a different article entirely. The first category is satisfying to tackle, and for me working from the low-hanging fruit to the more difficult revisions in this category builds up confidence. That’s where I start. The second category is also helpful: as I rewrite, I make sure to use language or examples that will help to prevent future such misreadings. I feel no obligation to act on suggestions that fall into the third category. (They do get mentioned in the cover letter to the editor, if only to explain why I am not going to take them up.) If a substantial proportion of the comments fall into that third category, I take it as a sign I might have better success at another journal.
In the final article, if I’ve made a really transformative change based on a reviewer’s comments I will thank them in an endnote at that point—especially critical in the very rare case in which I borrow language directly from a reviewer’s comment. It’s nice to go beyond generic thanks in an acknowledgment too, especially when the review process has been a struggle. So, for instance, this acknowledgment in one paper I published: “Three anonymous reviewers [for X journal] provided me with extensive and thought-provoking feedback. This is not the article they would have preferred me to write, but thinking seriously about their arguments has helped me make it a far better piece than it was.”
Jessica Winegar: The first thing I do is take a few days after reading the comments in order to process my emotions about them and get my head on straight for revising. Comments are supposed to help us improve our work, but authors often have a negative emotional response to them which impedes that process. Once I am over my irritation with Reviewer 2 and thinking that they just don’t appreciate my intelligence or understand my argument, I am able to go back to the reviews with a fresh eye towards improving my work. Sometimes, though, if Reviewer 2 was especially harsh, it helps to have a friend read the reviews and highlight (literally, with a highlighter) the productive commentary for me. Then I read my piece thoroughly again, followed by another thorough reading of the reviews. I am always surprised by how spot on many of the criticisms are in retrospect. I highlight (again, with a highlighter) the criticisms in the reviews with which I strongly agree. If there are any commonalities across reviews, this is a clear sign of an area needing revision. Then I go through them again and select the additional comments that I think, if addressed, would make the piece stronger. This includes criticisms with which I disagree, because these often need to be headed off in one way or another I hadn’t anticipated while writing the first version. An important last step is learning from reviewers how to be a better reviewer myself.
Matthew Wolf-Meyer: I wrote a blog post about this. Revision is a pretty visual process for me—I highlight parts of the peer reviews and editor’s letter that are important to address, sort them into an ordered list as to how they will appear in the manuscript, and then cross them off as I go.
That said, and maybe one day I’ll write a book about it, I tend to get some pretty…different reviews than most of my friends. This became apparent to me early on, but I didn’t know it was a trend until much later. It was especially the case with the sleep project that people would kind of free associate with the content, often not really offering critical comments on the content of the article so much as working through their own thinking about sleep. I had to learn pretty early on how to parse that kind of therapeutic process for peer reviewers from the stuff that was germane to the article and its future. And that’s something that I needed to learn to be able to conceptualize. Generally, we think about peer review as being about the author of the article and that peer reviewers serve as a kind of superego. But I’ve come to see that sometimes the peer reviewer is going through their own introspective process when they confront something that they haven’t thought about before. That can come out in pretty different ways, only some of which are generative for revisions.
That trend of weird peer reviews has continued with the projects on communication disabilities and fecal microbial transplants. In looking at friends’ peer reviews, it’s clear that when people work on areas where there is a lot of interest in anthropology or cognate fields, they get recommendations from other specialists on that topic. But because I often work on stuff that doesn’t really have a lot of specialists within anthropology, it gets sent to specialists in medical anthropology or psychological anthropology or science and technology studies. Which is all great, but it often means that they can’t speak to the matter at hand as directly as specialists might. I often recall looking at a friend’s peer reviews for an article on HIV/AIDS. All of the peer reviewers were experts in the social study of HIV/AIDS and they knew technical and scholarly material that they helped point my friend toward. Whereas I often get general kinds of suggestions, I assume because the reviewers I pull don’t know the small literatures out of which my work comes.
Deborah Gewertz is the G. Henry Whitcomb Professor at Amherst College and has been an associate editor of American Ethnologist, Ethnos and the Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute.
Jason Jackson is the Ruth N. Halls Professor of Anthropology and Folklore at Indiana University, and the editor of Museum Anthropology Review.
Daniel Monterescu is associate professor of urban anthropology at Central European University.
Carolyn Rouse is chair of the anthropology department at Princeton University.
Janelle Taylor is a professor at University of Toronto.
Matt Tomlinson is an associate professor at Australian National University.
Claire Wendland is a professor at University of Wisconsin, Madison.
Jessica Winegar is a professor at Northwestern and editor of PoLAR: Political and Legal Anthropology Review.
Matthew Wolf-Meyer is an associate professor at SUNY-Binghamton.