You hear the “ping” of an incoming email and quickly check the subject – oh, crap, it’s from a journal! This could make or break your day. You open the email and quickly scan for the word “reject.” Wait? What!? No “reject”? No “Unfortunately, their assessments do not provide us with sufficient support to continue the review process”? Does this mean what you think it means? You now read the letter closely, your pulse starting to rise. It is! A revise and resubmit!
I remember when I started sending things out for review – I didn’t actually realize that the goal of a first round submission was not an “accept” but a “revise and resubmit” – an “R&R” in professor-speak. Acceptances on the first round are extremely rare. An R&R is the decision you should be hoping for; it’s the first step – and the hardest step – in the process to a peer-reviewed publication in our discipline. Unfortunately, I don’t think this is a step we talk about much or actively advise graduate students on. I’ve been shocked to find out that some of my students have resubmitted things without their advisor’s input at all. An R&R is not just an intermittent stop on the road to a publication. It’s a crucial junction: a misstep can cost you years of further anguish at getting the manuscript published.
After dealing with almost 30 R&Rs, I think there is a method or a strategy that works for revise and resubmits: appeasement. The goal of the R&R stage is to make at least two reviewers 100% convinced that the manuscript is worthy of publication while not angering the other reviewer(s). I know this advice is unsolicited – however, I thought I’d share 5 tips to ease in converting R&Rs into acceptances.
- The work for an R&R can be as strenuous as the work it took to complete the manuscript in the first place. Plan accordingly.
Increasingly, journals are put shorter-and-shorter deadlines on R&Rs before the manuscript is treated as a new submission. The deadline could be anywhere from 3 months to 2 years. Double check what the timeline is and whether there is a firm deadline – sometimes this information is provided on the ScholarOne website (where you submitted the manuscript) but not in the decision letter. Know the time frame you are working with before you go out to celebrate the R&R. You might even have to email the journal. I say this because R&R work can be strenuous and can be a rollercoaster ride. To illustrate, here’s a rough timeline of any R&R I’ve ever done:
Day 1: Receive decision email. Celebrate. Drink. Quickly look over the reviews and determine they are the easiest things ever to change in the manuscript. This is going to be a piece of cake.
Day 2: Extended celebration, especially if coauthors are involved.
Day 3: Open up the reviews and look at them again. Realize that they weren’t as easy as originally thought on Day 1 and that at least one reviewer (let’s call it Reviewer 2) has serious problems with the manuscript. Start to panic but quickly decide the best way to go about this is just to try to change as much as possible as quickly as possible.
Day 4: Start with the statistical robustness tests, if the reviewers demand any. Realize some version of a Hausman test doesn’t work right. Throw hands up in despair and close the file. Let it sit untouched for two months while fretting about the process and how likely it is that the manuscript will never get published.
Day 60: Decide to grow up and deal with it. Open the file again. Realize the mistake in the code. Panic that there is now limited time to deal with the R&R.
Day 61-101: Work on the R&R whenever possible. Ignore spouse, kids, basic hygiene. Get everything changed and feel moderately better about the chances of getting it through the review process. Decide Reviewer 2 must be a sadomasochistic ass who was wronged in a past life.
Day 102: Send manuscript/memo/appendix/reviews to friends to look over. Start lighting candles for Reviewer 2.
Day 110-200: Make further changes to the manuscript as feedback comes back from friends.
Deadline day: Submit the manuscript while repeating the Lord’s Prayer.
- Never – never! – tell a reviewer they are wrong. Tone is important.
You know that rule in sales, “the customer is always right”? The same rule applies to R&Rs: the reviewer is always right. Of course, sometimes they are wrong. Sometimes they want you to run robustness checks, add citations, and rework your theory in ways that just defy common logic. Sometimes they ask you to go to add whole sections to an 8,000 word manuscript that would be better addressed in a multivolume book series. Often, they would prefer the manuscript to be something it is not. This happens. However, under no circumstances are you to ever – ever!- try to pick a fight with a reviewer. Tone and tact are key, especially in the revision memo. You want to think about a reviewer as someone who is thinking about breaking up with you: your words can be used against you. And, at the end of the day, you might actually be the one in the wrong. If the reviewers suggested something that seems odd, it’s probably that your writing was unclear.
Further, I always end the memo with some flowery language about how I think my work has been improved as a result of this process. In reality, despite the ridiculous comments of Reviewer 2, this is actually the case. All of my work has been improved during the R&R process. Reviewers are contributing the public good – it doesn’t hurt to remind them that you are thankful for their service.
- Blind them with your robustness tests. Address every minute point that the reviewers raised.
One of the best ways to appease reviewers is to actually follow every piece of advice, every question, every half-baked thought that they put in their review. One time, this required me to run 1000+ robustness checks. Was this a good use of my time? Probably not. Was this an unreasonable request from a reviewer? Definitely. We all realize that the peer review process is broken. However, at the end of the day, I’m not willing to sacrifice my chance at a publication in order to make that point. I’m just going to suck it up and do all I can to appease Reviewer 2.
Remember: all of these tests, all of the added sections can be placed in an online appendix. I always include some phrase like “I am more than happy to add these tests and additional theoretical discussions to the body of the manuscript if that is preferred by the Editor and Reviewers” in the revision memo.
- Don’t forget to address the Editor’s comments. These can be more important than the reviewers’ comments.
The Editor is the most important person to appease. (S)he has taken the time to go over the reviewers’ comments and your piece and has offered you some thoughts as to what needs to be changed. Take her advice as manna from heaven. Revision memos typically address each of the reviewers under separate headings. It’s a good idea to make a special heading – perhaps the first heading – for the Editor’s comments.
- Have someone else read it before sending it back under review.
Most of us would not send a manuscript out for review without having someone else read it first. The same logic should apply for R&Rs. Make sure you get some advice from friends. Here is the key, though: you don’t really need your friend to just read the revised manuscript and give comments. You need the friend to read the reviews, your first manuscript and revised manuscript, and your memo. You want your friend to double check that you have done everything humanly possible to address what the reviewers were wanting. A lot of times, a friend of mine notices something from the reviews I had missed. You want that extra set of eyes.
Anyway, all too often, I see or hear of a lost R&R and wonder if the author really tried this strategy of appeasement. Maybe so – it’s a hard publishing world. I’m not saying that an appeasement strategy alone will be enough for a publication but I think the strategy is one of the best ways to ensure that you can celebrate after any further decision emails you receive.
 I’ve had a pretty good conversion rate: I’ve only “lost” one manuscript after R&R. It was painful, though, and something I hope to never go through again.
 The revision memo is a 2+ page document outlining every step you took to improve the manuscript in line with the reviewer comments. It is probably the most important weapon in the strategy of appeasement.