27th January 2012: Handling Article Rejection

I recently got negative reviews for two articles submitted to the Journal of Futures Studies (JFS). Many academics I know find article rejection to be highly stressful. Below are some comments and strategies addressed to three different audiences: academic authors; reviewers; and university administrators. Attention to them may improve the probability that your article is accepted for publication in an academic journal.

 

Academic Authors

 

1. Be very familiar with your ‘target’ journal: its editors and review panel, its preferred research design and methodologies, and how it handles controversies and debates in your field. Look for an editorial or scoping statement that explains what kinds of articles the journal will not accept.

 

2. Before submission do a final edit of your article. Define all key terms or cite past definitions if you have referred to the scholarly literature. Check paragraph structure, connecting sentences, section headings, and that the conclusions answer the key questions you have raised in the beginning. Cite some articles from the target journal if possible. Consider who is likely to review your article and factor this into your discussion of key debates. Use redrafting for honing the article and for self-diagnosis of mental models.

 

3. Ask if the journal has a rejoinder process for authors to reply to the blind peer review comments. A rejoinder is not an invitation to personal attacks or to engage in flame-wars. Rejoinders do enable authors to address situations in which one or more reviewers misunderstand the article, frame their comments in terms of an article they wish the author had written (rather than the actual article), or where there are concerns about the methodologies used, the research design, or data interpretation. An effective rejoinder process respects all parties, maintains the confidentiality of the blind peer review process, and provides an organisational learning loop. A rejoinder response does not necessarily reverse an editorial decision not to publish.

 

4. If the journal does have a rejoinder process then carefully examine the feedback pattern from reviewers. Highlight where one reviewer answers the concerns that another reviewer raised: this should neutralise the negative comments or at least show that varied opinions exist. It is more difficult when several reviewers raise the same concerns about an article.

 

5. Set a threshold limit on the amount of editing and rewrites you will do: you have other opportunities. A rejected article might fit better with another journal; with a substantial rewrite; with a different research design; or could be the stepping stone to a more substantive article. Individual reviews also reflect the particular reviewer and their mental models: this can sometimes be like an anthropological encounter between different groups who misunderstand each-other. Sometimes reviewers like critics just get it wrong: one of my most highly cited publications with international impact was dropped from the blind peer review stream.

 

Reviewers

 

1. Use the ‘track changes’ and ‘comment’ function of your word processor to provide comments. It can be difficult for authors to read comments that you provide in the body text and that is written in the same font. Be time-responsive: authors hate waiting months for feedback.

 

2. Do a first read of the article without preconceptions: focus on the author’s state intent, their narrative arc, the data or evidence, and their conclusions. Be open to the article you have been asked to review, rather than the article that you wish the author had written. Be open to innovation in data collection, methodologies, and interpretation. Even do a self-review of your own comments before you send your feedback to the journal editors.

 

3. Know your own mental models. That is, how you see the field or discipline that you are reviewing in; your preference for specific methodologies and research designs; your stance on specific controversies and debates; and what kind of material you expect the journal to publish. Be aware of situations in which you are asked to review articles because you have a particular stance: the tendency is to write lukewarm reviews which focus on perceived deficiencies or ‘overlooked’ material. Be careful of wanting to ‘police’ the field’s boundaries.

 

4. Use your feedback as a developmental opportunity for the author. Don’t just give negative feedback, faulty sentence construction or grammar. If you don’t like something then explain why so that the author can understand your frame of reference. Focus also issues of research design, methodologies, and data interpretation. If there are other external standards or alternative perspectives (such as on a controversy or debate) then mention them. Articles often combine several potential articles or can have scope problems so note them. Highlight sections where the author makes an original, scholarly contribution, including new insights or where you learned something. It’s important to provide developmental feedback even when you reject an article for publication. A developmental review may evoke in authors the ‘moment of insight’ that occurs in effective therapy. The mystique of the blind peer review process ultimately comes down to the reviewer’s attention to the craft of providing constructive yet critical feedback that sets up future opportunities for the academic to advance their career.

 

5. Poison pen reviews have consequences. This is clearer in creative industries like film and music where bad reviews can kill a project or career. Pauline Kael and Lester Bangs are honoured in film and music circles respectively because they brought sensitivity and style to their reviews, even when they hated an artist. In academia, the blind peer review process can lead to internecine wars over different methodologies or research designs: problems that don’t usually arise in open publishing (because all parties know who is making the comments) or that can be handled through editorial review standards and a rejoinder process. Nevertheless, a negative review will have consequences. The author may not revise the article for publication. They may publish in a different journal. They may drop the project. In some cases, they may leave the field altogether. Consider how to frame the review so that you address the developmental need in a constructive manner.

 

University Administrators

 

1. Know the norms, research designs and methodologies, leading research teams, and the most influential and international journals in at least one discipline. This gives you a framework to make constructive inferences from. You will develop awareness of these factors in other disciplines through your interviews with different academics.

 

2. Understand the arc or life-span of academic careers: the needs of an early career researcher and the professor will differ, and this will influence which journals they seek to publish in. Every successful publication navigates a series of decisions. Know some relevant books and other resources that you can refer interested academics to.

 

3. Have some awareness of international publishing trends which affect journals and their editorial decisions. These include the debate about open publishing, the consolidation of publishing firms, and the different editorial roles in a journal. Be aware of the connection between some journals and either professional associations or specific university programs.

 

4. Know what to look for in publication track records. These include patterns in targeting specific journals; attending conferences; building networks in the academic’s discipline; and shifts in research programs. An academic may have a small number of accepted articles when compared with the number that have been written and rejected by specific journals. Use the publication track record as the basis for a constructive discussion with the individual academic, honoring their experience and resources, and using solution-oriented therapeutic strategies.

 

5. Understand that quality publications require time which equates to university investment in the academic’s career. The journal letter rankings in the Australian Research Council’s Excellence for Research in Australia led some university administrators to advise academics only to publish in A* and A-level journals. But not everyone will realistically achieve this. There can be variability of effort required: one A-level article I co-wrote required a substantive second draft; another took months to discuss, a day to do the first draft, and it was then accepted with minor changes. On the other hand, articles accepted in the A* journal International Security (MIT) have usually gone through multiple rounds of blind peer review, the authors are deeply familiar with the field’s literature, and have work-shopped the article extensively with colleagues, in graduate school seminars, and at international conferences. This takes a median two to five years to occur. The late Terry Deibel took almost 20 years to conceptualise and refine the national security frameworks he taught at the United States National War College for Foreign Affairs Strategy: Logic for American Statecraft (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007) and Deibel also spent two years of sabbatical — in 1993 and 2005-06 — to write it. John Lewis Gaddis spent 30 years of research on George F. Kennan: An American Life (New York: The Penguin Press, 2011) and five years to write it. Both books make substantive scholarly contributions to their fields; both books also required the National War College and Yale University to make significant financial investments in the authors’ careers. Are you making decisions based on short-term, volume-driven models or helping to create the enabling conditions that will help academics to have a similar impact in their respective fields?