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VIII. Handle Feedback, Revise and Resubmit Like a Pro

Jun 14, 2016 by Kathryn Betts Adams

Preliminaries

The first hurdle of submitting your work is for your manuscript to be accepted by the journal’s submission platform and whoever serves as the initial editor. In some cases, you may receive a prompt notice via email that your manuscript has some sort of technical problem. Recently a colleague and I were informed that a journal allowed no more than 50 citations in the list of references. Needless to say, we had not found this in the “Instructions to Authors,” but we complied and submitted a newly edited version of our manuscript with exactly 50 citations listed.

Occasionally, even though there is no technical problem, you may hear quite soon after you submit a manuscript that the Editor or Associate Editor does not believe your manuscript is a “good fit” for the journal. They will write you to inform you that they are not sending it out to reviewers and may or may not tell you why that is so. This is a frustrating event, particularly when you have made some effort to identify an appropriate journal. If this happens, it’s important to think of the positive about this: the editor who wrote has saved you a long wait that probably would have been fruitless. The possibility of this type of quick rejection is one good reason why you should plan on a back-up target journal.  

Under more favorable circumstances, when your manuscript is given a regular review, the time it takes to hear back from a journal after you have submitted varies widely. If the journal uses an online manuscript submission platform, you may be able to check the basic status of your manuscript (whether it’s under review yet or awaiting the editor to arrange review, and how many days have passed). If things take over three or four months, in any case, you should feel free to contact the journal’s editorial office, either through their online platform or via email, to inquire as to the status and mention how long it has been. Obviously, everyone is anxious to receive word after submitting to a journal, but if you have a particular deadline, such as an upcoming job search or evaluation, it is appropriate to mention that.

Receiving the Decision Email

Before you receive the decision and comments on your submission, it is worth preparing yourself to receive feedback. Remember that the reviewers and editors are tasked with finding imperfections, so they are likely to have something to complain about in your manuscript. Remember, also, that the first few times you submit a manuscript, you are still learning and the reviewers’ comments, if they are thoughtful ones, are a wonderful way to receive free advice and help with your work. The email with the journal’s decision and the reviewers’ comments on your manuscript will typically offer one of four types of decisions, listed in order from most to least positive result: 

  1. Your manuscript will be accepted or all-but-accepted with only minor revisions that will be outlined in the editor’s letter and reviewers’ comments.
  2. Your manuscript will not be accepted as it is, but the journal will ask you to revise it according to the reviewers’ concerns, and the implication is that they are likely to accept it if you can adequately address all of the problems they’ve identified. Often, the journal will give a deadline by which the manuscript should be resubmitted in order to receive full consideration.
  3. Your manuscript will not be accepted, but you will be offered the opportunity to do some fairly extensive revisions according to the reviewers’ concerns, and will be advised to resubmit should you wish. In this case, the journal editor usually states that there is no guarantee of acceptance after revision, but that they are willing to reconsider the manuscript.
  4. The journal will reject the manuscript with no opportunity to revise and resubmit. The reviewers’ comments will be sent to you along with the decision letter.

So, assume you have received your decision letter and you have anywhere from one to three reviews in hand. If you are fortunate enough to have received a positive result (#1 or #2), Hurray! Give yourself and your coauthors a well-deserved pat on the back and start to work as soon as you can to address the issues the reviewers mentioned so that you can resubmit and hopefully get your article accepted quickly. These more positive decisions indicate that your study and your manuscript are solid and the need for revisions usually will not be extensive, nor will you need to do new analyses. Common types of changes needed include citations missing from your literature review, difficulties with how you organized tables, the clarity of your writing or English, or perhaps the “spin” of your findings (also a writing issue), which is addressed below. If you are an international scholar, you may be asked to consult with a native English speaker/writer to help you edit your writing before you resubmit. This can be an important step to do BEFORE you submit, but sometimes you will learn your English language expert was not expert enough and you need to consult another for your resubmission.

Or perhaps you have received a decision like #3 or #4 above. A less positive decision for your manuscript may be more difficult to manage, both in terms of the extensive revisions that will be necessary and the emotional experience of having your work criticized more severely. Your perfectly understandable reactions as you read the decision letter and the reviews may range from anger to embarrassment to questioning the worth of your study, your manuscript, or even your professional abilities.

Take some time to process these feelings. Yes, it’s discouraging to be asked to make extensive revisions or to be rejected outright, but keep reminding yourself that we often overinterpret the negatives and underinterpret the positives when we receive professional feedback. Set a date a few days to a week from the day you receive the decision letter and reviews to go back to read the feedback again and start the work of revision. Once you go back to the feedback, you may find the criticisms are not so damning and the revisions not quite so bad as you first thought. You also may find, on second reading, that the way the editor or a reviewer has worded the overview has contributed to your negative responses. Some academics can be downright condescending or dismissive in journal reviews. If you receive feedback like that, it is helpful to recognize that the way the feedback was worded was unnecessarily harsh and remind yourself that you can choose to take any good advice and suggestions there without agreeing with or accepting the negative tone of the review.

If you receive a decision like #3 above in which you are offered the opportunity to resubmit without the guarantee of acceptance, you will have to decide whether to address all of the revisions they identified in order to go back to the same journal, or move on to a less competitive journal, in which case you could choose some of the suggested revisions, but may not do everything the first journal recommended.

If you receive a flat-out rejection, read the letter and the feedback from reviewers (as above, after you take some time to process your feelings and analyze the feedback) with an attempt to be unbiased and try to determine whether you can make some of the revisions the reviewers and rejecting editor have suggested that might allow the paper to be accepted elsewhere. Usually there is a home for ANY well-written paper based on a legitimate study in the health and social sciences. Your reviewing editor may have suggested another journal or type of journal and, in that case, don’t hesitate to take this advice. Research the suggested journal(s) and begin your revisions with the new journal in mind. And this probably does not need to be said, but do not mention that you have submitted the manuscript anywhere else when you submit to the next journal. Simply incorporate as many of the comments from Journal #1 as you agree with and are able to, then submit the revised manuscript without revealing it had an earlier rejection.

Preparing a Resubmission to the Same Journal

When you receive a “revise and resubmit” decision (#1 to #3 above are variations of this) and you want to resubmit to the same journal, you must be aware of any deadline they impose, and how they wish to see the revisions you make. Some journals use track changes and some use highlights. A few don’t mind how you do it, as long as the editor and reviewers can see what you had and what you changed it to. If you are concerned about any of the expectations of the editor’s overview and/or the reviewers’ comments, feel free to email the editor who wrote you, using the journal’s submission platform if they have one, to ask for clarification.   

A major element of any resubmission is your cover letter that addresses the reviewers’ and editors’ comments. This is a systematic overview that enumerates your responses to the entire list of suggestions or concerns contained in the feedback you received. Always start by acknowledging the work of the reviewers and stating your appreciation for their thoughtful or valuable suggestions about your manuscript. This is a formulaic courtesy, but an important one in a situation where the reviewers are your peers out in the academic ether and they do this service work freely. A review that is carefully done and helps you see how to improve your work is indeed a gift to you, so it’s always good to acknowledge that and begin by demonstrating your openness to the suggestions made.

When there are many comments from several reviewers, it is appropriate to organize the response letter by reviewer. You would start with Reviewer #1, go through everything, then move on to Reviewer #2, etc. You do not need to respond again to comments repeated by more than one reviewer, but refer back to the earlier mention of the comment and your response there. If there are fewer comments, or perhaps all of the reviewers had mostly similar comments, you might group all the reviews together, but organize your responses by major and minor issues. Be sure in your responses to state the page and line number of the area if it is not already clear in the reviewer’s commentary.

When faced with a revise and resubmit, sometimes you will find a suggestion or request from the reviewers that you disagree with. If you disagree for strong reasons, very politely state the reasons you—and any coauthor(s)—did not make the suggested change. Note that this would be a great suggestion except for X, Y, and Z. Perhaps it would be too costly or perhaps there is a theoretical reason not to, or something that the reviewer did not realize. If you can back up your decision to leave things as they are with a citation, include it in your response. Another type of reviewer comment may ask for something that you simply cannot comply with (e.g., they want something done differently about data collection and it is too late for that). In that case, you will simply have to explain that and place more emphasis on whatever the issue was into your Limitations section of the Discussion. Be sure to note that you have done this in your response letter.

When you receive an open invitation to resubmit your manuscript, you can be sure the basic study seemed sound to the editor. Some revisions requested may require going back to the data to change an analysis or back to your results to change how you present the data in tables and the text. And many suggested revisions will be about emphasis in your writing—the spin. When reviewers suggest something like, “I do not see how this relates…” they are asking for you to clarify the writing in the identified area. For example, try to be more concrete, or perhaps reorder some of your paragraphs or sentences to be sure the information you present flows logically for the reader. In another common example, when a reviewer writes, “I’m not sure this study offers much new to the field…,” you may find you can strengthen the wording about the gap in the knowledge base and perhaps add a citation or two calling for more research about your topic. In summary, feedback can sound quite negative, but skillful rewriting may be all that is called for. In your response to the reviewers, state that you have rewritten a portion and quote the changed text.  

And finally, have your coauthor(s) read over any responses and actual changes you make, just as they will have read the final submission the first time. If you are the only author, ask a trusted peer or colleague. While you have already done your best to be calm, clear, and polite in your responses to the reviewers, your objective peer can be on the lookout for wording that might seem snarky or defensive in your responses.

This completes my posts on the process of writing and submitting a quantitative research manuscript. Should you be working with a qualitative or mixed-methods study, much of the information here will still apply.  However, the next blog entry offers a few additional tips for those studies. And the final blog post addresses a different sort of study that is increasingly popular in the health and social sciences: the systematic review of the literature.

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