For many early-career scholars, an important first hurdle is sending out that initial article for review by an academic journal. Congratulations—it’s a substantial achievement! But there are several steps to navigate before you see that article in print.
Here are some tips to help authors overcome the second hurdle on the way to publication: the peer review process and responding to the readers’ reports you receive from the journal’s editor about the article.
What is a reader’s report?
Editors at many academic journals rely on reports from specialist readers (also known as peer reviewers) to help them decide which essays to select for publication. The peer reviewers’ reports are often anonymous or blind (part of an ableist vocabulary that is ready for retirement), meaning that the identities of the author and the reader are removed. Anonymized submission does not remove all forms of bias or institutional gatekeeping from the evaluation process but it does diminish some of its more explicit practices.
Some journals use forms to guide readers in their evaluations, while others ask for a narrative comment. Most peer review reports will include a discussion of the article’s strengths and weaknesses, an assessment of the contribution it makes to its field, suggestions for revision, and an evaluation of whether or not the article will interest the journal’s regular readership. The reader will also make a recommendation to the editors about whether or not to accept the article for publication.
No matter the recommendation—accept, reject, or revise and resubmit—the author should receive reports from the journal, indicating what the reviewers thought of the work. In each case, you need to read the reports and think about what the reviewers say. A key thing to remember: peer reviewers are different from your friends or advisors, who are your advocates. A good peer reviewer is an advocate for the ideas in the article.
How to read readers’ reports
It’s important to spend time with your reports before revising your submission. Criticism, even when it’s fair, can sting and it is always best to let a little time pass before tearing into your draft. Even though I’ve received a great deal of feedback on articles and book manuscripts, I still like to take a week to stomp around and do a little ranting. Often, although not always, when I return to the reports, I can see how they can help me to improve my thinking and writing.
Even if the journal has decided not to publish your article, the reports can still be useful. You might want to incorporate some of their suggested changes before sending the piece to a different journal.
The next step is to evaluate the suggested revisions. How much work do the readers propose? Revisions can be sweeping or targeted, and that difference may matter a lot.
- Are the revisions focused on how the argument is presented or do they focus more on the claims the argument makes? (That these are connected suggestions is a matter to let fall to the side for a moment.)
- If the article is taken from a larger project, like a dissertation, the reports might indicate pieces of the larger argument that are missing. This is a very common request for early-career scholars. You’ve spent a lot of time with your dissertation’s argument but, for outside readers, it is all new!
- Do they ask for additional evidence? Or for less evidence? See if there is a pattern to these suggestions.
- Do they suggest consulting additional scholars? If so, take a look at the works proposed. Perhaps they are recommending someone who will be useful, perhaps someone whose work you can use to present why your approach is novel.
Depending on the journal, you could have two or more reports. Do they make the same suggestions? If not, did the journal’s editor(s) offer any guidance about how to differentiate between them? Sometimes this is implicit—the editor’s decision can communicate where they fall—but they can also include instructions about how to balance or prioritize changes.
How to respond to readers’ reports
You don’t need to make all the changes the reviewers suggest. Authors should always prioritize the suggested revision, tackling those that will improve their article. This doesn’t mean you should only incorporate the flattering comments (as pleasant as that would be). Instead, you want to consider how the reports will enhance the argument you’re making.
Sadly, there isn’t a formula for how much to do. But there is one thing you can consider: Do the reports direct you to write a different kind of article than the one you’ve submitted? While the readers might be right in some ways, always remember that you are the author. When the article is published, it will have your name on it so the argument needs to be the one you want to make. If you don’t think that the proposed revisions will improve your work, then it might be better to take your article to a different journal.
Some journals, and most presses, ask for authors to write a response to their reports as part of the resubmission process. But you can also write a response to your reports for yourself, working through in writing what you find generative and what you did not. This is another way to process suggestions and guidance, as well as the emotions that evaluation generates.
As you plan what to do, be honest—with the editors and yourself—about how long it will take to revise the essay. There are many pressures to publish but, and I cannot stress this enough, do not hurry your revisions. If extensive changes are requested, editors may look askance at an article that comes back in a week.
Finally, it can be great to get outside advice on reports. A neutral reader—a developmental editor, for example—can provide a different perspective on how to navigate the suggestions being proposed by readers.
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About the author
Elizabeth D. is an author, editor, and academic. She recently stepped down as one of the two editors of J19: The Journal of Nineteenth Century Americanists. The academic article is her preferred scholarly genre.