Tuesday, 14 November 2017

What to do when the reviews for your manuscript arrive (Teresa Iacono)

Photo by Dustin Lee on Unsplash
As a researcher, the satisfaction of completing a manuscript and sending it off for review through the manuscript central portal can’t be underestimated.

You have reviewed the literature, conducted the research, written and edited numerous versions after exchanges with your supervisors or other co-authors, and now you have sent it on its way. Sigh of relief, followed by reward (bubbles in a hot bath, shiraz in a glass, and a trashy novel are amongst my favourites and preferably simultaneously).

The best part is that you can maintain that feeling of self-satisfaction for at least 4-6 weeks.

And then it comes in. You recognise the journal name sitting in your email Inbox. You stop breathing for a moment, your pulse quickens and there is a squeamish feeling in the pit of your stomach as you contemplate opening the email. My advice to you is … don’t.

Well, not before you go through some mental health first aid! Let me explain through an anecdote.

I have been in this game of academic writing, as an author, reviewer, and journal editor for over the course of many years. Long enough to remember receiving the reviews via the mail, in an envelope with airmail stamps all over it – if these are foreign concepts to you, perhaps skip forward or go check your Twitter™ feed. The beauty of the snail mail and hard copy reviews was that you could figure out a great deal before opening the envelope. A thin envelope with a single sheet of paper signalled a likely rejection with no opportunity for redress. Of course it could also be an acceptance with no revisions, but unlikely at the first round of reviews. A slim envelope that seemed to contain 2-3 sheets was a likely “a few revisions and resubmit” decision. A big fat bulging envelope could only signal major revisions – unless of course a reviewer has felt it his/her duty to explain in excruciating detail, just why this manuscript does not deserve to be seen by your peers in published form.

I remember one such fat envelope. Upon receiving it, I did a mental check. How was I feeling today? A little vulnerable? Too many student requests for re-marking of that last assignment. A notification that my small grant proposal had not been successful. So the envelope sat unopened for two days. On the third day, with a strong cup of coffee, I closed the office door, turned the sound down on the phone, and opened the envelope. Here it was, the reviewers liked the topic and my approach, but wanted a complete reworking of how the data were presented, and of course, a complete re-write. If I chose to resubmit – within three months – there would be no guarantee of acceptance.

I crammed the sheets back into the envelope, and went on with my day. In the end, it was a bit like cleaning out that cupboard that has been bugging you for months. One day you wake up, and it’s the day to tackle the job and you can’t possibly do anything else (or is that just me?). And so I did. The task was huge. I typed out the criticisms and comments (remember, I had received the reviews in hard copy). I organised them into categories: for example, data re-analysis (major), literature review revisions (minor). Then I set about making the changes, writing under each comment or criticism how it was addressed, and where to find the changes in the revised manuscript. It was tedious and some criticisms made me want to lash out (e.g., “this reviewer evidently is unfamiliar with previous research in this area”). Sometimes I wrote those acerbic responses – it was cathartic - but then I deleted them and wrote something much more placating – for example, “I appreciate the reviewer’s suggestion, but have chosen not to follow it as the literature suggested does not relate directly to the study. However, in order to address the request for a more detailed review, I have added a brief review of two studies…” Revising this manuscript took me almost as long as writing it in the first place, but it taught me some valuable lessons about perseverance, and how to address all reviewer comments politely, assertively, and systematically. Also, I did my best to make it easy for the Editor and the reviewers to know exactly what I had done, and how my changes did address their concerns.

Some authors use tables, transferring reviewer comments and criticisms to one column, and writing their responses for each in the adjacent column. I tend to list the criticisms, and put my responses to each underneath. I point out where they can find the change in the manuscript and sometimes copy the new text into the response to the Editor document for ease of reading.

Now that reviews come via email, I have fewer cues to indicate the possible outcome without opening the email. Still, my suggestions for making sure you are up to a possible rejection or request for major changes stand – don’t open the email unless your skin feels tough and you are mentally ready to deal with whatever the editor and reviewers throw at you. Chances are that, over time, you will experience everything from acceptance following a single review through to outright rejection. I certainly have.

As for that paper that required a major revision, you ask? Well, it was accepted, I think with another round of minor revisions. The following year at a conference, I was awarded the Journal Prize for Best Paper for the year. That paper became one of my most cited.

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Teresa Iacono is Professor of Rural and Regional Allied Health in the La Trobe Rural Health School. Teresa is a member of La Trobe University's Living with Disability Research Centre. 

She has a background in speech pathology and have worked in clinical and tertiary education settings. 

Her recent areas of research include health and mental health of adults with developmental disabilities, complex communication needs, access to evidence-based early interventions and the use of ehealth.

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