Help with Research: Publishing, part 2

About a year ago, we told you how to submit your articles. In this post, to break up the stream of Word how-tos, we’ll go through the typical responses to an article, and offer advice for how to handle each one.

In classics, you should expect to wait 3 months to a year after submission before hearing anything back (yes, that is a long time!). Check the journal’s submission guidelines to see how long their typical turnaround is. This is often phrased as the editors’ ‘aims’, because while the editors want to fill their issue, they are dependent on the peer review process to tell them whether and how an article is publishable. Sometimes peer review takes longer than expected or hoped, even for the reviewer.

If it’s been considerably longer than the guidelines say (for example, the guidelines say “we aim to respond to all materials in 3-4 months”, and it’s almost month 6), then you can write the editor asking for an update:

Dear Dr. Philodemus,

I submitted my article, “The Greek idea of the anima,” to Stoic Studies on January 27 and have not yet received a response. Do you have information about its status?

Thank you,

Marcus Cicero

Most journals contact authors even when their submissions are rejected, so you should expect a response from the editor. Writing a polite email asking for an update isn’t rude, because no one cares about your article more than you do! But remember that editors are busy (often full-time faculty) and dependent on the peer review of other full-time faculty members: don’t accuse them of ignoring you or taking too long to respond.

Once you do have a decision, it will fall into one of three categories:

1. Accepted. This category is less common than you’d think. It means that the editor(s) and reviewer(s) think that your article is good to go, with limited modifications (for example, you forgot to include a book in your bibliography, or there’s a typo in note 12). Your argument is sound and convincing, and you have expressed it well. Congratulations! As long as you submitted to a standard publisher in the field (not a suspicious one who emailed you), you should add it to your CV and go celebrate.

2. Accepted with revisions/revise and resubmit/conditionally accepted. This midway category has a lot of different names, but most of them feature the word ‘revise’. What does this status mean? Usually, that the reviewers thought your ideas were good, but needed either more evidence or better argumentation to be convincing (or both). Many papers fall into this category, so don’t be discouraged! I like to skim through the comments before replying to the editor, but if you are very sensitive to criticism you might be better off replying to the email first. Acknowledge that you received the comments and are looking forward to working on the article further.

At some point, you should read through what the editors and reviewers say carefully. Reviewers can vary wildly in what they expect, and you could find yourself with reviewers who give different or even contradictory feedback. Good editors read this feedback too. They will often tell you to prioritize or pay special attention to ‘page 2 of Reviewer A’, or ‘what reviewer B says about your conclusions’. It is a good idea to listen to your editor, because that editor will make the final call about your article. Editors will also try to mitigate a reviewer’s expectations if those expectations are unreasonable, so in general their feedback will make your life easier.

Once you’ve read through all of the comments, put them aside and do something not-work related. Many people find even helpful criticism hard to accept at first. Deal with that stress, and then come back (even if it’s a few days later!) to tackle the substantive work of revising.

TIP: You don’t need to make all  of the changes that are suggested by the reviewers. Some of them might not work within the scope of the article you’ve envisioned. But if you find yourself rejecting most of their suggestions, you are not ready to revise. Put the article aside and come back in a few days.

Addendum: if the editor tells you “do X,” then you should do X. Before you submit, go through the suggestions and make sure that you’ve made the editor’s recommended changes. Because, again, the editor has the final call. 

3. Rejected. Here, all I can offer is cold comfort: publishing is the cousin of rejection. You will get rejected. You will get comments that sound mean. You will want to hide your paper in your desk drawer and never look at it again.

Don’t do it! Or at least, don’t do that for more than a week. There are two primary reasons for an article to be rejected:

  • You chose the wrong journal. Sometimes, your ideas about what ‘fits’ a certain journal’s style doesn’t match their own ideas. Submitting an article about Catullus to JHS? It will probably be rejected. That’s an obvious case, but sometimes the criteria are more vague. If you work in a field that has specialized journals, like papyrology or philosophy, you might do better in those specialized journals than in a full-coverage journal. In those cases, the editor might tell you so explicitly: we think it’s a good article, but not the right fit for us. You should still read your feedback and possibly revise before submitting elsewhere, but be aware that some feedback is journal-specific: the suggested expansions or omissions that make sense in a general journal might not make sense in a journal devoted to your subfield. On the other hand, ‘the first paragraph on page 5 doesn’t make sense and seems to be missing some words‘ is something you’ll want to check before submitting to a different journal.
  • Your article wasn’t ready for submission. Maybe you included too much of a history of the question. Maybe you overstuffed the article with footnotes. Maybe you failed to communicate the value of what you’re doing — not just that it’s cool but a reason why someone besides you should care. If your article was rejected not because of fit, take a good, hard look at the comments you receive and try to see why your article failed to convince. If you can’t, try swapping your article and feedback with a colleague; others can usually see the weaknesses of your argument before you do, and a peer might be able to explain the conceptual hurdle more easily.

In either case, getting a rejection doesn’t mean that your work is worthless or that you should give up. It means that you should take some time to polish and rethink before sending it back out into the world. Sometimes, that polishing and rethinking could take months; at other times, it could take years. That’s okay! But if you don’t act on your feedback, it’s on you.

TIP: when you are ready to send the article back out, don’t send it to the same journal that already rejected it. If they wanted your revised article, they would have given you a revise & resubmit. You can send other articles there, but the ship has sailed after a rejection.

As a final TIP, remember that most editors, reviewers, and journals aren’t trying to hurt your feelings or shut you out of the publication process. They’re trying to help you achieve the best result for your article. If you find that there’s a journal that isn’t trying to help you improve, you don’t have to submit there again. But you also shouldn’t assume that your article is perfect just because you’ve been working on it a long time or because your friends say so.

Readers: have we forgotten any important tips? Best article anecdotes? Editorial tips to remember? Let us know in the comments or on social media!


~j.

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