The Academic Journal Review Process: Nine Suggestions for Scholarly Researchers

number-nines.jpgAs many of you know, the JMR paper whose progress we have carefully followed in the past several blog postings has gone on to become a fairly well known article.

If you look at the JMR’s list of their most highly cited articles, this one appears #9 on their list of all articles from 2000-2007. It is number one on in its category of 2002-2004, and has been in the top spot in its rolling 3-year class since the top-rated figures have been kept.

So, reading through the reviews, I thought that there might be several lessons in the story that might benefit junior scholars of all stripes, and maybe even all publishing academic scholars in general.

1. Don’t be afraid to research something really new and interesting. Believe in yourself. Innovate. Take risks. The reviewers may not recognize your contribution; they’re only human. Focus on making a contribution. Be the kind of academic and the kind of scholar that you admire.

The greater audience of scholars, the academic community, often recognizes works of value, over time. But you need to get it out there. Do not be afraid to do something risky and different. We need more of that kind of big-thinking scholarship. But you will need to handle resistance and critique. Expect it to take longer. Expect it to be more difficult. Expect to get frustrated. But expect that you will grow in myriad and immeasurable ways as a scholar because of that challenge.

2. Be the right mix of stubborn and flexible as you respond to Reviewers. What’s the right mix? Well, that depends. If this is really something new, a new area, new construct, a new context, a genuinely new theory, or a new methodological approach (as here), then you may well know more than your reviewers and editor, and you may need to enlighten them if they haven’t got it yet. If this is a well-mined area, you may not know as much as your reviewers and editor(s), and you might be best off learning more from them. In that case, keep your mouth shut and be flexible and eminently responsive. You need to know when to resist, when to simply act on advice, and when to just be grateful that these smart, experienced people are mentoring-you-by-mail.

3. Be polite. If you are actually enlightening others, even if you are angry, hurt, and frustrated by the process and the processors, do your utmost to be polite to the others who are involved. Even if they are not polite to you (especially if they are not), try to maintain a deferent, humble tone that keeps the whole thing professional and collegial.

Reviewers and Editors do this work for free. And, oftentimes, others have taught them their (bad) habits. Try to see it through their eyes, and approach them and the process itself with a positive, grateful, upbeat tone. Do anything else, and it’s a slippery, nasty slope.

4. If there’s a big problem with the process, talk to the Editor. They are good people generally and, in my experience, a phone call can be very helpful. It doesn’t matter if you are junior or senior as a scholar–as someone who is in the review process at that journal you all should count the same.

However, don’t abuse this option. Only ask them if you can schedule a call if there is something really, really wrong. I have only done this one other time in my career.

5. Ask for specific, constructive critique on your paper if you aren’t getting it. You will notice that the big difference between Reviewer B and Reviewer C in these reviews is that Reviewer B only criticizes, and never offers actual suggestions for improvement. Any intended improvement is only shot down in the subsequent round. Reviewer C, on the other hand, sets the bar high, but is specific enough that the directions can be discerned and followed. Reviewer C notes and recognizes the improvement, even when s/he is asking for further refinement of it.

I wrote and verbally asked the Editor to try to ensure that Reviewer B be more constructive in his/her critiques. After that, as the Reviewer continued to be unhelpful, I believe that they may have lost credibility with the Editor, and this may have led to their advice to reject the paper being more heavily discounted. Even as a junior author with no other publications, I was able to make my voice heard.

6. Remember that the process can be painful when you are sitting on the other side, and act accordingly when you review.
Criticism or faint praise can discourage and dishearten newcomers. Remember that when you write reviews of your own. Try to be constructive, positive and encouraging in all of your reviews. Write with the Golden Rule in mind. And always be constructive, and tell the author what they need to do to improve the paper (see point # 5 above). Even if this is a rejection-especially if it is a rejection—be concrete and constructive. Tell them exactly what they need to do to get the paper to publishable quality.

7. Appreciate and listen to the advice of the Editor or Associate Editor who synthesizes comments, particularly ones that are divergent, and give you specific guidance about the major revisions you need to make to your paper. At that point, you don’t always need to take their guidance (see points #1 and 2, above). But you benefit greatly from knowing exactly what that guidance is. And if you don’t take that advice, you need to clearly and convincingly state why you are doing something different. In probably 99 times out of 100, you want to take a good, involved Editor’s advice as offered.

8. Realize that journal articles don’t spring fully-formed from the minds of their authors the way Athena did from the forehead of Zeus. The vast majority of them take a lot of time, blood, sweat, struggle, and angry, bitter nights and weekends to get to be the way that they finally appear. New authors: don’t be discouraged if your first drafts don’t look exactly like the published articles. Neither did my first drafts. As you can see.

9. Persist. Persist. Persist. Never give up. Rise to the challenge. Make your case. Persist. Perform your revisions and changes as quickly as you can, keep it fresh, keep it moving. Be efficient and do the best job you can. Be thorough. Keep coming back. Stay in the game. Don’t give up. Work through the disappointment. Refuse to go away. Persist.

There are probably many more takeaways and many more interesting stories. I would be happy to hear your stories and share them and also work through any questions you might have.

That’s enough journal publishing stuff to last me a while. Stay tuned for lots more new blog material, coming your way soon.


  1. Domen July 21, 2009
  2. pierreyann July 21, 2009

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