This post is a condensed version of a workshop for ‘junior’ and PhD researchers. The main point of the exercise: peer review is increasingly a matter of pot luck but you can improve your chances. (That the infamous Reviewer 2 is an eternal meme actually shows that the randomness of review has always been true). In addition, junior researchers should be very instrumental and pragmatic in responding to peer review, and most importantly, they should do it in a timely, targeted and editor-friendly manner.
I don’t often write posts about the nuts and bolts of scholarship – I wrote one here a while back on monograph planning, and here on public/media communication of research.
This post supplements more ‘practically’ the key ideas from this really short and useful piece by the editor of American Anthropologist on the general pitfalls of article submissions: ‘make your work neat and professional’, ‘link data and claims’, ‘avoid the impression of gaps in your reading’, ‘self-consciously consider structure (for flow, balance, consistency, focus)’. These are points we could all do with reminding of when writing academic prose for journal pubs, I’m sure.
Mainly I focus on the craft of submission, and ‘socialisation’ of the paper submitter in the eco-system of journals.
Firstly I consider the process of choosing a journal – which, while straightforward for some, is not for others. As someone who uses ethnographic methods, focuses on Russia, but uses theory from political science and sociology more than from anthropology, where should I try to publish? So I get workshop participants to actually open up Scimago and try searches for relevant journals. You’d be amazed at how few people have ever done this (or indeed how few people know this website exists). I ask participants to read editorial statements and look at the board. In other words, think about the audience straight away. Then they have to triangulate that with actually reading potentially out-of-the-comfort-zone papers from the journal they’ve selected. Again, very few people actually do this. The point of the exercise? Many journals have a focus/editorial policy that’s much narrower than people realise and it is a waste of time submitting to them. Example: I talk about a scholar submitting an article based on interview data alone to Social Science Research – which is a quant journal!
Then I focus on ‘getting into the hospital’ – also known as passing editorial triage. Many researchers still don’t realise that even ‘minor’ or highly specialist social science journals get 500 or more submissions a year and so ‘desk rejection’ is the easiest and necessary option for the editor in chief. (As a side note, it’s worth remembering that the quantification of research publication in places like the UK meant that in the 2000s there was massive inflation in submissions to journals that before had garnered less interest – at its peak in the mid 2010s the UK became a Soviet system of churning product. This affected all journals because editors had to filter submissions and competition for limited slots was fierce.
To get a better chance of passing triage, writers have to do one thing that in my experience is neglected even by excellent scholars – write a clear and meaningful abstract. Signs of neglect are clear – abstract either written before the article is and not updated (!), or a hurried afterthought, or, even worse, a rewritten summary of the first couple of paragraphs of the article itself. Most of the time though, the abstract is too vague. I give the participants this example:
“The article describes the analysis of value basis of business ethics in various countries. The analysis is based on the questionnaire survey of respondents from xxx, as well as European countries. It was demonstrated that many traditional theories developed in this area need to be revised. A sharp contradiction between actual values of entrepreneurs and public expectations stated in sets of codes and concepts of social responsibility was revealed. It was concluded that the informal corrupt practices exist due to liability of entrepreneurs to comply with public attitudes without restructuring of their value system.
Keywords: business ethics, ethical regulation, values” [I tweaked this to make it anonymous – it’s a real abstract]
Then I contrast this with a much more focused and specific (orientating the reader) abstract:
In this short essay, we try to assess the utility of class analyses for understanding the contemporary XXX society. Erik Wright (2009) identifies three strands of class analysis: a stratification approach, a Weberian approach and a Marxist approach. We address the following questions: Which kind of class analysis is most present in XXX today? Which is most needed? The main conclusion is that due to this marginalisation of class discourse, as well as the power of national/ethnic discourse and transitional culture, those most economically vulnerable were deprived of the cultural and discursive resources to resist the most the extreme market-oriented policies. The conditions for structuration of class relations were created, while the class and inequality discourse was marginalised.
Keywords: class, class analysis, public class discourse, post-communist transformation, country X
Apart from clarity, what sticks out, is the obvious thesis statement in Abstract 2. It really does seem the case these days that scholars are ‘learning’ from their undergraduate students – they have developed an allergy to actually articulating a clear thesis. [full disclosure – I am guilty of all the crimes described in this post – do as I say, not as I do]. My advice: Writing an abstract is probably the most difficult and important part of disseminating research. It’s best to get someone to help, and to spend a disproportionate amount of time and effort on it. This is not rocket science and publishers themselves offer some good advice:
Who are the intended readers? (think of real colleagues – are they in a particular discipline?). • What did you do? (no more than 50 words). • Why did you do it? (ditto 50). • What happened? (50). • What do the results mean in theory? (50). • … and in practice? (50). • What remains unresolved? (50). • … AND, What is the benefit to the reader? – avoid an over-emphasis on the research itself, you want to make the abstract interesting to a wider audience than immediate subject specialists– (adapted from leading publisher)
Then I move on to the period when your article is ‘in’ peer-review. The most important point is that this can take a very long time. I mean, you thought it took a long time to get Covid vaccines out? Try getting 7000 words of academic stuff published. Again, many junior colleagues don’t know this and their supervisors don’t tell them either. This ‘one neat trick’ (which doesn’t always work, admittedly) is to look at your bibliography before you submit to check there’s actually someone there who is a) human, b) alive, c) actively publishing now in your area, and probably most importantly, d) not too senior (because many senior profs don’t have time for peer review or may be ‘protective’ of a topic close to them). Why? Because guess who an editor will approach first to peer review you? That’s right – a combination of a+b+c+d. It might not work, but if you find you have no alive, relevant, active humans, not too close to super-star status or pensionable age in your bibliography then probably that means you should have cited some anyway. (Every single time I do peer review I find obvious omissions of leading scholars in my field – it’s also as if people don’t know how to do Google Scholar searches on their own topic). The ‘human’ comment refers to non-toxic researchers – there are fewer colleagues capable of peer-review than you think.
Finally I turn to dealing with peer review when you get it back. First I ask, why is it bad to sit on the peer-review comments and agonise about them? Because the longer you delay the more likely that the original peer reviewers will no longer be available to re-review your re-submission. Result – Kafka at the door of the Law – you get a whole new set of queries which may even ask you to undo things you were specifically asked to do by the first reviewers. Junior researchers often don’t believe this could possibly be true. But of course it is.
Next – and this is more relevant to social sciency stuff based on empirical evidence – a smart (or more likely lucky) editor will get two readers – one of whom may focus more on theory, and another who might focus more on your context and evidence. With this in mind, again, many problems can be solved by preempting this during writing (and re-writing) prior to submission. I’m not a massive theory bro, but even I can tell there’s something wrong with your paper if you’re offering a Bourdieusian approach and only cite the man himself and one article from 2004 in an obscure Ruritanian sociology book. It’s very common in early-career researchers to give too narrow a gloss on their theory. At least tell a story to the reader about why you are delimiting yourself.
The final point is maybe the most important – getting peer review can be overwhelming – because increasingly journals ask reviewers (rightly) to do a thorough job. I recently got a reviewer report back that was 4000 words long! To be honest, I gave up. I didn’t know where to begin. And the review was not negative – just too much to deal with.
What I do is give participants a more typical example – a couple of pages of real peer-review from an article I wrote long ago. I ask them to read it and think how they could respond, but limiting them to focusing on 2 of the main points the reviewer makes. Here’s an excerpt:
- First, it would be good to have a more detailed comparison of the levels of earnings the respondents received How much of a financial sacrifice are they making for the sake of autonomy? This isn’t clear, but is important to understand in terms of the author’s wider argument.
- Likewise, the author’s argument would be strengthened by some reference to the size of the informal v. formal sectors of employment, so that readers have a sense of how widespread this phenomenon is likely to be.
- The changes in styles of line management, which form a central prop of the argument, also need to be set in a wider context. I consider this to be an essential revision. Here the crucial missing reference is: XXX Some reference to this is essential to contextualize the author’s argument. The author might also want to refer to other responses to this process, such as XXX.
- The author also fails to analyse the gender aspect of his/her findings. To what extent is this a particularly “masculine” response to subordination? Did the author look at women? Did their attitudes differ? Research suggests that men and women have responded differently to economic restructuring, so this aspect deserves a mention (see XXX).
- The author also fails to mention whether the respondents have partners and/or dependent children. Given the expectations of the male breadwinner, this is potentially very significant. Are these men married? Can married men pursue this escape route without censure?
- XXX. find the opposite tendency to that cited by the author:[…]. This contradictory finding again highlights the need for the author to situate his/her findings in the wider context of transformation of the economy. At present, the author does not do quite enough to address the problematic issue of the generalisability of his/her findings. Showing a wider appreciation of the development of capitalism in Russia would be a good way to do this.
- Finally, with reference to the autonomy of Soviet workers, the author should consider citing the classic essay on the subject: XXX
This example is, I think, good peer review, but the point is that it shows that writers can also filter feedback and that (while fixing the simple things too) they should focus their re-write and response to peer review as much as possible. This example also shows how there is room to clarify – to say ‘I’m not talking about that’, ‘my focus is on Z and not Y’. At the end of the workshop we move on to looking at how to craft a covering letter, or ‘response to reviewers’ (journals vary in how they deal with this). This is also an opportunity to truck and barter with the editor herself. By showing what a good citizen you are in responding to the substantive points, you can ‘respectfully reject’ suggestions by reviewers in less important areas, or due to limits of space.
My final thoughts are that we as scholars are much more prone to the same mistakes our undergraduate students make as writers: sometimes article structure is too loose and shows a lack of evidence of editing/drafting by the author. Very often, key terms are not defined – for example ‘neoliberalism’, ‘social capital’. A lot of work by (not just) junior scholars is under-theorised and fetishizes methodology. Obviously, there’s a lot more to craft than I can present here. I find the work of Thomas Basbøll really useful in sensitising myself over and over to writing as craft. Remember, there are very few, if any ‘natural’ writers. Like in sport and music, ‘talent’ is a misrecognition of a person doing something over and over until they get better at it.