Reimagining Revise and Resubmit: Talk at NeMLA 2018

(Note:  I spoke at NeMLA 2018 as part of a panel called “Publish, Don’t Perish,” put together by Professionalization Coordinator Claire Sommers.  Here’s the text.  With thanks to Ellie Mackin.)

Reimagining “Revise and Resubmit” as Invitation and Collaboration

I’d like to start with feelings:  bad, ugly feelings.  I know as scholars and intellectuals we don’t always see feelings as a good place to start—but I think the swirl of affect that comes with writing is unavoidable.  In my work with supporting faculty writers on my campus, serving as the mentoring coordinator for an organization dedicated to publishing, and editing a journal—and in my collecting of horror stories on revise and resubmit for this talk—I’ve found that navigating that swirl is the first step towards meaningful mentorship.  So:  here’s what it’s like to get a “revise and resubmit”:

1) you were feeling positive about finishing up an article and sending it out, and now you’re being told it needs more work.  Feeling demoralized leads you to throw the thing in a drawer.

2) you see “revise and resubmit” and you hear “rejection.”  Feeling rejected leads you to throw the thing in a drawer.

3) you thought all your projects were moving smoothly through the pipeline, and now something is stopping it up.  Feeling anxious about publishing, perishing, and productivity and therefore needing to move on to something new to send out leads you to throw the thing in a drawer.

4) you don’t know where to begin managing the feedback, the reframing, the additional research.  Feeling overwhelmed leads you to throw the thing in a drawer.

Demoralized.  Rejected.  Anxious.  Overwhelmed.  Not to mention frustrated, stuck, resentful.  If you have the misfortune of receiving unnecessarily mean and unconstructive feedback, you get the added bonus of feeling bullied and worthless.  A whole array of bad affect can collect around this most ambiguous of editorial decisions.  What does “revise and resubmit” mean?  What was the process by which this decision was made?  How is this not a rejection?  Where do you even begin to manage this additional writing task—on a piece you thought was done enough to send out in the first place—on top of everything else?

Receiving a decision of “revise and resubmit” from a journal can be frustrating, even feel like a rejection.  It can be tempting to let what seems like the chore of revising fall to the bottom of the to-do list, or to misjudge the amount of work involved and the amount of time it will take.  Worse, the reports from readers that provided the basis for this decision, rather than offering helpful feedback to get the revision process underway, can instead be decidedly unhelpful, conflicting, unreasonable, and downright mean.

I would like to extend a more complex and hopefully more generative vision that allows for a re-imagining of the author/editor relationship:  that of the invitation.  I imagine peer review as a relationship, begun the moment an author submits an essay to an editor for publication in a journal (a relationship maybe even ideally begun when that author first begins reading that journal), and I see the revise and resubmit as an opportunity for radical hospitality, an opening for collaboration between author, peer reviewers, and editors that has the power to be transformative. 

I propose that the “revise and resubmit” can be an opportunity for mentoring in scholarly communication and publishing, for cultivating and refining an author’s purpose and contribution, and for deepening an individual scholar and writer’s relationship with the discipline.  Successfully pursuing a “revise and resubmit” means thinking through the place of revision—possibly several rounds of it—in one’s writing and research agenda; it means rethinking one’s own place in the scholarly conversation and community as one responds to the ideas and feedback of others; and it means reimagining one’s relationship with an editor, perhaps even as one of collaboration and mutual commitment to advancing the field.

A quick demystification of the process by which a revise and resubmit is arrived at.  A revise and resubmit differs from an acceptance pending or contingent upon revisions.  In the latter cases, the revisions may involve some additional writing in order to expand upon an intriguing but underdeveloped point, including perhaps some additional analysis or close reading; additional references to a work of scholarship that the author missed; strengthening the introduction or conclusion in order to render more robustly the claims being made; tightening and clarifying of style.  Usually, these pieces will not go back out for additional peer review.  They are regarded as in near-publishable form.  Sidebar:  if your article gets the decision “accepted pending or contingent upon revisions,” do them right away!  Usually this doesn’t require more than an hour or two of work, they will make the article better, and it means a publication sooner rather than later.

A revise and resubmit means engaging in a more extensive process, one that might involve rethinking the entire piece.  These decisions come from the need for a clearer, more cogent, or more original argument; a more sustained and in-depth engagement with the existing scholarship; a more integrated approach to analysis and theoretical application.  I tend to think of pieces that receive the recommendation of revise and resubmit as undercooked, not fully ripe; the potential for a contribution to the field is there, but the author is perhaps writing around the argument, or needs to reframe the essay as part of adapting it from a longer piece like a dissertation, or perhaps should be delving into the scholarship more fully—or should be not letting the existing scholarship take over so entirely that the author’s own voice is lost.

All of this is to say:  the feedback given on a revise and resubmit should be constructive, with an eye towards furthering the piece towards the best version of itself, in order to facilitate the communication of the author’s contribution to the field in the author’s voice.  I believe this facilitative work is the role of peer reviewers and the editor, and issuing the decision to recommend revise and resubmit should be thought of as an invitation to an author for further dialogue in service of scholarship.  Revise and resubmit is a mentoring opportunity, and an open door into deeper engagement with the field.  It can be a way to develop a partnership with an editor, as author and editor work together to shape a piece for a particular audience with particular concerns.  Peer reviewers represent that audience; they ask the questions and make the intellectual demands that audience will make.  An editor can liaise with that audience, serving almost as a conduit for an author grappling with how to best to meet its needs.

I cultivate authors via the revise and resubmit.  My cover emails with readers’ reports enclosed offer suggestions for how to manage the feedback:  which steps to approach first, how to address seemingly conflicting suggestions, and how to think about our audience.  If this is not clear to you from the readers’ report or the editor’s correspondence, ask.  Find out the preferred timeline for turning the piece around, and work the revisions into your own writing timeline.  Think about which suggestions you are comfortable taking (you don’t always have to take all of them), and imagine yourself in conversation with your readers; in some cases you will be in conversation with them explicitly—I, like other editors, encourage a cover memo that details revisions and responses to reader feedback, which I then include when I send the essay back out.  Above all:  a revise and resubmit is more than partway to an acceptance.  Don’t throw the thing in a drawer.