Dealing with reviewers’ comments

More things I learned whilst being underemployed – this time (as the title suggests) about dealing with reviewers’ comments on your work.

  1. If your manuscript comes back from the reviewers with recommendations for change, bear in mind that someone needs to check that you have actually addressed them effectively, so it is really helpful if you include a note with the new manuscript that indicates how you think you have done what they asked. List each recommendation and then say how you have dealt with it. If you are not going to do what has been suggested, (and this is your right – reviewers are not infallible) it is crucial that you justify this. I personally would not bother prefacing this note with “the author(s) thank(s) the reviewers for their helpful comments” because (a) you probably don’t, since many of them are not tactfully phrased even if they’re correct and (b) in most cases, the reviewers probably aren’t going to be the people who check the revised manuscript unless perhaps the person who is checking it thinks you have done a really bad job of addressing the recommendations and one of the recommendations is that the paper only be accepted if it is radically reworked.
  2. Reviewers don’t always make sensible comments. One comment I read suggested that the paper would be better if it stopped trying to stretch itself to be relevant to distance education and confined itself to topic X. This was, in fact, true, but seeing the conference at which it is to be presented was on distance education, what s/he should have recommended was that the authors articulated more clearly how the  model they were advocating was (particularly) relevant to teaching by distance.  Reviewers may say that the paper would be much better if A was expanded, and this may well be true, but if the paper is already up to the word limit and you have already edited it very tightly to get it that short, you won’t be able to expand A unless you drop something else. An alternative is to flag A as something that would be worthy of being dealt with further in another publication.
  3. Reviewers don’t always agree and you sometimes have to read between the lines of their comments. You may be presented with one set of comments that says that the paper would be much better if it omitted all reference to X and another that says that the best bit of it was the section about X which needs to be expanded. Since you obviously can’t do both, you need to decide which reviewer to go with, but bear in mind, if you decide to expand the material about X, that you probably haven’t articulated clearly enough how X is relevant to the rest of the paper if the other reviewer thinks it can be cut out completely. See if you can make the links clearer.
  4. Remember that while you will probably never know who your reviewers are, they may well make a point of reading the final version of your paper when it is published, or of attending your conference presentation. They have expertise in your field or they would not have been asked to review it in the first place, so keeping them on side if possible is not a bad idea. Try to take as much of their advice into account as you can, or indicate subtly why you haven’t (eg “Some might suggest that A, but in view of X & Y, it seems more likely that B”). In particular, if they suggest that you might find a particular article or author’s work useful, include it in your revised version if at all possible. The published version of the paper is the right place to put your little note about thanking the reviers, if they did indeed make helpful suggestions.
  5. Once you have completed your revisions, check the manuscript very carefully – not just for typos and oddities of expression; also check the references very carefully. The editors will pick up your typos, but not incorrect references, and it is possible that in moving text around you have left some or all of the relevant citions in the wrong place, or removed a point without removing the relevant citations. This is particularly likely if you have initially said something like “Many sources demonstrate that A and B are important” and you then change the sentence to say “Many sources demonstrate that A is important”. You need to check that none of the citations are only relevant to B, which you have now removed. If what you have written is of any interest in your field, people will check those references because they want to read more about your subject matter (or because you have cited them and they want to see what you’re saying abou their work) and you will end up looking careless or silly.
  6. When you have what you believe to be the final version of the text, remove the bibliographic software codes and make sure that the formatting complies with the style guide. If the conference, journal or organisation provides a template you would ideally have been using it from the outset, because applying template styles to your headings, bullets etc is much faster than manually formatting each of them every time you use them, but it is still not too late to attach it to your text. Be a little wary about conference proceedings templates and style guides, though. If they have been adjusted from some well-recognised format, they may not be free of error because the adjustments may have been done in a hurry by a member of the organising committee whose primary expertise is in another area. I have recently been working on a paper for a conference, the template for which does not apply the level 3 header formatting prescribed in the style guide. The style guide is also fun. It says that references should be formatted to comply to APA 5, which I did. I then read it a bit more carefully and discovered that what they really wanted was APA 5 with modifications to the way electronic articles are cited. I agree that their method is more user-friendly but if they’d said up-front that they wanted a modified form of APA 5, I would have read the formatting examples more carefully the first time round.

What you are aiming to do with all this is to make your paper as easy to publish as possible. If you are not a Big Name in your field, you want to create a good impression with the editor(s) as someone whose work doesn’t take huge amounts of staff time and effort to get into publishable form. Even if you are a Big Name, I would argue that it is a courtesy to the people who are putting the publication together to prepare you paper well, but if you’re an early career researcher (aka beginner) being a pleasure to work with cannot do you any harm at all in the publishing stakes. 🙂 Especially since many of the people involved are doing their editing work on top of their other academic workload as part of their service to the academic community.


Preparing material for review and publication

As you may have noticed, I haven’t blogged for a long time. This is because last year I was what a colleague terms ‘underemployed’ – ie the church ran out of money to fund my chaplaincy position and I worked in a range of short term casual research positions whilst looking for something I want to commit to for an extended period. Most of the research I did was related to previous qualifications and I simply didn’t have the mental space to think about the Gospel of Thomas. Three months ago, I started a new chaplaincy position and now am almost at the stage where I can concentrate on something other than learning the lie of the land. Last year, although I made minimal progress on my research, I learned and was reminded about useful things.

I have been editing theses/dissertations for quite a few years, and in the latter part of my undermployment, I was paid to check whether the revised versions of papers submitted as peer reviewed articles for a conference proceedings had satisfactorily addressed the reviewers’ comments and then to edit them for inclusion in a book. This was an eye-opening experience, not the least because by no means all the authors of problematic manuscripts were students!!

It does not matter how brilliant your argument material is, if it is presented with poor formatting, spelling, grammar, punctuation, syntax or general written expression, it is less likely to make a favourable impression.  As a result, I offer the following for students who are preparing articles/papers for peer review and theses/dissertations for examination:

  1. Even if the style guide being used by the publication is, IYNSHO, an abomination unto the Lord (like APA 5 or 6), you still have to follow it if you want to see your paper in print. If you are submitting for a conference and they are desperate for papers, the organisers/editors might send your paper out for review in the wrong format, but they will not reformat it for you for publication and in particular they will not transform your beloved footnote referencing system into in-text references or vice versa. Or even transform your Harvard references into APA. This is at least partly because your paper in its current format does not contain the information they need to do this quickly and they certainly don’t have the time to go looking for it. I would recommend putting all your references into a good bibliographic software program (eg Endnote or Zotero) because you can change referencing styles quickly, easily and far more accurately than you can manually.
  2. Having a PhD, even in Education, does not guarantee that a person has a good grasp of grammar, syntax, punctuation or general good written expression – just that they know a lot about a particular area. It is also not your supervisor’s/advisor’s role to proofread and edit your work, unless his/her name is going on the paper. Even then, s/he may not have good proofreading skills. Thus, the fact that s/he has read it and said it is OK does not mean that it is ready for publication, just that it contains no major errors or idiocies.
  3. If you are enrolled in a good educational institution, they will provide guides on spelling, punctuation and common grammatical mistakes. Read them. If anything in them surprises you, check your manuscript to see that what you have written complies with the information in the guide. If you are writing in English, pay particular attention to how you should use (and not use) “however”, “which” and “that”, commas and apostrophes. If you are writing in another language, there will be equivalent common mistakes.
  4. Note particularly that usage varies between different English speaking countries. If the publication wants you to use American spelling, it will also want you to comply with American grammatical and syntactical conventions. If you did not grow up in the US, this means that some of the things you were taught at school will be considered wrong.  One of my friends did her PhD in the US and she said that for the first six months, she would submit written work to her advisor who would want her to change the grammar and syntax from what she believed to be correct to incorrect usage. It was only when she got a US style manual to replace her Australian one that she realised that she was being asked to change from correct Australian English to correct US and things settled down. If the publication uses British conventions, you are fairly safe if you grew up in Australia and New Zealand (although there are some differences), but if you grew up with US conventions, you will be asked to do things that you were taught were incorrect.
  5. If you grew up in a country that uses English as the lingua franca although it is no-one’s first language, there will be some conventions of usage that are not considered correct in the standard English used by any publications outside your home country, and some vocabulary that has been adopted from the traditional language(s) of your country which will need either to be translated into standard English or explained. This is why Word allows you to select from such a wide variety of versions of English. A proofreader from outside your home country will be able to point these out to you, or you can select the desired version of English from the Word menu, but the latter is not without risks.
  6. Be very careful about using a thesaurus to provide variety in your text if you are not writing in a language in which you are very fluent – you may select an option that is wrong in the context in which you are using it even though it is listed as a synonym.
  7. If you are writing in a language in which you are not extremely proficient, you should try to find someone who speaks it as their first language to proofread your document. Correction: you should try to find someone who speaks it as their first language and has a good track record of writing academic papers in it. If the student in the next room to yours offers to proofread for you, it would be good to find out, tactfully if possible, whether s/he gets consistently high grades or merely passes. If the latter, then your grasp of the grammatical rules of the language is probably better than hers/his.
  8. Remember that the way you speak a particular language or use it to write emails is not necessarily appropriate for publication in an academic forum. Unless you are transcribing the content of an interview, you should avoid colloquialisms and contractions. As one of my early supervisors said, “you can’t use ‘gut feeling’ in an academic paper, even if you have put it in inverted commas”. The academy is currently undergoing a shift in opinion about how appropriate it is to use the first person (ie “I”, “me”, “my”) and active rather than passive voice (“I have shown that” or “the author has shown that” rather than “it has been shown that”). Read material written the last 5 years to get a feel for what is being done in your language and your field. If you are preparing something for a journal, read recent editions of the journal you are targetting. Talk about it with your supervisor/advisor.
  9. The previous point reminds me that one of the differences in convention between British-based and US-based punctuation is how you use single and double inverted commas (quotation marks). I have switched between the two so often now that I can no longer remember which belongs where and I always check the style manual for the publication.
  10. While it is probably wise to remove the bibliographic software codes from your manuscript before you send it off for review (so that there is no risk of the file throwing a hissy fit on another computer and transforming all your citations into field codes eg #239, rather than the author and publication details) you should only do this as the last step, after making sure that you have saved a copy of the file with the codes still intact.

Because this is now a very long post, I will put the points about dealing with reviewers’ comments in another post.

For the new year …

… I am going to diverge from writing about my research or even theology/biblical studies in general and post something more personal (yes, a few days late for the actual New Year’s Day, I know, but…)

I am currently on long service leave and officially finished as the Uniting Church chaplain to the University of New England on 31 December, although I have been on annual and study leave since mid November. The church’s current game plan is to replace me with two half time “mission workers” – students or otherwise theologically etc untrained people who seem to be going to be expected to work between them the same hours as I did, but for less than half the pay. Assuming, of course, that two suitable people apply.

The university public relations people did a rather nice piece about me which was clearly widely read by the university communty. As a result of this, I have had a fairly constant stream of people coming up to me on campus and in the shopping centre to tell me how sorry they are to see me go and that they think the Uniting Church is very stupid. It doesn’t seem to matter whether they are committed Christians or rampant atheists or somewhere in between. Apparently, the ones who haven’t found me have told the various members of my family, all of whom work or study on campus. It’s comforting to know that I haven’t wasted the last nine years.

At the moment, as I said, I’m on long service leave until towards the end of February.  I’m using the time mainly to work on my PhD, which has suffered significantly over the last twelve months, but I’m also job hunting. The full time study has been great, although somewhat hampered by the fact that I haven’t had internet access on campus for over three weeks. The IT people didn’t test that the existing cabling would be adequate for the new all-singing-all-dancing internet system until after they installed the new hardware. Guess what? It wasn’t and Al the cabler was been too busy to fit recabling our part of the building in before Christmas and the uni has been closed since then.

The job hunting has been less great. By looking at a number of ministry profiles (similar to position descriptions) and talking to various people, I have eliminated a number of things that I don’t want to do, but am yet to find something that I feel I could commit to for the next 5 years. This is the expectation for most ministry placements in my denomination. There are several ministry positions coming up soon, but applications don’t close until the end of February or some time in March. A friend at the uni has offered me some short term research assistant work, but there’s nothing much going in the way of longer term work at the uni. Those in the know suggest that this will probably change when the new Vice Chancellor arrives in February.

So, in the meantime, I am contemplating the mysteries of the Gospel of Thomas and writing chapters of my thesis/dissertation interspersed with writing  job applications. Although in the week between Christmas and New Year, I mainly read novels and had a rest. A Facebook friend whom I’ve never met posted a wish on my wall that the best of 2009 would be the worst of 2010. I hope she’s right!