Wednesday, August 5, 2020

A Workflow for Dealing with the Dread of Revising and Resubmitting Manuscripts

(Note: This post was updated on 8/5/20, 10:00pm CDT, in response to helpful comments from Sanjay Srivastava, Bobbie Spellman, Jennifer Pfeifer, and Fred Oswald). 

You find a message in your inbox with the subject “Development Psychology - Decision on Manuscript ID 2020-8561” or the like. You anxiously open the email, simultaneously reading too slowly and too quickly while searching the editor’s terse prose for keywords that signal your fate: reject, accept, revise, resubmit. You finally exhale with glee upon determining that you have been invited to revise and resubmit. You read the editor’s comments, which seldom provide anything helpful at all, and then begin reading the reviewer comments. Quickly you wonder if they read your article very carefully, and soon you wonder if they read it at all. And who is this person, and do they even know this area of research? How could Reviewer 2 be so off-base? You angrily forward the message to your co-authors to share the “good news,” indicating that you will follow-up with a plan before long. Your day is shot as you ruminate on the stupidity of the reviewers (not just the comments, but the entire existence of the reviewers) and the futility of possibly addressing their comments. A few days pass—maybe a week—and you re-read the decision letter. You realize that the reviewers actually made some important and thoughtful points, and the revisions will not be so bad after all. With some hard work the paper will get published. All you have to do is start addressing the comments. No problem. What was the deadline again? You have plenty of time to work on that later.

I wrote the above in the second person, but I was describing my reaction to every revise-and-resubmit I have ever received. My guess is that many of you respond in the same way. These are the seven universal stages of the revise and resubmit[1]: Anxiety, Anticipation, Elation, Confusion, Anger, Acceptance, and Dread.

That is the emotional process that we all go through, and all should go through—there is nothing wrong with it and I am not interested in altering it. My aim here is to outline a workflow that addresses the Dread stage: how to make progress on revising a manuscript when you are overwhelmed by the comments and necessary revisions? I have found this method to be highly effective, and those I have shared it with have agreed, so I figured I would write it up.

The main goal of this approach is to reduce feeling overwhelmed by the necessary work through breaking down the tasks bit by bit and clearly marking the progress made. A secondary outcome of this approach is that it is efficient, as you prepare the cover letter at the same time as you make the revisions, rather than treating the two as separate tasks.

There are seven steps[2] to this process:

Step 1: Copy and paste the full letter into a new document. I like to use Google Docs because it facilitates sharing with co-authors, but I also know that sharing can be accomplished in many different ways. Use whatever you want, this is not important. Just create a new document.

Step 2: Delete all extraneous information unrelated to the revision. Most of what is included in the Editor’s portion of the letter is stock language that has no relevance to what you need to do. Delete this. Reviewers sometimes provide summaries of your paper, or make other general comments that do not have implications for the revision. Delete these. If there is no action to be taken, then it should not be in this document. That said, it can be strategic to leave praise from the reviewers in the letter to remind the editor of the value of the paper. In such cases, your response can be a brief "thank you."

Step 3: Parse the letter into substantive comments. Make a new paragraph for each substantive comment made by the reviewers, with spaces in between. Sometimes reviewers make multiple different points in the same paragraph, so it is good to separate these into distinct paragraphs. Each chunk represents an action item. It can be helpful to number these comments, even if the reviewers did not do so, for ease of referencing throughout the letter (e.g., "As stated in the response to Reviewer 5, Comment 57....").

Oof, lots to do here!

Step 4: Mark all of these comments in bold and highlight them in yellow (or whatever color you like). The bold indicates that these are editors/reviewer comments (vs. your own) and the yellow indicates that the comments have not been addressed. 

Step 5: Make notes. Underneath each comment write some quick notes about how to handle the issue, using all caps or some other method to clearly signify that these are notes. These comments should be un-bolded and un-highlighted. Focus these notes on whether you will or will not revise, which section of the paper needs to be revised, and who on the team should handle the task. I also use these notes to express frustration and anger, because I find that helps. Maybe that is just me! You do you. As you make your notes about how to proceed, remember you do not have to make all of the requested changes--in fact, editors do not expect you to do so. Sometimes reviewers make mistakes or provide just plain bad advice. In such cases, provide a reasonable justification for why you are not making the change. 

Step 6. Start small. Start the revision process in this document, which will become the cover letter you submit with the revision. Go through and find the super easy stuff to take care of. You will always have a reviewer who loves to point out typos[3] or supposed violations of APA Style[4]. Take care of these first. They take almost no brain power and will instill a sense of progress. Below the reviewer comment, first replace your all-caps notes with a normal written response of what you did, THEN go into the manuscript and make the associated change. This will be a general principle to follow: change the cover letter document first, then the manuscript. Although this may seem backwards, developing your rationale for the change can help you think through how to actually make the change. This is a principle, however, not a law, so sometimes you will make the change in the manuscript and then summarize it in the letter. When responding, include the page numbers where readers can find the changes, and consider quoting the exact text of the change when relevant. 

Look at that progress!

Step 7: Un-highlight the reviewer comment to indicate that the issue has been resolved. This is the best part of the approach. As you take care of reviewer comments you can clearly see what has been done and what remains to be done. As you progress, the document becomes less and less yellow. Taking care of all of the easy changes will lead to a bunch of un-yellowing. Oftentimes reviewers will bloviate about a banal point—take care of this quickly and get yourself a massive wall of un-yellow. Multiple reviewers often make the same point. Make notes about the response the first time the point is raised, then write “see response to Reviewer 1” and go ahead and un-yellow. You make progress without doing any work at all, and THAT, my friends, is living the dream. 

Ah, the best

Before long, all of the yellow highlighting will be gone and you will be finished. As noted, a bonus of using an approach like this is that the cover letter is finished when the revision is finished. They are part of the same process. Slap some greetings and gratitudes at the beginning and then steel yourself for the fresh hell of navigating the online submission portal.

Kind, to the point, and no begging

[1] To be clear, I don’t believe in stages.

[2] Steps are not stages, so they are totally fine

[3] Reviewers, don’t do this.

[4] Don’t do this either.