Understanding the Critical Feedback Offered by Journal Editors
A few weeks or maybe months ago you submitted your painstakingly researched and carefully written paper to a reputable scholarly journal whose range and specialisation seemed perfectly suited to your work. You familiarised yourself with the content and formatting of articles recently published in the journal and did your best to emulate those papers and follow the journal’s instructions for authors. You have obviously been anticipating a positive response from the editor, but that, unfortunately, is not what you have just received. Instead, your paper has been rejected, but the editor has been generous enough – no doubt inspired by your excellent research and careful attention to the journal’s guidelines – to offer you specific reasons for the rejection, perhaps including detailed critical feedback from the peer reviewers chosen by the editor to assess your work. You know despite your disappointment that this result is a great deal better than one of those unhelpful formulaic rejections dreaded by every professional author, but the problem is that you are not sure you entirely understand the comments you have received and therefore exactly how to proceed.
The first thing to do is nothing, though that may seem inappropriate when you are so eager to resolve the problems identified by the editor and move on to successful publication. Intense emotional responses are all too rarely conducive to clear thinking and the comprehension of new material, and it is virtually impossible to avoid responding emotionally to rejection from an editor. It is therefore wise to set the feedback aside for a day or two, returning to reread it once the initial shock has passed. When you reread the criticism you received, do so alongside your paper, referring as you do so to the passages, concepts and other information singled out by the editor and reviewers. This process tends to clarify most critical comments, and you will likely find yourself devising ways in which to deal with each issue.
However, if some matters still remain unclear to you or if you would like the benefit of another informed opinion, take your paper and the criticism it has received to a trusted mentor or colleague who works on topics similar to your own and has successfully published his or her writing. Ask that person if he or she would be willing to read your work and the feedback it has earned in order to offer some new insight. This will be an especially productive approach if the editor has identified problems with the content of your paper, and you may want to highlight criticisms that seem particularly murky to you so that your colleague’s time will be put to best use. If, on the other hand, the problems indicated by the editor stem from unclear or incorrect language or from inappropriate formatting or neglecting journal guidelines despite your best efforts, you may want to consider engaging the services of a professional academic or scientific proofreader. It may surprise you just how much an experienced proofreader who is familiar with scholarly conventions and accustomed to deciphering and implementing author instructions can catch, correct and improve.
Finally, you may want to ask the editor about anything that remains confusing. This will need to be done with grace and sophistication, but you will not look foolish or unprofessional because you request clarification concerning critical comments that you, a colleague and a professional proofreader have not been able to comprehend. In fact, it may be that an error has slipped into the feedback and a simple correction on the part of the editor will immediately clarify the matter. Writing to the editor will probably be most productive if you have already understood and determined how to address a large portion of the feedback. You will then be able to explain to the editor exactly how you intend to resolve most of the problems before you resubmit your paper, and your request for clarification about the few remaining matters will come across as part of your sincere and thorough efforts to meet the needs of the journal and earn successful publication.
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If you are in the process of preparing an article for an academic or scientific journal, or planning one for the near future, you may well be interested in a new book, Guide to Journal Publication, which is available on our Tips and Advice on Publishing Research in Journals website.