This post discusses how to respond to an invitation to revise and resubmit from a leading philosophical journal. It is aimed at early career philosophers, and was commissioned by The Philosopher’s Cocoon. It is based on my own experiences as a reviewer and an author, but has been revised in response to commentary.
In light of feedback, I feel uncomfortably obliged to say that my own experience as a reviewer and an author is almost exclusively with very top generalist journals (e.g. Mind), leading generalist journals (e.g. Philosophical Studies), and very top specialist journals (e.g. Economics and Philosophy). These sorts of labels often just reflect perceived prestige, for whatever that’s worth. Nevertheless, very top journals, both specialist and generalist, do seem to treat revise and resubmit differently. Thus my suggestions may be less applicable to a broader range of journals, though I hope not.
I have not looked closely at data concerning how likely a revise and resubmit is to lead to publication at different journals. This is mainly because I think it is not especially important. A close reading of the revise and resubmit you are facing is much more useful, in my view, than looking at statistics. If you want to know what the weather is right now, you’re better off looking out the window than studying the morning forecast.
- Most articles published by leading journals have gone through one or more rounds of revise and resubmit.
- A revise and resubmit is not a conditional acceptance.
- There is no guarantee that if you do what the referees ask for, your paper will be accepted.
- Especially at top journals, there may be multiple rounds of resubmission, and this is still no guarantee of publication.
- Invitations to revise and resubmit come in many forms.
- Best responses to revise and resubmit vary from doing a few minor things that the editor requires, to a major rewrite of the whole paper.
- It is crucial to recognise which form you are facing in deciding how to revise.
The review process
The editor’s goal is to publish good papers. The referee’s role is to give them advice on that. A decision of revise and resubmit (R&R) comes from the editor, having studied the reports. It expresses the judgment that there is a high enough chance that after one or more rounds of revision, the paper will be a good enough to publish.
When a referee recommends R&R, it is because they see the paper as interesting and original, but in some way faulty. Sometimes referees recommend R&R when they should recommend conditional acceptance. But in a “real” R&R, various local and global faults will compound to make the soundness and significance of the paper unclear as a whole. That obscurity will often make it difficult to see whether
- the faults can all be remedied, and
- if the are remedied, the result will be publishable.
Especially when dealing with a first round submission, it is simply not the job of the referee (or editor) to see a sure path to publication. If the author has not managed to produce something publishable in a year, the referee cannot be expected to see clearly how to do so in an afternoon! The referee is more likely to say to the author: “Back to you. Here are my initial concerns.”
Eventual rejection is a real possibility
Referees are there to give the editor their best advice. If their evaluation changes, that is the evaluation they have to report. Sometimes these changes are negative. Clarified papers are easier to assess. However
- The assessment may shift from “promising but unclear
" to "clear, but not that interesting or original”.
- Clarifications may bring irreparable problems to the surface.
An editor may bring in a new referee: one of the original referees may not be available, or the editor wishes to bring in someone with a different specialism. That referee’s evaluation may be negative.
After multiple rounds of resubmission, a referee may decide that the author has been given enough chances and has made insufficient progress.
Types of R&R
De facto conditional acceptance
These may happen when
- The paper is short
- The paper has been through many rounds of resubmission
- All the reports are positive, with only minor requests
They are fairly easy to deal with: just attend to the minor requests. It is often said that you should not add new material in these cases, as you are opening up a new front for criticism.
By a minor request I mean something that is in some sense straightforward. There might be a lot of them, and they might be time consuming, but they are in some sense easily doable. For example, if a referee says that a proof of a peripheral result is faulty, you can repair the proof or remove the result. Thus you have a sure path to handling the request.
The editor may override the referee reports. For example, despite one negative report, the editor may make it clear what they are looking for. You might be told that you need to address one specific comment from the negative report, but that you can ignore the rest. Alternatively, you might just be told to remove some material despite two entirely positive reports.
This pleasant situation is uncommon. It tends to happen only when the editor is senior and knows the topic very well. Here the process of revision is straightforward: you might not entirely happy about it, but if you do what the editor is asking, it is highly likely that the paper will be accepted.
These are common. More often than not, the editor will not feel confident enough to adjudicate. The invitation to resubmit is saying: “Let you and them fight it out.”
Referees rarely change from quite negative to positive, so your job is to convince the editor that the positive referee is correct while showing that you have taken the negative report’s criticisms into account. This is moderately straightforward as you have a clear game plan.
All reports positive with major criticisms
These are the most challenging. You have to address the criticisms squarely, and there may be no option other than to completely rewrite the paper.
Referees may differ in what they expect of you.
- Some may be mostly concerned with whether you have attended to their previous requests, and be annoyed by new material.
- Others may treat previous submissions and requests as yesterday’s news, and consider only the revised submission.
Referees may have written more candid reports privately to the editor, making some R&Rs less promising than they appear.
Editors will vary in how much they think they have to defer to referees.
An anecdotal impression
I don’t have anywhere near enough data to back this up, but I believe that
- From leading but not very top journals on downwards, R&Rs are very often de facto conditional acceptances.
- Editorial intervention is rare outside very top journals.
- At very top journals, R&Rs will frequently involve major criticisms.
Roughly speaking, very top journals
- Are more likely to go on lengthy expeditions “fishing for excellence”.
- Attract more demanding referees.
- Receive less forgiving reports.
As a consequence, you can go through many rounds of R&R at such journals, with no guarantee of eventual acceptance.
Many journals provide data about the time it takes them to reach a decision on a submission. But this is not very useful if the decision is R&R, and the possibility of multiple rounds of R&R needs to be considered.
If you are an early career researcher who is at, or wants to be at, an institution that expects at least one publication at a very top generalist or specialist journal for tenure, I believe you should target this goal very early on, most likely with your best dissertation chapter. Because the R&R process at very top journals can be so lengthy (my worst case was seven years), you want to start this early on.
Conversely, if you need to build up a solid portfolio of publications, you should be cautious of very top journals. Spending a huge amount of time on multiple R&Rs of the same paper will get you at most one publication, and quite possibly none.
By far the most difficult R&R is where the reports are positive (otherwise the paper would have been rejected), but contain major criticisms.
I believe that the R&Rs in this category that get rejected do so because
- The revised version makes it clearer that the paper suffers from an irreparable fault.
- The author has not taken the criticisms seriously enough.
The second of these is often avoidable. A major criticism is one that is going to take a lot of thought to respond to. It is not necessarily a criticism that the referee has elaborated on at length. The distinction is qualitative.
For example, suppose a referee writes: “The paper contains a number of interesting ideas, but I am concerned that it is somewhat unfocused. In addition, [followed by a lengthy list of minor criticisms].”
Or alternatively: “The paper presents an interesting result, but I am concerned that the crucial axiom is somewhat ad hoc. In addition, [followed by a lengthy list of minor criticisms].”
No matter now lengthy the minor criticisms are, they are by definition doable. The potential killers in these reports are, respectively, “unfocused” and “ad hoc“. These are very unlikely to be resolved by adding a paragraph to the intro to improve the focus, or a short preamble to motivate the axiom. If you do this, you will probably just irritate the reviewers and receive a swift rejection.
A difficulty with focus can require an entire reframing of a paper with ruthless cutting, and an ad hoc axiom may necessitate an entirely new result with a different and more natural axiom (good luck!). In both cases, you are faced with a major reworking of the paper.
In any case, major criticisms need to be recognised and addressed head on. Just because it’s an R&R and you say something to address such criticisms, that’s no guarantee of a successful outcome. In the limiting case, you may need to entirely rethink the paper.
Early career researchers
Your first R&R can be daunting. It will often contain much more criticism than a cursory rejection. It may feel as if the authorities have spoken, and found your paper, perhaps even your abilities, wanting. You may feel overwhelmed by sustained criticism, some of which may be hurtful.
R&Rs are almost always a good sign, though. But still, they can be unpleasant, no matter how many you have seen. I will typically read the reports quickly, put them aside for a few days, and only later consider them in a cooler moment.
I suggest showing the reports and the letter from the editor to someone more experienced, even outside your field, for a reading of what they are really saying and what you need to address. Philosophers are not trained how to write referee reports (for good advice on how to write a good report, see here), and it is not always easy to interpret them. But it is very important.
Referee reports can be valuable for seeing how philosophers with different interests and assumptions have received your submission. This may help you broaden the appeal of your paper. This is important for early career researchers who often understand some narrow debates inside out, but struggle to articulate why those debates matter, or what broader relevance they have.
Referees are not gods, and good editors do not treat them as such. You are always entitled to disagree with a referee’s criticism and not do what they suggest. In such cases though, you should politely explain your decision in a letter to the editor. However, it’s rare that you can’t make at least a token improvement to a criticised passage, even when the criticism is widely off the mark, to show that you have taken the criticism into account.
Don’t consider writing to the editor to ask for clarification of a report. They are very busy, and they are not there to micromanage your revisions. Especially don’t consider complaining about a report. Just answer any criticisms politely and professionally in your letter to the editor when you resubmit.
It’s fine to put the R&R, including the journal name, on your CV, but keep it separate from publications. Never pretend that it is a conditional acceptance. Philosophers will vary in how much they value R&Rs. But no one will count it against you, and it lets people know what you are doing. I would not advertise an R&R that I did not intend to pursue however.
Should you revise and resubmit?
You don’t have to.
- After several revisions, the focus of the paper may have drifted and you would be better off targeting a different journal.
- The paper may have grown, and it may be worth breaking it into two.
- Your interests may have moved on, and it may not be worth your time.
- The paper from hell: you have interesting material, but after every round of resubmission you get new and reasonable criticisms.
- You cannot afford the time, and need to target a faster moving journal.
These cases are uncommon though.
Any comments or questions, please reply below!