On requesting a re-read

I’m interested in when it’s legitimate to request that a journal reconsider a manuscript that it has rejected.  In particular, I’d be curious when it’s appropriate to resubmit a manuscript  indicating that you feel the manuscript was not read with sufficient care. 

Since this is motivated by my own recent experience, I’ll give a general picture of the situation in question (details concealed to protect the innocent).  But I sense that this occurs from time to time within philosophy, so perhaps others will find this discussion beneficial.

In the manuscript in question, I argue that although a certain prominent and long dead philosopher S held the following ethical view about X, a more lenient (and more intuitively appealing) view of X can be defended that is broadly consistent with S’s overall ethical theory.  Along the way, I argue that other contemporary efforts at defending a more lenient view of X that is consistent with S’s overall ethical theory are either implausible in their own right or violate core tenets of S’s theory. Furthermore, the failures of these contemporary efforts suggest some constraints that an adequately S-like view of X must meet (constraints that my own S-like account of X in fact meets).

The journal in question rejected the manuscript on the grounds that it is too historical for their purposes.  This is puzzling.  First, the journal sometimes does publish work with a historical focus that is at least as devoted to historical exegesis as is my manuscript.  Second, perhaps 15% of the manuscript is historical exegesis, but it’s fairly familiar and uncontroversial historical exegesis, mostly just stage setting for the remainder of the paper.  And the remainder of the paper is (in my opinion of course!) chock full of interesting and meaty philosophical arguments. 

So my impulse is to write back requesting that the journal reconsider, since it does not appear that the manuscript was read with much care.  In particular, the rejecting editor read the paper as if it were essentially a historical paper of the form ‘S’s view about X is often thought to be erroneous, but it isn’t’ when it’s more of the form ‘S’s view about X is erroneous; a number of S’s contemporary partisans have tried and failed to defend a S-like view about X; but here’s a S-like view about X that is not only consistently with the main principles of S’s ethical theory but succeeds precisely where other attempts to defend S’s view have failed.’

Yet I wonder if this is futile: Would a journal even consider this request seriously or is it likely to be perceived as an effort at special pleading on my part? Is it worth writing to the editor explicitly not requesting a reconsideration, but simply pointing out that the paper seemed to have been misread? Has anyone ever succeeded going this route?

21 Replies to “On requesting a re-read

  1. I once had a journal reject a paper. The rejection was accompanied by a five-sentence paragraph. Three of those five sentences are as follows (modified only slightly):
    “While I read the paper with interest I do not think it is suitable for publication. As a reader, I felt I was eavesdropping on an intricate debate…. This is not intended as criticism, but I think that the most suitable venue for the paper would be at a conference devoted to this set of issues with a well-briefed audience.”
    I told the editor that I thought that the referee’s report warranted a second review. The editor agreed, and sent it out to two other referees. The paper was eventually accepted by that journal with only slight modification. (Granted, this took over another 16 months, but that’s another story.)
    I don’t know how common of a practice this is, but at least some journals would consider such a request.

  2. it’s more of the form ‘S’s view about X is erroneous; a number of S’s contemporary partisans have tried and failed to defend a S-like view about X; but here’s a S-like view about X that is not only consistently with the main principles of S’s ethical theory but succeeds precisely where other attempts to defend S’s view have failed.’
    As a third party, I of course can’t be sure, but (give what you’ve said here) I’d be inclined to interpret the “too historical” comment not as meaning “too historical in method”, but rather “too historical in interest/motivation”. Would that make more sense?

  3. (The thought being that contemporarian philosophers might not care whether a theory qualified as “S-like”, unless those features have independent interest besides the fact that S believed them.)

  4. Your story is encouraging, Kevin. Thanks.
    Richard, your interpretation would make sense, and perhaps that’s what the rejecting editor meant. But in my defense, I’d say that (a) X is still a lively topic within ethics generally, and (b) S is an influential figure with enough followers that if a S-like view of X could be made good, that would be of interest to anyone interested in X — or in S-like views for that matter. Indeed, the journal in question published a symposium on X within the past three years, and several of the papers by the ‘contemporary partisans’ I mention have been published within the past ten years. Certainly the journal has the discretion to decide what kinds of material fall within its scope (whether, say, it’s too historical in motivation/interest, as you put it). But my sense is that it does fall within its scope. Is it worth trying to make that argument with a resubmission?

  5. I think you could certainly ask for it to be reconsidered, and some editors would (but some wouldn’t). But might it make more sense for you to ‘repackage’ it first? Change the introduction, change the slant, make it harder for a reader to think, “Oh, right, more Kant exegesis, not the kind of thing I’m interested in.”

  6. Hi Michael,
    I noticed that you said it was the “rejecting editor” who read it and misinterpreted it. If it was the editor or even an associate editor who read it and rejected it, then I think that it is futile. You should just move on. My own view is that even when it’s clear that the reviewers did not read the manuscript carefully enough (and I’ve certainly had my share of these — although I tend to think that I have to share some of the blame for allowing the reviewers to misinterpret it), it’s still time to move on. In particularly egregious cases, I might send the editor a brief and respectful note about how I thought the paper wasn’t read carefully enough and why, but I wouldn’t question the editor’s ultimate verdict, for the editor might have read the paper and rejected it for reasons that were not cited in the reviewers’ reports or in the accompanying letter.

  7. I agree with Doug — if the editor-rejector was the reviewer, then just forget about it (I wouldn’t even bother with the short note to the editor — you never know who might be pissed off by what they might perceive as a scolding). On the other hand, if the editor wasn’t the reviewer (but was just passing along comments from a reviewer), then I think it’s perfectly fine to explain why you think the reviewer got it wrong and ask for it to be sent to someone else. This has worked a few times for me: editors typically give you the benefit of the doubt and are willing to give it another go. If you go this route, though, I suggest offering up a detailed rejoinder to the original reviewer demonstrating the wrongheadedness of the review.
    Incidentally, I like how Kevin says, “I once had a journal reject a paper.” As if that was the only time, it happened in the distant past, and it was a stunning turn of events. That couldn’t be more contrary to my own experiences with rejection (both in and out of philosophy, I suppose).

  8. There is an underlying issue that has not been discussed that bears on this problem.
    There is no universal standard that reviewers have to follow. The person whose paper is being reviewed often has no idea as to the criteria that will be used to determine its acceptance or rejection. Often those that are rejected have short comments attached to them that are not substantiated, i.e., ‘argument is not convincing.’ I once got a paper rejected for a reason that relied on an either/or issue without any explanation as to which was the reason why it failed; it failed because of a or b, but a ruled out the possibility of b and b ruled out a. This was from the editor of the journal.
    The issue seems to be that there is no ethics to reviewing regarding the criteria or the responses of the reviewers. What is the ethics of reviewing? When I review papers I submit a long list of comments related to specific issues (good and bad), often times to specific pages and passages in the paper. The shortest that I have submitted is, if I recall correctly, 1.5 pages single-spaced. The longest I have received is @ 3/4 pages of two reviewers comments unedited.

  9. David,
    You wrote:
    “Incidentally, I like how Kevin says, “I once had a journal reject a paper.” As if that was the only time, it happened in the distant past, and it was a stunning turn of events. That couldn’t be more contrary to my own experiences with rejection (both in and out of philosophy, I suppose).”
    Sorry for having given the wrong impression. It certainly wasn’t my only rejection, in philosophy much less in the rest of life. But it was my only experience with a rejection that seemed relevant to Michael’s question.

  10. I knew what you meant, Kevin. I was just teasing.
    John’s questions about the obligations of reviewers is important here, perhaps worth its own separate post. Personally, I feel bound by a very stringent obligation to provide as detailed feedback on every paper I review as possible, and it usually winds up around 4-5 single-spaced pages, with both general and specific comments. My motivating thought is the simple one: I want to provide the sort of detailed attention to the paper I myself would want from a reviewer. The obvious and simple thought, but apparently fairly supererogatory, at least in my experience of being on the receiving end.

  11. Thanks to everyone for the wise counsel. Since the letter writer was an associate editor, I’ll likely follow David and Doug’s advice and simply move on. But this does remind us that even associate editors (!) can misinterpret an author’s work.
    John’s questions are worth pursuing. Doug has done a great service creating the journals wiki, but I wonder if a journal would ever have the courage to send out a feedback form to every author (once the paper has been accepted or rejected, that is). I’m imagining a questionnaire with ‘customer service’ type questions, some of which could be along the lines of ‘Was the feedback we provided you on your manuscript substantive, constructive, and useful?’ and ‘Did our reviewers fully appreciate the goals or significance of your manuscript?’ I wonder if a journal would ever have the nerve to try that out.
    As for Kevin’s rejection: It sounds like the beginning of a limerick, of the ‘man from Nantucket’ variety:
    ‘Twas a philosopher Kevin
    Who once had a paper rejected…
    (That’s definitely worth its own post!)

  12. While it is a bit late to come to the party I thought I would chime in with an agreement David and Doug, I doubt an editor is going to reconsider. On the disagreeing with a reviewer front, it has been my experience thus far that every time I get a revise and resubmit there are two reviewers one of whom who basically says great paper maybe change this and that, and another who says dire paper, throw it away, well if you have to have it… then do this and that. Where the this and thats of each reviewer are of course antithetical.
    This leaves me in an awkward position, especially because I often find myself disagreeing with the interpretation of the paper put forth by the “unfavourable” reviewer. I have typically tried to add clarity where I can to deal with this, but I have also simply said why I think the reviewer is wrong. Thus far this has worked well, or at least all my revise and resubmits have been accepted.
    But to follow up on John’s point, I do find myself wishing for some guidance from the editor especially when the referee’s reports clearly clash. Simply being told if you revise in accordance with these (contradictory) comments we may consider your paper for acceptance doesn’t really help me. decide which guidance to follow. So perhaps we also should discuss the ethical obligations of an editor feeding back those reviews.
    Cheers
    David

  13. I would suggest a pragmatic attitude here… what do you have to lose? I suppose that there is always a small chance that you might risk alienating the associate editor, with possible undesirable consequences for the future. But if I really wanted the paper in this journal rather than another, I think I’d risk it. To minimize the likelihood of causing yourself any future trouble, you might accept the blame for the fact that the paper appeared to have a more historical focus than it actually does, and ask if they would be willing to reconsider a revised version that made the paper’s strategy more explicit. If it was an editor who shot you down rather than a referee, you can probably at least expect a reasonably quick reply.

  14. I would suggest a pragmatic attitude here… what do you have to lose? I suppose that there is always a small chance that you might risk alienating the associate editor, with possible undesirable consequences for the future. But if I really wanted the paper in this journal rather than another, I think I’d risk it. To minimize the likelihood of causing yourself any future trouble, you might accept the blame for the fact that the paper appeared to have a more historical focus than it actually does, and ask if they would be willing to reconsider a revised version that made the paper’s strategy more explicit. If it was an editor who shot you down rather than a referee, you can probably at least expect a reasonably quick reply.

  15. Dale M.,
    I would suggest that even if you don’t have anything to lose that doesn’t mean that you should impose on the editor by requesting that he or she re-read it. One should be concerned with more than just costs to oneself. Editors are busy and perform their work as a professional service to the philosophical community. Given this, we should avoid wasting their time if at all possible. So unless there is some good reason to think that you wouldn’t just be wasting the editor’s time by requesting a re-read of the manuscript, you shouldn’t do it. And I think that we should keep in mind that editors don’t have the time to write extensive reviewer reports — at least, not at the stage of initial vetting. This means that the stated reason may not be the only or main reason for rejecting the paper. Speaking from my personal experience, there have been a number of instances where my paper has been rejected at the stage of initial vetting by the associate editor, and I suspect that the brief reason that the editor gave for rejecting my paper in his accompanying letter was not the only reason or even the main reason he had for rejecting it. It was probably either the reason that was easiest to briefly state or the most tactful reason to state without having to provide some lengthy justification, or both. Now that I look back on some of these earlier submissions, I suspect that the editor just didn’t have the time or the heart to list everything that was wrong with my paper.

  16. Doug,
    Well, yes, but… Of course I agree that more than costs to oneself are relevant here. However, Michael doesn’t have the power to compel the editor to reread the paper. In an email, he can briefly present a rationale for why the editor might want to look at the paper again, or at least a revised version. The editor can then exercise her own judgment about whether to do this or not. If she thinks it unlikely that her verdict would be different a second time around, she can just say so. Unless the editor herself agrees that spending more of her time on the paper would be worthwhile, she won’t have to do it. If she had additional reasons for rejecting the paper, say, then Michael will be taking up no more of her time than would be required to read his email and then type “Sorry, no thanks.” And I don’t think that would be an unreasonable demand.

  17. It is a real pain; but I’d agree that it’s a good idea to just move on. After all, how many times do you think an editor gets a message saying, “Please read my essay again”?

  18. A question that has not been asked, but one that I think is increasingly important given the Internet is ‘why do we need print journals; what function do they serve?’ Given the increase in blogs, the number of people who place their work on-line, and the quick in-real-time responses, why not simply relegate print journals to the land of the obsolete? I realize that tenure is tied up with publications, but why cannot a different evaluation tool be developed to determine qualifications for becoming tenured? I have had a number of papers published, but I have no idea if they are being read, etc. At least if I were to put something on-line I could determine the number of hits or downloads my work receives besides getting immediate feedback on my work which would allow for me to make changes, enter into discussion with commentators, etc. Besides how many of us have seen our papers published in a time frame wherein which we no longer actually accept the arguments we made when we first wrote the paper? Seems to me that with the long wait between submission, evaluation, and publication if the paper is accepted that waiting for the journals to go thru their process no longer seems worth it. Of course, I am not tenured, nor ever will be, but the Internet seems to have made journals irrelevant; academia simply needs to become more creative in how it evaluates its members.

  19. meh, it’d be nice, but the difference is anyone can publish online and not just anyone can publish in an established journal. So if your CV has an article at “SomeBlog.com” on the top and not “Critical Inquiry” or “Mind”, you’re not going to be considered for a job since there is almost no risk or review. Plus, the system of peer-review online sucks, unless you have muchos readers, in which case you can probably write well enough for a print publication.

  20. I think that John may have the right idea as far as the ultimate destination of academic publishing, but the problem is how to get from here to there. In some sense, it isn’t the final evaluation of tenure candidates that is the problem. At tenure time, we already send copies of people’s “corpus” to external reviewers to get input on its quality, and we could just as easily do that with papers that had been self-published online. The bigger problem would be annual evaluations of pre-tenure faculty, or post-tenure for that matter. That is where you need peer review of individual pieces. Online journals are probably the best compromise in the near term, but right now people have a hard time knowing what their standards are like (with the exception of Philosophers’ Imprint). It will take more senior people choosing to publish in online journals to establish their credibility.
    I’ll leave it to Michael to suggest that senior people might consider sending something to Studies in the History of Ethics. 🙂

  21. Jared; I understand your point and they are well taken. But why not use our imaginations as see if we can come up with a better system to distribute and evaluate the work that is being done? For the record, even though I did raise the issue on this blog, I do not think that I am the one that should be making these points in so far as I will never be in position that will result in tenure, nor do I have any influence in the field. I am ‘immortal’ because I have ISBN numbers, but I doubt that very many of you have read my work.
    But, I do find the issue of reviewing to be ethically problematic because of 1) a lack of anything that resembles a fair evaluative tool being used by the majority of journals and 2) whether or not these print journals are still necessary as a means to effectively evaluate whatever contributions we think we are making. Are more people reached thru a print journal or thru a conference? (Yes, I know that people use conferences to refine their papers for review for publication.)
    Anyway, here are some additional questions. I apologize for moving this thread off its original course. Maybe someone else will take up this issue on a regular post.
    Questions:
    How many of you were familiar with each other’s work before you read a peer’s paper in a journal? How did your professional opinion of that person change as a result of reading some formal paper once it was published?
    How many of you have 1) read a ‘finished’ paper once it has been published if you have already read it in some other fashion and/or 2) learned something from it that you did not already know from the previous interaction with that person?
    How many of you have cancelled your subscriptions to print journal because you can get the information from other sources in a timelier manner?
    There will always be a need for publication (of some sort), but is it now being fairly and effectively utilized as a means of evaluation?

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