Making changes and revisions to journal articles is really tricky. I’ve just spent the last week or so trying to revise an article for a special issue of a journal. I got some really helpful comments back a few weeks ago. The reviewers and editors comments were really positive and constructive. But I still find revising articles to be quite difficult. I’ve been trying to reflect on why this is.
In this case I had some relatively straightforward changes to make (at least I hope they were straightforward, the article hasn’t been accepted yet so I might have read it completely wrong). I still found it pretty challenging. On reflection one of the obstacles is the fear that the article will fall apart when the revisions start. The concern is that by changing some of the component parts the article will lose any coherence that it might have. As soon as one of the parts is slightly adjusted the house of cards might collapse. I’m not sure why this fear is there. Responding to referees comments is nearly always a productive process, and the article is usually much stronger where time is taken to think through and make revisions. I don’t know how other people feel about this, but there is always this illogical nag that if you start to make changes you might end up with nothing. Or that it might become impossible to put the pieces back together once you have started taking the bits out and tinkering with them. I’m sure that there must be lots of good articles out there that have never been revised for this reason. Maybe this fear though is coupled with the fear of rejection. That is to say that there is always the concern that even if you try to make the revisions your article might still not make it through to publication. For some reason making revisions and sending an article back can make you feel more exposed to criticism than the initial submission of a new article. Perhaps this is because you are being given a chance, and a set of instructive suggestions, and the worry that you might not be able to get it right becomes more potent. There is always a bit more of a buzz that comes from submitting a revised article than comes from the first submission. But putting these types of natural worries aside there are some more practical issues that make article revisions a bit tough.
Perhaps the biggest of these is that in doing revisions you are often returning to your old ideas. Often your enthusiasms and interests have moved on and you are forced to return to topics that might have been left behind. The difficulty is in getting back to thinking about something the way you were weeks or often months earlier. This can be quite hard. The literature you used is no longer fresh in your mind, neither are the other resources you might have used. As a result making new connections or developing and clarifying the old linkages and arguments can be quite hard to do. Sometimes it even requires taking a step back and finding the enthusiasm to re-involve yourself in the older material. This can be hard if you’ve moved on to a new project or idea. I’ve found that harnessing enthusiasm is a big part of my research and writing. It’s quite hard to manufacture enthusiasm or to redirect it from other areas.
Finally, revisions can be hard because the reviewers comments are often a challenge or puzzle that needs to be resolved. The reviewers comments always give an outside perspective on the article. They show how the arguments are likely to be interpreted and understood. I’ve found that the interpretations can often be some way from what was intended. So the first challenge is often to reshape the piece to help towards it being interpreted somewhere close to your intentions. This can be quite difficult because the audience obviously plays a part in this. The reviewers comments give a brief insight into the likely audience response, but only an insight. Following from this, reviewers comments naturally point out problems and, sometimes, inadequacies. These can be difficult to resolve, and can often be even harder to sort-out within the word lengths of the article. Sometimes these problems can really alter your thinking and can totally change the way you see the article. In fact there are some instances I can remember where the article I was revising was significantly changed because a referee had shed new light on the problem. There have even been occasions where a comment from a referee has stayed with me for months after (and even after the article has been published). The comments can really get you thinking and you can sometimes find yourself trying to resolve them in future publications.
I suppose that the challenge comes where your article is seen through the reviewers eyes. At this point the ideas get filtered through someone else. This automatically shows you how hard it is to successfully communicate your thoughts and forces you to make the effort to clean up the work and ensure it works. On some occasions this can require a good deal of effort and discipline. Particularly where you have to leave on piece if writing behind to return to something else.
Much has been written about the problems and benefits of peer review in publishing. I wanted to write something about my own reflections on the practicalities. I always find it encouraging when someone has found the time and energy to read something I’ve written. So It’s always helpful to get peer reviewers comments. Even where you don’t agree with a reviewer, the review still provides a glimpse of the audience and also presents a challenge to convince the reviewer otherwise. If I get the opportunity and invitation I always try to respond by revising my article if I’m able. This seems like the practical thing to do, even when writing the revised article is really quite hard. Sometimes this is harder than others, but it usually improves the piece. I’m not sure why I’ve written this post, but I wanted to say something about revisions as an affective process. It often gets overlooked in talk about publishing, writing and peer review. Yet I suppose it is something that all researchers experience. I don’t know though if my experiences and concerns are shared.