On major revisions and their potential for radical liberation, or How to revise your first paper and not go mad(der)

This paper – sorry – blog post consists of two parts. One is confused ramblings of someone revising their first solo paper for an academic journal. The other is some practical advice – not from me, but from my peers, on how not to blow the word limit in the revision process and what to do when you (inevitably) do. (Spoiler alert: I don’t actually know the answer to the question posed in the title, because I’m mad as a hatter anyway.)

PART I: The ramblings (you can skip this part and cut to the second if you’re in a rush)

Everyone warned me about this. The day will come when my reviewers will get back to me – and I will have to revise (in my case, rewrite) Paper 1, for which I will have to magically carve a hole in the universe and walk through it into a magical time-space designated for the purpose. Because in the normal time-space there is neither time nor space to do it. Because the comments from the reviewers are a greeting from a bygone past, on a paper written long back and already forgotten. Because what I am supposed to be currently doing is writing Paper 2 and Paper 4a, applying for ethical screening for Paper 3 and drafting the actual thesis (in addition to teaching courses on things I have a very vague idea about but quickly learning tall heaps on, chairing conference sections, administrating seminars and all the other fun academic activities). So the last two weekends (as well as every evening I wasn’t in the dance studio) saw me in my office, in the magical time-space carved out of the generous backdrop of the universe specifically for the purpose of what my reviewers refer to as ‘major revisions’.

It took me one academic year to write my first paper. For fully appreciating the meaninglessness of this sentence, read these posts on Intellectual Autonomy and Not Co-Authoring – here I will just say that it’s not that simple. Because it took me one year to prepare for that one year, and I am sceptical about the words ‘me’ and ‘my’ (see the abovementioned posts). I am sure there are some policy implications of this, given the amount of taxpayers’ money that went into financing me producing what was dubbed as ‘nice academic exercise’ and ‘a paper too sophisticated for a first PhD paper’, criticising public research funding policy (irony?). (Our research is not strictly speaking financed by taxpayers’ money, but a foundation – but I omit the nuances here.)

Now, the ‘nice academic exercise’ and ‘too sophisticated a paper’ were the comments I got not from the reviewers, but much earlier, from discussants in conference presentations. I sincerely hope that since then I had managed to make it less of a ‘nice exercise’ and less ‘sophisticated’ (what it actually means: pointless and too complicated). Then it took four months for the reviewers to review it and write their elaborate twenty-four comments in total. It will have taken me two months two revise, another ???? months for reviewers to review it again, another ????? months potentially for me to revise again, if I’m lucky enough and they will consider it potentially worthy of publication with some more (minor? major?) revisions… You get the idea.

Policy implications? Scrap academic research, it can’t be afforded.

In the meantime, while ‘academic research’ yet has not been scrapped, I am sitting in my office, downing tea by the gallon, experiencing an acute bout of Stockholm syndrome. I have read my reviewers comments; I have listed them in my own words; I have colour-coded them; I have made a mind-map of them; and I have made a master plan of how I am going to address them. One by one. Complete with a calculation of hours for each in the right-hand column. And in the process, I fell in love – or at least started experiencing an acute sympathy for my reviewers. Note the consistent use of ‘my’ reviewers. ‘My’ reviewers who have reviewed ‘my’ paper. My dear, dear reviewers.

Who are they, these mysterious beings? This is the whole point: I have no clue. And, hypothetically, never will. This is called ‘double blind’ review (a term severely criticised by the feminists – I already forgot why, but can imagine). Which, if you think of it, is a terrible injustice, because it is, in practice, a huge asymmetry of information. Because I will hypothetically never get to know who they were, whereas they MIGHT find out, if they care. Because IF my paper ever gets published, and IF they see it, they will say: Aha, voilà. There she goes. I had the misfortune of reviewing this. Whereas I will have to roam the streets for the rest of my life asking each person in the universe if they were the ones who reviewed my paper. Unfair!

And so here I am, drinking my tea, reading and re-reading my reviewers’ comments and agonising over their identity.

What can I say about them?

Reviewer One is a little assertive and fairly loquacious. They have written seventeen comments which have pushed me into reframing my paper entirely. Apparently, the ‘sophistication’ criticism is no longer relevant (hurray), whereas ‘nice academic exercise’ still looms large in every comment. ‘What is the main argument of this paper?’ ‘It is not entirely clear at the moment the specific goal of this paper’. ‘The research question is not expressed clearly’. ‘What is the usefulness of using this concept?’ ‘What do the authors wish to accomplish by …?’ ‘The central argument is interesting yet not new or novel.’ ‘In other words, what is the contribution of this paper by paraphrasing this existing argument?’ I feel like a second-year Bachelor student to whom I write similar comments in their essays. The reviewer leaves the ‘nice’ comment towards the very end. ‘Overall, this paper studies and interesting and important research question: (names ‘the question’). Yet the reviewer suggests that this paper still needs major revision before it can reach the publishable status’. ‘In other words’, rest in peace, Paper 1. Amen.

Reviewer Two is courteous and more concise. I have decided that it’s a man – not because of the above characteristics, but because I decided that ‘he’ is one of the reviewers I suggested to the editor, given the focus of ‘his’ comments on Swedish research policy. ‘He’ starts with the ‘nice’ comment: ‘I enjoyed reading this well-written paper that provides interesting observations and discussions’. Very general, but nice of ‘him’. And yet, here it is again: novelty. ‘I would encourage the author(s) to expand the discussions about the novelty of their approach and the implications of their findings’. Pain. BSc, year two.

And yet, I am experiencing, alongside the Stockholm syndrome, a form of catharsis. The reviewers don’t know who I am. They don’t know if it’s one or more people writing the paper. They don’t know if I am a man or a woman, if English is my first language or not, if I am a PhD student or a professor. I am literally having an out-of-body experience. Hallelujah. They can’t see me. They only see my long-suffering paper. I am unseen – and, paradoxically, truly seen for what I am able (or unable) to write.

I am free.

And so, in the quietness of my office on a Sunday afternoon, I begin, after a week of preparation and rewriting, directly speaking to ‘my’ reviewers.

‘Dear Reviewers One and Two’, I begin writing. ‘Thank you for your wonderful, liberating comments.’

Or almost.

I might never get out of the revision circles. But I have a rough guide.

PART II: The promised guide on not exceeding the word limit – or exceeding it with some semblance of dignity and pride

This rough ‘revision guide’ is based on responses to my question – How to keep to the word limit when revising, and is it necessary? – from three colleagues. Enormous thanks to Katya, Hugo and Igne – and please forgive me for simplifying and mixing up your precious advice.

Although these are overlapping and complementary, it might be helpful to divide the helpful suggestions I got into three rough strategies:

Strategy 1: Net zero

First of all, check the bottom line. How many words can you overshoot with? A common answer: a few hundred. My colleague suggests stating the word limit explicitly in the manuscript. If it’s 300 over, we MIGHT get away with it without questions asked. Check the journal’s policy on this: Some journals state explicitly things like ‘word limit 8000, after revisions no longer than 9000’ (a real-life example).

A race to net zero: It is a common experience that when addressing reviewers’ comments we cut in some parts and add in others. It has been my experience now too on this lovely Sunday: it is surprisingly easy to kill your darlings six months after paper submission. ‘Why am I waffling about the indispensable indispensability of the theoretical theory of co-production of science and society at such length? I know it’s the first word in my paper title – but who cares?’ Cut, cut, cut.

Improvement first… We might not want to bother about the word limits to begin with: When we begin revising in response to a request for substantial changes, we might not focus on word limits at first (although good to be mindful about it, of course – not to go overboard). The focus is to improve the paper. We don’t know if the paper will be accepted after the first round of revisions.

..and then cut, cut, cut. If the paper is accepted, the editor will remind about the word limit – and then we will have to cut.

There’s hope: a lesson learnt by one of my colleagues is that ‘cutting 4000 words is possible without affecting the structure of the paper, but you need to be veryyy creative’. So unleash your inner artist and have fun.

Strategy 2: Negotiate

Negotiate – within reason. Same colleague’s experience: ‘I was once able to slightly negotiate the increased word limit at the end of the revision when the paper was accepted for publication after several rounds of revisions (I used as an argument the reviewers’ requests to expand, elaborate et al). If I recall correctly, it was around 500-800 words that I was allowed to exceed the word limit. Thus, it is possible  but it really depends on the journal, editor and the revision process itself. Also, if the paper is part of the special issue, some room for negotiation is possible but there are limits due to the agreements with the publisher for the total length of the special issue. If some papers in the special issue happen to be shorter, there may be room for others to have lengthier papers. In any case, it never hurts to ask the editor’.

And negotiate. Another colleague: ‘I think you can definitely ask for a bit more space (I would dare to ask for 500 words more)’.

Strategy 3: Politely decline

Sometimes we might feel like we cannot address a particular comment, such as: ‘The Reviewer suggests adding a separate section describing…’, or similar. My colleague suggests making minor edits and disagreeing with the rest: If it takes too many words in the paper to address a particular comment, we might want to make minor clarificatory edits in the article by changing a few words and in the response to reviewers rebut their comments, describing the reasoning, sometimes stating explicitly (‘but of course very politely’) that we did not agree with the reviewer.

Take on the blame: We should admit (even if we don’t completely agree) that we were unclear in the article, describe the edits we made to clarify the issue and emphasise that clarification made the paper better – which is almost always the case.

Thank the reviewer for raising the issue. It goes without saying that we are grateful for someone taking time to review our work (and for taking it seriously enough to do so), but it’s good to remember to say it.

Use bullet points:  A great little hack for making even small edits look extensive – thus proving once more that we took the comment seriously.


If you are revising a paper right now or planning to do so – good luck. And tell me all about it.

If you haven’t submitted your first paper yet – procure in advance a good axe, sharp enough to cut that magical hole in the universe.

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