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Marc Abernathy | Most authors never get to see comments like these until it’s too late
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The most frequent editor and reviewer criticisms

Most authors never get to see comments like these until it’s too late

The most frequent editor and reviewer criticisms and how to fix them.

At 11:38 on a Sunday night, while eating popcorn and binge watching Netflix, Clara’s relaxing night was interrupted by a ding. An email alert. “The Journal of…” Her heart racing, palms sweating, she got up from the comfy couch and paced. “Should I open it?” “Published?…Accepted?” (“Finally!” she hoped as she looked up to the ceiling in gratitude.) “Rejected? Revise—again?” These trains of thought were agonizing. Stop. Enough was enough. She was not a child. She could take it, no matter what the answer. She clicked, and gasped.


You need to get published to advance your career. If you can’t take another rejection letter or the long and torturous path of revise and resubmit, the most-common journal editor and reviewer comments below offer invaluable insight. Taken word for word from response letters to my clients, these criticisms apply to all authors—regardless of field—and are required reading before you submit your next paper.


  1. Get to it early

“The introduction is hard to follow. It wanders in too many directions and fails to delineate a clear, theoretically grounded research question.”


If your research question is not clear on the first page (or after the first few paragraphs), you’re in trouble.


Including a long literature review, a litany of theory, or a longwinded “state-of-the-field” in your introduction before finally getting to the research question is a mistake many authors make. Reviewers can’t follow you. They can neither make sense of the literature review or theory, nor can they understand why you are including any of these preliminaries before first introducing your research question. The research question frames all that comes afterward. Not introducing your research question early, you risk hearing something like this from a reviewer: “This paper has a lot to do with <X>…However, this came as a surprise as it is not hinted at within the title or intro. It might be useful to at least mention this concept upfront.”


Bottom line: State your research question early. It frames everything that follows.


Research questions and introductions: Typical editor and review complaints and how to fix them


“Why is <X> so important?…Please discuss further upfront in the introduction to make this case.”

“The front end of the paper takes too long to develop a fairly straightforward idea. Parts of the first 12 pages read as a disorganized literature review, without necessarily building towards the argument. It is therefore quite difficult to follow the mechanisms and to see how the authors position their argument vis-à-vis competing hypotheses or theories.”


How to fix it: Challenge yourself to write the research question at the end of your first paragraph. This simple exercise forces you to work backwards and develop, line-by-line and sentence-by-sentence, the logical arguments that must directly precede your research question. The line of argument needs to lead directly to your research question with each sentence. What needs to come directly before it? and before that? and so on. You have the rest of your paper to develop your arguments and explain your reasoning. First get to the research question, and fast.


  1. Justify—more than you think you have to

“You introduce…one of the key theoretical mechanisms of interest—but do not really explain why it is important and what the <X> literature has already said about it.”


Why is your research question worth studying? Answer that question and explicitly link the answer to the state of the current literature. Start with what we know and has been said before. Next, move on to what the literature fails to explain (what we don’t know). As one reviewer wrote: “Elucidate what you think this research has failed to explain or has not yet explained compellingly enough.” Use the box below to get started.


How to justify your research question Examples of how to start
Explain why what we don’t know is a problem “Not knowing about <X> is a problem because…”
Explain why resolving the problem is important “Resolving this problem is important because…”
Clearly connect what you are investigating (your research question) to the bigger problem or gap you have identified “Investigating this research question <closes this research gap/solves this problem/moves closer to solving this problem> by…”
Clearly differentiate your research from previous research:

What do you add?

Why is your research not the same as previous research?

Why and how does your research represent an advance?



“What this paper adds to prior research is…”

“What distinguishes this research from prior research is…”

“This research represents an advance because it…”

Justify why an alternative research question is not applicable or relevant “<The alternative explanation/An alternative research question> is not <applicable/relevant> because…”


Answer these questions and explain, justify, and argue why. As one reviewer wrote: “Identify (a) what we know, (b) what we don’t know, (c) your approach, and (d) your contributions.”


Bottom line: You likely haven’t justified, explained, or argued thoroughly enough.


Justifying your research (1): Typical editor and review complaints and how to fix them

“The current manuscript does not highlight sufficiently how it differs from prior work, raising multiple questions about novelty and contribution.”


How to fix it: Ask yourself what changes as a result of your research. Is it

  1. thinking/approach/shift in understanding?
  2. revising/altering/refuting prior research?
  3. implications for practitioners?
  4. a way forward for future research?

Next, carry the logic of your argument as far forward as you can push it: In a.) above, for example, what was or is the current thinking, approach, or understanding? As specifically and minutely as possible, explain what you research changes about that thinking, approach, or understanding, and how. Use “if” phrasing as an exercise: If our understanding changes, then what? If prior research is revised, altered, or refuted, then what? Who cares? What results from that revision, alteration, or refutation? What follows from it? What does it mean?

Justifying your research (2): Typical editor and review complaints and how to fix them

“The main concern I raised in my previous review is that the authors do not consider or attempt to address/control for well-established alternative explanations.”


How to fix it: You strengthen your argument by introducing and refuting potential alternatives. An easy solution is to make a list of all potential alternative explanations. Under each alternative, describe why it is not accurate, true, or worth considering. Use this sentence opener to get you started: “One possible alternative explanation might be that…” Then, refute it: “Although this seems like a compelling explanation, it is <incorrect/flawed/inadequate> because…”


  1. Impose a hierarchy

“While I recognize that much of the text has been revised, the added volume of the text detracts from the power of the argument by attempting to convince the reader of too many things at the same time.”


In other words, scale back. Too many researchers apply equal weight to all their arguments and ideas—what I call horizontality. This horizontality diminishes the importance of each idea because readers can’t decide what the main focus is or see where to put their attention. Many students writing master’s theses or early-stage researchers writing their first paper make this mistake. They use the paper—particularly the introduction—as a forum for self-discovery and ramble on along an internal train of thought. Readers don’t care how you got there, they only care where you got to.


To fix horizontality, impose a hierarchy or your readers won’t stay with you: What is your most important point? your second-most important point? And so on. Cut out the non-essential and make sure that each paragraph is about one main idea, that each paragraph logically leads to the next paragraph, that each section starts with the most important idea or claim, moves the next-most important idea or claim, and so on. Are there objections that come up along the way? If so, take a detour and explain why that objection is not valid or does not apply.


Bottom line: One clear idea needs to dominate your paper, and it should be clear which arguments are the subordinate and supporting ones.


Hierarchy: Typical editor and review complaints and how to fix them


“This paper also needs to be shortened significantly to allow the reader to focus on the main arguments, analysis and potential contributions of the paper.”


How to fix it: In the margins of each paragraph, write the one idea that this paragraph is about. Do all sentences contribute to that main idea? Is there more than one idea? If so, you have a problem. Decide which idea should be in the paragraph and cut everything else. This method lets you see the structure (the bones) of your paper and how much space you commit to all of your ideas. If the most important idea doesn’t take up the most space, fix it: Either revise your claim to match your text or revise your text to match your claim.



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