My “Ask a Journal Author” Answers, All in One Place

Early in 2021, Ilana Gershon asked me to participate in a series of “Ask a Journal Author” columns for Anthropology News. I’m reproducing my answers here in the form that they originally appeared (as opposed to broken into a series of topical posts) in the “interview” because: 1) it’s like an actual conversation, 2) having them in one place makes it a little easier to read, and 3) the sequence of their posting in Anthropology News didn’t follow the original sequence of the questions and answers. I’ve linked to where the answers appear on the Anthropology News blog, so you can read other peoples’ answers (which make some of my answers seem controversial); I highly recommend checking out how other people answered the same questions.

Ilana Gershon: When does deciding an article’s “home” become important for you during the writing process? Do you write an article knowing the potential venue(s) that it might be published in or do you just write an article first and then figure out where it could be published?

Matthew Wolf-Meyer: I start thinking about homes for articles pretty much as soon as I start writing them. As the structure of the piece starts to come together, I consider where I might send it and then continue to work on it with that journal—or a few journals that are similar in their generic requirements—in mind.

This has changed a lot for me over the last decade. Pre-tenure, I was really focused on publishing “enough” rather than publishing in specific journals. That led me to mostly publish in journals that I knew well and knew would be supportive of the kind of stuff I was working on. For me, that meant a lot of journals focused on medicine and the body. But it also included more intra- or interdisciplinary social science journals whose audiences I knew I could write for in compelling ways. 

After tenure, I decided to target all of the flagship journals in cultural anthropology, particularly those hosted by Anthrosource. I would study a year’s worth of issues to get the formal elements of articles published in a particular journal down so that I could write to form. That necessarily also shaped the content—i.e. did it start with an ethnographic anecdote or not?, how much of a literature review did articles have?—but it was all in the service of adhering to a particular generic form. At the time, I was also working with the archive of material that made up my dissertation, some of which ended up in The Slumbering Masses, but a lot of which ended up on the proverbial cutting room floor. That allowed me to try and match specific kinds of outtakes and arguments with journal interests.

These days, where I send an article is more after-the-fact. I tend to write a talk each year—either a colloquium talk or a set of conference papers that, once strung together, make up a long-form talk—that ends up turning into an article. Once I have it in hand, I think through the various journals it might fit with. Because generic forms at journals are pretty glacial in how they change, the work I did in studying journals continues to pay off.

One of the things I’ve learned that no one ever taught me is to pay close attention to who the editor of a journal is when you’re considering submitting something to it. Because my work can be a little unconventional, both topically and content-wise, I’ve found that identifying editors that are sympathetic to the kinds of projects I do helps a lot. It means they know the right reviewers to ask and that they know how to work with the reviews they receive.

[Read more answers to this question here.]

IG: When you receive a revise and re-submit, how do you typically approach the reviewer’s comments? How much of those comments should be included in the revised draft (Note: it might help to talk about an example)?

MWM: I just wrote a blog post about this. Revision is a pretty visual process for me—I highlight parts of the peer reviews and editor’s letter that are important to address, sort them into an ordered list as to how they will appear in the manuscript, and then cross them off as I go.

That said, and maybe one day I’ll write a book about it, I tend to get some pretty…different reviews than most of my friends. This became apparent to me early on, but I didn’t know it was a trend until much later. It was especially the case with the sleep project that people would kind of free associate with the content, often not really offering critical comments on the content of the article so much as working through their own thinking about sleep—maybe for the first time. I had to learn pretty early on how to parse that kind of therapeutic process for peer reviewers from the stuff that was germane to the article and its future. And that’s something that I needed to learn to be able to conceptualize. Generally, we think about peer review as being about the author of the article and that peer reviewers serve as a kind of superego. But I’ve come to see that sometimes the peer reviewer is going through their own introspective process when they confront something that they haven’t thought about before. That can come out in pretty different ways, only some of which are generative for revisions.

That trend of weird peer reviews has continued with the projects on communication disabilities and fecal microbial transplants. In looking at friends’ peer reviews, it’s pretty clear that when people work on areas where there is a lot of interest in Anthropology or cognate fields, they get recommendations from other specialists on that topic—which makes a lot of sense and can be usefully detailed. But, because I often work on stuff that doesn’t really have a lot of specialists within Anthropology, it gets sent to specialists in medical anthropology or psychological anthropology or science and technology studies. Which is all great, but it often means that they can’t speak to the matter at hand as directly as specialists might. I often recall looking at a friend’s peer reviews for an article on HIV/AIDS. All of the peer reviewers were experts in the social study of HIV/AIDS and they knew so much technical and scholarly material that they helped point my friend toward. But for me, I often get very general kinds of suggestions, I assume because the reviewers I pull don’t know the small literatures that my work comes out of.

[Read more answers here.]

IG: How do you react to a piece that has been rejected? Do you burst into tears, curl up into a ball, fume at the editor and reviewers, get back to the drawing board – the possibilities are endless…

MWM: Frankly, I usually just send it out to another journal within 24 hours. Unless there’s something in the peer reviews that is really critical to rewriting the piece, I’ve found that working through the peer reviews for a journal that rejected the piece is largely a waste of time. If it’s just going to be sent out by another editor, there’s going to be a new set of reviews with their own concerns (which might counterpoise the old reviews). 

That was a hard-learned process and in the past I spent way too long revising manuscripts that were rejected before sending them elsewhere only to receive even more reviews to work through. I’m sure I learned a lot in the process of working through those revisions, and that that has sped up the time-of-submission to time-of-acceptance for later articles. But most of what I learned is that a rejection is usually not about the content of the article but its fit at a particular journal with a specific set of readers. 

In terms of incorporating peer review feedback, there’s one piece in particular that I always think about in relation to this kind of question. A reviewer asked that I engage with an author that I didn’t think was particularly germane to the argument. I did, but placed the discussion in an endnote. It went back to that reviewer and they were pretty insistent that the discussion should be in the body of the article, which it now is. It sticks out to me, and I imagine that it does for other readers too, but maybe not. Over time, I’ve really come to understand that my relationship to peer review has changed. In the beginning, peer review was really instructional for me and helped to learn how to write better articles, steered me toward literatures I didn’t know, and made me more explicit in my claims. But now a lot of my engagement with peer review might be better thought of as negotiating compromises. It’s not so much that peer reviewers surprise me anymore but that I need to find a way to move between my plans for the piece and the needs of readers.

[Read more answers here.]

IG: At what point do you decide that it is better to try and publish a piece in a different venue instead of trying to re-submit a revised article to the same journal? 

MWM: The closest that I recall coming to this kind of experience takes a couple different forms, which, maybe strangely, both have to do with editorial shake-ups.

The first is with a couple of pieces that took a very long time to work their way through peer review. One was because of an editorial transition at a journal where it got lost in the shuffle. But that shuffle took something like a year to work itself out, and when the new editors finally got up to speed, they accidentally sent out the original version of a manuscript that had been substantially revised. When it came back to me, I considered pulling the piece and sending it to a new journal, but the new editors worked really hard from that point forward and made things move pretty quickly. 

The other time I actually pulled a piece wasn’t because of the content of peer reviews (which were pretty supportive), but editorial concerns. I had sent something to Hau and received the reviews just as #Hautalk was emerging on Twitter. It quickly became clear to me that publishing with Hau was the wrong thing to do, so I quietly pulled the piece from consideration there and sent it elsewhere.  

[Read more answers here.]

IG: When working on a book, what are the advantages and disadvantages of publishing the chapters individually as articles as you work on them?

MWM: For The Slumbering Masses, I basically dissembled the content of the dissertation and repurposed it as a set of articles and then proceeded to dissemble the articles and write the book. Only part of one chapter appeared as a slightly shortened version as an article. Otherwise, although a lot of the empirical content was the same, it appeared in very different ways in the book. Which is all to say that getting feedback on the article manuscripts was helpful, but not necessarily for the purpose of turning them into a book.

With Unraveling, I only sent out one piece that would later end up in the book—again, a shortened version of a chapter. It took longer to get through peer review than the book manuscript did and ended up coming out about six months before the book came out. A second piece got sent out when my editor told me I was 10,000 words over for the book manuscript, so I snipped out a roughly 10,000 word section of a chapter that could stand alone and got it under peer review. And then a third piece was assembled from some leftovers.

That set of experiences really has convinced me that books are books and articles are articles and parsing them out isn’t really worth it. Because I’m at a point career-wise that I don’t have to write articles for tenure or promotion, I’m pretty sure that I’m going to write books as books and save the article writing for putting together leftovers from the book writing process or writing to target specific audiences. Being able to conceptualize a book as a unified whole means that it can really be a different kind of object that a set of reworked articles.

[Read more answers here.]

IG: Is there any merit in thinking about an article submission as a way to get feedback on a work in progress?

MWM: Absolutely. As I was working on Unraveling, I had a talk that I would give and always get some…mixed feedback on. It was all about Anthropology’s fixation on the speaking subject as an ethnographic object and basis of subject formation. It was really the kernel of the critique of at the heart of the book and I used the opportunities to engage with diverse audiences to see what kind of feedback it elicited. At the same time, I sent it out for peer review to a few journals, basically fishing for peer reviews. Don’t get me wrong: if an editor was excited about it, I would have pursued publication. But they universally weren’t (which I’m not going to read too much into), and it never came out as an article. Even in the book it’s very different than the talk I would give or the manuscript I sent out. So it was really helpful to get a wide swath of peer reviews to a pretty serious critique of Anthropology’s dependency on speech. I’m deeply appreciative to all of the reviewers and audience members who weighed in on that piece—it made the book much better.

[Read more answers here.]

IG: What are the spoken and unspoken metrics of publishing in your experience? Do some types of publications or venues count more than others?

MWM: This has changed a lot thanks to the internet and databases like Anthrosource. It seems to me that the esteem that people have for the flagship journals is really an artifact of the bygone era of people receiving paper copies of journals in the mail and the limited real estate in those journals—so getting something into one of those journals really meant getting it in front of most anthropologists in the days when every AAA member received a copy of American Anthropologist. But now, every Wiley journal (and more) are available through a quick search on Anthrosource, and that really seems to have leveled the field in many respects.

The outcome is that it’s less important where one publishes and more important that what one publishes is accessible to people in the field. I’m sure that some tenure and promotion and hiring committees still value publications in some journals over other journals, but in terms of impact it seems increasingly less important that one places a piece in a particular journal and more important that they place it in a journal where it will be read by the right people.

[Read more answers here.]

IG: To what degree does publishing either in another language or an international, non-English publication count towards your standing as a scholar or tenure and promotion in anthropology?

MWM: German is my only other language and what I work on isn’t German-based, so I’ve never sought out publishing in another language. That said, my work has been translated into a few languages (Serbian, German, & French) either because someone identified a piece they wanted to translate, I was invited to give a talk and then it was translated, or I was invited to write something that someone else was going to translate for me. In the case of Germany, that seems to have led to further opportunities to give talks and publish in German, which has been great.

Those pieces have all been superadded in the sense that I had already met the expectations for tenure and promotion, so I wasn’t spending precious time working on translations. As a pre-tenure scholar, I would be very wary of publishing in translation unless I had a clear indication from all of the people in my department that it was valued the same as publishing in English. Watching friends publish in their field languages and in journals hosted in the areas in which they work has made it clear that not all tenure and promotion committees really value that kind of work and those kinds of publications—it might be best saved for later in one’s career.

[Read more answers here.]

IG: What are the pros and cons of publishing outside of anthropology?

MWM: There’s obvious stuff—reaching wider audiences, pushing oneself into new conversations—but in my experience, the best thing about engaging with different disciplines is getting a richer sense of how other disciplines conceptualize what counts as evidence. Anthropologists are so committed to certain kinds of Geertzian description and Butlerian accounts of the self that it’s really helpful to call that into relief sometimes. We all know that we work with relatively small samples sizes, and the generic conventions of contemporary ethnographic writing work with those limitations (or obscure them!), but becoming aware of how else one can make a compelling argument with the evidence at hand—or better, how to rework evidence to be compelling to other audiences—can be really intellectually satisfying.

I used to give talks to sleep scientists and health care workers and what I always enjoyed about it was drawing lines between their and my ways of knowing. Because a lot of my work on sleep can be read to be pretty critical of American sleep science and medicine, being able to work on those connections with live audiences who weren’t shy about providing feedback was really helpful. It meant that when it was time to publish those critiques, I already had a sense of how to make them compelling to non-anthropologists.

[Read more answers here.]

IG: How would you approach the process of publishing something in a non-anthropological journal? What are some strategies to think about prior to submitting an article for review?

MWM: Over the last couple of years, I’ve started publishing in bioethics journals. I read a lot in bioethics, and teach some of it with regularity, but it was with some trepidation that I started to target publishing in bioethics. Formally, the articles are very different, and the content can be pretty different too. I set about reading through a couple volumes each of a few of the bioethics journals and then wrote to their expectations. After years of writing for anthropologists, it was kind of refreshing to write for a different kind of audience—and to get totally different kinds of peer reviews! I learned pretty quickly that bioethicists are up for a disagreement, they just want to have the disagreement be robustly argued. So I received peer reviews that were like “I totally disagree with this position, but the evidence is compelling and you should publish it,” which I honestly can’t imagine getting from an anthropological audience.

Bioethics as a field is also really in need of anthropological thinking, and there’s a recurrent call from a small set of critical bioethicists that bioethics needs more empirical research (and more capacious ethical frameworks), so it seemed like a real opportunity and challenge to address that. We’ll see what comes of it, but increasingly I see targeting Bioethics journals over Anthropology journals for a lot of my work.

[Read more answers here.]

IG: Do you have any suggestions for how to approach writing and publishing pieces that are more theoretical instead of more ethnographic?

MWM: I’ve found that theory-heavy article manuscripts are slow to publish. I don’t mean the kind of “here’s a new idea to think about” or “let’s take Foucault to the field” kind of theory pieces, but the “here’s what Deleuze and Guattari mean by ‘minor science’ and how it applies to Anthropology” kind of pieces. 

It seems to me that what readers usually actually want is a novel twist on a familiar idea, particularly with a good ethnographic case study. What they have a harder time with is an obtuse idea that challenges anthropological conventions, including familiar forms of empiricism and evidentiary claims. Which is all to say that theory in articles is usually a pretty limited tool, constrained both by the process of peer review and the word count of a typical article. The one caveat I would make about this is that the further one is into one’s publishing career, the easier it is to publish something explicitly theoretical. That’s a function of style and reputation more than the content of an article—anonymous peer review just becomes impossible over time, at least for careful and attentive readers. It also just becomes more possible to make bigger claims when you can cite a lot of your other evidentiary work to support it.

[Read more answers here.]

IG: Any suggestions for co-authoring articles?  Are there useful strategies for dividing up the work?  What kinds of agreements do you like to make when beginning the collaboration?  

MWM: I’ve co-authored a couple pieces with then-current grad students, Celina Callahan-Kapoor and Chris Cochran, both of which were a lot of fun to work on. Chris was enrolled in a graduate seminar with me and everyone had to co-author a paper. He was the odd man out, so we teamed up to work on a paper together. Celina and I had talked about doing something together for a while. In both cases, I basically had a framework for an article I wanted to write, had written a pretty long introduction, and then worked with the co-author on developing case studies to support the theoretical portion of the piece. In one case, it ended up being two parallel cases (one from me, one from my co-author); in the other case, it was a really long case from the co-author. Cultural anthropologists don’t regularly co-author stuff, but I found it a really important mentoring opportunity and hope more people take similar approaches.

I learned a lot about writing together through two pretty formative relationships—first, with a cohort mate in an MA program, Davin Heckman, then with my dissertation adviser, Karen-Sue Taussig. Davin and I wrote a ton together, particularly while we were editing an early online cultural studies journal, reconstruction. Later, Karen-Sue and I put together a special issue of Medical Anthropology and co-authored the introduction. In both cases, I really learned that what’s key is to give space for other people’s expertise—and really, to know who you’re writing with and what they bring to the table. That all said, I also learned to have a designated reviser: before peer reviews come back, make sure you know who’s going to take the first pass at revisions.

If I can make a closing statement about publishing articles—and maybe books too—developing a certain level of disinterest in the process is vital. So often, we are encouraged to conceptualize our writing as an extension of our self: my research, my ideas, my style. Criticism a manuscript in the form of editorial comments and peer reviews then feels like a criticism of us as a person. Paul Manning once described academic articles as the PowerPoint presentations of our business. I think about that a lot. At once, we’re told that publications are integral to our place in the profession, but then we’re also told that very few articles are ever read by anyone other than their peer reviewers. Academic publishing is kind of like playing the lottery—are you going to publish the thing that breaks from the pack and gets widely read and cited? You can try and play that game, but there are psychological and emotional costs, and being widely read and cited aren’t necessary for being hired or promoted or entry into the scholarly community. Dispassion is difficult to nurture, but going through peer review—and doing peer review—can be a step in the right direction.

[Read more answers here.]

How I Revise Articles for Resubmission

A fan of printed out pages that include peer reviews for a recent article. It includes marginalia and highlighting from me. The pages are upside down, just to make reading them a little more difficult.

This fall, I had a piece come out in Feminist Anthropology. “Recomposing Kinship” is my attempt to get anthropologists (and others) to take technology more seriously as a social actor–or at least as something more than an object of fetishism. It’s something like my 20th article, and over the last 15 years of publishing, I’ve found that how I approach revisions on articles has developed into a system. This article, by way of example, first received a revise & resubmit, and then was accepted for publication after a second set of reviews were returned based on the revision. Parts of it had be presented at conferences or in workshops, but it had never all been put together before, so sending it out for peer review was a bit of a fishing attempt–I was really curious to see how people responded to an argument that put together Facilitated Communication, sleep apnea, genetic testing, and fecal microbial transplants.

I’ll chalk the speed with which I was able to turn things around and address reviewers’ concerns to 15 years of academic publishing–and that the piece grew out of a couple of projects that have had pretty long gestation periods. It was also really helpful that the reviewers were on board with the conceptual project (even if they didn’t necessarily agree) and that the editors were supportive of a revision. Since the process of revision has become largely the same for me, it seemed like a good opportunity to write about the process in case it helps other people approach their own revisions.

Whenever I get emails from editors about articles under review, I really try not to open the email immediately. I find that whatever the email’s contents, it’s likely to derail me for the rest of the day, usually due to a desire to get back to work on the article. I try, whenever I can, to save it until the end of the work day. That way, after I read it, I can mull over the contents while I cook dinner, take care of the kids, feed the dog, chat with my partner, etc. This helps to stop me from wanting to address the editorial and peer review comments right away and lets them simmer as I do some ambient processing. Generally, other work gets in the way of immediately getting back to the manuscript and so I try and take a week off of working on it.

When I get back to working on revisions, I start by rereading the cover letter from the editor and reading through the peer reviews. I read them in their entirety and then read them again. On the second pass, I try and come up with a list of the necessary and optional revisions. A lot of peer review is relatively phatic language which can sometimes distract from what the peer reviewers are actually asking for; I tend to underline the relevant parts of the peer reviews and make marginalia to help me extract the incisive parts of the peer reviews. I then write them up and group them–if reviewers are asking for the same kind of thing (or contradictory things) this helps me develop a sense of what kinds of overlaps there are in the reviews. (You can see examples of my underlining and marginalia above.)

With that list of optional and necessary revisions developed, I set about grouping them. The first pass at grouping puts similar kinds of suggestions together, and the second grouping pass orders the suggestions in terms of where they should appear in the body of the revised manuscript. This usually involves sorting suggestions into multiple parts of the introduction (opening, literature review, map of the article, thesis & argumentation), each of the substantive sections, the conclusion, and citations and endnotes. I find that the heaviest lift is the suggestions for the introduction, followed by the conclusion, and then the substantive sections of the paper, which usually most need clarifying and alignment with the article’s aims once I’m able to clearly state them and articulate their relationship to the evidence at hand.

I then try to address the suggestions in order of difficulty. Overlooked citations come first, with minor syntactic tweaks following, and then it’s on to the big issues.

I’ve found that one of the recurrent experiences I have is overlong introductions. I try and make them short and to the point, but after addressing reviewer suggestions, I find that introductions balloon to be 7-8 pages long, when they should be 4-5 pages. If I can, I move parts of the introduction into the endnotes–especially theoretical positioning that only certain readers care about–but I’ve increasingly begun to break introductions into two parts. The first of these parts is the usual, empirically-driven hook that readers tend to appreciate which helps to set the stakes of the piece. It’s followed by the thesis and a layout of the article’s structure. But then I have a second helping of introduction, which is usually the literature review and theoretical work. If possible, I break these sections apart with headings to make sure that they are clearly flagged for reviewers and readers. I wish I could do this in the initial writing of an article manuscript, but I’ve come to find that it’s really only through revision that I’m able to see where these breakdowns should be–usually as a direct response to peer reviewer suggestions.

Often, working through the revisions means substantially rewriting the conclusion. Conclusions are always hard for me to write, often because, generically, they waffle between recapitulations of what was just written and soaring calls for reimagining disciplines, theoretical frameworks and categories, humanity, and existence. I try and do a little of both in an initial manuscript draft and then rework the conclusion based on reviews.

When I resubmit a revised article, I always make sure to include a very detailed cover letter to guide the editor and peer reviewers through the revisions. It’s usually pretty easy to adapt the list of suggestions for revision into a cover letter. Where possible, I make sure to flag where a suggestion came from–i.e. which peer reviewer or the editor–and detail how it is addressed in the revised manuscript. I also try and include a page number and paragraph to make sure that it’s very obvious. One of the challenges I’ve faced as a reviewer over the years is having the original version of an article in mind as I review a revised manuscript. I imagine other readers have similar issues, and it’s particularly helpful to dispel specific concerns by addressing them in the cover letter in addition to the manuscript.

I recognize that this is all pretty dispassionate in its approach. And it’s true: I’m pretty dispassionate in my writing. Most of what I enjoy about writing is solving puzzles, particularly how to put certain kinds of evidence and argumentation together. Addressing peer reviews is a lot like solving a puzzle to me. Given all of the pieces that reviewers have provided me with, how can I fit them together into a coherent picture that abides by the aims of the original version of the manuscript (or “picture” in this metaphor)? Sometimes it’s harder than other times, and it requires some finesse in smooshing pieces together. Other times it’s really clarifying, and I find these to be the best rewriting opportunities.

How do you rewrite based on peer reviews? Other suggestions for techniques? Tell me about them in the comments.

The Ethics of Peer Review in the Age of Adjunctification

Academics inhabit a world in which the difference between having an article published or not can mean the difference between landing a tenure track job or not. Later in an academic’s career, the difference between one or two articles and a few might mean the difference in earning tenure or not. Peer reviewers are often in the position to make decisions that can change people’s lives. So why does peer review often take so long — months and sometimes years? Committing to timely peer review is a vital ethical resolution that might significantly change the academic landscape.

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Recently, peer review has become the subject of some discussion in the academic blogosphere. Some academics have argued for the ability to track versions of an article after publication, so that corrections could be made to online versions after publication, thereby leading to commenters providing positive rather than negative reviews. Others have suggested that a quid-pro-quo approach might lead to more timely and careful reviews. Regardless of the overall structure of how academic publishing happens — and I do think online, easily amended articles is a great idea and might significantly change citational practices — every peer reviewer could make a change for the better by committing to turning in a peer review within two weeks of being asked to review a manuscript.

Two weeks might seem arbitrary, but here’s my reasoning: if it takes longer than two weeks to get around to doing something, it usually takes a very long time. That is, most of us are pretty good at scheduling in the short term — a week or two — but when it comes to scheduling beyond the next month, things get nebulous. When an article manuscript falls into that nebulous beyond-the-next-month period, it’s probably going to get lost in the shuffle. And when it comes time to read it, it’ll probably be because an editorial assistant is hounding you and not because you scheduled to read it in two months’ time. This means I’m always scheduling a peer review, even if I don’t have a manuscript on hand. If I don’t get asked to do a peer review, then it’s no big deal. But I’m ready if I am asked and don’t feel put out by the work.

Elsewhere, I’ve suggested the qualities that make for a productive peer review — generally, it boils down to helping the author make the most of the manuscript at hand. It might not be suitable for the journal that you’re reviewing for, but that’s usually up to the editor to decide. For the reviewers, the question is: what would it take for this manuscript to be published as an article in this journal? Answering that question might take a couple of hours of work — reading the article and writing up comments — and I would guess most of us spend two hours a day reading the news, checking social media, playing video games, or otherwise distracting ourselves from work. That can all wait; people’s careers can’t. Why not just commit to using that time for one’s peers, and when taking a break from one’s work, working for someone else?

We’ve all had long waits for peer reviews to come in, confusing editorial recommendations, and egregious publishing experiences, which has led me to develop these peer review practices, which might work for you too:

1) I always turn a review around in 2 weeks or less. If I don’t know the journal, I’ll take a few minutes to scan a couple articles to see if there are particular conventions in the journal’s published articles, just so I’m on the right page. I usually read a manuscript one day, taking notes while I do so, and then write the review the next day. If particular concerns nag me over the day, I’ll go back and read specific sections of the article again, just to make sure I read it right. My reviews tend to be 1-2 single-spaced pages, and focus on what it will take to make the article publishable. No snark, no random free association. Even if a manuscript is publishable as is, I still take the time to write up a review of what the author has done right, just so if some other reviewer has a different opinion, the editor and author have a sense that at least some readers are on the author’s side.

2) I never agree to review more than one manuscript at a time. If something comes in that I really want to review, I quickly review the manuscript already in my peer review queue and then agree to review the new manuscript.

3) If I can’t turn a review around in 2 weeks, I just say no to the invitation to review. Similarly, if the manuscript is way outside of my wheelhouse, I’ll also say no. But whenever I say no, I try and send the editorial assistant 3-4 names of other people who might be tapped for a review (no need to thank me, friends!); often, junior faculty aren’t really on the peer review map until they have a few publications under their belt, so it can be a benefit to both the reviewer and reviewee to send a manuscript to an untapped junior scholar (doing peer review makes people better writers… trust me on this).

4) If I’ve agreed to review the manuscript and find that I can’t be a kind peer reviewer for some reason, I get in touch with the editor and ask him or her to find a different reviewer. If this happens in the first two weeks that an article is out for review, it’s no big deal for the editor to turn around and find a new reviewer. But if it’s three months into the review process, it’s very harmful to the author of the manuscript, since now they have to begin the waiting process all over again…

Even if your final assessment is that a total overhaul is necessary, knowing that sooner rather than later will allow the author to get on with the necessary work — which might mean finding another journal. In a work context where people have very little time to focus on their own research and writing, being able to schedule necessary revisions is critical.

You might be the fastest of a set of reviewers, and so things will slow down while the editor waits for another review or two to come in. But if everyone starts reviewing more quickly, the whole machine of peer review should speed up noticeably for everyone. Not only will the academically precarious benefit, but so should scholars throughout the academic life course. If you’ve ever experienced a slow review process, commit to making it better for others by being a timely reader. Or at least refrain from agreeing to read something you don’t have the time for.