Crafting Scholarship — After the Fall: Managing Criticism

by Robert Milardo, Ph.D., University of Maine
NCFR Report
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Robert Milardo, Ph.D.

My first reaction to criticism in any form is surely irrational. With regard to reviews of journal submissions, I rant, complain to friends, question the intellect of the reviewers (or lack thereof), question my own competence, and after a week or so get serious about how I might improve the manuscript and respond to the editor and reviewers.

But the rant comes first; it is a necessary part of my process and, to a certain degree, part of the process of other authors. I have talked with authors whose initial reaction to reviews is emotional, and some who are not quite so affected. Here I present excerpts from my interviews with four leading scholars. You might compare your experiences of criticism with theirs. A bit of social comparison can be illuminating.

Harry Reis, a prominent social psychologist, former editor, and leader in the science of personal relationships, responded to my queries about his usual experience of reviews.

I asked Harry how he typically responds when receiving reviews of his own journal submissions.

HR: My initial reaction is usually to get upset. It will either be anger at the reviewers, irritation, annoyance, or sometimes it will be feelings of inadequacy. Any of those sorts of things, and even if the letter is positive by the way.

I typically will be annoyed at the nature of the changes that are being requested. I am revising one today. The reviews are fairly positive actually, but the changes are substantial and I'm annoyed at having to do it. I always tell students "put it aside until the emotional reaction is sort of washed away, and then start to deal with it."

RM: How long do you have to put some- thing aside? More than a day?

HR: Oh, absolutely more than a day. It's typically at least a week.

Harry is by any measure a very successful social psychologist. Like myself, he has more than 30 years of experience in research and publication, and yet his response to reviews has changed little over his career. Like many of us, he finds reviews difficult to accept, at least initially.

I also asked Sarah Schoppe-Sullivan, a family psychologist and NCFR Fellow, about her experience of reviews.

When you see those emails [reviews] in your inbox. I don't know maybe when someone has published a zillion papers, which I certainly haven't, it doesn't affect them anymore. But when I see those emails, it's like my stomach drops. I still put them away for two weeks, maybe longer if it is a really harsh one. My mentor actually taught me that. What hurts most is you read it, and then think they are kind of right. I don't think I'm very good at handling criticism. I mean I've gotten better over time but it doesn't just roll off my back.

Anisa Zvonkovic is chair of the Department of Human Development at Virginia Tech and, like Sarah, she has been enormously successful in getting federal grants to support her work. Anisa was recently elected President-elect of NCFR. I too asked her about her experience of reviews.

I hate reviews and I put them aside, can't even read them. Or I read them real quick. But to be honest, when I get the reviews back, I may not even read the email the first day, even though I'm less attached than I was as a new scholar. I'm less attached to the techniques, sentences, and paragraphs, but I'm very attached to wanting to be published.

When I look at [reviews] the next day or so, I am kind of furious at every criticism. I have to kind of go through that process [emphasis added]. I've noticed that not everyone is like that. Some of my students are not. They kind of roll up their sleeves and get to work. I have to kind of go through this process, and then when I've cooled down, which may only take a day or a couple of days, I'm ready to work.

I use to think of my initial reaction to receiving reviews as a personal weakness. Now I think of it as a process I have to go through.

Anisa is not alone in her reaction to reviews. Paul Amato, a three-time recipient of the Reuben Hill Award and past president of NCFR, responded:

PA: Well, when I get a decision letter, I don't open it right away. I need to screw up my courage a little bit because nobody likes to be criticized and reviews are unpredictable. I have no idea what to expect. It's kind of a touchy subject with me.

RM: How long do you wait to open a decision letter?

PA: I won't open it up right away. I'll let it sit for an hour or two before I go back to it.

RM: What are your first reactions?

PA: Well it depends on the reviews of course. I think that there is probably some natural defensiveness. In an ideal world, everybody would love everything that we do, but as academics we are putting ourselves out there for criticism all the time. We get evaluated a lot. So this hour or two delay is kind of psyching myself

up to realize that even if the article gets a revise and resubmit, there is going to be a lot of criticism; there are going to be a lot of suggestions that come up and I need to deal with that and think about that objectively. I need to be accepting of this and gracious about it, and think about this constructively and once I've talked myself into that frame of mind, then I'll look at the reviews. But I can't do [it] without that mental preparation. I think I might just be hurt by it. Every time you send an article out to a journal you know it is going to be criticized. Even if you think it is a pretty good article and eventually gets published and cited a lot it's going to be torn down. In some ways, it's kind of a harsh system.

The emotional stuff is really important. Intellectually you think about the reviews that we get and we try and assess in a fairly objective way the validity of the criticism, how we might deal with it, how we are going to respond. Emotionally there is all this churning going on. We're thinking: "How did this person not like my work? How come they didn't love it? I am deeply offended by this." Or, "I'm never going to write anything ever again, ever. That's it. I'm finished." So you have to deal with all this emotion that goes on and you have to get through it if you're ever going to have your work published.

Acknowledging our common experience

We often, and I hope routinely, begin with a carefully crafted manuscript that has been through countless revisions. We send off the manuscript to a journal with a belief that this work is nearly perfect and surely the reviewers and editor will have few if any suggestions, few if any criticisms. Honestly, I can't remember submitting a manuscript that I didn't feel would knock the socks off the editor and reviewers. In fact, they may find lots to like about the piece, but they will nearly always find room for improvement, and add some criticism to the mix.

What surprises me is that my initial belief about the perfection of an initial submission hasn't varied over my career and neither has my reaction to the inevitable critical reviews, or the reactions of Harry, Sarah, Anisa, and Paul. The only real difference between our experience as young scholars, and now as more experienced scholars, is that we know the drill. We know our initial judgment about the quality of a first submission is inflated. We know that our initial reaction to reviews will be uncomfortable. We know that we have to deal with the emotional discomfort first and then we get to work.

I am glad these authors shared their experience so openly and honestly. It is comforting to know that my emotional experience of reviews is not that much different from that of some very successful authors. I don't mean to say that there is not some variation, that some experience fret more than others, but the underlying issues are similar. Being criticized is difficult and it underscores the emotional baggage of writing more generally.

All of these authors share a similar experience, and it includes a good measure of discomfort. They are clearly aware of their typical experience, anticipate their reactions, and manage to deal with discomfort in a productive way. In addition, they all went on to explain what they do after their initial reactions, and all had similar strategies. They mine the editorial letters and reviews for the key issues and decide how to address them. In fact, they are masters at strategizing responses, and I suspect that their ability to respond to reviews and successfully publish is contingent on being aware of their initial reactions and allowing for those reactions. They may be momentarily derailed when receiving a review, but not for long.

The emotional context of writing and the accompanying criticism that ensues is expected and is part of the writing process. We simply learn to gauge our own reactions, setting aside the self-doubts but not denying their appearance. And when all else fails, I sit at my screen until things start to happen; ideas emerge; words follow.

Working after the fall

In the routine of writing regularly and submitting articles, grants, and books for review, expect criticism. Your particular re- sponse may vary depending on the tone and content of the reviews and accompanying decision letter. Some reviews are more rea- sonable than others. Some scholars are more affected by criticism than others. Anisa com- ments on those of her students who seem to be little affected by the course of criticism.

In my experience and that of my colleagues Harry, Sarah, Anisa, and Paul, reviews are unpleasant and, as Harry says "even if the [decision] letter is positive."

For new professionals this means expecting unpleasantries and planning for the crush when first opening a decision letter and accompanying reviews. The important point is to be mindful of your response and plan accordingly. Allow yourself a week or two to adapt, working through your personal response, and follow this with a commit- ment to begin strategizing your response.

List the major issues raised by the reviewers or editor and begin by addressing each issue in turn. Never under any circumstance allow a bit of foul weather to derail your vision. I can assure you that every award-winning article, every article now considered a classic, had a heap of critical reviews in its history.

Among the most significant differences between a new professional just getting started and an accomplished, well-seasoned professional is a mindful approach to personal process. The old hats learn to manage ever-present criticism and the surf of discomfort.

Best practice: responding to reviews

Rant first. Complain to anyone who will listen or pretend to do so. Strong negative reactions to reviews are normal.

Get strategic. Once you calm down, think strategically. List every issue raised by the editor and reviewers and plan a strategy for decommissioning each concern.

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