Revision requests from journals: Time to negotiate!

Revision requests from journals—when you’re lucky enough to receive them—represent golden opportunities to negotiate: with reviewers, as I’ve suggested before, but also with coauthor(s).

Consider some of the many topics that may require at least an implicit negotiation with your coauthors:

  • Whether the revision is doable
  • Timelines and deadlines
  • How to respond to reviewer requests
  • Who will do what
  • Who will contribute what
  • Who will get the final say
  • Any implications for authorship

And these are just some of the salient examples. To make revisions negotiable, consider the following negotiation principles that are particularly critical for these situations:

  1. Integrative rather than distributive negotiation: You and your co-authors presumably share the same goal: to get the paper published at the journal that just returned it. Therefore, and in spite of any creative differences that may arise, the pie is more expandable than fixed. What’s good for the goose is generally good for the gander. It’s helpful to keep that in mind at the outset, and periodically when the revisionary road gets bumpy.
  2. Trade-offs rather than value-claiming: The parties to a revision request might be tempted to engage in a distributive, value-claiming competition over apparently fixed pies, like who will rewrite what. But why? Why fight over a single issue when there are so many to choose from, and when several could be bundled for mutual gain? In particular, the various parties to a revision request may often find it easier and/or more pleasant to do different things. Maybe one party can easily collect new data but has no time to write, while the other has oodles of time for writing but no mechanism for data collection. In this case, it’s probably better to have one author do all the writing and the other all the collecting, as opposed to arm-wrestling over the writing alone.
  3. Information exchange rather than offer exchange: When several authors differ about the appropriate response to a reviewer comment (for example), the temptation is for each party to strenuously make their case. In other words, each party is essentially tempted to make an offer and see which offer predominates. That’s ok, but it’s often better for each party to stop making proposals and start probing the reasons underlying the other parties’ positions. “Why do you feel so strongly that we need to scrap that study?” A question like that often surfaces a vivid experience, paper of which you were oblivious, or underlying philosophy of science that makes the strenuous position a lot more understandable.
  4. Contingency contracts rather than immediate decisions: Oftentimes, reviewer comments thrust co-authors into a lively debate about how extensively to rework the paper. “That argument won’t make sense” or “That experiment won’t work,” one side might say, only to have the other strenuously disagree. The parties could continue to debate it or simply let the argument and/or experiment speak for themselves. In other words, they could decide to let the author who believes in the argument or experiment craft it or do it, then collectively determine whether it makes sense or works (respectively). That approach—akin to the negotiation strategy known as a contingency contract—is often more productive than debating ad nauseum.
  5. Post-settlement settlement rather than static agreement: Responses to a revision request often take an extraordinarily long time. Agreements reached at the outset about who will do what, how the team will respond to reviewer comments, or what the timeline will look like often seem sheepishly out-of-date as the arduous process unfolds. Rather than slavishly sticking to the original agreement, why not occasionally renegotiate a deal that’s better for everyone as new facts come to light—essentially the strategy known as post-settlement settlement?

In sum, revision requests are wonderful opportunities—opportunities that every scholar worth their salt dreams of. But the receipt of the request is not the end but the beginning of the process, as the authors then need to negotiate the terms of an arduous and extended undertaking. By treating the revision request as an opportunity to solve a very complex problem with very smart people rather than an opportunity to wage a self-focused battle, all authors can fulfill their dreams and remain friends to reflect on it.

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The classroom as a negotiation

Being a good teacher is no easy task, never easily reduced to a soundbite. And I’m far from the authority on pedagogy. Nevertheless, I think I’ve discovered a reasonably important practice that most decent teachers use at least implicitly: negotiating some aspects of a class and never negotiating others. So, in this post, let me try to make teaching slightly more negotiable by offering some observations on the aspects of a class that good teachers treat versus don’t treat as negotiations.

Good teachers, in my view, consider negotiating:

  1. Explanation of concepts: Excellent instructors know what they want to say and how they want to say it. But they’re also flexible on the means by which they convey their message if the students aren’t getting it. In other words, they show the willingness or even eagerness to explain themselves differently or at least repeatedly.
  2. Exploration of concepts: Sometimes, students wish to take a discussion in a totally different direction. And sometimes, that direction is counterproductive, so I don’t take the bait. But oftentimes, the direction they wish to go is constructive and interesting. Examples of potentially productive diversions might include: “How does principle A apply in other cultures?” “Does principle B still apply if C happens?” “I’ve experienced principle D in way E at work.” If the students want to stretch or test their understanding in a thoughtful and productive way, I’m usually more than happy to go there.
  3. Midcourse corrections: I’ve found that the best instructors not only ask the students halfway through a course how it’s going. They also actually act on whatever the students say. Indeed, it never fails to amaze me when the students say they’ve never seen an instructor make a midcourse correction. This resistance is somewhat understandable, as it’s not realistic or even productive to overhaul a whole course right in the middle. But I’ve found that students often have some very simple midcourse requests, which I can often satisfy rather easily. For example, they often ask for a little more information on X, and, lo and behold, I often have a little more information X handy. They really appreciate it.

But good teachers, in my view, don’t usually negotiate:

  1. Grades: I start my negotiation class by telling the students that nearly everything in life is negotiable except for their grades in this class. And I mean it, because one step down the path of negotiating grades with one student means an endless stream of students, all of whom want to apply their newfound negotiation skills in my office. It’s not sustainable nor equitable to the students who actually heeded my message.
  2. Core methodologies or course objectives: Instructors know best what they need to teach and how they need to teach it to ensure student learning. And it’s their job to teach it that way even if a few students gripe. Thus, while I always remain open to ways of refining the methodology or material, I never consider deviating from the core learning objectives or central methodology. If a student wishes to learn negotiation without actively negotiating on a weekly basis, for example, they won’t do well in my negotiation class.
  3. Experience versus evidence: Many of the evidence-based lessons taught in a negotiation class (and other classes) are counterintuitive. “What, it’s better to make the first offer?” And it’s good thing they’re counterintuitive, because what’s the point of the class otherwise? But some students just can’t stomach any evidence that doesn’t fit with their experiences. “But what about my random experience Y?” While it’s certainly true that every piece of evidence will not fit every experience that every individual has had—and more research to broaden the reach of the evidence is always welcome—I don’t let myself negotiate on the value of evidence versus random experiences. In other words, I don’t respond by saying “Well, maybe the evidence is wrong then.” Doing so, in my view, undermines my purpose as a conveyor of science. And I’ve discovered that the other students—everyone except the person with the random experience—don’t much like it either. “Who cares about that guy’s experience? I’m here to learn something new!”

In sum, good instruction is a complex and multifaceted matter. But thinking critically about which aspects of the classroom to treat as a negotiation and which to never negotiate can make teaching significantly more negotiable. A gold star to any of my students who read this and either validate my points or put me to the test!

 

 

Research papers as negotiations

At first glance, the writing of a research paper might seem nothing like a negotiation. Negotiations necessarily involve conflict, and the collaborative production of a research paper involves nothing but cooperation—right? But a closer look at the paper construction process reveals many opportunities or even necessities for negotiation within a research team. Anticipating these situations and planning a prospective response can make scholarly life more negotiable.

Consider the following five negotiations that commonly arise during the production of a research paper:

  1. Where to take a paper: The members of research teams often have very different views on a paper’s strategic direction. Are we trying to challenge the identification literature, the identity literature, or image literature? In the presence of such debates, I find the negotiation research on creative solutions particularly useful, in that it says that new ideas can often satisfy everyone at the same time. Does this paper actually present a previously unrecognized opportunity to clarify and integrate the three literature?
  2. Where to send a paper: Scholarly teams often disagree on the journal that should have the benefit of receiving their work. Some authors may advocate for a stretch journal—one that would be unbelievable if it worked, but probably it won’t. Others may advocate for a safe journal—a more realistic outlet that is also less likely to impress. In these instances, the negotiation literature’s focus on trust becomes particularly important, in that team members often have to trust in the judgment of colleagues who have published in places they haven’t. Could this paper ever get into that amazing journal where I’ve never had a prayer of publishing? Your five articles at that journal make you better qualified to say. If so, our debate is effectively resolved.
  3. What to expect from a coauthor: Authors often disagree on what it means to be a coauthor, and particularly the responsibilities implicit in various locations within the scholarly pecking order (e.g., first or last author). Sometimes this results from the authors’ differing disciplines. The last position in a long list of authors is tremendously coveted in medicine, for example, whereas the same position is best avoided in management. In other instances, these differing expectations come from differing experiences, in which team members have previously worked with assiduous or indolent colleagues. In these cases, I find the negotiation research on open information sharing especially important, in that openly surfacing expectations rather than implicitly assuming them heads off many an unpleasant encounter down the road.
  4. How to respond to reviews: In many cases, the best possible outcome of a scholarly paper submission is not an acceptance (impossible), but a revise and resubmit—an offer to alter the article in some minor or major ways and send it back. The problem arises when team members have very different reactions to a major request. Should we bend to the will of the reviewer asking us to rewrite the paper, or stick to our guns and try to convince the editor, if not the reviewer, of our original wisdom? (For some tips on how to negotiate with reviewers themselves, see here). In these cases, I find one word particularly useful: “why?” Why does your co-author feel so strongly about resisting the request to rewrite? Do they think it would derail the paper, require too much time, conflict with a favored theory or viewpoint? There are many reasons to prefer a particular response; figuring out which one it is can generate some new possibilities. If the problem is a coauthor’s time, for example, perhaps you’d be willing to take a crack at the rewrite?
  5. When to give up on a paper: Despite their best efforts, many papers find a home at none of the favored journals. Is it time to cut our losses or persist and shoot lower? The well-intentioned members of a scholarly team can disagree, perhaps because of their career stage (e.g., close to versus far from tenure review). In these instances, I find the negotiation principle of post-settlement settlements (PSS’s) particularly useful. PSS’s are attempts to improve a deal already reached, with each party having the ability to revert to the original deal if they wish. In this case, the initial list of authors represents the original deal; if one author wants to persist while the others prefer to cut their losses, could the persistent author assume more responsibility along with a higher position in authorship order?

In short, writing scholarly papers is a mostly cooperative endeavor, with smart and well-intentioned people all working to attain the same scientific goal. But the publishing process is complex and precarious, presenting many situations in which differences of opinion can easily crop up. By thinking about these situations as negotiations and applying some of the most well-known negotiation principles, perhaps we can all make the scientific endeavor a little more negotiable.

Responding to reviewers: Lessons from negotiation research

Those of us who write academic papers often describe the process of responding to reviewers as a negotiation, and a tough one at that. But is that just a handy metaphor or does the process of responding to reviewers really look anything like buying a car or requesting a raise? The answer matters because the latter possibility implies that the negotiation literature could actually teach us something useful about the review process.

I’m here to argue that responding to reviewers is, in essence, a negotiation. Thus, the negotiation literature does have something to teach us and can, in fact, make the review process more negotiable. I could write a book on the topic, and maybe someday I will. But now let me lay out five basic principles from negotiation research that can readily improve how we respond to reviewers:

  1. Concessions: When young scholars receive their first review, they often react in one of two ways. They either: a) fire offer a vitriolic response letter indicating how few of the reviewers’ brain cells are operable, or b) tear up the first draft of their own paper and start afresh. In other words, they tend to make no concessions or a ginormous concession. The research on concessions in negotiation suggests that neither response is optimal. Instead, the best concessions are real and meaningful but also not so huge as to undermine a person’s own interests. Better than either of the above responses, then, is to consider the reviewer’s comments carefully and make meaningful changes that reflect them, but never lose sight of your vision for the paper and thus lose control.
    2. Interests versus positions: Oftentimes, reviewers ask us to do things to our manuscripts that seemingly make no sense. In other words, they take positions that seem irreconcilable with our own. In these situations, we can take a cue from Getting to Yes, which advises us to focus on interests rather than positions. Much as the specific request a reviewer is making (“I’d like to see you do X”) might make little sense, the concern underlying the suggestion (the interest) is often substantially more valid. Moreover, once you understand it, you can often address it quite readily, albeit in a potentially different way—and your different way can often satisfy the reviewer even better.
    3. Listening and building trust: Acting as a reviewer, one of the biggest mistakes I’ve seen is a response letter indicating that an author has not really read or considered my comments. They might’ve read and responded to the first half of a particularly important comment, for example, but neither said nor done anything about the second—hoping, perhaps, that I somehow miss the omission. Or they might’ve referred me to their answers somewhere else in the response letter—answers that I either can’t find or that don’t address the comment in question. As a reviewer, this has the effect of destroying my trust. I spent my own time trying to help an author, and here they are, the hot shot, signaling: “I’m not listening—I don’t care.” The research on trust in negotiation suggests that there is no better way to destroy a negotiation. As authors, we can do better, if only by always responding to every point every reviewer makes, even if we have to disagree or repeat some sentiments expressed elsewhere in a response letter.
    4. Asking questions: Oftentimes, a reviewer asks us to do something. We do something and say “here’s what I did.” There’s no dialogue: we assume we did what was requested, thank you very much, and we assume that the reviewer will obviously agree. Barring the obvious “drop the extra line break” or “make this heading italic” type comment, which don’t require much dialogue, why not at least occasionally ask the reviewer whether our response actually addressed his or her concern? Something like: “Here’s what I did. Did I address your comment sufficiently? If not, can you please let me know how to address it better?” Perhaps we think that avoiding such questions will prevent us from having to endure another round of reviews. (There’s gonna be one anyway.) Or perhaps we really don’t care whether the reviewer is pleased. (But if we’d better if want to see our ideas published.) Either way, asking questions seems like a worthwhile strategy (in moderation).
    5. Separating the people from the problem: Unfortunately, some reviewers are just downright nasty. Notwithstanding any of our own overtures to build trust or ask questions, they appear to despise not only our work but our entire selves. Or at least that’s what we gather from the tone of their reviews. Even more unfortunately, we often see such reviews as an excuse to respond in kind. We lose sight of the underlying goal and instead launch our own personal tirade. Or perhaps we even go behind the reviewer’s back and complain to the editor. Inappropriate as the reviewer’s behavior may be—and is—we just can’t respond in kind. Once again, Getting to Yes provides some guidance: “separating the people from the problem.” Despite the reviewer’s problem with us as people—and thus our problem with them—we have to find a way to detect the substance buried deep in their pile of poison, responding per points #3 and 4 regardless.

I don’t claim to be any kind of an expert on responding to reviews. If I had a penny for every rejection…

Still, I do think these basic lessons from the negotiation literature can help us navigate the choppy waters of the review process, emerging at some port somewhere instead of sinking to the bottom of the sea.