Finding first readers for your paper

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Your manuscript (book chapter, paper etc) needs a first reader (also known as “alpha reader” in literature critique) to spot obvious problems before it goes out for review.

We know that many great papers need multiple tries at journals before they land. I read a lot of referee reports in my capacity as editor, and I have noticed the luck of the draw of refereeing boils down to the following: referees who buy into your project (not necessarily agree though often that is what happens), will be much more likely to give a positive verdict. 

The referee must at the very least think the problem is interesting, your approach is interesting and advances the debate, and will be of use to the broader community. Unfortunately, a lot of that judgment is not down to objective properties of your paper, but to the specific scholarly background of the referee and their tastes, what they deem would be important or of use.

With everyone overworked and referees rejecting requests, the chance is high you’ll bump on a referee who doesn’t buy into your project, leading to rejection. The most heartbreaking thing I see as an editor is that a referee who does buy into the project finds too many problems in a paper. They’ll say something like this in their confidential comments to the editor, “I like the overall aim, I think there’s really a good idea there, but unfortunately, I am recommending rejection because the paper suffers from multiple issues…”. Editors ought not to outsource decisions to referees, so I read that report + the paper again and then I do usually agree with the referee and reject.  Sometimes in the case of conflicting reports and a paper that seems very promising, yet another referee is sought for a third opinion but it is already so difficult to find the original ones, that the most reasonable option (also given submission volume) is to recommend rejection.

You don’t want this fate for your paper.  You cannot control who will referee your work, but you can make sure that when you finally get to the right referees for your paper, there aren’t elementary problems such as glaring omissions of the literature or holes in your argument that will make that referee say, no sorry, it was promising, but it didn’t deliver.

One of the best ways to help your paper is to find alpha readers. Testrunning at conferences helps, but it is not quite the same, unless the conference is pre-read (more on this below). 

Many academics, when leaving grad school, get terribly isolated and so it is hard to find readers.

Moreover, you need to find the right reader: this is someone at least sympathetic to the paper who can read it benevolently (but not uncritically). Ideally, that reader would be the potential audience of your paper.

I find it helpful to approach the potential reader directly in your network (a polite email) and ask them if they could look at it. Don’t approach people cold that you have no prior relationship to. Acceptable is to approach people who have seen you present the paper in a conference and who expressed more than polite interest. Ideal are people for whom you’ve alpha- or beta-read in the past, with whom you have co-authored (perhaps) or some other kind of prior professional engagement. 

Here are some tips on how to approach this. YMMV, obviously. Make it very clear it’s supererogatory and offer to do something in return. For instance, a reader I recently asked, I gave advice (that they requested) about how life works in a city I know well, in a country I lived in, that they are moving to soon. It may seem cold and transactional to propose doing things in return, but on the other hand, this way they get something out of it (beyond reading your paper, which might be of interest to them independently). If you have a long-standing relationship of critique and scholarly engagement, it’s not necessary to propose tit for tat as there’s an expectation you’ll do the favor at some point. 

When asking a reader, give a timeframe (“it’s not urgent, anywhere in the next 2 months would be great if you have the time”, or “I am hoping to submit this by the end of the month/within 2 weeks”).

Also give some indication of what you are looking for, e.g., “I know you are terribly busy, but if you could just give a quick glance and let me know if the big picture sounds plausible to you,” perhaps also “If you are too busy to read the entire thing, on pp 3-5 I discuss X [where the reader has most familiarity with], could you tell me if that counterexample works?”  In my experience, it is possible and worthwhile to find a reader. The refereeing process is a long, drawn-out affair and so even though it seems daunting, it is always worthwhile. Another set of friendly eyes helps to improve a paper often more than a referee report does. 

Another way to get readers is to put out a request on social media (I have *pitch of fun paper* approximately n words, anyone care to take a look? You’ll find some takers if you have something of a platform. Now, the disadvantage of this seems to be that anonymous review is compromised, on the other hand, if the pitch is vague enough (e.g., “I have a paper on virtue and testimonial injustice”) this is not a problem, as many papers might fit that bill. Moreover, the network of scholars is always much bigger than one’s social media unless one has a huge platform (most people don’t). 

Another option is to get your paper read in a pre-read workshop or colloquium. I don’t think that just presenting at a conference can entirely replace a first reader pass over your paper. On the other hand, if the paper is pre-read there’s a bigger chance people will spot problems in your work. I think this is very useful for early-career people and some of my most high-profile papers went through this process. My paper on philosophical intuitions in AJP for instance, had one dedicated commenter and was pre-read by a group of postdocs and DPhil students (at the time I was in Oxford). So many issues were resolved before the paper was sent out and it got in at its first attempt in a journal. 

I know some people have critique groups (on Zoom, Slack, and other platforms) and I believe Marcus might post about this soon. I am not part of such a group, so I will not delve into that topic here (but of course welcome comments of people who have experience on this topic, or any other part of this post). 

You might organize critique groups at your department. My previous institution was small (only 5 full time faculty, a handful of grad students) but we had a monthly series of critiquing a work in progress of colleagues. This wasn’t always a paper, we sometimes testran a conference presentation. I found this very helpful and also interesting to see what my colleagues were up to. 

Originally appeared on The Philosophers’ Cocoon Read More

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