Things I’ve learned from working at CSSH, or How to Interact with a Top-Tier Academic Journal

Many CSSH editorial assistants are world-class ethnographers. In 2010, Laura Brown proved she was one of these gifted observers. As a teaching guide for her successors and as parting counsel to manuscript submitters (and reviewers) everywhere, she produced the following account of how things work at CSSH. Known in-house as “The Brown Rules,” it is one of the best keys to publishing in an elite academic journal we’ve seen.

Things I’ve learned from Working at CSSH, or How to Interact with a Top-Tier Academic Journal

Laura C. Brown, Department of Anthropology, University of Pittsburgh
CSSH Editorial Assistant, 2009–2010

Picking a Journal
• Picking a journal is part of the process of writing an article. You need to find and write for your audience (be aware of what they will need explained, what level of detail they care about, and how your work will need to be framed in order for them to find it interesting). Ideally this process will begin long before you send something off. Read the journals to which you might submit. You are highly unlikely to publish in a journal that you don’t read.

• Publishing is a bit like going out on Friday night. You need to figure out what’s happening, where you might be comfortable, and make sure that you know the steps in advance. Doing this will ensure that you’re able to appropriately dress before you arrive and increase your chances of getting in and having fun.

• Journals represent networks and audiences. It may be helpful to imagine them as the editors plus people who’ve published in that journal during the last 5 years (it’s a fair guess that this represents the body of people who will read and review your work). As you finish writing you should revise your article so that it addresses the audience of the journal that you hope will receive your work.

• Find a journal that addresses the audience to which you can make your work salient and interesting. This process is easier if you share your work with people and find out what others are doing. Pay attention to official and unofficial calls for papers and discussions of what particular journals are looking for. Some journals, like some bars, are technically open to all but rarely welcome outsiders. If you can’t arrive with an invitation, you should at least know something about the scene before you go there.

• Journals are also conversations. Your piece should somehow be in dialogue with other things published in that journal, conversations between people connected to that journal, and the social fields it represents.

• As in spoken conversation, successful participation depends on genre, form, evidence, and tone as well as topic. Think about what readers of your work will need to know already and the kind of evidence they want to see. This doesn’t mean that you cite the journal’s editor in your text (a strategy akin to dressing in the same outfit as your hostess), but it does mean that your work should arrive looking like it belongs at the party it hopes to attend.

Writing a Cover Letter
• Many of our authors seem to do this at the last minute, and to use it simply as a way to give their contact information. Yet it’s possible to do more, and there have been papers that made it out for review on the strength of a good cover letter.

• Your cover letter allows you to accept the invitation that the journal has implicitly sent. It should introduce your work and why you’ve decided to send it to this particular journal (if you’re not sure why, return to step 1 and think again).

• Give your full contact information (email, post address, and phone).

• Briefly introduce your paper. Give the title, its audience, and intent.

• Explain why you’re submitting to this journal and why you’re submitting now. Are you responding to a specific call or invitation? Is your work somehow in dialogue with something else that the journal has recently published? Is your paper in line with the journal’s mission?

• Suggest 3–4 reviewers (feel free to provide their contact info and offer very brief explanations of what they do/why they fit).

• There no need to tell us your rank (if you’re a grad student, post doc, or academic novice). Polished and professional correspondence will get best results.

Suggesting Reviewers
• Suggesting reviewers gives us a sense of how you imagine the audience for your paper. For a multi-regional, multi-disciplinary journal it’s wise to suggest people who work in several regions/disciplines who might be eager to read your stuff.

• We may use your suggestions; it’s helpful to have names of people who might actually review. It’s best to avoid the very famous, nearly dead, and notoriously flakey. Don’t suggest people already thanked in the paper, your advisor, and people you’re already working with (they shouldn’t review). This is your chance to get feedback from people you may not know yet.

• It’s easy to send papers to reviewers in any place that has email, but the social networks of journals are still shaped by geography. If there are players on the journal’s board or the wider home team (e.g., colleagues of those on the editorial board who you want to see your work), let us know.

• You may also suggest people you’d prefer not to get as reviewers (we usually respect these preferences, but not always). This makes sense to do if you know that there’s someone out there who hates you or the kind of work you do with a burning passion. While CSSH keeps these comments confidential, it’s always best to be discreet and polite.

Preparing Your Manuscript
• Make sure that your piece makes a good first impression. Your piece will be introduced not only by its cover letter but also by its abstract, title, opening paragraphs, general look, and conclusion. Internal and external reviewers are likely to give your work a quick glance before deciding if it’s worth further time. A jargon-filled abstract, sloppy/dull/narrow opening, clues suggesting that you simply ripped the piece from a larger work or dissertation, and other weak bits in the parts of your piece that readers will skim may kill an otherwise very good work.

• Remember that no-one is being paid to read this piece. It needs to be interesting enough to reward the reader. Readers may not know or care about the latest argot of your field. Explain regional/technical terms as needed and make sure that your form and content will please the broadest audience that your piece might reach.

• Make sure your manuscript does not exceed the journal’s length limits, and do not ask them to waive their rules just for you. If a journal lays out formatting requirements for submissions, follow them.

• Assume that your piece will be sent out for review in the same state that it came in. (Remove anything that you don’t want reviewers to see, and add anything that you do want them to see). If you have a choice of formats, make sure it’s one that can be easily read and opened.

• Copy-edit it to the very best of your ability—while it’s likely that further editing and revisions will be required, some reviewers will be annoyed by many small typographical errors.

• Most other people in Anglophone academia are on a schedule similar to yours. There are holidays (during which things slow down) in later December and mid-summer. Reviews will come back more slowly and your work is less likely to be read quickly during these periods. Similarly, many people seem to set deadlines to finish and submit articles at the end of holidays, school terms, and breaks. CSSH usually gets a glut of submissions at the end of spring term, summer term, fall term, and so on.

• CSSH pieces have an advantage if they can be combined with a complementary piece (e.g., a very ethnographic piece might make it in if we find a companion piece that provides its theory). We like to think that we make these pairings ourselves, but some of our more strategic authors are clearly aware of them.

Waiting for Reviews
• If you’ve waited for over a week with no acknowledgement of your piece, send a polite email checking that your submission made it in.

• Unless there is a significant error in need of correction, it’s best to avoid submitting new versions of the piece before you’ve gotten feedback on the first one to avoid creating any confusion.

• After you’ve submitted wait the suggested amount of time for feedback. If it’s been six months you might send a polite email asking when you’ll hear back. Journals occasionally need a gentle poke to keep things moving.

• Remember that academia is a very small world and that no one is obligated to help or deal with you. Even the lowliest member of a journal’s editorial staff plays an important role in seeing your manuscript through the process. Be kind, polite, and professional.

• No news is good news. Pieces that are easiest to reject hear back first.

Using Feedback If Rejected
• Attend to the reason why you got rejected. Was this the wrong journal, was the appeal of your piece too narrow, was your writing sloppy, or was there a problem with the argument or evidence? Consider both what was said and the implicit unsaid in the rejection. Remember that detailed critique takes time. It is a form of academic love.

• Similarly, pay attention to what reviewers said in their reviews and do your best to make use of it. Chances are that if you revise and resubmit, you’ll need to please a similar body of people, or exactly the same ones.

• It is entirely possible that one of your reviewers is odd (there are some classic flavors of odd such as “didn’t cite me”, “misplaced a comma”, “doesn’t use enough sources in language X,” and a few others). It’s not worth trying to fulfill all demands of the truly belligerent, petty, and crazy. However, most odd reviewers represent a body of your readers whose qualms you should strive to overcome. If all of your reviews tend odd in the same direction, the problem is probably with you and not with them.

If Asked to Revise and Resubmit
• Most papers in CSSH started out with a revise and resubmit. It’s good news and a compliment. In my tenure as editorial assistant only one paper was accepted at first submission (and even that author was asked to make a few revisions).

• Pay attention to what reviewers have said and do your best to use their feedback. If you revise and resubmit you’ll need to please a similar body of people.

• If reviewers conflict or you are truly unsure about how to use feedback feel free to check in with the editor. Ask a clear and specific question and include the relevant background in your email.

• It’s best if you can revise within two to eight weeks. If you take a long time to revise and resubmit, it will be harder to get your work back into the pipeline. That said, you should take enough time to make substantive changes (resubmissions that happen a few days later rarely seem to succeed).

• Include a brief cover letter with a note to the editor (especially if you took some time revising) and a note to reviewers (thanking them and explaining how and why you’ve responded to their feedback) with your new submission.

• All rules for the first submission apply.

• The second round of review usually takes less time than the first.

• CSSH offers better copy-editing than many journals do. That said, you should be prepared to go through the final version of your paper in detail.

Reviewing for a Journal
• Serving as a reviewer can be a great way to fulfill scholarly duties, read new work, and build contacts at a journal you may later want to publish in.

• Saying “no” politely (especially with suggestions of other reviewers) is better than saying yes and failing to deliver.

• If you have qualms about reviewing (your expertise, ties to the author, work overload) feel free to mention them.

• Although you will usually review anonymously, be aware that your identity may come out (and will certainly be known to those connected to the journal). Do a good job, be kind, and be professional.

• Don’t expect people at the journal to do the work of editing your review. If you want to stay anonymous, it’s best not to put your name on it. Put any comments that you want to be read only by the editor in a separate file.

• Reviews often begin with the name of the piece and include: (1) a summary of the argument and evidence as you see it; (2) specific substantive suggestions for revision; (3) detailed suggestions for revision (you aren’t expected to copy-edit and improve writing style, but if you see issues you may mention them); (4) your evaluation of the piece as a whole; and (5) suggestions for action (e.g., accept, accept with minor revisions, revise and resubmit, heavy revisions needed, send to some other journal).

• Reviewers sometimes say “The piece is nicely written” as a throwaway line, to sweeten the bitter pill of substantive critique, when in fact the paper badly needs editing. If a paper you are reviewing needs serious editorial attention, then say so. The author and the editors need to know the work that lies ahead. If a reviewer falsely describes a paper as “well written,” the author may later, with the reviewer’s compliments in hand, berate the editors for doing their job.

Things to Keep in Mind
• $0: That’s how much most people in this process are being paid to deal with you. Most of them also have their own writing, teaching, and lives to deal with. You want to be as interesting and pleasant to deal with as possible and avoid wasting anyone’s time.

• Gossip and institutional memory: While you should never assume that anyone knows (or cares) who you are, you should always be aware of the possibility that they might remember you and/or know what you’re up to. It’s possible that people on staff will know where you went to school (who your advisor was, etc.) and quite likely that reviewers will know and learn about you as they read. For this reason it’s important to behave well. Don’t submit the same piece for review at multiple places at once. Be careful as you re-package a rejected piece for submission at a different journal (it’s helpful, for instance, to re-package so that the people at journal B don’t know that they were your back-up plan). Be careful when putting two very similar articles out at the same time (we’ve had cases where they hit the same reviewers).

• You are being googled—by reviewers, journal editors, and people seeking places to send papers for review. What comes up on your faculty profile will probably influence what gets sent to you for review and may influence how others evaluate your work.

Laura C. Brown is an assistant professor in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Pittsburgh. Her research examines intersections between language and money with a geographic focus in Tamil South Asia. She has conducted fieldwork in Tamil Nadu, India examining how conversations in small roadside shops shape the value of goods, money, and the people with whom they are associated. Her current research further explores the relationship between intimate linguistic exchanges and broader political economic transformations through the analysis of typographic design, commodification, and use by South Asian language speakers.