Wednesday, April 13, 2016
How Should I Respond to Requests to Read Draft Articles in My Field? (Jr. Law Prawfs FAQ)
A significant part of my first few years on the faculty has consisted of reading articles from scholars in my field. Perhaps in part because I transitioned straight from private practice, I felt way behind when I arrived and took the advice of mentors to spend much of my first year just reading articles in my field -- time that, looking back, was very well spent.
As I started in interact more in my field, however, the requests to read and comment others' drafts started trickling in and now I spend a lot of time reading and commenting drafts. I am guessing I'm not alone here. Although I've gotten faster at reviewing drafts, it still requires a decent chunk of time, and even more to do so well.
That leads to my Jr. Law Prawfs FAQ for today: Especially for junior scholars, how should one respond to requests to read drafts of articles in one's field?
The short answer, I think, is that junior scholars generally should accept the request to respond. This feels like a critical part of being a legal academic. I admire the senior scholars in administrative law who are so generous with the time to comment on drafts of my work. I still remember when Jerry Mashaw and Peter Strauss, for instance, took the time to review and comment on one of my papers. To be sure, especially as a junior scholar with a steeper learning curve and a tenure clock, it's understandable to set some limits. But healthy habits are made early.
Perhaps the more interesting question is how to respond. In other words, what type of feedback is most helpful and valuable to scholars in the field? I've received everything from general comments and broad themes to specific suggestions and even line edits. I'm just happy to receive any feedback, so I haven't focused too much on what has been most helpful to me. And I'm particularly curious if there are any best practices for aspiring and junior scholars to think about when commenting on senior scholars' draft articles in particular.
Circling back to Monday's FAQ post about increasing the chances of one's scholarship being read by folks in the field, one critical step is becoming part of the field. And reading and commenting on drafts from others in the field seems like an important ingredient. On Friday I'll turn to what I think is another important ingredient: participating (and organizing) conference/symposium events.
Say yes. Always say yes until it's not possible for you to say "yes" to anything more. Engaging carefully with someone else's work -- carefully enough to give good comments -- is one of the best ways you can use your time. It's hard work, but you learn a lot by doing it.
The best and most useful feedback is the kind that pinpoints what's wrong with a paper. I like to read once, quickly, making quick scribbles in the margin whenever something bothers me. Then I go through, looking at my notes to see whether multiple issues are connected. If so, I start from the beginning again, trying to find the moment when the paper goes off down a different track than I'm expecting. Once I find it, if I find it, I can articulate how the consequences ripple outwards through the paper. That's usually enough for me to explain how a paper is in tension with itself, or doesn't take an objection seriously enough, or doesn't engage with all of the implications of its proposal, or ... you get the idea. Find the bodies that the author has hidden under the stairs (perhaps not consciously) and give suggestions on how to inter them properly.
Posted by: James Grimmelmann | Apr 13, 2016 10:06:54 AM
I, too, have benefitted tremendously from critical readings I have received from colleagues. When asked to read a draft, my answer is almost always "yes, but...". "Yes, but I'm not a specialist in this subfield, so take my substantive comments with a grain of salt." "Yes, but I'm treading water right now, so the best I can offer in the next couple of weeks is a quick bird's-eye view." "Yes, but Prof. Y knows much more about this topic than I do. I just checked with her, and she'd be happy to review your paper -- I think you'd get much more valuable feedback at this stage of your writing from her than you would from me."
Posted by: Rick Bales | Apr 13, 2016 10:10:55 AM
Reading other people's work both makes me feel like part of a larger scholarly community and helps me think about how to make my own work better. As a result, I make a habit of always trying to offer someone comments on their work when I ask for comments on my own.
Posted by: Matthew Bruckner | Apr 13, 2016 11:01:20 AM
These are great comments from James and Rick. I like James' focus on pinpointing what's wrong with the paper, but I'd also add that feedback highlighting what's right with the paper is also extremely helpful. I've often found that what people like about a draft isn't always what I thought was the paper's strength, which has led me in a different direction in the next draft.
Especially if you don't know the author that well, there is a tricky dance, I think, of striking the right balance between praise, construction, and destruction.
Posted by: Chris Walker | Apr 13, 2016 11:02:19 AM
The best comments I receive -- and the kind of comments I try to give -- are specific in both identifying a problem *and* offering ideas for how to fix it. I tend to provide numbered paragraphs that explain, with specific references to the article, where I was confused, where something went off track, etc. Then, if I can, I'll offer at least one idea of how to fix the issue. I am so grateful when reviewers do this for me, because it makes the revising process *so* much easier. So for me, a "best practice" is (where possible) to provide specific comments with specific suggested solutions. (That said, like Chris, I'm grateful for any feedback, no matter how general.)
Another question I have: at what point should a (junior) scholar send out drafts? I've been told that in the past I have waited too long, until the paper was too polished, making it harder to suggest wholesale changes that perhaps I should make. Now I've been trying to be better about sending out "rougher" papers for comments. But I still struggle with how to know where that line is, and I'd love to hear others' thoughts on this question.
Posted by: Josh Douglas | Apr 15, 2016 10:47:31 PM