This post inspired by a tweet:
Is it cruel for me to ask people to read and comment on a draft article during the summer?
— Philippe Lagassé (@pmlagasse) July 25, 2012
My immediate reaction is “Hell No!” but I can see how it might feel cruel.
After all summer is the one time of year when you get to decide what you do and when you do it. It’s not so much that you get “long summer vacations” the way some of your non-academic family and friends think you do, but that you get a few months free of the demands of others to be in specific places at specific times and to do things that they need done.
On the other hand, you are not the only academic who is spending the summer writing articles. This suggests that whoever you were thinking of asking might be wondering the same thing.
And nothing ruins the beauty of that self-directed summer more than going in circles of diminishing returns as you reread your article for the umpteenth time trying to determine if it will be embarrassing to just submit it already. You’ve got better things to do.
How to ask
In case I’m being unnecessarily vague, I definitely think you should get someone to read your article draft. The question then becomes, how do you ask a colleague to do that without ruining their idyllic self-directed summer.
Estimate when you are likely to have a draft ready and ask your colleague well in advance.
“Will you be able to read and comment on an article for me if I get it to you by August 5th? I’d need comments back by August 21 so I can make revisions and get it submitted before teaching starts in September.”
That kind of specific request gives your colleague lots of room to say no if they really don’t have time. The last thing you need is for someone to say yes and then leave your article sitting on their desk for months. That follow-up conversation is always awkward and best avoided.
If your dates aren’t convenient but your colleague would really like to help, they can suggest others. For example, they might respond “Those dates don’t work for me, but if you get me the draft by July 30th, I could have it back to you by August 5th.”
Obviously, it is now getting tight to ask early for things you want to submit before teaching starts in September, but if you think you’ll be ready to give it to a colleague by August 31, ask now.
Added bonus: this strategy gives you a deadline to work to.
Arrange a date for them to provide feedback
You are not the only academic with a big pile of stuff to read and comment on. You don’t want your draft article to get buried in someone else’s pile, not least because they are likely to feel a higher obligation to their graduate students and to journal editors (whose stuff is also in the pile).
You’ll note that in my sample request I included a proposed date for returning the comments. This gives everyone a clear sense of what is being promised.
Be reasonable in your request. No one is going to read your article in the first 2 weeks of term, for example. You should also assume that your colleague works a reasonable work week and not expect them to turn things around over a weekend or holiday.
Do not assume this will be a top priority but do assume that if they agree to do it they will do it promptly. Two weeks offers sufficient flexibility.
Added bonus: Taking the anxiety out of following up.
If you have to follow up, you have clear parameters. You can send an e-mail a couple of days before the agreed date asking whether this is still going to work. If you don’t receive comments by the agreed date, you can follow up again a few days later.
Offer options for providing feedback
Do you need the feedback in writing? Or would a phone conversation or meeting for lunch be appropriate?
If you are asking a colleague it is because you want substantive feedback on the argument from someone who knows the field. Arranging a coffee date might be a good way to set that deadline.
If you want someone to copy-edit your article, hire an editor. Your colleagues have better things to do.
Offer to reciprocate
You aren’t the only one writing articles this summer. Arranging to read each other’s papers and meet for lunch to discuss them might be a nice way to get some intellectual community into your self-directed summer. Heck, you could meet on a patio for beer.
If you don’t have time to read anyone else’s paper, it really is unreasonable to ask someone else to read yours. However, you only have to read as many papers are you write (assuming you ask someone else to read each paper you write, which I recommend).
While we’re on the topic, I’ll offer some cheering for getting that paper to a state where you need to wonder about bothering your colleagues for comments. Go you!