#Dispatches From the Front – Journal Editor Advice

In our new Dispatches series, we crowdsource responses to questions we see about the academic job market and career.

This week, the question is: “Journal Editors! What do you wish scholars understood better about the article publication process?”

We continue weekly Dispatches From the Front questions for your crowdsource responses. Scroll to the bottom for next week’s question, and the link to share your wisdom and advice.

And one explanatory note: we ask respondents to provide any personal identifying information in their own words that THEY consider pertinent to contextualize their responses. We only lightly edit these.

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Let’s start with a long – REALLY LONG – response that covers so many bases. I’m really grateful for the care taken by this respondent, and the candor (and humor!) One significant point: don’t be rude!

I was an Associate Editor of the top journal in my field for five years. One of the issues that always struck me was how frequently corresponding authors neglected to leverage the opportunity to communicate, both with the AE (me) and with their reviewers. Beyond the standard politics of respectability, which influence virtually every bureaucratic activity within academia, here are some thoughts on communication during the publication process and its consequences.

1) At least once a semester, I fielded a request for an update that reeked of entitlement. Once, I received an email from someone (within the US) on New Year’s Eve demanding to know when he and his colleague would know if a revised manuscript would be accepted. I had received the revisions during finals week and sent it out for review the week of Christmas. I returned a form letter with our standard vague language, but not until mid-January after enjoying two weeks of holidays with friends and family. It is perfectly reasonable to ask for an update, but not three weeks after you resubmitted and certainly not in words that attempt dominance over anyone else involved in the process. Trying to hold an AE or editor hostage isn’t going to get you published any more quickly…though it does tell us which assholes to avoid when we have resources and opportunities to share.

2) One time, I had an author reach out to me to let me know that a co-author would be going up for tenure the following year. While they did not ask for special treatment, they wanted to know if I could give an honest estimate of the timeline for their manuscript, which had received a major revision decision. The requested changes were hefty and they wanted to make the best decision about whether to send the manuscript to a less competitive journal rather than resubmit to us. This opened up a conversation in which I was honest about whether I thought the manuscript would meet our expectations for publication within a single round of revision. No graduate students or junior faculty engaged in this kind of strategic conversation with me as their AE. Given the inescapable power dynamics, this is not surprising. But having someone more senior in the field who can engage in these discussions on your behalf can help authors maximize their publication portfolio ahead of career turning points. Requesting this kind of information and the AE’s assessment is entirely appropriate when done professionally.

3) As a journal, we asked authors who were invited to revise and resubmit to explain their response to the reviews. Far too often, I received revisions with no explanation of where changes had been made, why, and how each change addressed a critique received from a reviewer. An organizer like a table with this information makes the AE and reviewers’ lives so much easier – and helps ensure the authors provide a comprehensive set of revisions, as well. Whether we like it or not, reviewers have very little time to invest in the peer-review process. Making it more difficult for the reviewer to see exactly how you have addressed their original requests means they are much more likely to just start from scratch with your manuscript. It is amazing how often reviewers find new issues on the second read through a revised manuscript, prolonging the publication process. If you clearly communicate how you addressed each point from the original critiques, then as an AE, I can determine whether you have made sufficient changes to satisfy the original request. Sometimes this resulted in an acceptance for publication without going back out to reviewers. If I can’t easily determine what you’ve done and why, the manuscript has to go back out. More than once, the changes were so difficult for me to assess than I kicked the revision back to the author with a request for better information before I was willing to send it to reviewers with a request for more of their time. Invest a bit of time in communicating up front or risk spending even more time on the publication process in the long run.

4) If you don’t agree with a requested revision from a reviewer, you don’t have to make any changes in response to it. But you better explain why you disagree. Frankly, just ignoring a requested revision comes across as a petty refusal to engage the critique process. If the reviewer asked for something clearly beyond reason (eg, the requested information is already in the manuscript, is inappropriate for the methodology, is beyond the stated scope of the current study – all of which happen ALL. The. Time.), say so. Do it respectfully and acknowledge why a reader might be interested in the requested information. The review process is a conversation. No changes plus no response to a request is basically the silent treatment.

5) Fit is maybe one of the trickiest aspects of publishing, especially for those new to the field and its journals. My colleagues and I frequently had people at conferences complaining to us about pieces that were not accepted. Usually people who did not know me and almost certainly had the piece rejected for very good reason. Mostly I just rolled my eyes on the inside and found a polite excuse to leave the immediate vicinity. What happened less frequently were conversations about what someone was working on that might be a great fit when it was ready for publication. I love that kind of proactive discussion! Angles that would really get us thinking in new ways as a field. Topics that avoid the overdone trends. I was always happy to share what types of manuscripts we had seen over and over and what topics had crossed our desks that got us all talking and fighting over who got to take on that manuscript. I wish more people – especially the scholars at the edges of the field, who could provide much-needed perspective and truly innovative scholarship – would approach publishing from this kind of development perspective. It may not always work, but these kinds of conversations did seem to yield some of our quickest submission-to-publication manuscripts. (Faculty development & research staff; first gen scholar, SS)

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This editor reiterates the point: don’t be rude! Being rude WILL NOT improve your chances of acceptance, for obvious reasons. And like the respondent above, prioritize fit: ensure the article is on a topic or theme that the journal actually publishes.

*Publishing in special issues is a great way to get a lot more mentoring advice and have a journal editor work with you on getting the article into publishable shape.

*Proofread

*There is no such thing as a perfect article on first submission – do your best then send it out rather than agonizing.

*Get people you know to read it before you send it out – make sure they are people with a lot of publishing experience and who will tell you the truth. Critical feedback is worth a lot, and it is better than friends who are kind and don’t want to hurt your feelings by telling you the truth.

*Look at previous journal issues – what kinds of things are the journal interested in. You will get a desk rejection for an article that isn’t on topic. It’s a waste of everyone’s time.

*Say yes when you are asked to review an article and do it in a timely fashion. Journal editors notice who always says no. But don’t agonize over reviewing. It should take 2-3 hours to read an article and write helpful feedback. Make sure the feedback IS HELPFUL – and not just you wishing they had written a different article that answers you the reviewer’s desire.

*You can always write to a journal editor after 2 months to ask if they have a time frame for reviews.It’s a helpful reminder as journal editors are busy people too and if they are having trouble finding a reviewer checking in helps them put it back at the top of the pile but if you get an answer don’t then keep nagging. Checking in emails should say something like – hi, I’m checking in and wondering if you have a timeframe for X. Don’t be rude to journal editors; it’s annoying. If you need an article to come out urgently because of an anniversary date or for promotion tell them. Recognize that in the humanities it is pretty normal for it to take at least 18 months for submission to publication. Don’t have unreasonable expectations.

(Tenured Prof, Humanities, 42, British and trained in UK but working in US. Female.)

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Another respondent suggests the best way to judge good fit with the journal:

Don’t assume all readers have your specialized knowledge. Immerse yourself in the existing literature before writing. Get to know journals where you want to publish your work extremely well so you know what they want. Serve as a reviewer for the journals where you hope to publish. Make a compelling argument for why your paper is needed. (48, White, cisgender woman, heterosexual, tenured prof, SS)

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In a first, a respondent freely shared his name and bio. Dr. Robin Hardin currently serves as the editor of Sport Management Education Journal. He was formerly an editorial board member of the International Journal of Sport Communication (2006-2011) and Journal of Applied Sport Management (2013-2018). He has also been an Ad Hoc Reviewer for a variety of journals most recently Communication & Sport, Journal of Sports Media, International Review for the Sociology of Sport, Sport Management Review, Quest, and International Journal of Sports Management and Marketing.

Dr. Hardin reminds everyone not to forget the basics.

  1. Read the instructions to the authors on the journal website. Sport Management Education Journal asks that all submissions have continuous line numbers throughout the submitted manuscript. Many times this is not done. Many journals have unique submission guidelines so authors should read that information prior to submission.
  2. Provide descriptive keywords that are not repeated words from the title of the manuscript. This assists in indexing the article, and enables it to be found by other scholars. APA provides guidelines for keywords.
  3. Provide a descriptive abstract rather than saying implications and findings will be discussed. Actually provide a sentence or two of the implications and findings in the abstract. The abstract is the first impression scholars have of the manuscript.
  4. Thoroughly proofread the article prior to submission or have it proofread. Grammatical mistakes distract from the review process as the reviewer spends more time correcting grammar rather than focusing on the content of the article. Finish the article, wait a day or two, then give a thorough proofreading, and then submit.
  5. Check all references to make sure what is cited is in the reference list, and items in the reference list are actually cited in the manuscript. This is a simple task but often overlooked. References change through revision processes, and this step often does not take place.

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Another respondent has been an associate editor of scholarly journals for about five years. He says: “In this capacity, I have handled about 60-70 submissions. These submissions come to me as handling editor after the editorial office already does a round of screening. I’m thus the last ‘interface’ between the authors and the reviewers.”

I love this advice because it gets at some of the NOT obvious aspects of submission.

1) Many submissions assume that the work will only be read by an expert in every technique and application used by the manuscript. If that was true, the readership would probably be restricted to the authors of the paper. Authors thus need to explain, explain, and explain some more. Papers have to be self-contained such that readers of a journal can follow most of them.
2) In my field, papers are never accepted the first time; it’s almost a tradition whereby reviewers feel obliged to ask ‘something’. There is thus a revision and a response letter. The letter should tell us what was done and exactly where it was done. It is very annoying to have a letter that vaguely says “thank you for your comment, I’ve fixed it”. Fixed it where? The editor needs to check that the fixes were indeed done before the manuscript goes back to the reviewers. The authors need to demonstrate good will in fixing the paper, rather than rushing to do a half baked job or pushing back on reviewers’ suggestions without a strong reason. The fact that “it takes work hence I don’t really feel like it” shows up between the lines, and it’s never a compelling reason for a reviewer to accept a revision.
3) Manuscripts float from one journal to another. I understand that, it’s the rule of the game. But it really shouldn’t be obvious, or it’ll tell everyone right away “this manuscript was already rejected somewhere else”. Simple ways that reveal carelessness in moving a paper from one journal to another: the formatting perfectly follows the guideline… of another journal; there are references to constraints that do not apply (“due to the word limit”… that our journal does not have) or material that cannot exist (“Supplementary Multimedia Data” is a thing… with another publisher).

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Another respondent reiterates the importance of actually engaging with the revision process.

The biggest problems I see are in the revision process. Frequently the authors will do the “easy” things like changing words, maybe adding a reference or theory, but refuse to reorganize, reframe, or reanalyze. I’ve had my grad advisees take a similar stance and it does not impress reviewers. I have rerun all analyses and then rewritten all tables with 700 participants to drop the one participant that a reviewer thought I should drop – obviously it wasn’t going to change the results, but it shows being responsive to the reviewers. Choose your battles – if there is something you truly don’t agree with, then make your counterargument there, but don’t argue against points just to avoid more work. (Tenured Prof, SS, 50’s, White, female)

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Aside from the processes involved in submission and engaging with editors, some respondents have advice on ways to think about the writing and argument. This one says: think about your introduction:

1) we already have answers to the known problems, or at least suspect them. We love it when you identify an unknown problem and then solve. But you have to convince us it’s a problem. 2) in management/organizational behavior/IL psychology, most introduction sections are obvious, long, and ridiculous in that they don’t test the theory listed but rather the theory is used as an explanation. We all want them shorter but no one can admit it because they think it makes them look less serious or less rigorous. (46, straight cis white woman, AE at a relatively new journal, psychologist. Tenured full prof, R1, SS.)

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One respondent gives the good advice of modeling your article structure and organization on a paper already published in the journal, and not forgetting that all articles do demonstrate a contribution to the discipline.

Journal articles should make compelling arguments for how your specific findings contribute to the broader field. It is important to clearly describe the purpose of the paper, your methods, analytic techniques, and the major implications of the piece. It is also important to not use too much jargon or to over-rely on older literature. Finally, I recommend following the guidelines and purpose statements from specific journal websites. One tip is to find and emulate a piece currently published in your target journal–how do they lay out their framework, methods, findings, discussion, etc. (Tenured prof, SS, white woman.)

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And a short and sweet reminder:

The manuscript should tell a compelling story that is consistent through all sections and is methodologically well supported. (Asst Prof, Social Sciences, 38 yo, Latino, male, gay, immigrant.)

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And a reminder to not let imposter syndrome prevent you from knowing that your work is publication-worthy.

Young academics don’t begin with the end in mind (e.g., they can’t see their own work like the dozens of papers that they’ve cited in their manuscript). This is in part because of imposter syndrome and being told they aren’t a contributor. (Asst Prof, SS; Cisgender gay white male)

Thanks to all our respondents! We also have a new Dispatches Question for you:

Those who decided to leave the academy: when did you know it was time to leave and why?

Go here to share YOUR advice. We can’t wait to hear from you!

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About Karen Kelsky

I am a former tenured professor at two institutions--University of Oregon and University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign. I have trained numerous Ph.D. students, now gainfully employed in academia, and handled a number of successful tenure cases as Department Head. I've created this business, The Professor Is In, to guide graduate students and junior faculty through grad school, the job search, and tenure. I am the advisor they should already have, but probably don't.

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