Thoughts on academic journal editing again

  • I’ve gotten a couple of replies from authors I’ve rejected from the journal I’m an AE at thanking me and the reviewers for our excellent and helpful comments.  I didn’t know that was a thing people did.  (The last journal I was AE at the only replies I got were asking me to reconsider my decision!  I’ve only gotten one of those so far with this journal and it was a reject-and-resubmit in which there was a fatal flaw in the paper, none of the reviewers wanted to see a revision, and fixing it was doable but would create an entirely different paper and could fundamentally change the results… my letter specifically said that changing all the minor things was not enough, and yet, they sent back a response in which they fixed all the minor things and not the major and asked me to reconsider.  Don’t be those people.)  I think as editor I think a bit more fondly of the authors who have sent the thank yous than I did before they sent it… like it’s a little weird, but also, the reviewers and I *did* send super helpful comments in each of those cases.  So maybe I’ll start doing that, but only when the comments are helpful(!)  Though I’m pretty sure Larry Katz has already formed an opinion of me (the QJE provides the most helpful comments of any journal, in my experience).
  • I also didn’t realize until very recently that the journal I’m currently at doesn’t automatically send the final results to the reviewers, just the authors.  The last journal I was at did.  (They’re different systems with different pluses and minuses.)  So I went back and sent those out for everything I’d processed since December.  All the grad students I used replied with thank-you emails which I wasn’t expecting.
  • If you are an editor and you’re planning to send out to 3-4 reviewers, keep a list of graduate students and early assistant professors as you come into contact with them as well as their areas of expertise.  Reviewing helps them because generally they don’t have many journals listed on their cvs and if you send them the other reviews they learn about the reviewing process (also they’re more likely to say yes) and they tend to take it seriously.  For the most part they’ve done an excellent job in terms of comments.  I try to only have one or two though and have the remaining people with more direct experience with the topic of the paper.  I call my list, “Victims”.
  • My undergraduate advisor sent me a paper to review last month, so I sent her one this month.  She hasn’t accepted it yet.  I’ve started adding other editors to my victims list (not Larry Katz though!)
  • At the top field journal I edited for, people got reject/R&R about right.  At my current journal which is a lower tier journal, they over R&R by a LOT (we’re supposed to only R&R about 10% give or take– it’s not a hard and fast number, but if I just listened to reviewers I’d be R&Ring like 75% even when they note fatal flaws that might not be fixable and could fundamentally change the paper if fixable).  One of my colleagues who edits for a top journal says people reject too much.   I suspect there’s a nonlinear function that intersects at the top field journal level.  I know before I took this job I only recommended reject at this level of journal if I thought the paper was not publishable anywhere.
  • When I send to people with mixed experiences editing (so some with no experience and some at the journal I’m at, for example), I will often get nearly identical comments with completely different recommendations.  The words you use are much more helpful at the journal I’m currently at.
  • I like clearing my slate for editing as quickly as possible.  I worry that I’m getting sent more papers because of this.  :/
  • One thing I didn’t realize before I started editing is how draining just making the decisions in the process is.  Fortunately for this journal I don’t have to decide on desk rejects, but I do still have to decide who to send out to and then after I get their reports, how to translate them to whether or not the paper should be rejected.
  • I find it really helpful when reviewers explain in plain terms in their letter to the editor what the main concerns with the paper is (or alternately, why they think it should be given an R&R).  It’s much harder when reviewers only send the comments to the authors, because it’s harder to get a handle on which bits are the ones responsible for a decision of Reject (or alternately, why it should be revised if they don’t spend some time explaining that in the author letter).

17 Responses to “Thoughts on academic journal editing again”

  1. Anonymath Says:

    It’s good to know you find those comments to the editor useful and for what reason. Although I’ve been an associate editor for a journal and review for several, I’ve never figured out what to put there unless there is a conflict of interest or a comment that, if directed to the author, would out my identity as reviewer. I’ll start using the comments to the editor box the way you suggest, as I could see how that would be helpful feedback.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      It seems a lot more prevalent in some fields than others. Fortunately it’s more common in economics, and I find it so helpful.

    • mnitabach Says:

      There is no reason not to share exactly those same thoughts for the editor with the authors as well in the comments to authors box. Why should they be kept in the dark about your precise basis for arriving at your recommendation?

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        Most journals in my field specifically say not to say whether the reviewer wants to reject or R&R in the review itself. Reviewers often get that wrong anyway– over rejecting at good journals and under rejecting at lower tier journals. It’s advisory to the editor and may actually be BAD information for the author because they don’t know the journal’s standards as well as the editor does. I often disagree with their main reason for rejecting or R&R, but knowing what it is helps me know whether to agree with their decision or not.

        And can you imagine what it would do for my reputation (as a woman) in the field if I told reviewers, no you’re wrong, in order to signal to the author that the reviewer is wrong? Editing would be a huge landmine. Nobody would want to review for me. But if I didn’t, the authors would be confused.

        Being able to synthesize everything and present the synthesized information to the author is more helpful.

  2. omdg Says:

    This is really interesting. I often feel like I have to say R&R even on papers that I don’t think are very good because… what if I am too harsh, and some other reviewer disagrees with me, and everyone decides I’m an idiot (or bitch — I’m not sure which is worse). I wonder if any man, ever, has asked himself this question. The last travesty I reviewed was one of two papers ever that I’ve outright rejected, but I still wrote a page of comments that I thought at least would be helpful for the editor to know why. I recently started working with the editor of a journal I recently reviewed a manuscript for, and he commented on my review… so I suspect what goes around comes around, so maybe my neuroses are warranted!

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      I always give comments– I figure if I read the paper they might as well get something out of it!

    • wally Says:

      Often when I suggest rejection, I write a note to the editor saying that I debated heavily between rejecting and major revision – and that I would be happy to review a resubmission if they decided to do a major R&R. I think that makes me feel less harsh.

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        I only do that when I mean it! Some things are obvious rejects, and some things I would be happy to review a resubmission for.

        If you say you’re on the fence when you’re not on the fence, that’s causing the editors problems! I do often say that I am happy to review a resubmission if the editors and other reviewers disagree with my assessment. So long as it is actually true…

  3. xykademiqz Says:

    I am an associate editor for a disciplinary journal and sometimes have to send 8-10 requests to get 2 reports back. Everyone on the editorial team says the same. People are busy and swamped.

    The way I use comments to the editor when I am a reviewer is to convey something that can’t really be seen by the authors. For example, in recent months I have submitted several non-review reviews in which I read the paper and have thought about it, often deciding it should be rejected for lack of novelty or a complete ignorance of the state of the art (so, so many people don’t read enough!), but didn’t have the time to go digging for all the pertinent references for a full review. I basically conveyed what I thought, recommended the editor send to an additional reviewer who might have more time or provide a more charitable read, that at that point I didn’t have the time to write an ironclad review with all the references where I’d be ready to battle a rebuttal from authors, but that FWIW my opinion was what it was and I was sending it in for them to use as they saw fit.

    I also use comments to the editor in conjunction with a review to convey, for example, if I think the paper is boring, derivative, etc., all words that are useful to the editor but must be couched for the author. On the plus side, I did send comments to the editor a few times to highly recommend the paper for excellence, novelty and/or elegance, and at least once the paper ended up getting featured as Editors’ Choice, which I thought was really cool.

    One of my proudest reviewing moments: A really cool paper suffered from some suboptimal structuring that obscured its coolness. I suggested rewording a number of places, and asked them to restructure the paper according to my specs, all so as to better showcase the paper’s coolness. Upon re-review, I saw that the other referee had outright dismissed the initial version, but upon seeing the revision (the authors did follow my instructions) changed his mind and supported its publication. (It was for a pretty highfalutin journal, too, so I bet the authors were happy!)

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      I always like it when I can help rescue a paper with a good idea and the journal gets a paper that could have been published in a better journal. (So far I haven’t guided anything through the top general interest process– I’ve only refereed one paper that got into the QJE, but the editor didn’t send it back to me.)

  4. Fiona McQuarrie Says:

    I’m kind of shocked that authors asked to make major and minor revisions would only make the minor revisions, and then ask the editor to reconsider their decision.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      It was a reject with something not fixable, so they couldn’t fix the major thing.

    • Lucy Says:

      As an AE of a journal, I had the case of a well known individual that upset by the R&R of their paper, emailed me cc’ing the editorial board and other very relevant people, to show how unhappy he/she was and with veiled comments that I though were quite nasty b/c they kind of showed the power differential between us. I emailed back cc’ing everyone saying the typical “comments by reviewers show …” and I answered to the nastiness by showing I didn’t care about the power differential, but in a very nice way that couldn’t be replied without him/her being called out as nasty/unreasonable. My reasons for this were, one, that if I was going to enter a war it would be on one I started, not one I got dragged into by some overblown individual, and two, if I blew out in an email, then it would be easy for them to argue that my answer was as unreasonable as my editorial decision. The individual peddled a bit back seeing that I stuck with my decision and that he/she had no room to maneuver as I hadn’t given him any reasons in my email to complain about, so he wrote back more friendlier. I didn’t change the editorial decision, they still had to resubmit, and go through another round of changes, and then got accepted. But, this was after endless weighing of options on email answers, etc. So it wasted my time, pissed me off and generally made me dislike even more being an AE. It is great for the CV, but it ended up being more of a pain that is was worth. Also, the EiC run a very tight ship and we were on the clock when we received a manuscript to assign. Literally we had 24h to assign a paper, so each time I saw an email I stressed out b/c I already had a packed day and prefer to plan out what I do, rather than getting curveballs in my inbox. Murphy’s Law dictates they would come in while I was travelling for work.

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        That sounds awful! And on an R&R too where he should have been happy it wasn’t a reject!

      • xykademiqz Says:

        the EiC run a very tight ship and we were on the clock when we received a manuscript to assign. Literally we had 24h to assign a paper, so each time I saw an email I stressed out b/c I already had a packed day and prefer to plan out what I do, rather than getting curveballs in my inbox.

        This is such bullshit. The EiC is an unreasonable jerk. To demand a 24-hour response for an unpaid voluntary position from people who are super busy? And it’s not like you need to write a brief email or check a box; you have to read the paper and look up (at least cursorily) a bunch of references in order to select potential referees. I usually do this on the weekends, but I could see, say, requiring maybe a 3-4 day window or even better a week. I would so not stay with that journal, Lucy. Now you’ve got me fuming over your unreasonable EiC! Gaaaah!

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        At one of the journals I’m at, we just set the informal expectation that reviewers should be assigned within a week. And that was requested by the EIC because he said he needed something to keep himself accountable. My other journal has it set automatically (through the professional system it uses) but I think it’s a bit longer than a week before it sends an automatic reminder email from the system, more like a month (unfortunately with this journal I need at least two people to say they’re going to do it to avoid the reminder email, not just have requests sent out).

  5. Lucy Says:

    @xykademiqz: thankfully I’m not at that journal anymore! :-) I’m AE at another journal and they are much more reasonable, like a week or so, but without actual deadlines.


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