Thursday, August 26, 2021

Secrets from the Editor’s Portal; Or, Everything You Didn’t Realize you Never Learned About Publishing

This is a risky post. As an editor, I feel a bit like the Masked Magician, betraying our craft by giving away all of this insider information. But I find it truly amazing: Submitting manuscripts for publication is central to scientific research, and yet most authors have little knowledge of how journals and editors operate. In an ideal world, this information would be part of a first-term professional development sequence for new graduate students, but few training programs offer such a thing. The reality is that it is not only students and early-career researchers who are in the dark, but so are many long-time faculty and researchers.

This post contains a jumble of insights that, based on my experience as an editor and online observer, I am keenly aware that many people simply do not know. I expect that some of you are going to be all like, “not all journals” and “not all editors.” You are correct, so let me be clear: I am not making universal claims about all journals/editors. My experience comes from journals in psychology, and my comments here may very well be limited to that field, and may not even apply to all journals in psychology. The broader message, relevant to all, is that the system is not as rigid as it seems from the outside. Some know this and take advantage of it, which is a source of inequities in publishing. Many of my entries pertain to engaging in increased correspondence with editors[1], and I fully appreciate that those who have more precarious positions in academia (e.g., women, racial/ethnic minorities) may be both more reluctant to engage in these practices and may not reap the same benefits as their more secure colleagues. Additionally, I am not necessarily suggesting that these are all good practices. What I am presenting is the system as it currently functions, which is important to understand.

In no particular order:

You can appeal if your manuscript is rejected. This seems like one of the biggest secrets in journal publishing, but you can always write back to the action editor and request that they reconsider. Very few journals have formal policies for handling appeals (see this paper on biomedical journals), and some journals may not consider your appeal at all, but it is always possible to ask. If you plan to do this, I strongly suggest you wait at least a couple of days (if not more) before contacting the editor. Your initial response to the decision is seldom rational, and you want to make sure you actually have a solid case for an appeal before requesting it.

You can ask for extensions. Holy shit, you can ask for extensions! This has been one of my saddest experiences as an editor: authors writing apologetic and pleading emails to ask for extensions because they are undergoing chemotherapy, close family members died, they are getting married, moving to a new country, and so on. The truth is, I had no idea your paper was soon to be due—deadlines and reminders are auto-generated—and honestly, it does not really matter if you resubmit your manuscript today or next month. Now, there are some exceptions, such as with special issues that tend to follow tight timelines, editors who are stepping down from their position and trying to wrap up loose ends, or production deadlines if your paper is to appear in a specific issue. But generally speaking, extending deadlines is really no big deal.

You can safely ignore the 48-hour “deadline” for returning proofs. Who among us has not received one of these threatening emails on a Friday afternoon, ruining all of our weekend plans? Good news: these deadlines are totally fake. Journals want you to return the proofs quickly so that they can keep their production workflows clean, but there is no reason for you to disrupt your work or relaxation plans accordingly. Rather than completely ignoring them, write back and tell them when they should expect your corrections. Saying something like “within the next week” is usually fine.

You can check with the editor before submission. If you are not certain whether your paper would fit with the journal’s scope, you can always write to the editor, briefly describe the paper, and ask whether they perceive it to be a fit based on the provided information. Importantly, if the editor replies that it is within scope, that is not a guarantee that the paper will be accepted or even sent out for peer review. Doing this is just to ensure that your paper is generally within what the realm of what the journal will consider, if you are not sure. Certainly not all editors agree, but personally it is a lot less work for me to respond with an elaborated version of “not really a good fit” rather than checking in the paper through the online system, doing the pre-processing that I do, and then submitting a desk reject decision for poor fit.

You can email the editor about the status of your manuscript. If it has been some time since you have heard from the journal, then it is totally fine to check in with the editor for a status update. Brief, polite emails of inquiry are rarely a problem. The big question is what constitutes “some time” since you have heard. Generally speaking, it is fine to check in after 3-4 months. I once had an author write to me one week after submission, asking why they had not yet received a decision. Do not do that.

Sometimes papers actually do get lost. As an author you would think this is not possible to lose a paper with an online tracking system, but then again authors have all used those systems, so know exactly how clunky they are. I have had a handful of cases where the paper just sort of fell through the cracks. This is one reason why checking in after 3-4 months can be a good idea (it is also the case that checking in gets the paper on the editor’s radar, squeaky wheel and all that).

You can write to clarify what the editor believes to be necessary for a revision. Some editors are really great at their job, expertly synthesizing reviewer comments to provide clear recommendations for a path towards publication. Ideally, they also make clear what revisions are non-negotiable. Other editors…..aren’t so good at it, either just summarizing the reviewer comments or writing “see reviewer comments below,” providing no guidance at all. If you are unclear about how to proceed, for example if there are conflicting reviewer comments, you can always write a brief email to the editor and ask for some guidance.

It is often better to contact the editor directly with questions. If you have a question about a manuscript, you will often get the most useful information if you email the editor directly at their institution account. Journal-specific email accounts can be inconsistently monitored and staffed, and sometimes those on the receiving end do not have the information you actually want. This is one tidbit that most editors probably do not want me to share, because who out there is really looking for more emails, but from the author side of things this is a smart approach.

You can (and should) ask to be on an editorial board. The biggest reward for completing timely, high-quality reviews, is more review requests from the same journal. Most journals have rating systems that score reviewers on timeliness and substance. If you have completed a good number of reviews for a journal within a year (say 3-4), then you should certainly write to the editor and request to be considered for the board. Waiting to be invited is a mistake. It is easy for journals to overlook recurring quality reviewers, so if that is you, definitely let the editor know. In most cases, we would be thrilled to have someone like you on the board.

You can thank editors for their decision, but few actually do! I get this question a lot. Your paper is accepted, or thoughtfully rejected, should you respond to the editor? In my experience, very few do this, but you are always welcome to. As an editor, such emails are nice and appreciated, but I do not at all expect them. Sometimes the emails are not so nice….better to leave those in your drafts folder.

Suggesting reviewers is helpful, but be thoughtful about it. Many journals now solicit suggested reviewers as part of the submission process. As an editor, this is helpful for identifying potential reviewers that I might have otherwise missed. However, these suggestions can go wrong in at least two ways. First, it is not helpful to suggest the most well-known, senior person in the field. I handled a paper on language development once where the authors suggested Steven Pinker. He is not likely to review your paper, and if he did, the quality of the review would probably be very low. (That is not a comment on Pinker per se—I know nothing about his reviews—I have just observed that more senior researchers provide rather cursory reviews.). Second, do not suggest your close collaborators as reviewers. Any editor who is doing their job properly will not just invite suggested reviewers without doing a little background work, and coauthors are very easy to discover. So, make suggestions for potential reviewers, but do so thoughtfully.  

Your paper did not have five reviewers because the editor hates you. Sometimes your papers have one reviewer, and sometimes they have seven. What gives? There can be good reasons for many reviewers on a paper, but much of this variation has nothing to do with your paper, per se. For example, when initially attempting to assign reviewers to a paper, I will send four or five invites at once. I do this because in the vast majority of cases, inviting four or five people will yield two who agree, which is generally want I want. Using this approach saves time, instead of inviting two, waiting for them to decline, then inviting another two, waiting for them, and so on. But it also means that sometimes they all agree and you end up with five reviewers. Sorry about that.

Word/page limits are not always rigid. In fact, the limits expressed on the journal webpage might not even be real. Much like faculty webpages, journal webpages can often be out of date, with editors not even familiar with what is listed. Even if word/page limits are accurate, journals handle these differently. Some journals enforce strict limits and will not even conduct an initial evaluation of the paper unless it conforms to the standards. Others have soft limits, and will consider longer paper with sufficient justification. As with most things on this list, you can always email the editor to find out what is possible. 

Cover letters for new submissions are often (but not always) useless (in psychology). Authors always have questions about the importance of cover letters, and what should be included within them. The answer is….it depends….a lot.  In some fields, the cover letter consists of a “sales pitch” in which you attempt to convince the editor that your manuscript is novel, exciting, and worthy of publication. For example, an old editorial in Nature Immunology suggested that authors, “present their cases in a one- to two-page (!!!!) cover letter that highlights the context of their experimental question and its relevance to the broader research community, the novelty of the new work, and the way that it advances our understanding beyond previous publications.” (incredulous exclamation marks added to communicate incredulity). This tweet describes a similar approach. In contrast, in many/most cover letters submitted to psychology journals, the authors provide a formal statement that amounts to “here it is, hoping for the best!” They may indicate their co-authors, that they followed APA ethical principles, and that the paper is not under consideration elsewhere, but that is about it. And personally, that’s all I want. I will judge the paper on its merits, not on the authors’ ability to persuade me of its value. This post from Retraction Watch and the associated comments highlights the variability across fields/journals. Accordingly, the only advice you should take about cover letters is to not take anyone’s advice. Look to see what it says on the journal webpage (which may not be accurate) and talk to colleagues who have experience with the journal. 

Cover letters for revisions are super important. Cover letters for new submissions and cover letters for revised submissions are in totally different genres of cover letters. In fact, this is why some journals distinguish between the “cover letter” and the “response to reviewers.” I have an entire post on how to handle this process, A Workflow for Dealing with the Dread of Revising and Resubmitting Manuscripts.

That’s about it for now. What did I miss? What did I get wrong? I will update the post as I receive feedback. For those of you who are angry about the content of these items, especially with regard to the disparate opportunity/impact for minority scholars, please re-read the beginning of this post. My intention here was to describe a system that is central to our work, yet opaque to the majority. Changing these systems to make them more equitable is a topic for another day. 

[1] To all of the editors out there, you are welcome!