The Review Process (How to Deal with Editors) of Scientific Paper

1. FUNCTIONS OF EDITORS, MANAGING EDITORS, AND MANUSCRIPT EDITORS

Editors and managing editors have impossible jobs. What makes their work impossible is the attitude of authors. This attitude was well expressed by Earl H. Wood of the Mayo Clinic in his contribution to a panel on the subject “What the Author Expects from the Editor.” Dr. Wood said, “I expect the editor to accept all my papers, accept them as they are submitted, and publish them promptly. I also expect him to scrutinize all other papers with utmost care, especially those of my competitors.”

Somebody once said, “Editors are, in my opinion, a low form oflife—inferior to the viruses and only slightly above academic deans.”

And then there is the story about the Pope and the editor, both of whom died and arrived in heaven simultaneously. They were subjected to the usual initial processing and then assigned to their heavenly quarters. The Pope looked around his apartment and found it to be spartan indeed. The editor, on the other hand, was assigned to a magnificent apartment, with plush furniture, deep-pile carpets, and superb appointments. When the Pope saw this, he went to God and said: “Perhaps there has been a mistake. I am the Pope and I have been assigned to shabby quarters, whereas this lowly editor has been assigned to a lovely apartment.” God answered: “Well, in my opinion, there isn’t anything very special about you. We’ve admitted 200 Popes in the last 2,000 years. But this is the very first editor who ever made it to heaven.”

Going back to the first sentence in this chapter, let us distinguish between editors and managing editors. Authors should know the difference, if for no other reason than knowing to whom to complain to when things go wrong.

An editor (some journals have several) decides whether to accept or reject manuscripts. Thus, the editor of a scientific journal is a scientist, often of pre­eminent standing. The editor not only makes the final “accept” and “reject” decisions but also designates the peer reviewers upon whom he or she relies for advice. When you have reason to object to the quality of the reviews of your paper (or the decision reached), your complaint should be directed to the edi­tor. (Adlai Stevenson joked that the role of the editor is to separate the wheat from the chaff and then make sure that the chaff gets printed.)

Especially at larger journals, there may be several such editors. For example, there may be an editor in chief (the top editor, in charge of overall journal con­tent), a second in command known as a deputy editor, and a few associate or assistant editors. Sometimes different associate or assistant editors oversee the review of papers in different subject areas covered by the journal. Collec­tively, the editor in chief and other editors involved in evaluating and choosing papers sometimes are called scientific editors.

The managing editor is normally a full-time paid professional, whereas editors commonly are unpaid volunteer scientists. (A few large scientific and medical journals do have full-time paid editors. Some other journals, especially those that are in medical fields or are published commercially, pay salaries to their part-time editors.) Normally, the managing editor is not directly involved with the accept-reject decisions. Instead, the managing editor attempts to relieve the editor of all clerical and administrative detail in the review process, and he or she is responsible for the later events that convert accepted manuscripts into pub­lished papers. Thus, when problems occur at the proof and publication stages, you should communicate with the managing editor.

In short, preacceptance problems are normally within the province of the editor, whereas postacceptance problems are within the bailiwick of the man­aging editor. However, managing editors have observed that there seems to be one fundamental law that everybody subscribes to: “Whenever anything goes wrong, blame the managing editor.”

Another editor you may encounter once your paper is accepted is a manu­script editor, also known as a copy editor. This individual may be a staff member working at the journal office or publishing company or a freelance contractor working at home in pajamas. The manuscript editor edits your paper for con­sistency with the journal style and format. In addition, he or she corrects errors in grammar, spelling, punctuation, and usage. At some journals, he or she also works to improve expression in other ways, for example by making wording clearer and more concise. If the manuscript editor has questions (for instance, about inconsistencies between numbers in a table and in the text), he or she will ask the author for clarification, by submitting what are called queries. View the manuscript editor as an ally in communicating your research to your read­ers and presenting yourself well to your professional community. Or, as one author told a manuscript editor, “Until I saw your edited version of my paper, I didn’t realize how brilliant I was.”

2. THE REVIEW PROCESS

You, as an author, should have some idea of the whys and wherefores of the review process. Therefore, we will describe the policies and procedures that are typical in most editorial offices. If you understand (and perhaps even appreciate) some of the reasons for the editorial decisions that are made, perhaps you can facilitate publication of your papers simply by knowing how to deal with editors.

When your manuscript arrives at the journal editorial office, the editor (or the managing editor, if the journal has one) makes several preliminary deci­sions. First, is the manuscript concerned with a subject area covered by the scope of the journal? If it clearly is not, the manuscript is immediately returned to the submitting author, along with a short statement of the reason for the action. Seldom would an author be able to challenge such a decision success­fully, and it is usually pointless to try. It is an important part of the editor’s job to define the scope of the journal, and editors seldom take kindly to sugges­tions by authors, no matter how politely the comments are phrased, that the editor is somehow incapable of defining the basic character of his or her jour­nal. Remember, however, that such a decision is not rejection of your data or conclusions. Your course of action is obvious: Try another journal.

Second, if the subject of the manuscript is appropriate for consideration, is the manuscript itself in suitable form for consideration? Is the manuscript com­plete, with no sections, tables, or figures missing? Is the manuscript in the editorial style of the journal, at least as to the basics? If the answer to either of the preceding questions is no, the manuscript may be immediately returned to the author or, at the least, the review will be delayed while the deficiencies are rectified. Most journal editors will not waste the time of their valued editorial board members and consultants by sending poorly prepared manuscripts to them for review.

One editor, a kindly man by nature, became exasperated when a poorly pre­pared manuscript that had been returned to the author was resubmitted to the journal with very little change. The editor then wrote the following letter, which is printed here as a warning to all students of the sciences everywhere:

Dear Dr.______________ :

I refer to your manuscript_____________ and have noted in your letter of

August 23 that you apologize without excuse for the condition of the ori­ginal submission. There is really no excuse for the rubbish that you have sent forward in the resubmission.

The manuscript is herewith returned to you. We suggest that you find another journal.

Yours sincerely,

Only after these two preconditions (a proper manuscript on a proper subject) have been met is the editor ready to consider the manuscript for publication.

At this point, the editor must perform two very important functions. First, the basic housekeeping must be done. That is, careful records should be estab­lished so that the manuscript can be followed throughout the review process and (if the manuscript is accepted) the publication process. If the journal has a managing editor, and most of the large ones do, this activity is normally a part of his or her assignment. It is important that this work be done accurately, so that the whereabouts of manuscripts are known at all times. It is also impor­tant that the system include a number of built-in signaling devices, so that the inevitable delays in review and other problems can promptly be brought to the attention of the editor or managing editor. The electronic systems that many journals use for manuscript submission and tracking facilitate this work.

Second, the editor must decide whether the paper will be peer reviewed (eval­uated by other experts in the same research field) and, if so, choose peer review­ers. At many journals, all manuscripts reaching this stage are sent for peer review. At some journals—especially the larger and more competitive ones, which receive very many papers—the editors decide which manuscripts will be peer reviewed. If the editors know they would not publish the paper, for example because the research is too weak or the topic is too narrow, they return the paper to the author without peer review. Such return generally is quick; thus, the author does not waste weeks or more awaiting the unfavorable decision, as could well occur if the paper went for peer review. If you receive a rapid rejection—sometimes known as a “desk rejection” or “desk reject”—realize that you are not alone, and submit your paper to another, perhaps more special­ized journal. Of course, carefully consult the new journal’s instructions to authors first.

If the paper will be sent for peer review—as probably is the case for most papers at most journals—the editor or editors must choose the peer reviewers (also known as referees). Commonly, two reviewers are selected for each manu­script; in some fields, however, three or more reviewers often are used, especially for interdisciplinary papers, and in some fields, use of a single reviewer is the norm. The reviewers must be peers of the author—that is, fellow experts— or their recommendations will be of little value. Frequently, the editor starts with the editorial board of the journal. Who on the board has the appropri­ate subject expertise to evaluate a particular manuscript? Often, because of the highly specialized character of modern science, only one member (or no mem­ber) of the board has the requisite familiarity with the subject of a particular manuscript. The editor must then obtain one or both reviews from non-board members, often called ad hoc reviewers or editorial consultants. (Also, some journals depend entirely on ad hoc reviewers.) Sometimes, the editor must make many inquiries before appropriate reviewers for a given manuscript are identified.

How do journals choose ad hoc reviewers? Often, the editors or editorial board members know of suitable candidates. Some journals keep databases of researchers who have served as reviewers or could do so; as well as noting areas of expertise, such databases sometimes include information on promptness and quality of reviews received. Editors often invite authors of works cited in the manuscript to serve as reviewers. They also search the literature on the topic to identify appropriate candidates. As discussed in the previous chapter, some journals allow authors to suggest potential reviewers—and let them list people they consider unsuited to serve as peer reviewers, for example because of conflicts of interest. (Editors get suspicious, though, when authors include in the latter list most of the researchers in their fields!) Also, when researchers who are invited to review a paper are not available, they typically are asked to identify others who are qualified to do so. And if you have a paper accepted by a journal, you may be added to its pool of potential reviewers.

Does the peer review system work? According to Bishop (1984, p. 45), “The answer to this question is a resounding, Yes! All editors, and most authors, will affirm that there is hardly a paper published that has not been improved, often substantially, by the revisions suggested by referees.”

Most journals use anonymous reviewers. A few journals make the authors anonymous by deleting their names from the copies of manuscripts sent to reviewers. In general, experience seems to be in accord with that of the distin­guished Canadian scientist J. A. Morrison, who said (1980): “It is occasionally argued that, to ensure fairness, authors should also be anonymous, even though that would be very difficult to arrange. Actually, editors encounter very few instances of unfairness and blatant bias expressed by referees; perhaps for 0.1 per cent or less of the manuscripts handled, an editor is obliged to discount the referee’s comments.”

If the reviewers have been chosen wisely, the reviews will be meaningful and the editor will be in a good position to arrive at a decision regarding publi­cation of the manuscript. Also, whether the paper is accepted or not, the author will receive from the reviewers suggestions that can improve it. When the review­ers have returned the manuscripts, with their comments, the editor must face the moment of truth.

Peer review has been a subject of considerable research and reflection, and a number of international congresses have focused on the topic. Resources for those interested in peer review include books (Lock 1985; Godlee and Jeffer­son 2003) containing extensive bibliographies on the subject and the website of the International Congress on Peer Review and Biomedical Publication (www.peerreviewcongress.org/index.html).

3. THE EDITOR’S DECISION

Sometimes, the editor’s decision is easy. If all reviewers advise “accept” with no or only slight revision, and all state solid reasons for their recommendations, the editor has no problem. Unfortunately, there are many instances in which the opinions of the reviewers are contradictory or unaccompanied by strong evidence. In such cases, the editor must either make the final decision or send the manuscript to one or more additional reviewers to determine whether a consensus can be established. The editor is likely to take the first approach if he or she is reasonably expert in the subject area of the manuscript and can thus serve as an additional reviewer; he or she is especially likely to do this if the detailed commentary of one reviewer is considerably more persuasive than that of the other. The second approach is obviously time-consuming and is used commonly by weak editors; however, any editor must use this approach if the manuscript concerns a subject with which he or she is not familiar. At journals with many more submissions than they can publish, even papers receiving all “accepts” may be rejected if strong arguments cannot be mustered for their inclusion (much as when a grant application is “approved but not funded”).

The review process being completed, and the editor having made a decision, the author is now notified of the editor’s decision. And it is the editor’s deci­sion. Editorial board members and ad hoc reviewers can only recommend; the final decision is and must be the editor’s. This is especially true for those journals (the majority) that use anonymous reviewers. The decisions will be presented to the authors as though they were the editor’s own, and indeed they are.

The editor’s decision will be one of three general types, commonly expressed in one word as accept, reject, or modify. Commonly, one of these three decisions will be reached within 4 to 6 weeks after submission of the manuscript. If you are not advised of the editor’s decision within 8 weeks, or provided with an explanation for the delay, do not be afraid to contact the journal. You have the right to expect a decision, or at least a report, within a reasonable length of time; also, your inquiry might bring to light a problem. Perhaps the editor’s decision was made but notification did not reach you. If the delay was caused within the editor’s office (usually by lack of response from one of the reviewers), your inquiry is likely to trigger an effort to resolve the problem, whatever it is.

Besides which, you should never be afraid to contact editors. With rare excep­tions, editors are very nice people. Never consider them adversaries. They are on your side. Their only goal is to publish good science in understandable lang­uage. If that is not your goal also, you will indeed be dealing with a deadly adversary; however, if you share the same goal, you will find the editor to be a resolute ally. You are likely to receive advice and guidance that you could not possibly buy.

4. THE ACCEPT LETTER

Finally, you get the word. Suppose that the editor’s letter announces that your manuscript has been accepted for publication. When you receive such a letter, you have every right to treat yourself to a glass of champagne or a hot fudge sundae or whatever you choose when you have cause both to celebrate and to admire yourself. The reason that such a celebration is appropriate is the relative rarity of the event. In the good journals (in biology at least), only about 5 percent of the papers are accepted as submitted.

5. THE MODIFY LETTER

More likely, you will receive from the editor a cover letter and two or more lists labeled “reviewers’ comments.” The letter may say something like, “Your manu­script has been reviewed, and it is being returned to you with the attached comments and suggestions. We believe these comments will help you improve your manuscript.” This is the beginning phraseology of a typical modify letter. The letter may go on to say that the paper will be published if modified as
requested, or it may say only that it will be reconsidered if the modifications are made.

By no means should you feel disconsolate when you receive such a letter. Realistically, you should not expect that rarest of all species, the accept letter without a request for modification. The vast majority of submitting authors will receive either a modify letter or a reject letter, so you should be pleased to receive the former rather than the latter.

When you receive a modify letter, examine it and the accompanying review­ers’ comments carefully. (In many cases, the modify letter is a form letter, and it is the accompanying comments that are significant. Sometimes, however, the editor’s letter contains specific guidance, such as regarding a point about which the reviewers disagree.) The big question now is whether you can, and are willing to, make the changes requested.

If all referees point to the same problem in a manuscript, almost certainly it is a problem. Occasionally, a referee may be biased, but hardly two or more simultaneously. If referees misunderstand, readers will as well. Thus, our advice is: If referees misunderstand the manuscript, find out what is wrong and correct it before resubmitting the manuscript to the same journal or another journal.

If the requested changes are relatively few and slight, you should go ahead and make them. As King Arthur used to say, “Don’t get on your high horse unless you have a deep moat to cross.”

If major revision is requested, however, you should step back and take a total look at your position. One of several circumstances is likely to exist.

First, the reviewers are right, and you now see that there are fundamental flaws in your paper. In that event, you should follow their directions and rewrite the manuscript accordingly.

Second, perhaps the reviewers have caught you off base on a point or two, but some of the criticism is invalid. In that event, you should rewrite the man­uscript with two objectives in mind: Incorporate all of the suggested changes that you can reasonably accept, and try to beef up or clarify those points to which the reviewers (wrongly, in your opinion) took exception. Finally, and importantly, when you resubmit the revised manuscript, provide a letter indi­cating point by point what you did about the reviewers’ comments.

Third, it is entirely possible that at least one reviewer and the editor seriously misread or misunderstood your manuscript, and you believe that their criti­cisms are almost totally erroneous. In that event, you have two alternatives. The first, and more feasible, is to submit the manuscript to another journal, hoping that your manuscript will be judged more suitably. If, however, you have strong reasons for wanting to publish that particular manuscript in that particular jour­nal, do not back off; resubmit the manuscript. In this case, however, you should use all the tact at your command. Not only must you give a point-by-point rebuttal of the reviewers’ comments; you must do it in a way that is not antag­onistic. Remember that the editor is trying hard, probably without pay, to reach a scientific decision. If you start your covering letter by saying that the reviewers, whom the editor obviously has selected, are “stupid” (yes, such letters exist), we will give you 100 to 1 that your manuscript will be immediately returned with­out further consideration. On the other hand, every editor knows that every reviewer can be wrong and in time (Murphy’s Law) will be wrong. Therefore, if you calmly point out to the editor exactly why you are right and the reviewer is wrong (never say the editor is wrong), the editor is likely to accept your manu­script at that point or, at least, send it to one or more additional reviewers for further consideration.

If you do decide to revise and resubmit the manuscript, try very hard to meet whatever deadline the editor establishes. Most editors do set deadlines. Obviously, many manuscripts returned for revision are not resubmitted to the same journal; hence, the journal’s records can be cleared of deadwood by con­sidering manuscripts to be withdrawn after the deadline passes.

If you meet the editor’s deadline, he or she may accept the manuscript forth­with. Or, if the modification has been substantial, the editor may return it to the same reviewers. If you have met, or defended your paper against, the previous criticism, your manuscript probably will be accepted.

On the other hand, if you fail to meet the deadline, your revised manuscript may be treated as a new manuscript and again be subjected to full review, pos­sibly by a different set of reviewers. It is wise to avoid this double jeopardy, plus additional review time, by carefully observing the editor’s deadline if it is at all possible to do so. If you believe that you cannot meet the deadline, imme­diately explain the situation to the editor; the deadline might then be extended.

When you submit a revised manuscript, make it easy for the editor to identify the changes. For example, if the editor supplied a numbered list of revisions to make, state, by number, how each was addressed. Perhaps use the Track Changes feature of Word to show your revisions. Or if the editor asked you to indicate your revisions in another way, carefully follow the instructions. Clearly identi­fying the changes made can speed the final decision about your paper. It also can help earn you a reputation as a good author to work with—a fact that can facilitate further interactions with the editorial office.

6. THE REJECT LETTER

Now let us suppose that you get a reject letter. (Almost all editors say “unaccept­able” or “unacceptable in its present form”; seldom is the harsh word “reject” used.) Before you begin to weep, do two things. First, remind yourself that you have a lot of company; most of the good journals have rejection rates of 50 percent or more. Second, read the reject letter carefully because, like modify letters, there are different types of rejection.

Many editors would class rejections in one of four ways. First, there is (rarely) the total rejection, the type of manuscript that the editor “never wants to see again” (a phrase that one undiplomatic editor put into a reject letter). Second, and much more common, there is the type of manuscript that contains some useful data but in which the data are seriously flawed. The editor probably would reconsider such a manuscript if it were considerably revised and resubmitted, but the editor does not recommend resubmission. Third, there is the type of manuscript that is basically acceptable, except for a defect in the experimental work—the lack of a control experiment, perhaps—or except for a major defect in the manuscript (the data being acceptable). Fourth, in the case ofhighly competitive journals, there is the manuscript presenting research that, although sound, is not deemed important enough or of broad enough interest for inclusion.

If your “rejection” is of the third type, you might well do the necessary repairs, as described in the reviewers’ comments, and resubmit a revised ver­sion to the same journal. If you can add that control experiment, as requested by the editor, the new version might be accepted. (Many editors reject a paper that requires additional experimentation, even though it might be easy to mod­ify the paper to acceptability.) Or, if you make the requested major change in the manuscript (for example, totally rewriting the discussion or converting a full paper to a note), your resubmitted manuscript is quite likely to be accepted.

If your rejection is of the second type (because of seriously flawed data, according to the editor’s reject letter and the reviewers’ comments), you should probably not resubmit the same manuscript to the same journal, unless you can make a convincing case to the editor that the reviewers seriously misjudged your manuscript. You might, however, keep the manuscript until it can be but­tressed with more extensive evidence and more clear-cut conclusions. Resub­mission of such a “new” manuscript to the same journal would then be a reasonable option. Your cover letter should mention the previous manuscript and should state briefly the nature of the new material.

If your rejection is of the first (total) or fourth (priority-based) type, it would be pointless to resubmit the manuscript to the same journal or even to argue about it. If the manuscript is really bad, you probably should not (re)submit it anywhere, for fear that publication might damage your reputation. If there is work in it that can be salvaged, incorporate those portions into a new manu­script and try again, but in a different journal. If the work was deemed compe­tent but not of high enough priority, take advantage of any useful suggestions from the reviewers, and promptly submit the manuscript to another journal. Your manuscript may well find ready acceptance in a more specialized or other­wise less competitive venue.

Cheer up. You may someday have enough rejection letters to paper a wall with them. You may even begin to appreciate the delicate phrasing that is some­times used. Could a letter such as the following possibly hurt? (This is reputedly a rejection slip from a Chinese economics journal.)

We have read your manuscript with boundless delight. If we were to pub­lish your paper, it would be impossible for us to publish any work of a lower standard. As it is unthinkable that, in the next thousand years, we shall see its equal, we are, to our regret, compelled to return your divine composition, and to beg you a thousand times to overlook our short sight and timidity.

7. EDITORS AS GATEKEEPERS

Perhaps the most important point to remember, whether dealing with a mod­ify decision or a reject one, is that the editor is a mediator between you and the reviewers. If you deal with editors respectfully, and if you can defend your work scientifically, most of your “modifies” and even your “rejects” will in time become published papers. The editor and the reviewers are usually on your side. Their primary function is to help you express yourself effectively and pro­vide you with an assessment of the science involved. It is to your advantage to cooperate with them in all ways possible. The possible outcomes of the edito­rial process were neatly described by Morgan (1986): “The modern metaphor for editing would be a car wash through which all cars headed for a goal must pass. Very dirty cars are turned away; dirty cars emerge much cleaner, while clean cars are little changed.”

Were it not for the gatekeeper role so valiantly maintained by editors, our scientific journals would soon be reduced to unintelligible gibberish.

No matter how you are treated by editors, try somehow to maintain a bit of sympathy for that benighted profession. H. L. Mencken wrote a letter dated January 25, 1936, to William Saroyan, saying, “I note what you say about your aspiration to edit a magazine. I am sending you by this mail a six-chambered revolver. Load it and fire every one into your head. You will thank me after you get to Hell and learn from other editors how dreadful their job was on earth.”

Source: Gastel Barbara, Day Robert A. (2016), How to Write and Publish a Scientific Paper, Greenwood; 8th edition.

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