Dealing with Editors and Reviewers

I. How to get your manuscript rejected before it is reviewed


Like you, editors are busy. They are so busy that they welcome the opportunity to reject a manuscript without spending much time on it. Here are two simple steps you can take to get your manuscript rejected without review.


1. Do not follow the Guide for Authors (also called Authors Guide, Author Instructions, etc.) provided by every journal. Most of the information in these guides concerns formatting, i.e., length of Abstract, how to insert citations in text, how to arrange citations at the end of the text, how to present figures, tables, and footnotes.


2. Misspell many words, use terms and abbreviations inconsistently, and show little awareness of sentence and paragraph structure.


Many journals now hire copyeditors (these are often English majors who know nothing about science) to screen papers before they are reviewed. The copyeditor quickly decides whether you have read the Guide the Authors and whether you can write an English sentence. If you fail to satisfy these criteria, the Editor will return the paper to you without review.



II. How to get your manuscript rejected after it has been reviewed



Reviewers are also busy and happy to write a quick rejection letter rather than an in depth review. If the manuscript is poorly prepared (as described above), you give the reviewers reason to reject without spending time on your paper. Experienced reviewers probably have seen a correlation between the quality of the science and the quality of the presentation. Of course, good science is sometimes hidden in poorly prepared papers and wonderfully prepared papers often contain poor science. But the reviewers are busy and human, and so they could very well prejudge your paper based on the presentation.


Let us assume that you have carefully prepared the paper, that it has been reviewed, and that the Editor has received the reviews.


The world of journal editors consists of two types. The Conscientious Editor and the Secretarial Editor. The Conscientious Editor will not only read the reviews, but he or she will actually read your paper. The Conscientious Editor will then synthesize his/her own views and those of the reviewers. You must take the concerns and guidance of the Conscientious Editor very seriously. Do everything he or she wants unless you have excellent reason not to. Explain how you followed all of the wonderful suggestions and explain why you have not followed the other suggestions. The Conscientious Editor has already spent many hours on your paper. He or she wants to see it published but he or she demands that you seriously and successfully respond to all the criticisms.


Unfortunately, Conscientious Editors are now rare and Secretarial Editors are now abundant. The Secretarial Editor is so busy that he does not have time to read your paper or even read and understand the reviewers' comments. But he does have time to count the votes. If both reviewers recommend acceptance after revision, the Secretarial Editor will tell you that your paper might be accepted if you satisfactorily correct all the problems. He will not tell you which problems are most important because he has not determined that. He is simply trying to scare you into responding to all the criticisms. When dealing with the Secretarial Editor and having received two votes of "accept after revision", you can do almost anything you want as long as you tell the Secretarial Editor that you have responded to all the criticisms. He is unlikely to check that you have done so.


If you get a Secretarial Editor and both reviewers recommend rejection, you are lost even if your paper has solved most of the mysteries of the universe. For the Secretarial Editor, a double rejection is a gift. He can cross your paper from his list without reading it and without any guilt, and he can get on with writing more grant proposals or review articles. After all, how could a paper be valuable if two reviewers recommend rejection?


How the Secretarial Editor deals with a split vote depends on the specific Editor and journal. Some editors are so busy and some journals are so well regarded by themselves that they will happily reject a paper that does not draw unanimous approval. In other cases, the Secretarial Editor might send the paper to a third reviewer. If he does, you can be sure that he will only count the votes. Unlike the Conscientious Editor, he will not attempt to understand and synthesize the paper and the criticisms. He will not write a critical and helpful letter that summarizes what needs to be done.  


The lesson here are: 1) Carefully prepare your paper so that you do not give extra reasons for rejection. Follow the Instructions to Authors; 2) When you become a journal editor, remember how you want to be treated and treat authors in that way; 3) When you submit a paper to a journal for publication, pray that you get a Conscientious rather than a Secretarial Editor (or select the journal based on its editors).


III. What should you do if your paper is rejected?

First, calm down. Rejection is not unusual and is not necessarily fatal.


Second, do not assume that the reviewers and editor are idiots. Assume that they are intelligent and conscientious and carefully consider their criticisms.


Third, do one of the following:


1. Abandon the paper. If the reviewers have revealed fundamental and fatal flaws, do not try to save the paper. Instead, learn from the experience so that your next paper is better.


2. Get the needed data. If the paper needs additional data, get the data. Getting the data, however, can be difficult if the researchers have moved on to new projects and if the money is gone.


3. Revise, resubmit to the same journal. In some cases, careful revision is all that is needed. The revision must account for the concerns of the reviewers and editor.


4. Resubmit to another journal after minimal revision. In some cases, the reviewers and journal editor did a poor job, and their criticisms are invalid. If you are sure that this is the case, then there is no need to change the manuscript to satisfy their concerns.


IV. Is it unethical to simultaneously submit a paper to more than one journal?


Yes. Simultaneously submitting a paper to more than one journal is unethical for two closely related reasons. First, good reviewers and good editors will spend a lot of time on your paper, and they rightly assume that their views are important and that you are not fishing for positive reviews and ignoring negative reviews; you diminish the value of their work when you submit to several journals. Second, you will probably ignore the valuable and correct criticisms from a journal that rejects your paper if another journal has accepted the paper. So, the paper and the research suffer.


Most or all journals now require that authors indicate that the paper has not been simultaneously submitted to another journal.



V. Is it unethical to submit a rejected paper to a new journal?


Maybe. If the paper is rejected by a journal for good reason, it would be unethical to submit it to another journal unless you have substantially improved it. Once again, the cynical view that a paper will be accepted if submitted often enough is unacceptable. But it also would be unethical not to publish a paper that contains useful research. If you believe that the research is valuable, it is your responsibility to get it published.