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June 8, 2016 / jpschimel

What do you wish you had known before submitting your first article?

I was just part of a workshop that our Graduate Division organized for Ph.D. students and postdocs to discuss the publication process. A number of students offered questions, and although they spanned a lot of territory I realized that most of the answers were obvious if you would consider that a journal isn’t a faceless corporate entity, but us. A journal may be owned by Elsevier or Wiley (which are indeed large and faceless corporations), but the Editors and reviewers who run the journals are your professors and your colleagues—people you want to be your friends (and maybe your postdoc advisor). The editors who run journals, and the reviewers who work with them, are people who are active in your field. They do these jobs as professional service and to support their academic habitat, rather than as employment. Ergo, they are people whose good opinion you should value and whose time you should be sensitive to wasting.

So just remember you are dealing with busy, overworked, colleagues and friends (even when they are anonymous) and remember also the Golden Rule—treat them as you would wish to be treated. And, voila, almost all the answers to questions students asked become clear:

Is it OK to submit to multiple journals simultaneously? Well that creates unnecessary work for multiple colleagues—so no, and it’s against the rules.

Should I suggest the names of potential reviewers for my paper? Well, will that help the editor do their job? Of course it will, so of course you should do it. But see my blog post on how to do this well.

When is it OK to contact the editor with questions about dealing with reviews? Will it reduce her total workload to address your question off-line, rather than in a resubmitted manuscript? If so, yup, send the e-mail. It may take some time to address your inquiry, but if she is going to have to deal with a resubmitted manuscript, a quick inquiry will likely smooth the evaluation process and might save a round of revision—that would certainly involve more work than answering your e-mail.

Is it OK to submit a rough version of a manuscript to get external input before polishing a paper and resubmitting it? Will submitting a “rough” version create extra work for the editors and reviewers? Of course! So no, it’s not OK. You should submit the best version of the work you possibly can. That should involve getting friendly review before you submit officially, but the people you are asking for review should know that you are asking for pre-submission collegial review. You should make your paper as close to perfect as you can, recognizing that reviewers will still have criticisms and input. Some fields, such as physics, use “preprint servers” where you can post pre-submission versions of papers and invite comment—but that is equivalent to friendly review. Someone can choose to respond or not as they wish.

If a paper is declined, is it OK to just submit the manuscript to a new journal (without revising it to deal with the criticisms)? Well, imagine if the same reviewer got the new submission? Will they be annoyed at having to offer the same comments? Duh… Do you think it unlikely that you won’t get the same reviewers? I know of one paper I reviewed three times for three journals before it eventually got good enough to publish! Reviewer comments are always worth considering. In my experience, when reviewers identify a “problem,” they are almost always right. They may be “wrong” with the solution they propose, but you don’t have to take their solution, as long as you have a good alternative. You can argue with reviewers, but don’t ever blow them off—after all they are us. I know of another paper that I reviewed once and identified a deeply fatal flaw in the methods (based on information that was in a paper they cited), it was rejected and should have been thrown away—the results and conclusions were most likely pure artifact. Instead they submitted it elsewhere without paying any attention to the issues I identified (though I only found that new paper a number of years later). Have I forgotten who the authors are—or that I think they were dishonest to sweep the problem under the rug and publish a paper that they had reason to know was most certainly wrong? Nope. That is an extreme case, but reviewers are us, we have long memories, and we are likely to be asked to review your work in the future—or to write tenure/promotion letters for you! Treat the anonymous peer review community with respect. You may disagree with them, and they may be wrong, but it is still likely that they were trying to follow my reviewers motto: “Friends don’t let friends publish bullshit” and so trying to be constructive.

What do you do when you think one of your reviews was completely off target and the reviewer inept? Certainly, it is possible that the reviewer (or the editor) just completely blew it. We’ve all seen those reviews, and I suspect we’ve all written them. To err is human (to forgive, canine). If you think a rejection was based on a seriously misguided review, call us on it. As a Chief Editor for Soil Biology & Biochemistry, I get one or two appeals a year and I have appealed several decisions in my life. Once, when we contacted the editor of Nature about his rejection of Jeff Chamber’s paper on how old trees in the Amazon rainforest can be (they don’t make annual rings so no one knew), the immediate response we got back included the phrase “I don’t know what I was thinking;” it was sent out for review and ultimately accepted. I am still in awe that the editor (whose name I’ve lost track of) was so forthright and honest about just having had a brain fart and fixing the mistake—a “gold star” moment in journal editing.

When you get a bad review, remember that the brainless idiot of a reviewer was chosen by the editor. So first let it sit for three days to cool your jets. Then consider whether the problem may not have been with the reviewer, but with what he was reviewing—your paper. Did he misunderstand because he’s an idiot, or because you were unclear? It’s unlikely that it was 100% the former. If you choose to appeal, be as considerate and respectful as you can, get an outside reader to double check—how will your e-mail come across to the editor? Acknowledge that there may have been problems with the paper that may have led the reviewer astray and note how you could fix them. Remember, the editor is us, so try to reduce  unnecessary workload and hassle. Dealing with appeals is fully within my responsibility—if I screwed up, I’d rather have a chance to fix it. But dealing with an author who is irate, huffy, and obnoxious causes a lot of extra work and headaches I don’t deserve for just trying to do the best job I can. First I have to convince myself not to react with my initial inclination—to just say “F-off!” Then, I have to sort what may be valid argument rather than just peeve. Being nasty is also a lot more likely to motivate an editor to focus on justifying their decision, rather than reconsidering it. The editor may be human, but the role forces them to make decisions and act as god. You’re asking them the favor of reconsidering that decision.

There were several other questions that arose at the workshop: about impact factor, how to motivate yourself to deal with major revisions, and other important issues. But most questions could be sorted out by remembering that the editors and reviewers are your colleagues. If you have a question about the process, start by putting yourself in their shoes and consider how you would want to be treated. Do that, and you’ll be able to answer 90% of your own questions.

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