Photo by Nick Morrison on Unsplash
By Sarah Schoppe-Sullivan and Wendy Troop-Gordon
We don’t like to think of ourselves as old, but — submitting our first publication in graduate school entailed making five photocopies of the manuscript, printing and hand-signing a cover letter on campus letterhead, sealing both into a large manila envelope, and dropping it into a mailbox.
The world of academic publishing is far different today. In many areas of study — like ours in the social sciences — the number of journals has mushroomed and the use of online submission portals is nearly universal. Accompanying those changes is an ever-increasing pressure on Ph.D.s to publish more articles in higher-quality journals that will increase one’s total citations — all while avoiding the associated temptations to skirt the edges of academic integrity and ethical behavior.
There are plenty of excellent field-specific guides out there on how to write and review scholarship in academe. Our purpose here is not to replace them, but rather to highlight a few key dos and don’ts from our combined perspective and experience. The following advice is based on years of evaluating submissions as editors of three major journals, serving on the editorial boards of eight leading journals, and writing (between us) more than 125 peer-reviewed articles.
For writers. First up, some dos and don’ts for graduate students and faculty members on navigating the submission process.
- Don’t waste your time carefully drafting a lengthy and compelling cover letter to accompany the first submission of a manuscript. No one reads long cover letters. Instead, send a brief cover letter with the information the journal asks you for. Then take that time you saved and spend it polishing your article’s abstract. Make sure it describes the paper’s contribution to the field in a clear and compelling manner.
- Do make it clear — in both the cover letter and the manuscript — if your paper uses previously published data from articles on a similar topic. Name the studies that used the same data set, and show how your submission offers a novel and significant-enough contribution to warrant publication.
- Don’t assume that a sloppy paper will automatically receive an invitation to revise and resubmit, just because you are a well-known or senior scholar. Good editors will reject it: sorry, not sorry. You are subject to the same criteria as everyone else.
- Do contact the editorial office with a brief, cordial email inquiring about the status of your paper if you have not received a decision in three months (or whatever amount of time is considered reasonable in your field). Done well, the review process takes time, but it shouldn’t take forever.
- Don’t lobby the editor to change a rejection. Unless the reviewers or the editor made a fundamental error in evaluating your manuscript (and by fundamental, we mean something like misreading a key statistic upon which the publishing decision hinged), this kind of request is not the solution. Strong editors are unlikely to reverse their decision; less-experienced editors may feel bullied. Best to let it go and move on. There are many other journals out there that would be respectable and appropriate outlets for your work.
- Do be polite if you choose to disregard that last piece of advice and appeal a rejection. Tread carefully, and adopt a respectful tone. The editors who made the decision will undoubtedly see your appeal, and if you rudely question their expertise or call them nasty names, they won’t soon forget.
- Do contact the editors if you are not sure about (a) what their decision means or (b) how to deal with reviewers’ comments. Sometimes a phone conversation or a brief email exchange with the editor can help make sense of vague or contradictory feedback. Contacting editors may seem intimidating to a junior scholar, but many are responsive and willing to help. And even if the editor is not helpful, you’re no worse off than where you started.
- Don’t be ashamed about feeling bad after a rejection. We have been publishing for 20 years, and still feel sad and angry about rejections. The feelings are normal, and suggest you care about your work.
- Do take some time to mourn your manuscript losses, and then form a plan for moving forward. (By the way, "some time" should be measured in days or weeks, not months or years.)
- Don’t immediately send out a rejected paper to a new journal without first considering the negative reviews and making changes to strengthen it. Submitting the same untouched manuscript to another outlet compromises the scientific process and shows blatant disregard for the time and effort people spent reviewing your work. A new editor might even send your paper to one or more of the same reviewers who rejected it on the first go-round. They will be cursing under their breath as they are charged with giving the same disregarded feedback — again. It doesn’t require a Ph.D. to realize that this is not a good situation for you or your paper. And in fact, listening to the reviewers and revising as necessary — before submitting it to a new venue — could well lead to a better paper and faster acceptance.
- Do provide a detailed letter to the editor when you resubmit your manuscript (assuming you were invited to do so); however, it does not need to be a tome. No one wants to read a 25-page, single-spaced letter explaining what you changed. It is perfectly appropriate to summarize reviewers’ comments instead of repeating them word for word. Summarizing can also take the sting out of nasty comments, and avoid the awkwardness of repeating text from reviewers that is ungrammatical or nonsensical. At the same time, do not skirt an important issue raised by a reviewer by omitting the comment or intentionally misinterpreting it. Reviewers pay close attention to whether an author took their feedback seriously.
For reviewers. Now some dos and don’ts to guide your service to the profession in evaluating your colleagues’ manuscripts.
- Do recommend rejection even when you may not want to. Good reasons include major conceptual or methodological weaknesses, or doubts about whether the author(s) can fix the problems. If the article is deeply flawed, an invitation to revise and resubmit — followed by the inevitably unsuccessful revision — is a waste of everyone’s time, and tends (understandably) to piss off authors.
- Do provide a strong rationale in your critique. The author will see your comments about the manuscript, but typically only the editor sees your recommendation on whether or not to publish the paper. So don’t sugarcoat the paper’s problems in the comments as you recommend rejection to the editor. That only puts the journal editor in the awkward position of sending a rejection letter based on reviews filled with bunnies, kittens, and rainbows — which will confuse and frustrate the author.
- Don’t take on more reviews than you can handle. Colleagues’ careers and livelihoods may hang in the balance, so return your reviews as quickly as possible.
- Do be selective about the articles you agree to evaluate. If reviewing is taking over your life, there’s something wrong. Don’t you have Netflix shows to binge-watch? Partners, children, or pets to interact with? Seriously, you don’t want to devote too much of your work time to a service duty that many institutions do not value as much as they should.
- Don’t, however, use zero-sum calculations ("What is the minimum number of papers I must review to pay back the profession for the reviews of my work?") to determine whether or not to review an article. Your decision should be based on whether you have the relevant expertise and whether you can complete the review in a reasonable period of time, in light of your other obligations. Remember that reviewing papers in your subfield is one way to stay abreast of the current literature — an increasingly difficult task in today’s fast-paced academic world.
- Do agree to re-review a revised manuscript whenever possible (unless, of course, you are trapped under something heavy). Few things are more frustrating for an author than having a paper reviewed by different people each time it is resubmitted to the same publisher.
- Do provide four or five key criticisms or suggestions that are most significant for the paper, and feel free to make general comments about its organization and style. But don’t seek out and report every minor typo, language, or formatting problem, especially on the first submission. If the decision is to revise and resubmit, you will probably have a chance to identify and fix those minor issues in subsequent rounds. If the decision is to reject, you have saved yourself valuable time by focusing on the most significant problems.
- Don’t put concerns about scientific integrity or plagiarism in the text of your review. Pick up the phone (an ancient communication device, we know), and call the editor right away to discuss your concerns. If there is a significant problem, it can be dealt with immediately — before the review process proceeds. If your concerns are not substantiated, the author (who may be a student) will not be traumatized by an accusation of academic misconduct.
- Don’t (with few exceptions) recommend that an author cite your papers. We don’t care who else does it. It’s tacky. Reviews are not a means to increase your citation count. If a paper’s literature review is inadequate, describe the specific areas that need to be updated or expanded. If you must recommend particular articles that you think should be cited, include several key papers (not necessarily or only your own). However, if a paper presents an idea or approach extremely similar to your own published work without attribution, that is a serious concern best handled by a phone conversation with the editor.
- Do be constructive in your comments to the author. Refrain from unnecessarily negative or exaggerated language. It may be disappointing to hear this, but reviewing papers is not your opportunity to show everyone how much smarter you are than everyone else. You will have to save that for Twitter.
We hope this advice sparks impassioned discussions and differences of opinion — with the ultimate goal of improving, both for writers and reviewers, the inherently imperfect peer-review process.
Most academics we have worked with on this front have provided insightful, respectful, and constructive reviews. But for those folks who approach the peer-review process as an opportunity for a power trip, a means to feed the ego, or a game to be exploited, do get the heck out of our ivory tower, and don’t let the door hit you on the way out.
Sarah Schoppe-Sullivan is a professor of psychology at Ohio State University, and Wendy Troop-Gordon is an associate professor of human development and family studies at Auburn University