How quickly can you get a paper through peer review? Editors and boards are under tremendous pressure to decrease the time it takes to get a paper from submission to first decision and then to acceptance. Rapid publication is a major selling tool for any journal.
For the sake of this discussions, I’ll say “traditional” peer review consists of an editor, perhaps an associate editor, and 2-3 content expert reviewers providing feedback to the authors on whether their paper is suitable for the journal. Revise, resubmit, repeat.
Scholarship being what scholarship is, and academic reviewers being who academic reviewers are, it is rare for a paper to be accepted with no revisions requested.
This process of revision is time-consuming and several journals are trying out new things in order to speed publication, while still conducting what is more or less traditional peer review. One example is to focus reviews on whether the “science” is correct. I put “science” in quotes because peer review processes belong to science and humanities publications. I would argue that there is a “science” to developing a strong thesis in all humanities papers as well.
Another tactic is to dispense with requesting major revisions and instead reject the paper while encouraging the authors to fix it and try again. I am going to call this “decline with encouragement to resubmit.”
I have to admit that I have advised editors to lean toward rejection over required revisions for a number of reasons.
First, papers going through review are a lot more likely to be accepted. For journals I have managed, the number of “major revision” papers that are eventually accepted stays solidly between 80-90%. When editors, reviewers, and authors have put time into critiquing and improving a paper, it just seems downright unfair to reject the paper. But, there can be a resignation to accept an okay paper at this point too. The editors and reviewers are tired of seeing the paper and they accept the paper as passable. For journals that are looking to publish top tier content, “passable” is not good enough.
Second, journals do lose a lot of credibility when the process takes forever. Editorial offices encourage editors to tighten the time given to reviewers and sub-editors in order to speed things up a bit. The last resort is to start decreasing the amount of time given to authors to make revisions. Even in circumstances where the revision time is generous, editors need to keep that due date in mind when making a decision.
If the editor feels as though it would be difficult for an author to make the changes required in the amount of time given for revisions, then the editor should reject the paper. Decline with encouragement to resubmit may be appropriate for papers where the topic is interesting but there is too much work required to keep the paper in the review loop.
The dates that are typically published alongside papers — Received, Revised, Accepted, Published — are important. If the gap between received and accepted is too long, others criticize the journal’s turn-around time even if in that case the editor worked with the authors through multiple rounds of revisions.
If the time from received to accepted is too short, questions may be raised about the paper. This happened recently with a few papers on toxicity of e-cigarettes. The papers were criticized for having too short a review period. What actually happened was that the paper was reviewed by Journal A and declined. Through a paper sharing system, Journal B received the paper, with the reviews and the author revisions, and accepted the paper. There was no way to tell in the final publication that the paper had gone through this process prior to being submitted to Journal B.
Third, some papers eventually need to be cut loose. These are the papers that despite getting detailed reviews, fail to improve to an acceptable level. Some journal editors have a strict policy on the number of revisions that are allowed. Another problem being reported by journal editors is that authors are ignoring reviewer comments. I think it is safe to say that authors who provide a rebuttal but choose to ignore half of the comments do so at their own peril. A simple sentence or two explaining why the change was not made will typically suffice.
Authors seem to be torn. There are lots of advice blogs for authors that tell them not to sweat the revise and resubmit decision. It means the journal editor likes “something” about your paper. Others see it as an opportunity to dismiss the feedback received and simply submit the unedited paper to another journal. This comes with risks.
In many fields, the reviewer pool is smaller than you would think. It is not uncommon for the same reviewer to get the same paper back again. I hear it all the time. The reviewer reviews a paper for Journal A and it is declined. Detailed feedback was provided. That same reviewer gets the exact same paper from Journal B. Feeling ticked that all of the feedback was ignored, the reviewer either declines the invitation to review and tells the editor why, or accepts the invitation and tells the author that he/she is still recommending the paper be declined.
Where taking a paper elsewhere might work is when its clear from reviews that the paper is not a good fit for the journal. In this case, an author may do well to skip to a more appropriate journal. As a manager of peer review, I can say that the journal office and editor would greatly appreciate a notice if you do not intend to send in a revision. Withdrawing the paper from the system is helpful.
Academics in general seem torn over making revisions in peer review. This always strikes me as odd because many of these same authors serve as reviewers and they get equally upset when their reviews are dismissed. Some complain that editors are requiring things that are not important to the paper. Here is my advice on that one:
- Ask your co-authors or colleagues who read your paper prior to submission what they think of the requested changes. Do they agree that the changes are unnecessary?
- Explain in a rebuttal document why you think the request is unnecessary. Most editors appreciate a well laid out argument. Most editors do not appreciate authors ignoring reviewer comments.
- Call the editor! Editors are human beings and they will talk to you. Tell them that the reviewer comments seem a bit off. Don’t be angry and defensive. Ask them to help you navigate the comments. Maybe you weren’t clear about something in your paper. Maybe the reviewer was not an appropriate person to review the paper. The editor may not know that. Before wasting your time yanking the paper, reformatting the paper for another journal, and waiting for a first round of peer review elsewhere, take a few minutes to have a conversation with the editor.
The overall point here is that journal editors are usually practitioners or academics in the same field as the authors. They have been there and they are still publishing papers. They want to know that they are not wasting their time and the time of their reviewers in sending out feedback. They truly believe that it is their job to help authors publish good content. Many are volunteers and given the time commitment required to be an editor, I’d say they feel pretty passionate about this.
The industry is experimenting with other innovations around peer review — portable reviews, open review, preprints with comments prior to submission, etc. Some fields will welcome these with open arms and others will resist. Over time, each community will need to decide what works best for them.
In the meantime, authors should really put as much thought into how to respond to a review as they did in deciding where to submit. It is clear to me that many do, and equally clear that some don’t.