Journal Editor Speaks about His Experiences

(I had this whole post ready talking about flexible representations, but now my computer is borked -- stupid monitor! -- so this is going to have to do.)

Tyler Cowen over at Marginal Revolution links to a piece by a former editor at American Economic Review telling all about how papers are accepted for publication. In economics this process may be slightly different, but I found the piece addressed several questions I had about the process.

I reject 10-15% of papers without refereeing, a so-called "desk rejection." This prompts some complaints - "I paid for those reviews with my submission fee" - but in fact when appropriate a desk rejection is the kind thing to do. If, on reading a paper, I find that there is no chance I am going to publish a paper, why should I waste the referees' time and make the author wait? Not all authors agree, of course, but in my view, we are in the business of evaluating papers, not improving papers. If you want to improve your paper, ask your colleagues for advice. When you know what you want to say and how to say it, submit it to a journal.

As noted above, some authors are irate about desk rejections on the principle that their submission fee pays for refereeing, or that they deserve refereeing. But in fact the editor, not referees, make decisions and I generally spend a significant amount of time making a desk rejection. I think of a desk rejection as a circumstance where the editor doesn't feel refereeing advice is warranted.

There are authors who attempt to annoy the editor. I'm not sure why they consider this to be a good strategy. I attempt to be unfailingly professional in my journal dealings, as this is what I seek in editors handling my work. Back when I had a journal assistant (everything is electronic now), I asked her to impose a "24 hour cooling off period" whenever I seemed to write something emotional or unprofessional. I still write and delay
sending even now, if I feel at all peevish or irritated. Authors, in their attempt to irritate
the editor, will ask "Have you even read my paper?" This is a more subtle question than
it first appears, for there is an elastic meaning of the word 'read.' The amount of time necessary to establish beyond a reasonable doubt that a paper is not suitable for a journal ranges from a few minutes - the paper's own summary of its findings are incomprehensible or not ambitious - to many hours. One of the effects of experience as an editor is that the amount of time spent on the bottom half of the papers goes to about zero (except for the desk rejections, which get a bit more), and most of the time is devoted to those papers that are close to the acceptable versus unacceptable line.

Gans and Shepherd (1994)'s article created among editors what I think of as the fear of rejecting the "Market for Lemons," based on the fact that Akerlof's 1970 "Market for Lemons" paper was rejected by three prominent journals, including the AER. No one wants to go down in history as the editor who rejected a paper that subsequently contributed greatly to a person's winning a Nobel prize. However, I eventually came to the conclusion that the fear is overblown. There are type 1 and type 2 errors and any procedure that never rejects the "Market for Lemons" produces a low average quality. One lesson, indeed, is to be open to the new and different. I use a higher bar for 'booming' topics that generate a lot of current excitement and hence may be a fad. (At the time of this writing, behavioral economics is such a topic.) A second lesson from Akerlof's experience is to be careful in crafting rejection letters; the letters Akerlof received, with their smug acceptance of general equilibrium as the end state of economics, look pathetic today. Finally, Akerlof's experience was unusual in that his rejection wasn't perpetrated by Lord Keynes. Absent Keynes, who I think suffered mightily from the personal agenda problem discussed above, there are not so many great rejected papers.

There is a lot more interesting stuff in the piece, so I would read the whole thing.

The bit about authors getting indignant about either reviewer or editor commentary definitely rings true. I am willing to grant that my experiences on this subject are rather limited. My first first-author paper was just accepted for publication. But even given my limited exposure, I already have heard horror stories about authors going ballistic over what in hindsight are either relatively innocuous critiques or very apt criticism. I have heard about corresponding authors emailing journal editors almost daily to see what the status of the paper was -- as if this would in some way accelerate the process.

To be fair, reviews are sometimes just ridiculous, nitpicky nonsense. Sometimes reviewers or editors fundamentally misunderstood what we were trying to argue. But acting like an insecure teenager trying to secure a date by badgering the other person is hardly going to improve matters. It almost makes me want to install some sort of "3-day rule" for the journal editing process.

Likewise, I am always fascinated by authors who rage against the failure of editors and reviewers to instantly recognize their cosmic genius. The point about the paper that was rejected and eventually became part of a Nobel Prize is well-taken. To be fair, groundbreaking research regularly encounters opposition, particularly when it stamps on someone's theoretical toes -- which is nearly always. But on some level, the "raging against the dying of the light" or "they just don't get it" response is actively counterproductive. If your work is good, fine. Likely in addition to the politics, there is some aspect of your writing that is impeding understanding. By throwing a tantrum, you are ignoring what aspects of the article could be improved.

The best advice I heard in graduate school is that reviews are like bad-tasting medicine. They may not work. They may not be necessary. But the best thing for you to do is to hold your nose and swallow them.

In any case, my experience with the process has given me substantially more respect for the forbearance of editors. In many ways, being a good editor is like being a good blogger. You have to have strong opinions about a lot of things, but also be able to suppress those opinions when clear evidence emerges to the contrary. You have to be willing to be vocal, but also be able to remember that correspondence over impersonal media is often misinterpreted in the most tendentious light.

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Editors can have significant power, and not a few will abuse it out of personal bias and pique. Human nature is human nature, whether in science publishing or any creative enterprise.

Not all authors agree, of course, but in my view, we are in the business of evaluating papers, not improving papers.

In the natural sciences, the vast majority of authors, reviewers, *and* journal editors would vehemently disagree with this. In fact, if you look at the editorial policies of many journals (including Nature) you will find explicit statements of editorial policy that are contrary to this.

It does not surprise me that in non-scientific fields like economics, where there are no objective standards by which to assess work, you have overweening self-aggrandizing asshole journal editors like this former editor fuckwad.

"Sometimes reviewers or editors fundamentally misunderstood what we were trying to argue." and "Likewise, I am always fascinated by authors who rage against the failure of editors and reviewers to instantly recognize their cosmic genius."

I have had years of experience as an author and reviewer. It is up to the author(s), not the editor nor reviewer, to make sure that the author's work is never misunderstood and that their cosmic genius is self-evident. You can be the smartest kid in the class -- but if you can't communicate that intellegence to a broad audience it will have very little impact. "Impact" is the criteria by which all good work is ultimately judged.

Re: Annoying the Editor
Do authors consider their future submissions when annoying the editor? There is an author whose papers will automatically receive a desk rejection from me in the future due to the annoyance factor. I accepted the first paper despite the whining and complaining, but no more...

By Who's Yer Daddy (not verified) on 12 Aug 2009 #permalink

There is an author whose papers will automatically receive a desk rejection from me in the future due to the annoyance factor.

Nice job, asshole. It's dumbfuck self-aggrandizing journal editors like you who give decent editors a bad name. Hint: IT'S NOT ABOUT YOU! You exist to SERVE the scientific community; they do not exist to serve you.