When a manuscript is submitted to an academic journal there are 6 possible scenarios for it to go through following an initial round of peer review. According to Writing Your Journal Article in Twelve Weeks: A Guide to Academic Publishing Success, these are:
- Pure accept (very rare)
- Acceptance pending minor revisions
- Acceptance pending major revisions
- Reject with potential to resubmit
- Reject with a redirect to a more appropriate journal
- Pure reject
How well your journal handles each possible scenario and its associated next steps will determine the length and quality of your peer review process and, consequently, how authors feel about working with your publication. When it comes to making manuscript decisions, things can get tricky for journals if they fail to communicate bluntly enough or to set limits on revisions. The absolute worst case scenario for your editors, reviewers, and authors is creating confusion around the status of a manuscript (think of an author left wondering - “are they asking me for revisions or not?!”) or getting caught on a merry-go-round of revise and resubmit (R&R) requests (which is anything but merry!).
As former managing editor of Aztlán Journal of Chicano Studies, Wendy Laura Belcher, who is associate professor in the Princeton University departments of Comparative Literature and African American Studies, knows the perils of unclear communication around manuscript decisions and ongoing R&Rs all too well. While teaching a workshop for graduate students on peer review and academic journal publishing she developed a short journal publishing best practices guide, which she later decided to make openly available on her website to serve as a resource for other editors. Belcher’s guide, How to Manage a Peer-Reviewed Journal, overviews editorial duties throughout peer review, including how to handle revise and resubmit requests. She recommends that all journals periodically revisit their R&R process to ensure it’s as smooth as possible, starting with the common struggle of adequately communicating decisions and expectations to authors.
One area where many journals struggle is clearly communicating manuscript decisions, particularly rejections. According to Belcher, many journals leave authors unsure of whether they’ve rejected a manuscript or are open to receiving revisions due to overly gentle language.
“Because editors are basically good human beings, they don’t want to break people’s hearts, so they write letters where authors are literally at the end of it and still don’t know what the decision was,” she explained. “I get so many emails from authors saying, ‘can you tell me what they’re saying to me? Was it rejected? Was it accepted?’ So editors have gone too far over into niceness territory and they’ve lost clarity. I think the main problem is that they do not want to use the word ‘reject.’ I do understand that, it is very hard to say to another human being that they are rejected, but there needs to be more clarity.”
If a manuscript is a true R&R, Belcher said journals must make the intention of the R&R clear - whether it requires big or small revisions and whether the R&R is for a resubmit to the original journal or a recommendation to redirect the manuscript to another publication. In order to prevent potential confusion, Belcher wishes that editors would get together to establish set terms for all possible decisions and use those exact terms in all decision letters. For example, rather than just asking an author to resubmit with revisions, editors should make clear what type of revisions they’re looking for by using decision terminology such as “this decision is accept pending major revisions” or “pending minor revisions.”
Help authors interpret reviewer comments - particularly exaggerated or contradicting reviewer reports
Another area Belcher says many journals should work on to improve in their R&R process is how they deliver reviewer feedback. While it may be tempting to just send full reviewer reports to authors without taking the time to give additional direction, Belcher implores editors to resist the urge.
“A good editor - and this is recognizing that all people are busy - never simply sends the reports on to the author,” Belcher explained. “They read the letters and they tell the author, ‘I really agree with everything in this report,’ or ‘I think peer reviewer #1 gets a little tangled up in this - I’d like to see some response to it but it’s not as huge an issue for me as it is for them,’ because usually the editor does have some kind of view on what’s happening in these peer review letters and they can help authors interpret them. When I’m dealing with novice authors, they truly believe that they must do absolutely everything that the peer reviewers say - and there is no editor in the world who believes that. So editors need to do a better job of communicating how to interpret review letters.”
Belcher offered an example, from working with one of her graduate students on an R&R she received, of how lack of editorial direction can result in authors misinterpreting reviewer comments. “My student told me she’d gotten a major revisions letter, and that she’d sat on this thing for two years because she was intimidated. I said, ‘let’s sit down and strategize.’ We sat down and quickly found it was no more than a day’s work. But the way that the editor and the peer reviewers had communicated with her was as if it was some huge deal,” said Belcher. “This is not always the case, but sometimes a peer reviewer comment like ‘you did this thing in the introduction and nothing else after that made sense’ just means that the author needs to take out one sentence in the introduction, not that the author has to change the rest of it. Editors should help make situations like this clearer to authors.”
In addition to looking out for potential grey areas in how your journal is communicating manuscript decisions, Belcher advises editors to be proactive about establishing a decision timeframe to avoid a dragged out R&R process. “It is now frequently the case that journals will go through not just two rounds of revise and resubmit on the same article, but three, and four, and five - and this is insanity. That has to stop. The editor has to intervene,” said Belcher.
In the case of ongoing R&Rs, Belcher said that a common problem that editors should look out for is reviewers picking apart new areas of a submission in each round of review as different areas of weakness become more apparent.
“People are constantly telling me: ‘I got new comments in the second or third round. Totally new comments.’ And then they’re telling me, ‘I just keep doing what they tell me to do because I need to get published, and I don’t even care anymore. It’s not my article, it’s not even my ideas, I’m just doing what they tell me.’ This is a really terrible state of affairs,” said Belcher. “I definitely blame this on the increasing number of rounds of revision. I think editors need to step in much earlier - like the second round of review. They need to make decisions themselves about ‘yes, I think this is good enough,’ or ‘no, it’s not good enough.’ Or if the peer reviewers honestly believe that it’s not quite ready, they need to reject it.”
Belcher also advises editors to set some ground rules for reviewers to avoid such whack-a-mole situations where an author submitting fixes for one set of issues leads reviewers to open a new set of issues.
“As a reviewer myself, I can have that problem too, where when an author fixes one thing, another leaps to the fore, so I have some sympathy for the peer reviewers,” said Belcher. “But I also think there has to be a point where you say, nothing is perfectible. I think editors should establish certain revision parameters for peer reviewers like, ‘you cannot recommend new things to cite,’ for instance. Or ‘if you didn’t notice it in the first round, you can’t tell them to change their key terms in the third or fourth round.’ Also, they should be prevented from vastly expanding the scope of the article by saying something like, ‘you only dealt with race, you need to deal with gender,’ or ‘you only dealt with the 18th century, you need to deal with the 17th century.’”
Communicating decisions to authors and coordinating R&R rounds are an art that all journals need to perfect over time. Aim to be more alert to feedback from authors and reviewers with regard to their experience working with your journal and encourage those involved in your publication to share their thoughts. As you iterate how you handle making decisions and managing R&Rs, ensure that any changes or new expectations established for your peer review process are understood and agreed upon by your whole team so that new policies such as having no more than two rounds of revision are upheld by everyone on your team. Periodically making minor improvements to your decision and R&R process can have big impacts on your journal over time.