Succeeding on the Manuscript Journey

Recently I sent a paper to an editor asking if it was suitable for her journal, and she ended her reply wishing me well on my “manuscript journey.” I cringed. Journey lately has taken on the connotation of a process with challenges, successes, and failures that ultimately may not end well. The phrase “cancer journey” has a Google count of over 200 million and its Ngram tells us it was first used in 1985 and since then has gone viral. Manuscript journey has a Google count of a mere 60 million and hasn’t yet registered an Ngram.

The manuscript journey, a necessity for tenure and promotion in academe, is a tough business and may well end in the ignominy of rejection. I will argue that there are two contrasting ways to see the journey. People usually say they are submitting an article. In addition to meaning “present or propose” submit also means “to yield to authority or superior force,” which suggests subservience to an editor. An alternative approach involves the author negotiating with the editor, using negotiating advantages to persuade the editor to accept a paper.

Why is academic publishing in the social sciences – the area I know – so tough? There are several reasons. More and more articles are desk rejects, turned down by an editor without even being sent out to referees. The highest ranked journal in my field (public administration), has a desk reject rate of about 50 percent.

Authors are prohibited from submitting an article to more than one journal at the same time. This gives the journal considering the article a de facto monopoly on the article, the equivalent of baseball’s reserve clause that for many years prevented players from being free agents. The justification for this monopoly is that the pool of reviewers is small, so there would not be enough reviewers to handle a given article if it were simultaneously being considered by several journals.

This is not the only way peer review can be handled, however. Legal scholars send an article to many journals and then pick a preferred journal from those that accept it. Law journals are staffed by students, so there is a large pool of reviewers for any given article.

Finally, most journals manage peer review by sending a revised article only to those reviewers who still have objections. Once a reviewer is willing to accept an article, she is no longer consulted. This means that the last reviewer who has objections has an inordinate influence over the entire process. Reviewers who support publication are never given an opportunity to say to that reviewer, “Shut up and accept the article!”

This process sounds unpromising, but based on decades of experience, and near the end of my career as an academic author in which I have been reasonably successful at getting published, I have some advice for my colleagues about how to make the peer review system work in their favor by seeing themselves as negotiators. Again, I emphasize that I am writing for my colleagues in the social sciences.

At the outset, it is important to remember that editors have discretion. They can decide whether and when to accept a submission regardless of the advice of reviewers. Here are two instances of my own, both reasonably recent, when this happened.

  1. In the first round of reviews, one reviewer advised accepting the article with minor revisions, a second that I resubmit it with major revisions. I did the revisions conscientiously and incorporated into the covering letter the implied message that the reviewer asking for major revisions was not au courant with recent literature. The editor was convinced by my resubmission, and accepted the article immediately, without bothering to send it back to the reviewers.
  2. After two rounds of revisions, two of three reviewers were satisfied with the changes I had made. A third reviewer was still unsatisfied and, what’s worse, made criticisms that were inconsistent with those (s)he made in previous rounds. I made revisions in response to some of these criticisms, but in my covering letter for the third round, told the editor that I thought responding to others would only weaken the article. I encouraged him to side with the majority of two satisfied reviewers rather than the minority of one disgruntled one. He did.

An author negotiating with an editor has two things to bring to the table, his article and his reputation. Obviously, the quality of the article is important. But the author’s reputation is also important. Journals want to publish authors with strong reputations because the author’s reputation will attract interest in the article. Journals are ranked on the basis of the frequency with which the articles they publish are cited. An author who has a strong Google Scholar count brings to the journal to which she submits a paper the possibility that the published paper will improve its citation count, and hence its ranking.

Given the temporary monopoly that a journal has on articles that have been submitted to it, the author’s bargaining position is strongest before she submits her article. At this stage she can determine which editors are most interested in her article (and which are not). I urge any author to contact editors of likely journals before submitting the article. One way to begin such a conversation is to send the editor an abstract and ask for his assessment of the likelihood the article will clear the desk reject hurdle.

When authors receive reviews asking for the inevitable revisions, those who see themselves as subservient to the editor will attempt to make nice to the reviewers by expressing profound gratitude for their helpful recommendations and making all the requested revisions. This approach works when the reviews don’t contradict one another and the requests aren’t too onerous. Problems can arise late in the game when one reviewer continues to request changes after the other reviewers are satisfied with the revised manuscript. At this point, it is preferable to switch to the negotiation approach (as I discussed in my second anecdote above about editorial discretion). The author should negotiate final changes directly with the editor, rather than the last reviewer. The author’s bargaining position is strengthened by the supportive reviews and her implicit threat is to take the manuscript to another journal.

Junior scholars, eager to establish their reputation, are likely to want to send their articles to top tier journals, but recognize that acceptance rates are low and, once they have made it past desk review, the rest of the review process is time-consuming, while the tenure clock is ticking loudly. Junior scholars’ incentives align with those of their departments because articles in top-tier journals help the department’s reputation as well.

For senior scholars, the situation is somewhat different. The scholar’s reputation does not depend on the reputation of the journal in which she publishes an article. Readers will be drawn to the article because of who its author is, rather than where it is published. (Similarly, I once heard the distinguished political scientist Harvey Mansfield introduce the famous culture critic Camille Paglia saying that “Camille Paglia teaches at The University of The Arts in Philadelphia, which no one has ever heard of. Let us say that Camille Paglia teaches at the university Camille Paglia teaches at.”)

Because of their reputations, senior scholars have the possibility of short-circuiting the arduous and time-consuming review process. They might informally ask an editor to “look at” an article without resorting to referees. Or they might informally ask several editors to look at an article. Or they might offer an article to an editor who will agree to accept it in advance, with reviews intended only to be advisory to the author, rather than determinative of publication. Now that I am the verge of retiring, I will admit to having used these tactics on occasion. Perhaps other senior scholars reading this post have as well.

Implicit in this point is a recognition that incentives for the senior scholar and the department may not align as closely as incentives between the junior scholar and the department. The senior scholar is trying to get her message out to her readers and to posterity, and the ranking of journals is only one factor in determining how to do that most effectively.

In this post, I’ve assumed that articles are sole-authored. Most of my articles have been. In many fields, sole authorship has given way to co-authorship with two, three or more co-authors. It is possible that the co-authors, depending on where they are at in their careers, will have different incentives and approaches to their publication strategy. They will have to sort out an approach to publication that works for all members of the team.

In conclusion, I hope this post encourages readers to take a more pro-active approach to getting their work published in academic journals and not to see themselves as pawns in a random and capricious process.

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