Improving Journal – Author Communication


A philosopher who prefers to remain anonymous recently wrote in with some complaints about a journal. Among them:

The editor and editorial staff have been for at least the last three months, and continue to be, completely unavailable via both email and the submissions manager.

In this particular case, the problem began to be resolved when I passed along the complaint to the editor, who then sent a notice out to the authors of all manuscripts currently under consideration at his journal, explaining certain problems that contributed to the lack of communication.

This lack of communication is not as rare as it should be. Once, I had waited so long without hearing anything from a journal that I sent the following to its editor:

Dear _______,
I stared at my inbox longingly all day yesterday, but nothing. I can’t believe you forgot our anniversary. It was only 6 months ago that things got started. You were so attentive at first, so quick to acknowledge. But now it seems like our relationship is a mess. You don’t even respond to my emails anymore! I don’t know what to think. If only you would say something! Anything! There were times I thought to myself, “he’s the strong silent type,” but that can only console a person for so long. I mean, communication is important for a relationship, and we have communication problems! I don’t know how much longer I can hold on to this… to us. If you could just let me know what you’re thinking, maybe we can make this relationship work again. I’m willing to do what it takes. I think we’re worth it. Do you?

That did get an informative response. However, it shouldn’t take fear of public exposure, or creative pestering, to get editorial staff to communicate with authors. 

Let’s acknowledge that editing a journal is a ton of work, that it involves delivering a lot of bad news (which for most people is no picnic), that their own reputations as editors are often in the hands of others (e.g., unresponsive reviewers), and that editors almost never get sufficient appreciation for their efforts.  In fact, let’s all now say: journal editors, thank you.

Still, we can ask: how can we improve communications between journals and authors?

One thing is that journals should be honest in setting expectations for authors. If your journal’s author guidelines say, “We aim to have a decision to you in weeks,” then your track record should actually be getting most authors decisions in weeks. If it is really n+2or n+3, etc., then editors will get more emails from concerned authors, which makes them busier, which makes it likelier that either work at the journal, or email response time, will slow, worsening the problems.

Another thing is to have the infrastructure in place for editorial staff to easily mass email all authors with manuscripts under consideration. This is especially helpful if there is a problem or change at the journal that is expected to lead to delays in decisions on manuscripts (such as the resignation of an associate editor, or a surge in submissions, etc.).

It would be helpful if readers can share their experiences and suggestions, both as authors and as editors, to get some further ideas on the table.

(Note: commenters may use pseudonyms, but nothing with “anonymous” or “anon” or the like—and only with an accurate email address, which will not be displayed. If you regularly comment under your own name here, but wish to obscure your identity on this thread, be sure to use an alternate handle and email address.)
(photo of untitled sculpture by Tara Donovan)

(photo of untitled sculpture by Tara Donovan)

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Secret Editor
Secret Editor
5 years ago

As an editor, I can sympathize. But the time involved in the process, as the note indicates, is largely beyond the editor’s control. The problems are daunting. It can take a dozen requests to find reviewers, and this takes time. The reviewers often make time demands. More often they just don’t send the review in for months, or ever. Starting the process over is even more time consuming, and there is no pool of eager reviewers. In talking to others, there is a sense in which this is getting worse. The willingness to take time out to review is just not there. I read a comment many years ago by an editor who said “if you want to influence the content of your field, turn your reviews in on time.” That is more true than ever, but it also means that responsible reviewers are more burdened than ever. As an ethical matter, let me suggest this: at the beginning of your career you are submitting papers and generating lots of reviews. At some point you pass to the other side– where you are doing more reviews than you are generating by submitting stuff. You need to pay back for the reviews that were done of your stuff, and pay back more because you were successful– because there were plenty of people who never got to that point.. Report

Derek Bowman
Derek Bowman
Reply to  Secret Editor
5 years ago

“at the beginning of your career you are submitting papers and generating lots of reviews. At some point you pass to the other side– where you are doing more reviews than you are generating by submitting stuff. ”

Surely part of the problem is that for many people submitting, this just isn’t true. Some never get the tenure-track job, and some who do may be given teaching and service loads that leave little time for research activity – especially research activity that won’t count for tenure. Report

recent grad
recent grad
5 years ago

Maybe in addition to that journal surveys site, there should be a journal reviews site (like yelp or google reviews). People could then rate a journal based on their experiences. There would be worries about disgruntled authors, but if enough people submitted reviews, then they would be outweighed by other reviewers. Also, maybe there could be a submission verification component, so as to limit reviews to one per submission.Report

recent grad
recent grad
Reply to  recent grad
5 years ago

Just the state what I left implicit: the reviews would potentially motivate journals to be more responsive in the same way that yelp, etc. motivate many businesses to do better in customer service.Report

benjamin s. yost
benjamin s. yost
Reply to  recent grad
5 years ago

Andrew Cullison has just such a site. It’s very, very helpful, and I encourage everyone to contribute.

http://www.andrewcullison.com/journal-surveys/Report

Steven French
Steven French
5 years ago

Aye, what Secret Editor said.
But of course referees are us, and we’re all absurdly busy. Here in the UK we’re seeing an increasing emphasis on sci-tech style grant capture to support research ‘leave’ and PhD students, which means colleagues are spending increasingly more of the time they’re not teaching or writing papers on writing grant applications + all that entails. It’s all very well for universities to demand that we publish more and in the very best journals (again, here in the UK such demands are starting to become strident as we move into the next REF period) but they need to value both editorial work (e.g, I get precisely zero buy out or support of any kind for my work for the BJPS) and refereeing, which counts for next to nothing on promotion applications etc.
If we want a faster decision process we need to press our bosses to give us the time we need …Report

Beth
Beth
Reply to  Steven French
5 years ago

We have some guidance, at least from a BJPS perspective, about this!

http://thebjps.typepad.com/my-blog/2015/02/wheresmypaperhannon.html
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JBR
JBR
5 years ago

Although trained as a philosopher, most of my experience in publishing is in empirical journals, specifically psychology and neuroscience journals. I have never received a response without comments, and with rare exceptions, they have always been timely. I can truly say only once I was jerked around by a journal (and I was middle author, so meh). I know philosophers are busy. But so are scientists so let us assume they are equally busy to the average philosopher. And yet by and large the problems that exist with the “process” of publishing in philosophy journals do not exist with empirical journals (based on my experience). When I tell my psych/neuro colleagues about what it is like to publish in philosophy journals, they are utterly horrified. The wait-times and lack of comments…they literally do not know how we put up with it. How indeed.

To be frank, it is hard for me not to see the dis-function as a kind of intellectual failing on the part of the field. This is literally (part of) our job. And we seem to suck at it.
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John Schwenkler
John Schwenkler
Reply to  JBR
5 years ago

In a recent Facebook discussion I was reminded that two possible reasons for this difference are that in psych. and neuroscience — and many other empirical disciplines too, I believe — referee reports are often signed and submitted papers are often not anonymous. Moreover those papers often have a senior figure, whom editors and referees don’t want to upset, as first author or co-author.

In short, the suggestion is that the anonymity of refereeing in philosophy is part of what enables these bad practices, by making it harder to hold each other accountable. I wonder what anyone thinks of this.Report

Gary Bartlett
5 years ago

Just at the moment I’m trying to get an update from a journal to which I submitted a paper at the end of November. Unfortunately, they provide no estimate of what sort of time-frame in which to expect a decision. But at 4 months I thought, hey, it seems reasonable to ask for an update. But I can’t seem to raise any response from the editors. It’s very frustrating.Report

Steven French
Steven French
Reply to  Gary Bartlett
5 years ago

This is why journals need to have good, efficient assistant editors/editorial managers (as we do!) – there is no reason why owners, whether societies or publishing houses, can’t pay for that.Report

Postdoc
Postdoc
5 years ago

The referee process in philosophy is certainly, slow, often unhelpful, and sometimes explicitly rude and unkind. I think part of the problem is that we don’t have the strong community of other disciplines. We have an adversarial discipline. The job market is well… not really a market. A better metaphor for our job situation than ‘market’ is hundreds of hungry dogs fighting over leftovers.

The insane pressures for early career people to publish in the fight over leftovers inundates the peer review system. The people submitting often do not have stable jobs or any job at all, and a lot probably are not paid to do research. They probably don’t really feel like they’re really part of the field. In this situation, it is not surprising that the young philosophers inundating the system with papers do not feel a strong responsibility towards refereeing. They’re not paid to do it, they don’t even know if they’ll be accepted into the field, and they probably don’t feel as if they have time to concentrate on someone else’s work.

The way to fix this problem is to improve the job situation for PhDs, or pay referees, or make refereeing count for more on the CV. I think referees should not be anonymous to the author, and on every paper published it should say towards the top ‘Refereed by … (name) and (name).’ Ideas or major improvements suggested by referees should be acknowledged by name in the paper. So, this way referees’ work can be acknowledged. Refereeing then might start to count for something! If people saw refereeing as a benefit to themselves, they might start to do the job quicker and better.

It’s just an idea! But the current system is pretty bad, and we should think of ways to improve it.

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Kenny Easwaran
Reply to  Postdoc
5 years ago

The current situation is bad, but I’m not sure that the comparative problems with philosophy journals can be explained this way. Contrary to what you say, it seems to me that philosophy has a much *stronger* community and a *gentler* job market than most other academic disciplines. I don’t know of other disciplines that have ever had as centralized a job market as Jobs for Philosophers and PhilJobs have been, or other disciplines where people know as large a percentage of the field and carry on discussions on Facebook and other media with each other. (My information may be anecdotal and incomplete, but I would think we should expect this because philosophy is both a field with far fewer participants than most sciences and the big humanities, and one that doesn’t rely as much on grad students to staff the service teaching and research labs, so that the market is less mismatched.)

Still, despite those advantages, we don’t seem able to have turnaround times of a month and a half, as people in chemistry do: https://www.researchgate.net/post/Usually_how_long_it_takes_to_get_the_first_decision_when_a_paper_submitted_to_ACS_journalsReport

DoubleA
DoubleA
5 years ago

FWIW, Law is much more centralized, even using a standardized form (the FAR) form. I have no idea how that relates to placement rates or whatever “gentleness” means in this context, but I suppose it is some counter evidence– though law reviews are student edited anyway.Report