Crafting Scholarship: Editorial Decision Letters

by Robert Milardo, Ph.D., University of Maine
NCFR Report
Content Area
Research

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Robert Milardo, Ph.D.

Note from the editor: With the publication of Dr. Milardo's final Crafting Scholarship column for NCFR Report, we would like to express our gratitude for his contributions to the publication over the past two years. His insights and expertise on the topic of scholarly writing are invaluable, and the way he relays those insights is engaging and accessible. Thank you, Dr. Milardo!

In this article we consider an editor's responsibility in writing decision letters to authors, as well as the content and tone of letters that are most apt to be helpful to authors in guiding their later response to reviewers and preparation of subsequent revisions. We consider the issue of hostile reviews and how authors might respond to them, and more generally establish realistic expectations of the review process.

Writing Decision Letters

Making well-reasoned decisions on manuscripts is by far the most important and difficult element of an editor's duties. Ideally, editors will compose informative and instructive decision letters to authors; this is not always possible. In the best of circumstances, the most informed decisions are based on the recommendations of the reviews as well as the editor's reading of a manuscript. Not all editors have the time to carefully read manuscripts, especially if they are receiving multiple submissions per day, in which case they may rely entirely on the commentary of reviewers. In some instances, I did as well. If the reviewers are in agreement that a manuscript is inappropriate for the journal, and if their concerns appear reasonable, in the interest of time management, I am not inclined to read the manuscript. In these cases, my decision letters tend to be brief; I rely on the comments of the reviewers to inform authors. In nearly all other cases, I prefer to read manuscripts and often include comments directly in the manuscript that I then share with authors.

Whether editors are able to carefully read a manuscript or not, our responsibility is to delineate, prioritize, and summarize the issues that need to be addressed. Decision letters ideally provide a road map for authors in shaping their future revisions, a road map that is rooted in a clear understanding of the manuscript and the comments of the reviewers. Authors certainly appreciate the service and often mention clarity as well as timeliness, helpfulness, and demonstrated respect in rating the quality of service from editorial offices (Adler & Liyanarachchi, 2011). Sarah Schoppe-Sullivan comments directly on the issues of clarity and helpfulness:

I think a good letter from the editor is very helpful in terms of summarizing what the key issues are. If I can get a clear picture of what the editor and reviewers think are key issues that need to be addressed, that can help me with the revision, or if it is a reject, I usually revise the manuscript before I send it someplace else because I feel like the feedback is valuable. It doesn't mean I am going to take every suggestion, but especially if there is some consensus and the editor agrees, I am not going to send that paper out to another journal without addressing those issues.

Anisa Zvonkovic also commented on the importance of decision letters from editors. I asked her what made for a positive or helpful experience in the review process. She recounted a recent experience in having her work reviewed:

In a recent submission one of the things that was helpful was that it was really clear what needed to be changed and what didn't. When the action editor provides specific guidelines, I find that really helpful. I usually do a document where I kind of summarize and bunch up similar comments [of the reviewers], kind of a content analysis. Then I look at what the editor says to see if there is some direction. So definitely, if the action editor provides clear guidance, that is really important. I don't know if I ever got reviews where the reviewers agreed on everything, usually there is kind of an outlier. So it's helpful if an editor can highlight where a problem came from. An editor doesn't really have to say how to solve an issue but some guidance is nice.

While detailed decision letters are time consuming and sometimes difficult to write, editors may be inclined to provide additional or more detailed feedback when time permits, especially with new professionals. I asked Harry Reis if he provided added commentary in his decision letters to new professionals. "Absolutely! Even today when I write reviews I frequently will write it in a more detailed way if I know it is a young author or a less established colleague."

In my experience, authors rarely ask for additional feedback, but when they do I am happy to provide it, with a catch or two. First, I have to have the time to do so, which means a reasonably manageable workload at that particular moment, and second, the author has to demonstrate a minimal degree of competence and seriousness of intent. If a manuscript is lacking in fundamental competencies, the commentary of an editor is not likely to replace the need for additional training and effort.

An editor's job is far easier when there is considerable agreement between reviewers, when they identify similar issues needing attention; somewhat less so when they raise different issues; and decidedly challenging when the reviews are disparate. In the latter case, editors may not always be entirely certain how to proceed or whether to favor one set of suggestions offered by one reviewer or an entirely different set of suggestions offered by another. At the very least, editors need to acknowledge whatever differences exist, offer direction or compromise positions if possible, and otherwise let the author establish priorities and so argue his or her case. An editor's failing to acknowledge significant differences in the commentary of reviewers and provide guidance is one of the most common complaints of authors (Cooper, 2009).

Hostile Reviews

In some instances, editors are further challenged by off-tone or hostile reviews. On the one hand, we don't want to antagonize reviewers by chastising them for inappropriate tone. On the other hand, authors deserve to be treated with respect, and our goal is to encourage the production of quality contributions. An editor may decide not to use a hostile review, but the choice brings its own set of issues. Editors do not want to interfere with the peer-review process, especially when an off-tone review also includes useful substantive comments, which they often do. Negotiating off-tone reviews means separating the unbecoming chaff from the wholesome wheat by delineating the useful criticisms from the less useful, and clearly communicating this with authors. Just as midstream kudos can service generativity in writing reviews, an editor can remark on the current and potential importance of a manuscript and thereby encourage authors.

Regardless of the tone of a decision letter or review, authors often, if not typically, find decision letters and accompanying reviews disturbing. Decision letters and their accompanying reviews commonly bring to bear an emotional response from authors, and editors need to be mindful of that response. Hostile reviews are simply not helpful. In my own experience, hostile reviewers, even when their reviews are otherwise skillful, are not apt to be invited to the next party.

Giving Feedback to Authors

In the case of a manuscript that is judged to be inappropriate for a journal, how much feedback can an author expect? Ideally, a decision letter will at minimum state the primary reason or reasons for a rejection, but in fact I am not sure that is always the case. Rejection letters are most likely not terribly informative, and authors need to attend to the comments of the reviewers. Although an editor may prefer writing helpful and informative rejection letters, the difficulty and time required to do so is prohibitive.

My favorite decision letter, received after I submitted one of my own articles to a journal, read: "No thanks. The editor." The letter could not have been more exacting. It was hand written, which added to the personal touch, and yet without exclamation points, I thought a bit disingenuous.

The Journal of Family Theory & Review rejects in the range of 3% to 5% of submissions without review. These are nearly always manuscripts that are clearly inappropriate for the journal. For instance, the journal does not publish empirical reports or case studies, and such submissions are rejected outright with a simple note stating the reason for doing so.

In some cases, a manuscript is submitted that an editor may feel is very unlikely to engender a favorable review. This situation presents a dilemma. On the one hand, I do not wish to rely too heavily on my own preferences and thereby supplant the peer-review process, and on the other hand, I am concerned about the workload of reviewers and do not wish to overburden them. Occasionally, I will reject a manuscript that appears entirely unlikely to receive favorable reviews, but it is decidedly rare.

For some journals the sheer volume of manuscripts received prevents accepting all or even most manuscripts for review and some triage is required. For instance, Psychological Science receives about 3,000 submissions per year, and about 66% are rejected without review by the editor and deputy editors. The Journal of Marriage and Family and Family Relations reject about 15% and 4% to 7%, respectively, of new manuscripts without review. Incidentally, in a survey of more than 3,000 reviewers across multiple disciplines, 68% of respondents thought rejecting manuscripts without review was appropriate (Sense About Science, 2010). A triage system is necessary for some journals given the volume of submissions and the work needed from editors and reviewers to complete comprehensive reviews, but it is not entirely in keeping with the objectives of peer review. Triage practices need to be carefully designed, and editors need to be accountable for their decisions while at the same time mindful of overburdening reviewers.

Heavenly Decision Letters

Dear Author,

As you will note, the reviewers believe your recently submitted manuscript is brilliant and I am inclined to agree. I am accepting your manuscript without revision.

Best wishes,

The Editor

This sort of letter will never happen, at least given the current state of reality, but perhaps it may in an alternate universe. Nearly all of the editors and authors I've spoken to indicate an outright acceptance without revision is very rare and has never happened to them personally. My colleagues occasionally share stories of people they know, or people they have heard about, who may have on some occasion actually had a paper accepted outright. I am inclined to think that some professionals have the ability to visit alternate universes where heavenly events occasionally happen.

The former and very experienced editor Julie Fitness laughed heartily when I asked her if she had ever accepted a manuscript outright without revision. She then went on to explain how a request for a revision and resubmission is a distinct opportunity and one to be welcomed:

People shouldn't be offended by being asked to revise a paper, or upset by it at all. Put your emotions to one side. And in fact, it is so good to get feedback. If you get a revise and resubmit that is a fantastic outcome. It means that you've got a piece of work that people can see worth in and value, and now you are going to start polishing and make it something beautiful.

Earthly Experience

Even the most experienced and talented authors on occasion find a less-than-enthusiastic response to their work, and the occasional rejections ensue. Some authors suggest that this is common experience and to be expected. "The really successful authors of social work research articles have something in common: they all have had their work rejected at various points in time" (Thyer, 2008, p. 72). In the field of economics, Gans and Shepherd (1994) similarly reported that nearly all leading scholars report instances of having their work rejected: "In the big leagues, even the best hitters regularly strike out" (p. 165). They go on to acknowledge that some senior economists report no instances of having their work rejected but then discount their experience by noting that these are players who submit few journal articles, preferring to publish books.

Among the senior scholars I interviewed the results are mixed. Some very prolific scholars report never having their work rejected and some do. Nonetheless, although an initial rejection is disappointing and can lead authors to question the value of their work, the vast majority find publication elsewhere (Belcher, 2009).

More important, authors can increase the probability of favorable outcomes in a number of ways by selecting appropriate journals; fully understanding the review process, including the issues editors and reviewers typically attend to and consider critical; and soliciting pre-reviews by trusted colleagues before a formal journal submission.

Less common are instances when an invited revision undergoes a new round of review and is subsequently rejected. I recall a case where an author submitted three revisions of a paper, each with substantial changes in response to the reviewers' and editor's recommendations. The third revision was sent out to the original reviewers, and again the reviewers were calling for additional revision. It was not that the authors were unresponsive to the earlier rounds of review, but rather they just hadn't gone far enough. Once the critical reviews of the third revision arrived, I had to make the very difficult decision of whether to issue yet another invitation to revise the paper. I decided that however well intended the authors, they were simply not making sufficient progress, and so rejected the manuscript.

Rejecting revisions is among the most difficult decisions for editors and to be avoided if possible. Issuing an invitation for a revision is a major investment of scarce resources, and authors rightfully have an expectation of a high probability of seeing their work eventually accepted. This is not always the case.

Revisions are rejected for several reasons. Two common circumstances are situations in which reviewers believe an author has not sufficiently addressed the issues raised in an earlier round of review, or the revision may in itself raise new concerns for the reviewers and editor. A third scenario, and one more difficult to contend with, is a situation in which the reviewers identify concerns in the second round of review that they failed to mention in the first round but could have.

Another point of concern, and matter of fairness, is the assignment of reviewers to revisions. Typically editors try to use some of the original reviewers. That's not always possible. Adding a new reviewer is sometimes required by necessity because one or more of the original reviewers is unavailable. In addition, an editor might add a new reviewer to provide a fresh perspective and reading of a difficult manuscript, or because a particular brand of expertise was absent on the first round. Editors must balance the issue of fairness and the reasonable expectations of authors with the need to meet the mission of the journal in publishing high-quality work.

Final Comments

The writing and publication of scholarly work is time consuming, difficult, and challenging, and I'm often at my wit's end in the midst of the process. Then there are the reviews and editors to contend with, and my emotional reactions to criticism. Whenever I receive critical reviews, I'm not a happy camper. The only real difference between my experience of writing and contending with reviews and that of new professionals, is that I know the drill. I expect there will be productive writing sessions and sessions that don't feel terribly productive. I write on, butt in chair. Whenever I send a manuscript out the door, I imagine it will get rave reviews, accepted without question. We all have our dreams, but reality does have a way of preserving. Challenging decision letters from editors and their accompanying reviews are to be expected. A challenging call for a revision and resubmission is a distinct opportunity; it is not a reason for inertia. We find ways to work through our emotional responses to criticism and then continue working, all the while mindful of our process and the features of our writing life that will lead to success in writing and publishing.

Over the past several years, it has been a pleasure to share some thoughts about the crafting of scholarship in NCFR Report. There is certainly more to discuss including writing cover letters to accompany invited revisions, or more controversial issues such as requesting reconsideration of a rejected manuscript. I encourage you to pursue exploring the craft, perhaps visiting the available literature.

References

Adler, R., & Liyanarachchi, G. (2011). An empirical examination of the editorial review processes of accounting journals. Accounting and Finance, 51, 837-867.

Belcher, W. (2009). Responding to a journal's decision to reject. IETE Technical Review, 26, 391-393.

Cooper, M. L. (2009). Problems, pitfalls and promise in the peer-review process: Commentary on Trafimow & Rice. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 4, 84-92.

Gans, J.S., & Shepherd, G.B. (1994). How are the mighty fallen: Rejected classic articles by leading Economists. Journal of Economic Perspectives, 8, 165-179.

Sense about Science. (2010). Peer review survey 2009: Full report. London, UK: Author.

Thyer, B. A. (2008). Preparing research articles. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

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