grad skool rulz #22.2: the publishing process

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A few weeks ago, I wrote on the importance of publishing in graduate school and how one might do it. A few folks asked for a post that describes the publication process in more detail. Here it is:

  • Let’s assume that you already have a manuscript that you’ve circulated and presented multiple times. Let’s assume that it’s a journal article, and not some other form of publication. Now you want to take the big step and get it in print.
  • Choose a target. As I wrote before, you probably want to start with a top journal, a respected specialty journal, or a respected regional journal. Ask around if you don’t know the hierarchy of your field.
  • Go to the journal web site and make sure the paper is in the right format. Social Science Quarterly, for example, is very insistent on short papers. AJS, for example, routinely publishes longer papers. Editors will tolerate a little fuzziness about length, but they will return a paper if it is way too long (e.g., the limit is 30 pages and the paper is 60).
  • Write a cover letter that briefly explains the purpose of the paper. If you are in an unusual field (e.g., Eskimo linguistics), you might want to provide names of possible reviewers.
  • Should I suggest reviewers? If you are asked, it might help. But otherwise, don’t do it. Why? You have no idea who is a speedy or fair reader. Why recommend someone who might tank you? Sleep better at night by letting the editors choose reviewers. Remember, that’s their job.
  • Upload/send it out once it’s in the format.

What happens next? Journals vary a bit, but it usually goes something like this:

  • The journal is run by a bunch of folks: the editors who make the final decisions; the associate editors, who help the editor but usually don’t have final say; the editorial board – a  few dozen scholars who agree to review papers but do not formulate decisions; the managing editors, a secretarial person who does all the paper work. Most editors/editorial board members are scholars/scientists/professors. Managing editors can be a professor, student, or a clerical person.
  • The managing editor is the person in charge of shepherding the paper from submission to final decision. This is the person you contact for normal questions like “Did you guys get my paper?” Smaller journals may not have a separate managing editor.
  • The journal editor, associate editors, and the managing editor may look at the paper and make a snap judgment about whether the paper fits or is good enough to be reviewed. Soc journals will review most papers if it at least looks plausible, while biological journals will often “bench reject” about 50% of submissions.
  • Once the paper is deemed reviewable, the main or associate editor will assign reviewers. How does that happen? A few ways – people who are well known for work in your area may be asked to read the paper; perhaps an associate editor or editorial board member will write a review; they may look at the references and say “if person X is cited, they must be an expert.” If the paper is deemed to be of low quality, a graduate student may be asked to review it.
  • Mix of reviewers: Varies a lot. Some journals will rely heavily on the editorial board. Some may mix between a famous person and a new person.
  • Once the reviewer agrees to read the paper, they get a hard or electronic copy and a form they have to fill out. Usually, they are asked to grade the paper on some scale, provide comments for the author, and confidential comments for the editor.
  • Number of reviews: Varies a lot. If a paper is atrocious in the eyes of the editor, they may simply wait for one review and reject. Most journals will try to get 2-4 reviews. If a review is incompetently done, they may try another reviewer. As a former managing editor and student editor, my belief is that it usually takes about 5-6 requests to get 2-3 decent reviews.
  • Once the editor or relevant associate editor reads your paper and the reviews, they make a judgment: accept (with possibly require revisions); revise and resubmit; and reject.
  • How do they decide? In most cases, it’s obvious. At the most competitive journals, a lot of papers get 2-3 negative reviews, so it’s easy to make the decision. If the reviews are truly ambiguous, the editor may read the paper herself, or ask for additional advice from associate editors or other scholars. Then, they just have to be the decider!
  • What counts as good? In general, well written articles that work within the mainstream do well at many journals. Thus, you should try to show mastery of contemporary ideas and methods. There’s also luck – some reviewers may have a soft spot for your ideas. Connections matter as well – scholars and editors may be more generous to friends. And of course, there will always be editors who just have a special gift for identifying what’s truly original and innovative and they’re willing to go with a cool idea, even if the reviewers didn’t get it.
  • The author receives a letter with the decision and copies of comments written by reviewers. Some editors will write a long explanation of the decision, while others will stick to short form letters.
  • How long does this take? In many fields, about 1 month to process the paper, 2-3 months to wait for reviews, 1 month for make the final decision. About 4-6 months is decent. Some journals fall into disarray each stage can take forever. Editors don’t have time to read papers; managing editors are lazy about getting reviews; etc.  In some areas, it can take a year or more to get a decision.

Eek! I just opened my journal decision letter! What does it mean?

  • Accept or accept contingent on revisions: This is good news! Take the afternoon off! Just do the revisions ASAP and get that guy into print.You’ll have to format the paper in the way demanded by the journals and correct the proofs. You’ll see paper copies (if they still exist) in about a year. An accept on the first round is fairly uncommon in most fields.
  • Revise and resubmit: Technically, your paper has been rejected, but the editor thinks it might be publishable if certain changes are made. We’ll talk about R&R’s in some detail below. But this is good news!!!
  • Reject: :(  Don’t feel so bad. Everyone has rejected papers. It’s actually the most common outcome in most decent journals.

Let’s get into detail about R&R and reject. Let’s start with R&R:

  • With an R&R, you’ve been given the option to revise. What should you do? In most cases, you should revise the paper and give it another shot. Why? With the current journal, you have a decent chance at getting something out of the process. An R&R means that the editor finds *something* valuable and is seriously considering your paper. If you go to another journal, you usually have to start all over again with no promises.
  • Once in a while, you decide that revision isn’t a great idea. For example, if you are persuaded that the revisions are literally impossible, or completely stupid, you might try another journal. If the editor acts strangely, then maybe it’s not worth the effort. But this is rare. You should almost always revise.
  • After you read the letter and the comments, put it away for a few days and try to mellow out and develop some distance.
  • Read the comments, both from the editor and the reviewers and try to summarize them. Then make a “to do” list of specific recommendations (“you have to cite this,” “use robust standard errors,” etc.).  Then do as many of these things as possible.
  • Then think again about the gestalt of the paper and the reviews. How does it all fit together? How can you rewrite the paper so that it will still be readable and offer a coherent argument?
  • Once you’ve shown the paper to people and you feel that you’ve put in 110%, write the revision memo. That’s a document where you explain in detail what you changed. In general, I recommend extreme detail so that you show reviewers that you took what they said seriously. Also, sometimes you simply can’t do what everyone asked, so explain why and do so clearly and in detail. Write a new cover letter with a paragraph or two explaining how the new paper has addressed the reviewer comments.
  • Then send the whole bundle back to the journal.
  • The R&R process varies. Some journals have editors read the new paper “in house.” Others will send it back to the old reviewers, some will mix, and some will (frustratingly) send it back to completely new reviewers. You really don’t have control over this.

Reject – what does it mean? Here you have to be brutally honest and ask why you have failed. A good piece of advice is that nearly any paper can be improved. But aside from that generic advice, here’s more detailed ideas:

  • Maybe the paper is good, but not a good fit for the journal. You can tell if this is the case if the reviewers says “this is a good paper and it’s a solid contribution, but to another field.” Solution: Do a few minor revisions, and send it back out immediately to a new journal.
  • Maybe the reviewers just didn’t get it or they are incompetent. It happens. Sometimes you have an idea that the readers just didn’t dig. Once again, send it out ASAP to a new journal.
  • Maybe your paper has some real issues. Read the reviews. If they raise a lot of good points, then maybe your paper isn’t ready yet. So be honest with yourself. We can all improve and the reviewers are doing you a favor. If three reviewers all say, “Y needs fixing,” then they’re likely right. So go back to the woodshed and do the recommended fixes.
  • Maybe your paper is just bad. It happens. We have a cool idea and our friends agree. But reviewer X points out a devastating logical flaw. Suck it up and put it to sleep.
  • Appealing decisions: Once in a while you feel that something just wasn’t right. If you can logically explain why the decision was in error (and not just vent), an editor may change her mind. Doesn’t happen often, but it’s worth considering in extreme cases.
  • When can I send a rejected paper back to the same journal? In general, once a paper is rejected, send it to a new journal. But in some cases, you may want to go back. For example, if it’s a flagship journal, an acceptance can be a career maker. So here’s my advice: send it back if the paper has been truly revised and is really different. If you did all the changes and it’s way better, then send it back.
  • Mixed reviews. Sometimes the reviews are all over. In that case, just do what seems reasonable and send it out ASAP.
  • Bottom line: Keep sending them out. If you work hard at revising your work, you’ll get accepted sooner or later. And volume is often the key.

Finally: Where should I send rejected papers? The rule of thumb is: start at the top and let the editors decide where it lands. Some scholars, especially at elite research departments, will only bother with the top. Here’s my view: unless the paper is logically flawed or just lame, the paper was written for a reason, to bring knowledge. Who says that the top 10 journals have a monopoly on knowledge? We should all aim high, but we shouldn’t let career ambition impede our core mission: generating knowledge.  And we sometimes have to go to small outlets to make that happen.

Written by fabiorojas

July 20, 2009 at 12:22 am

Posted in fabio, grad school rulz

5 Responses

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  1. This post makes me depressed.


    R. Pointer

    July 20, 2009 at 2:36 am

  2. Dude! I was trying the “be informed and be prepared” route!



    July 20, 2009 at 2:40 am

  3. Nice post. Not sure why it makes R. Pointer depressed. For me the take home message is that the review process isn’t just some kind of soul crushing gauntlet, but can be a constructive way to improve your work, and with persistence, you can get your work published, even as a neophyte.



    July 20, 2009 at 3:19 pm

  4. […] 4:35 pm on July 20, 2009 Permalink | Reply You should all check out this post over at that provides a decent set of guidelines for thinking about the submission/publication process. […]


  5. […] and authors of recently published papers talk about their experiences with writing and revision (Fabio, direct ‘em here!). I especially like the SEJ session featuring Yasemin Kor’s […]


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