I’ve had my ups and downs with academic publishing. I’ve been rejected as many times as (maybe more than) I’ve had work accepted for publication. But a rejection within the normal flow of academic peer review isn’t a bad experience. It may sting a little, but in the end failure is a good thing if you know how to leverage that failure as motivation to do better next time.
The kind of bad publishing experience I’m talking about here happens on a whole other level. Book projects that fall through the cracks, editors who lie to you, reviewers who don’t understand the constraints of the journal they’re reviewing for – these are the kinds of bad experiences I’m talking about. In this post, I talk about some of these bad experiences and perhaps how to avoid them. Along the way I’ll sprinkle in my own tales of woe and those I’ve heard from my colleagues.
The Anthology that Never Happens
When I was a master’s student, I saw a call for chapters for an edited volume come across the CRTNet listserv. I was a fan of a TV series from the 1990s that had some groundbreaking themes regarding sexuality and gender and teens, and I figured an analysis of this series would make a great contribution to the anthology announced on the listserv. I contacted the two co-editors and pitched them my idea. They liked it a lot and encouraged me to submit a full chapter for the book. I spent weeks doing meticulous close readings of the series (which I had on DVD) and writing up what I thought was a really great analysis. I submitted it to the editors, got an acknowledgment of receipt, and the usual “we’ll let you know the next steps.”
As time passed, I grew anxious. This would be my first substantial publication, and I was eager to 1) know how the publishing process worked in general, and 2) find out the fate of my specific chapter. Every time I inquired, which happened about every other month, the co-editors would tell me they were still looking at the chapters, they were waiting to receive some other chapters, they were negotiating with the publisher, or some other kind of “it’ll be just a little bit longer” response. Two years later – two years! – I was moving on to other projects, and I even landed my first publication elsewhere in the meantime. I inquired one last time about my chapter and found out the co-editors never really had a publisher commit to the project and that they were both overworked and probably wouldn’t be pursuing the book after all.
I wasted my time, basically – a lot of people wasted their time. And the chapter I wrote was so tailored to the book’s theme and technical requirements, it would have taken quite a reworking to send somewhere else. Plus, an entire book specifically about the TV series I analyzed came out the very next week. I missed the boat.
How you can avoid this scenario: Any time you’re thinking of responding to a call for chapters for an edited book, you should directly ask the editors up front whether they have already secured a publisher and what the exact time line for publication is. (Then, add 6-12 months to that time line, since it always takes longer to publish books than editors think it will.) If they don’t have at least some pretty firm verbal commitments from publishers, and if those publishers aren’t reputable, then don’t even think about sending in your work. It’s not worth your time, and you can easily send that chapter idea somewhere else as a journal article or to another book that already has a publisher lined up. Plus, book chapters generally won’t count for tenure as much as journal articles will, most anthologies are not peer-reviewed, and you chapter won’t end up in a searchable scholarly database for others to cite.
The Enthusiastic Editor who Reneges
I presented a paper at AEJMC years ago. At the end of the panel, a few people came up to the speakers’ table and made small talk about the specific research papers. As I talked to one person about my presentation, I saw this man behind him trying to edge in to speak with me. When my conversation kept going on, the man instead butted in, handed me his business card, and said (direct quote – I remember it well): “I want to publish your paper. Please send it to me.” On the card was the man’s name and university affiliation, as well as his affiliation as “Editor” of a well-known mass communication journal. I was shocked and flattered. I told him I would certainly send it in.
Two days after I got back from the conference, I shot the man an email thanking him for inviting me to send in my manuscript. I told him I wanted a week or two to incorporate feedback I received at the conference and that I’d be formatting the paper for his journal and sending it in soon. He replied and said that was great and he looked forward to seeing the paper. I spent a LOT of time reformatting the paper for this journal, a citation style I was a bit baffled by and had never used. I reworked the content of my paper as well. Now, this journal was archaic in its submission requirements, requiring me to snail mail in four copies of my paper to the editor. I mailed it in, and I was eager to see the reviews. I figured it may not be accepted, but at least I’d get some good feedback from the reviewers. And given the outright statement from the editor that he wanted to “publish” my paper, I hoped I’d at least get a revise-and-resubmit decision.
A week later I got a snail mail paper letter from the editor saying he was desk rejecting the manuscript and wouldn’t be sending it out for review. Not even sent out for review? You sat through my paper presentation at AEJMC and you said you wanted to publish the thing, and you wouldn’t even send it out for review!? You had me reformat my paper, print it out four times and pay extra postage to mail it to you, and no review?! There was no explanation in the letter, really – just that it didn’t fit and he wasn’t going to waste reviewers’ time on it. I hold a pretty strong grudge against this man and this journal to this day. It was one of the most un-editorly, unprofessional, and unkind acts I have ever witnessed in academia.
How you can avoid this scenario: Well, I’m not sure how you can avoid it, really. If the editor of a journal you (used to) respect comes up to you after hearing your conference presentation and says he “wants to publish it,” then you should probably send it in. In this case, I think this editor was just a jerk and a liar. Even if, once he read my paper, he found it actually did not fit the journal, he at least owed me a bit of a deeper explanation for why it wasn’t a fit (and perhaps why he may have initially thought it was a fit based on my presentation).
I suppose you can always try to pin people down when they approach you like that. Perhaps I should have countered at the conference and said “so you mean you’ll send my full paper out for peer review?” and gotten him to say “yes.” But I couldn’t have known that at the time. The point here is that some editors may say anything to get you to submit to their journal, and there’s more value in them wasting your time (i.e., they can claim a tougher rejection/acceptance rate by rejecting your paper) than you may be aware of. You may not be able to avoid the scenario, but you can do as I’ve done and tell your tale to as many people as you can, smear the name of the editor and journal as widely as you can, and discourage your colleagues and students from submitting to it.
The Misaligned Reviews
I know many colleagues who have had trouble with misaligned reviewers and editors, and I’ve experienced this a few times myself. Misalignment can mean at least two things: 1) the reviewers and editor offer conflicting evaluations of your work and reconcile those conflicts by either rejecting your piece, making you wait while several additional reviews are solicited, or giving too much weight to one of the reviews in the pile; and 2) what the reviewers and editor tell you does not line up with the technical requirements of the journal.
In this first scenario, which is quite common, you may be upset to see one cranky reviewer’s opinion carry so much weight. Or you may be upset that, even though the two reviewers kind of like your manuscript, the editor still disagrees with the reviews and rejects you. Or you may just get strung out while additional reviews are gathered, and in the end you still get rejected many months later. But the worst case scenario is when the editor extends a revise-and-resubmit decision based on the conflicting reviews, you revise your paper accordingly, you resubmit, and you still get rejected after the second round of reviews. This is the most painful because it sucks so much time and energy and because you end up trying to appease several people over a long period of time only to fall short. And some people go through several rounds of revision before getting the axe, which really sucks.
In the second scenario, which I’ve encountered twice, the reviews and the revise-and-resubmit decision ask you to add a lot of content to your paper, which is already at the maximum length allowed by the journal’s technical requirements. In one instance, I was asked to include the equivalent of about 1,000 words of additional literature and discussion to a paper that was already 100 words over limit when I initially submitted it…and yet the reviewers also wanted me to keep all my previous content more or less intact. It’s a confusing directive.
How you can avoid this scenario: Ask direct questions of the editor to make sure you have a clear understanding of what you need to get done and how you’ll go about doing it. In the case of conflicting reviews, you may need to side with Reviewer 2 while carefully, politely refuting all of Reviewer 1’s contrary advice. Peer review is supposed to be a scholarly conversation to improve your work, not a harsh judgment or gatekeeping process, so don’t be shy about trying to open up the conversation with the editor and with the reviewers (you’re never going to know who the reviewers are, and they won’t know you. But you can ask the editor to pass along your direct rebuttal letters to the reviewers when you resubmit, and frequently editors will do this anyway). And if the reviews ask you to add a lot more content to your already lengthy paper, point this contradiction out to the editor and ask him/her whether you should ignore the reviewers’ suggestions or ignore the word limit. The editor should have answers for your questions. It’s not supposed to be a guessing game for you.
Also, just get used to conflicting reviews. It happens, and it’s kind of the beauty of the peer review process. If your work doesn’t rub someone wrong along the way, then you’re probably not saying anything interesting anyway.
The Black Hole
I recently sent a manuscript to a well-known journal in my field. I sent this paper to a previous journal, and when it was rejected there (for not being theoretical enough…a common complaint of my work), the editor at that journal recommended I send it to this other journal, which was a better home for more practically focused work. So I sent it in. I’ll spare the details of the submission process and the back-and-forth with the editorial assistant (I never got to interact with the editor!) because it would reveal the journal’s identity, but suffice it to say that I did not get acknowledgement of receipt of my submission in a timely manner (and only when I prodded for it), and I got no follow-up about my manuscript along the way. I also was ignored on half the emails I sent to the editor and editorial assistant.
During this waiting period, I heard from one colleague who let his paper sit at this journal for a full year, without hearing back on it, before he ultimately decided to withdraw his manuscript. I also heard from two other colleagues who felt the journal was just a venue for the editor to publish his friends’ and students’ work, and that the perception was that some work didn’t even have to go out for real peer review. Basically, the journal’s getting a shady reputation, despite the prestige of its editorial board and the visibility of the major organization that publishes it. I ultimately decided to withdraw my manuscript, and I CCed the associate editors on my withdraw email. Unsurprisingly, no response to that email either.
It was a waste of time for me. I sent my paper to a black hole.
How you can avoid this scenario: Follow up regularly. If you submit a manuscript on a Monday and haven’t received an email back saying it’s been received by Wednesday, it’s OK to send a follow-up email and politely inquire that it was received in good order. If it’s been under review for the typical time specified on the journal’s website (or, if it’s not specified, then 3 months, which is typical) and you haven’t heard anything, you can gently inquire about the status of your manuscript with the editor.
This is how I word that email, by the way:
Dear [editor's name],
I am gently inquiring about the status of manuscript, “[manuscript title],” [manuscript processing number, if applicable], that I submitted for review on [date you submitted it]. I look forward to a decision and the possibility of continuing the publishing process with [journal name].
And if you don’t hear back, keep following up. As long as you don’t get rude in your tone, you’re not bothering them. It’s an editor’s job to keep you informed about the status of your manuscript, especially after it’s been more than 3 months. And if you get the cold shoulder – especially if you’re also hearing bad things about the journal’s reputation along the way – then it may be time to withdraw your manuscript. If you do withdraw, a decision you should not take lightly, you should explain to the editors that you’re withdrawing, why you’re withdrawing, and probably also include a timeline of your contacts and their (non)contacts with you along the way.
You have to make tenure. You’re on your own clock. Don’t let a lazy or rude or nonresponsive journal editor get in the way of that pursuit.
The Change of Editor
Sometimes the editorial process is long – several rounds of review that take many months each, as well as a very long time from acceptance to actual publication. Sometimes editors will change during that process, and the new editor may feel differently about your article than the editor before. I submitted a manuscript to a journal almost a year ago. It went through one round of review and I was asked to revise it. I revised it, addressing all of the editor’s and reviewers’ concerns, and I sent it back in for a second round of review. I figured that the next decision I got would be for minor touch-ups or perhaps an acceptance. But while my paper was under review a second time, the editor suddenly resigned and a new editor took his place. This new editor – a good person, I should add – was left with a pile of manuscripts in various states of review. (The editor change also delayed my decision by about a month.) This new editor’s take on my manuscript, however, was that it needed yet another round of revision, this time to address different things (a complete rearrangement of my literature section). It’s OK – I understand. But it is a little bit of a let down. I’m currently working on the revision to send it back in for round 3.
But this could have gone a lot worse. The new editor could come in and toss out a number of manuscripts that might be in their 4th or 5th round of review after a year or more, with authors feeling more and more confident they might get an acceptance decision next. That’s the power of an editor, and this kind of thing comes with the territory unfortunately.
How you can avoid this scenario: You can try to to appeal a decision with the new editor, explaining that you have made all the changes you’ve been asked to make prior to the new editor taking the helm. But this may not fly. It’s more common for editor changes to happen in such a way that late-stage manuscripts are shepherded through by the former editor, sometimes with various editorial footnotes stating that, though the new editor is listed on the journal’s masthead, certain articles were accepted by the previous editor. But sometimes editorial changes are sudden – editors are people, and life happens. You don’t have a lot of control in this scenario.
However, if you end up doing a few rounds of revision and the new editor ultimately disagrees and rejects your work, you can send your paper elsewhere. When you do send it to a new journal, you can explain in your submission cover letter that it went through a few rounds of review somewhere else and that, due to editorial changes, it didn’t sit well with that new journal’s editor. You can even include the reviewer reports and your revision memos when you submit to the new journal. The editor at this new venue will likely find your candor refreshing, and having seen how you’ve already improved your manuscript may make your review process there easier. Again, all of this publishing stuff is a big scholarly conversation. Better to just be upfront about your manuscript’s history.
Hopefully this is a helpful look at some of the things that can go wrong in the publishing process. You’ll probably have your own instance of bad luck in time, and the more you try to publish, the more you’ll run into these roadblocks. But, as always, keep pushing. You’ll stumble into some good luck eventually.