For The Record - Lessons for Young Scholars Seeking to Publish
by Gary Natriello — 1996
At the recent meetings of the American Educational Research Association I had the opportunity to engage in a number of sessions and conversations regarding the editorial processes of academic journals and the implications of those processes for authors seeking to have their papers published. I learned just how little scholars at the beginning of their careers know about the operations of journals. Moreover, I realized that I myself knew very little about such operations until I became an editor. Because the decisions made by journal editors have serious implications for academic careers, it is important that scholars understand how the editorial process works, the conditions under which editors labor, and the ways in which decisions are made regarding publication. There are no doubt differences among journals and editors in the way decisions regarding publication are made. Nonetheless, drawing on my own experiences as an editor of the American Educational Research Journal (AERJ) and now the Teachers College Record, I can offer some general lessons for authors seeking publication outlets for their work. Because the implications of journal editorial processes for authors really pertain to ways to apply things they have already learned, I have divided these lessons into three groups: lessons learned in kindergarten, lessons learned in the eighth grade, and lessons learned in graduate school.
Lessons Learned in Kindergarten
Although most authors are content to communicate with editors in writing, there are always a few who take to the phone to state their positions more forcefully to an editor. This is almost always a mistake. Authors troubled by a set of reviews and a letter from an editor will generally be able to present a more thoughtful and dispassionate defense of their work in writing. Even when an author simply wishes to ask a question about a comment made about a paper, it is generally better to write to the editor so that he or she has an opportunity to review the manuscript and the comments before answering the question.
Some authors appear to believe that repeated conversations with editors will enhance the chances of their paper being published. Such authors call to ask if a topic is appropriate, call to see where the paper is in the review process and if it can be hurried along, and then call to discuss the reviewers’ comments and the editor’s letter. The first kind of call is sometimes useful for an author if the question about the appropriateness of an article is not one that the author could answer for himself or herself by simply reading the journal. Unless the kind of paper proposed is clearly out-of-bounds for a journal (e.g., Would you be willing to consider a manuscript that runs about 100 pages?), editors are likely to encourage the submission since it is difficult to know if papers are appropriate without seeing them. Authors could save themselves the phone call and simply send the paper.
The second kind of phone call, checking to see if the review process has been completed or if it can be hurried along, is also usually not worth the author’s time. As long as an author has received confirmation from a journal that a paper has been received, there is little to be gained from calling an editor during the review process. It is surprising to young scholars that the review process takes as long as it does. Many peer-reviewed journals take from three to six months to have a paper reviewed and a decision communicated to the author; most strive to minimize this time. The review process takes time for a number of reasons. First, although papers arrive every day or so at the most successful journals, it may take some time before an initial screening is completed and reviewers are assigned. Second, once reviewers are identified, one or more of them may decline and so new reviewers will have to be identified. Third, even after the paper is sent to reviewers with the instruction to return the review in three or four weeks, reviewers may not get to the paper for a month or so. It may take several reminders from the journal editorial office before a reviewer returns a review. Some reviewers never return reviews. Authors understandably become impatient with the process, but editors know that there is little they can do to speed things up as long as we all rely on the generosity of volunteers to review papers. When an author calls an editor to encourage a speedy review process, there is typically nothing an editor can do that will really move things along. Finding new reviewers may only slow the review process further. In short, making the editor aware of your impatience will do little to hasten the reviews. If the reviews have been completed and are awaiting the editor’s attention, a call is still unlikely to be useful since editors typically work with material in the order it has been received or the reviews have been completed. Of course, if there is some reason to believe that a paper has been misplaced (for example, if the review has taken more than six months) a call may be in order.
As an editor I have always been sensitive to authors’ interests in a timely review of their work. To allow authors to monitor the review process without calling the editorial office, I have instituted a manuscript tracking table on our World Wide Web site. Authors can determine whether the manuscript has cleared the internal review, how long it has been in the hands of reviewers, and if it is at the editor’s desk.
The third type of phone call from an author to an editor, made to discuss the reviewers’ comments and the editor’s letter, is also not generally useful for the author. Even if the author is seeking clarification, a written inquiry will be more helpful and it will leave a written record of any agreements reached between the author and the editor about how to respond to problems in a manuscript.
Finally, it is never useful for an author to enter into heated arguments with editors. I have been involved in such disputes as both an author and an editor, and I can report from firsthand experience that the editor always wins.
Listening Skills are Important
Authors should also pay serious attention to the editor’s letter. In the letter to the author the editor will often provide additional guidance for the author, sometimes explaining the points raised by the reviewers, sometimes telling the author which criticisms are the most important. The letter from the editor is also important for what it does not say. Since editors depend on the good will of reviewers, they may not always be direct in their rejection of reviewers’ advice. Editors will often indicate which changes suggested by the reviewers are essential in a revision prior to publication; the omission of a point raised by a reviewer may be an editor’s signal that the criticism is not important in a revision.
Learn to Take Criticism Well
Authors always have the option of rejecting some of the advice of editors and reviewers in revising a paper. If you think that a particular request for a revision is ill advised, you should construct a case for rejecting it and make it clear in a letter to the editor why you have not taken it into account in the revision. There can be a number of bases for rejecting a criticism. Some may involve major aspects of a paper such as perspectives or approaches that simply cannot be addressed in the context of a particular study. Others may involve very specific details such as analysis techniques suggested by reviewers that cannot be performed on the available data.
The letter to the editor that accompanies the revised manuscript provides an opportunity for an author to explain fully just how the suggestions growing out of the review process have been taken into account. The more this letter demonstrates a good-faith attempt to address the comments of reviewers and the editor, the more difficult it will be for reviewers and editors to continue to reject the paper. This does not guarantee acceptance for publication, but it substantially enhances the chances of a paper’s being accepted.
These lessons from kindergarten having to do with the nature of the interactions between authors and editors highlight the fact that getting an article published is a social process; authors are seeking broader public acceptance and distribution for their work. The first step in getting such acceptance is interacting in an acceptable way with an editor and reviewers.
Lessons Learned in the Eighth Grade
The Basics Are Important
Organization is More Important
Share Your Work
These lessons from eighth grade seem rudimentary, and they would be if all papers submitted to journals showed evidence of observing them. Conquering these basic details prior to submitting a paper to a journal will speed the review process and increase the chances of publication.
Lessons Learned in Graduate School
Match the Style of Work to the Journal
Part of understanding the kind of articles likely to be accepted by a particular journal is understanding the characteristic format of an article in the journal. For some journals the format takes a rather traditional cast that includes sections such as "Introduction," "Review of Related Research," "Method," "Results," and "Discussion." For other journals the format is more fluid. Reviewing articles in recent issues of a journal will quickly reveal such format preferences.
In addition to reviewing recent articles that have appeared in a journal, there are several other ways to determine stylistic and substantive preferences. Editors will often include a statement of their interests in the first issue of their term. I included such a statement in the Fall 1995 issue of the Record. Editors may add other statements from time to time. Knowing about the work of the editor and about the work of members of the editorial board will also tell you something about the kind of work that may be welcome at a journal.
Although it may be tempting to challenge a journal editor to publish something that departs from past patterns, it is best to take on such challenges later in one’s career. Unless you enjoy swimming upstream, matching the style of a journal to the style of your work is the best way to see your work published.
Be Conservative; Editors Will Be
Editors Make Mistakes After all is said and done, despite their best efforts, editors do make mistakes in responding to submitted papers. Sometimes papers with serious flaws do get published, and sometimes papers deserving of an audience are rejected. Once an author has made the best case to an editor without success, the most useful course of action is to move on to another journal. Established scholars often have a series of journals in mind for any one paper; if a paper is rejected at their first choice, they simply send the paper to the next one on the list. It is generally better to have a paper published somewhere than to engage in a protracted dispute that is unlikely to lead to publication in a particular journal.
The health of journals and of fields of scholarship depends on the entry of young scholars. I hope that these lessons are useful and encourage such scholars to pursue publication in refereed journals, particularly the Teachers College Record.