Notes from the AE's desk

Feb 21 2012 Published by under [Education&Careers]

I've been an Associate Editor for an important journal in my field for roughly two full months now. Whereas I'm not sure it was my best idea ever to agree to this, it has certainly been instructive. I will undoubtedly be faced with dozens of novel issues as I receive more manuscripts to review, but below are a few things I have learned so far.

- The topic and quality matter less than the authors. I have handled a bunch of papers now that are seemingly similar in content and quality. The major difference between them has been the author list: Some have prominent* names on them and some do not. But finding reviewers for the latter category is like pulling teeth, while locating them for the former is not. I assume that people are more willing to spend their time reviewing for those they see as producing good work. If the author list is unremarkable, people figure their time is better spent elsewhere.

- Don't believe the project number of papers you will handle. I've been doing this for two months and have already handled what the editor told me would be my likely annual allotment. Just come a little closer, this won't hurt a bit....

- Ignoring a review request is a shitty thing to do. Everyone is busy. We get that. And sometimes you just happen to have more on your plate than normal and can't take a review. This is why you have a "no thanks" option. Use it. Don't leave the AE sitting around waiting for a response. Inevitably, the second I give up on someone and invite a couple more, everyone suddenly agrees to review. If I wait, the original person never gets back to me. Just make a choice.

- If you work in a specialized subfield and won't review papers in that subfield, who will? Twice I have gotten papers on a topic that severely limited my potential reviewer list. I contacted the extent of the qualified people that I was aware of and all of them declined. Oooookaaaaay, now what? Who's going to review your papers when you send them in?

- Getting rejected without review is better than dragging the process out. I know it sucks to get the letter rejecting the paper you sent into a journal you like. And without review! How dare that AE! Well, the thing is that your time just got saved. Rather than going through the whole review process, only to have the manuscript spit out the other end, you can now reformat and send somewhere else. Not ideal, but the better of two bad options.

- If you sit on reviews, you lose the right to complain about time in review. Self explanatory, really.

I'm sure there are other things I'm not thinking of right this second, but the main point is that reviewing is about the community. Like it or not, we are the vehicle that drives the speed of publication.

*In the field of interest for the journal, that is.

17 responses so far

  • I was also swamped with manuscripts to handle during the first year but it eased considerably since then after they appointed several more AEs. Hang in there.

  • anon says:

    "The topic and quality matter less than the authors."
    This really sucks that reviewers are selective about whose papers they wish to review. This may also explain why more prominent established scientists can more readily publish in Glamour mags than newer scientists. Why not show reviewers the abstract and title without showing author names or affiliation?

  • Susan says:

    "The topic and quality matter less than the authors."

    This really sucks. And it's a big argument for double-blinding.

  • Heavy says:

    Cool to hear it from the other side, keep it up PLS.

    Somewhat related to your last comment but the converse. Got asked to review a manuscript from an AE who had just rejected my manuscript earlier that day. Despite the AE having my manuscript under review for six months, I got my review back within a couple weeks.

  • FSGrad says:

    Thanks again for the insight. Do you think that it's always better to be rejected without review than rejected with review? I'm thinking of a manuscript I've got in right now -- new field for me, my boss, and most (though not all) of our co-authors. Potentially hot new idea, and we ran it past some people in the field before submission, but I think we'd all rather get reviews (even terrible ones) so we can judge how far off-base we were before we send somewhere else if needed.

  • Bashir says:

    Since reviewers can be an issue, what actions, if any, do you take to get new reviewers? Or is it just always the "same old bunch".

  • proflikesubstance says:

    On the topic of reviewers preferentially agree to deal with papers from "known" labs or authors: Yeah, it does suck, but it is not impossible to find reviewers for lesser known people. I find it simply takes me a few more invites. It was not a trend, however, that I was expected. Bare in mind that the sample size is low, however.

    WRT finding reviewers, the journal has a keyword look-up function that one can use to search self-identified key words and the abstracts of each author's publications. I find this tool helpful and tend to invite reviews from people who have published in the journal b/c they are more likely to feel invested in it. However, I also use broader search engines to find reviewers so that it's not all clubby and stuff.

    FSGrad, Rejection sucks. But, if the result is rejection after 6 months or 6 days, I'm taking the latter. Reviews of manuscripts are not unlike reviews of proposals (`cause the same people are doing both), in that you can answer the reviews from one panel and then get hit with an entirely new set of demands by the next. Yes, you will likely get a feel for any major screw-ups, but time is a pretty important factor.

  • Mike says:

    As an author, reviewer and co-editor, my biggest complaint are those reviewers who agree to review a paper and send a note back with "Sounds okay to me" or something similar... Obviously they spent very little time with the manuscript. As an editor (and reviewer), I am constantly amazed by the authors who don't know how to use spell check or don't bother comparing their citations against their literature cited. ... and as an editor, I am dismayed by papers which list a whole crowd of co-authors when you know that one person did most of the writing, and some of the others are just "honorary" contributors.

  • Pascale says:

    Leaving authors off of a review request may get you reviewers with conflicts who then have to refuse to review. I have been asked to review the work of someone with whom I'm beginning a collaboration.

  • anon says:

    Pascale - this problem can be avoided at the time of manuscript submission by requesting that authors name individuals with whom they have a conflict of interest.

  • Got to agree with you on the rejection part. Recently, got a paper back after 3 revision, 3 months of wasted time and a rejection !. If they had rejected in the first week, I would have been happy.

  • profguy says:

    I have to admit that one thing I sometimes do is take my time responding to review requests. I do respond, but not quickly - particularly when I'm going to accept. The reason is that journals in my field have started being really twitchy about enforcing time limits on reviews - once you've had the paper for N weeks (typically 2-4) you start getting nasty (usually automated) emails with very high frequency telling you that your review is late. Some editors start them coming even before the review due date. I find this annoying but I often am so busy that I know I'll want or need more time; so I just respond later to the initial request. The clock doesn't start ticking til I agree to do the review. Yes, I could agree right away and just negotiate with the editor for more time, and sometimes I do that, but that takes more effort, and I find that even when I do that often the automated nagging emails come at the same time anyway because the editor doesn't know how to disable or delay them.

    I guess my behavior is somewhat passive-aggressive but it's also the path of least resistance (and I do good, thorough reviews).

  • Jim Thomerson says:

    In my core specialty, there are about six of us world wide. We review each other's papers and try to help each other have good publications.

    Here is my best review ever received (not core specialty), "I am sorry, but I lost the MS you sent for review. As I recall, it was very well written, and an important contribution. I recommend it be accepted for publication without revision."

  • phagenista says:

    - Ignoring a review request is a shitty thing to do.

    I have taken to waiting to accept review requests because a more pressing paper to review my cross may inbox in the intervening week. I am on two e-boards, so their papers have priority, even if I'm not in the exact subfield (one partial solution to the subfield cheater problem). So if you ask me to review something for another journal, and I get an email a couple days later from one of my e-board journals, then you get a polite declination on a paper I would have otherwise taken on. Given the confidentiality concerns, it's less shitty to make the handling editor wait than to drop out of the process post-acceptance.

    The only way I can be faster at replying is to decline immediately instead accepting some/many of the requests after a week.

    - If you sit on reviews, you lose the right to complain about time in review. Self explanatory, really.

    If you don't sit on reviews, you still get shabby turn around times. The current model has a terrible, exploitable incentive structure: you do crappy reviews, you sit on reviews, you refuse to review and a very small number of people know (the editors). You spend that time you might have contributed to improving others' papers in a timely fashion and write more of your own, and a large number of people will see your authorship.

    My constructive $0.02: I, and many TT profs I know, will review just about anything for a journal they have not reviewed for before (because then that single review becomes something to add to the CV). Since most of the TT profs in your journal's field probably have already reviewed for the journal, how about targeting newer reviewers, such as postdocs in the labs of people hitting to the keywords in your database. The younger you are in your scientific career, the more a review request comes across as a validation than a distraction from your own work, and a less prepared reviewer often puts in more time and effort in their review to compensate.

  • Joshua King says:

    I am an editor too, albeit for more of a "boutique" journal (more specialized and likely lower impact than the journal that you edit) and I'm curious how you feel about editorial rejection (without review). Over time I've had more and more trouble playing this role as I feel it is unethical to subject authors to only my opinion and to offer little or no review.

    The process is called "peer review" after all and in my opinion, editorial review is potentially a source of enormous bias, conscious or subconcious. Specifically, I've sent a few papers out for review that I thought were very weak, but outside my area of expertise, only to have them returned with solid reviews and eventual acceptance into the journal. There is also the issue of subconscious bias such as sexism and non-famousism that editors may not even be aware they are part of.

    I realize that some papers are obviously wrong for the journal or really poorly written, making editorial rejection easy, but many others are not so clear-cut. Anyhow, I'm just curious what others think.

  • proflikesubstance says:

    Josh, I think this is certainly ground for a lot of debate. The journal I am working with has recently made the move towards an increase in the reject without review (RWR) pool, after considerable discussion. As an AE, I would be more likely to test the peer-review waters with boarder line cases than not and only RWR clear examples of papers that do not fit the journal. In journals with high RWR rates, the AEs have considerably more latitude in this areas, which makes me a bit uncomfortable as well. While the argument can be made that it does still fallen with the peer review arena (AEs are often peers of those whose papers they handle), I would be inclined to be concerned about the biases you mention.

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