Last year I was the acting editor of an academic literary journal. I soon realized that academics are rarely trained in the art of peer review and that the process of editorial decision-making is seldom transparent. Based on my time in the editor’s chair, here is some advice for both writers and referees.
- Adhere to guidelines about length and citation style. Do not submit using Chicago Style and say that you will shift to MLA if the paper is accepted, as that is a giant red flag signaling that you do not see your article as part of the journal. Further, it undermines the professionalism of your work to say that you know you are 2,000 words over the word limit but are waiting for readers or the editor to suggest where to cut.
- While you can’t know who your referees will be, I can tell you who they might be. Upon submission, the editor draws up a list of potential referees. The first people on my list were often the ones in the article’s own Works Cited list (if publications are recent enough). The critics you write about are often the critics who serve as referees for your paper.
- When two people have said, “Yes, I will be part of the community and do this report,” the paper is sent out for review. However, more often, people say, “No, unfortunately I am too busy with my own work, sorry.” Remember that peer review relies on peers acting like peers. The system relies deeply on invisible labour and good academic citizenship.
- In spite of the guilt trip in the previous point, if you can’t do a report for a journal because you are stretched too thin or don’t feel comfortable with the topic, say no immediately. If you agree to referee an article, don’t leave it hanging for months. Many people are waiting on your report.
- As a referee, only your general assessment is being sought so you probably do not need to spend time line-editing.
- Tone matters: most people, but not all, are respectful in giving constructive feedback and advice for improvement. Although senior scholars tend to reject more papers and set the bar higher for originality than junior scholars, they also tend to be more generous with attention, feedback and tone.
- Writers should include a brief, and honest, synopsis of the paper’s original contribution to the field in the submission letter. Filling a gap is not enough.
- If there are two acceptances or two rejections when the readers’ reports come in, the editor’s decision is pretty straightforward. However, only once in my year as editor did a paper receive two acceptances right off the bat. Frequently the decision is to “revise and resubmit.” This is not a way of letting you down easily. It is the editor’s way of saying “I think this article has real potential so we will invest another dozen or two hours in it.
- While all peer-review comments should be taken into consideration, a common error is to rewrite an article entirely based on those comments, subsequently losing the original voice and argument. That said, when referees ask for something to be read, you must read it. The top reason for referees rejecting an article upon second reading last year was that “the author didn’t even bother to follow up on my reading suggestions.” Include a letter to the editor upon resubmission to outline the changes made and explain your response to the ones suggested but not made.
- Remember that a rejection is a rejection of the article in its current state, and not a rejection of you personally or of the article that might come out of the one you originally submitted.
- Last year, four people rejected my rejection of their papers. Two told me I was flat out wrong to reject them. Two were just mean, personal, and rude. Neither approach made me change my mind. I understand swearing at the editor when you get a tough report, but don’t press “send” on that adrenaline-powered email.
- Time is a huge issue for both writers and journals. Academic publishing is not fast because an article passes through many sets of eyes in both the editing and copyediting stages. You can certainly send a polite letter of inquiry about the status of your submission to a journal, but bottom line: be patient.
Laura Moss is an associate professor in the English department at the University of British Columbia. From July 2013 to June 2014, she served as the editor of Canadian Literature: A Quarterly of Criticism and Review.