A while ago, there was a healthy debate in the Proceedings of the APA about the amount of time that journals take to get a decision back to authors who have submitted papers. This discussion has thankfully been picked up here, over on Brian Weatherson’s blog, and we at PEA Soup think that it is worth furthering the discussion by endorsing the following proposals about this and other related issues:
(1) Journals should publish statistics on the time between the receipt of a manuscript and the notification of the author of the initial decision.
(2) Journals should publish statistics on the time between the acceptance of a manuscript and its appearance in print.
(3) Journals should make public the details of the journal’s editorial procedures, as Analysis, the Philosophical Review, and the Australasian Journal of Philosophy do on their respective web sites. (These sites describe, for instance, the various stages of the review process, how decisions are reached, and whether the process is blind or not.)
(4) Journals should keep the requirements in preparing manuscripts for submission to a bare minimum. Authors should not have to ensure that their manuscripts conform to the journal’s style at the submission stage. Of course, some requirements that will make the review of manuscripts easier on editors and referees — such as, double-spacing and wide margins — are in order.
(5) Journals ought to notify authors of receipt of their manuscripts and where possible indicate the approximate time needed for evaluation. After this period of time, inquiries from the author concerning the status of his or her submission should be met with a prompt and courteous reply.
(6) In keeping with the Association of Philosophy Journal Editors’ guidelines on the handling manuscripts: “If articles are held for two months or more, letters of rejection shall normally include one of the following: a) the comments of the referees, b) a brief summary of the referee’s comments, or c) the editor’s reasons for rejecting the paper.”
(7) Where feasible, the review of an article should be double-blind. Neither the referees nor the editors charged with making a decision should know the identity of the author.
Let us emphasize both that these are merely proposals (to stimulate discussion) and that we take these ought-statements to be defeasible — thus, we can imagine circumstances, where a journal ought not, all things considered, adhere to one or more of the above seven. Let us also note what should be obvious: these are prescriptive, not descriptive, claims. We readily acknowledge that many, perhaps most journals, are commendable with respect to our concerns. Now with these caveats in mind, let us provide some justifications for our proposals.
Justifications for (1)-(3): For many of us in the profession, whether an article gets published by a certain date affects our chances of securing employment, receiving tenure, or getting a promotion. Given the high stakes involved, potential contributors to a journal need to make informed decisions as to where they should submit their manuscripts. Now many journals, such as Ethics, annually publish some of their vital statistics (e.g., numbers of manuscripts received, manuscripts accepted, manuscripts accepted after revision, etc.). These statistics are crucial to authors in making informed decisions. But in addition to statistics about acceptance rates, it would be helpful if journals provided statistics about the length of time between submission and the initial and final decisions. Specifically, it would be helpful if journals would publicize in each case the mean, the median, the 25th and 75th percentiles, and the extreme long and shorts of the prior year. Also, it’s important for authors to know how their manuscripts will be reviewed and whether they will likely receive any comments back. Will the process be blind? Will it always be sent out to referees? In the event that it is sent out to referees, will the referees’ comments be passed on to the author? Many who are just starting out or who are at the beginning of their careers are still learning how best to write publishable papers. They are, for the most part, reliant on the valuable feedback that referees and editors provide to learn how to do this. Those starting out may also be concerned that their ideas will not be taken as seriously as the ideas of those who are well known to the editor or referees. Thus some authors will want to ensure that their manuscripts are blind reviewed. For all these reasons, we propose that journals respect authors’ rights to make informed decisions by providing them with the information needed to do so.
Justification for (4): The typical journal has an acceptance rate somewhere between five and fifteen percent. Clearly, then, most potential contributors will be submitting to a number of different journals (although, hopefully, not concurrently). It seems, therefore, unnecessarily burdensome to require authors to revise their manuscripts each time so that they conform to each journal’s style guidelines. It also seems unnecessarily burdensome to require authors to submit abstracts or biographical notes unless these items will be used in the review process. Thus we encourage journals to make or keep their requirements for submissions to the bare minimum needed to facilitate the review process.
Justification for (5): Letters, e-mails, and manuscripts can get lost or misplaced, and major delays due to the transfer of a journal’s editorship are known to happen. Authors should, therefore, be told upfront when they should expect to receive an initial decision, and this estimate should take into account any anticipated delays. This will give authors the opportunity to withdraw their submission if the anticipated delay is too considerable and will let authors know when they should inquire as to the status of their submissions. It’s terrible to wait patiently for five months only to learn that your manuscript has been misplaced and hasn’t gone out to referees yet. If only you had known that you should have received a decision two months ago, the error could have been uncovered then.
Justification for (6): If an article is held for more than two months, this normally means that it has been sent out to one or more referees. In this case, it should be possible to provide the author with the referees’ comments or, barring that, a brief statement of the editor’s reasons for rejecting the paper. Editors and referees provide an invaluable and largely uncompensated service, but this service should not be construed narrowly to include only the vetting of submissions. Just as important is the fact that editors and referees provide valuable feedback to authors that help them improve their papers.
Justification for (7): Most of us have some sort of bias or another. For instance, it would be difficult for most of us to evaluate a paper that is bold and suggestive the same way whether we knew it was written by some no-name graduate student or an internationally renowned philosopher. Even more worrisome is the possibility that some will have a bias against women or minorities. It seems best, then, to avoid any potential for bias by making the process double-blind where feasible.
Signed: Dan Boisvert, Josh Glasgow, Doug Portmore, and Dave Shoemaker