dear author,

I spent a lot of time reviewing the manuscript you sent to Journal A. I don’t have a lot of free time, but I take my duty as an academic citizen seriously, and I read your manuscript carefully. I took special care to word my feedback in a way that was as constructive as possible. I know it can be tough to read comments about your paper’s quite serious shortcomings, so I made sure to also emphasize the good parts of the paper and to recommend a successful direction to take the next version. It’s hard to see that the other reviewers agreed that the paper wasn’t ready, and that it was rejected.

However, as tempting as it is to blow off the feedback from three reviewers and just send the same paper, with a slightly different title and a verbatim abstract, to another journal, please don’t. Chances are, at least one of the reviewers will be the same person as the last time, and even though we can pretend that I don’t know who you are right now (but you have heard of google, right?), it is just a matter of time before your work is presented at a conference or published in a journal, and your identity will be clear to that person, who works in your area, and whom you have just pissed off. And it’s a small, small world.

All the best,
Tina

15 thoughts on “dear author,”

  1. Hey, Tina, you may be taking this too personally. Yes, I’ve had the same experience (often, actually) and it is annoying.

    But on the other end is probably an untenured person who is trying to get publications, and may be getting advice to just resubmit the paper elsewhere rather than revise. I’ve personally heard other senior people give that advice to junior people. When do senior people advise not revising? If the reviews tell you to fix basically fixable things and you agree with the reviewers, you ought to fix them. But if the reviews tell you to do a whole new project (as they not infrequently do with weak papers and sometimes with strong ones), or you think the reviewers are misinformed or biased against your type of work or just misguided in their advice, you have two choices: throw the paper away entirely, or try elsewhere. Also, if the author has moved on to another project, s/he may just not want to invest the time in reworking an old paper and may try to see whether something can be salvaged from the old project as a line on the cv, especially if the next journal submitted to is considerably lower in prestige than the first.

    I’m not advocating publishing bad work and have personally sat on papers that had problems so they never got published, rather than send out something that had problems, but I can certainly understand the pressures on young people, especially if your job just counts publications without reading them for quality.

    In any event, having reviewed it before, you get to tell the editor that you’ve already read the paper and don’t need to read it again. Depending on the editor, s/he will either ask for your old review, or recuse you from the new review. Either way you are off the hook.

    It’s also perhaps worth remembering that there are some good papers (including some highly-cited groundbreaking papers) that collect negative reviews for a variety of reasons and have made the rounds of quite a few journals before finally finding a home.

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    1. I’m basically with OW on this. If something would take a few minutes or even a few hours to fix, then it’s infuriating for authors not to fix it. On the other hand comments along the lines of “completely rewrite your lit review” or “engage in a new data collection effort and/or convoluted modeling approach” are ones where I can definitely understand why, the brilliance of my comments notwithstanding, an author might have figured it’s not worth the effort. This is particularly the case when you appreciate the difference between “this is just flat wrong” to “this could improve the paper to bring it up to the caliber expected in a flagship.” Ignoring the latter is entirely appropriate when a paper that was rejected at ASR/AJS gets submitted at a specialty. Also, the demarcation between “wrong” and “improvement” is fuzzy when it comes to issues like trying alternate model specifications.

      I recently had this experience as a reviewer and I was livid that they didn’t fix the thing that would have taken one minute even as I took it in stride that they also hadn’t done anything about a much more important (but more onerous to address) specification error.

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  2. PS I realize that in some cases, I’ve known of senior people who repeatedly ignore my advice as an anonymous reviewer, and end up publishing papers that have what I consider to be grievous errors in them. (There are some people whose work you know well enough to recognize it in a blind review.)

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  3. I understand the pressure to publish and the time constraints that junior faculty are under. However, there is also a cost to being disrespectful of the time and energy that blind reviewers have committed to your work. Personally, I am super nice and would never ever hold an indiscretion like that against anyone. Are all sociologists so nice? I guess that’s the call you are making when you send something out unchanged.

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  4. Tina, I confess I committed the sin you describe. Fortunately you don’t review in my field (I hope not, anyway). But I think OlderWoman and Gabriel have the right responses. On the margin, in many cases, making one set of reviewer’s suggested changes before exposing the paper to a new set of reviewers is a waste of time. In my area, even experienced and careful reviewers can have wildly different opinions about a manuscript. Except (as the others have noted) for fixing obvious errors, revising according to reviewer A’s wishes probably does little to improve the paper in the eyes of reviewer B.

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  5. I’ve had this happen in the past year, as well. I explained the situation to the editor, and sent her a copy of my prior review of the paper. I’m not sure whether/how she used it in the review process. In any case, am relieved to read here that this was an appropriate response (though, at the time, it felt not very nice…).

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  6. The problem is that with a rejection the author never gets to write back (as she would with an R&R) to explain why she’s rejected the reviewers’ recommendations. If she thinks they’re wrong, it’s appropriate for her to just resubmit somewhere else. But it’s also *very* appropriate for the same reviewer to send the same review, or even a harsher one, on the second go-round.

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  7. So,hmm, these days most journals don’t send you the MS until you agree to review. So does this mean people are agreeing to review a MS that sounds really similar to one you’ve reviewed for another journal without telling the editor that you’ve already seen it before? Or are you saying that you don’t recognize that it is the same until after you say yes and download the MS? Even if the MS has been substantially revised, don’t you owe it to the editor to them them that you’ve seen the MS before and have been able to influence it? As I said above, in my experience, some editors feel it is “double jeopardy” to generate the same negative review twice for different journals and don’t want to see my negativity, while others want to see what bad things I had to say the last time. I feel that at a minimum I have the obligation to inform the editor about my prior experience with the paper.

    FYI I’ve also had the experience of seeing again a MS I liked on the previous go-round that got rejected despite my positive review. In that case, I don’t feel bad at all about giving another positive review to another journal, but I still tell the editor.

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  8. Maybe too tangential, but one more story. I was involved some years ago as a reviewer with a paper that ultimately got published after a couple of rounds of R&R. The author was being pushed in opposite directions by me and another strong reviewer: the things he did to please me made the other reviewer unhappy. I’m sure he felt whipsawed, although the ultimate result was success. The other reviewer turned out to be someone who is a friend despite our theoretical disagreements, so we compared notes on what had gone on with this paper. Point of the story: it’s important as a reviewer to remember that we do our best to say what we really think but to remember that sometimes there is another point of view.

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  9. I declined the 2nd review based on the unchanged title and abstract and then sent a note to the editor explaining why I declined. I would love to hear what others do.

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  10. I agree with olderwoman (9): you do your best with your review for a journal, and then the authors are free to do whatever they want with it–including ignore those recommendations if they think you’re wrong (as andrew perrin says). I think you owe the profession and the author one thorough review, and that you should recuse yourself from commenting on a paper you’ve already had a hack at.
    Maybe you were right in identifying fatal flaws. Maybe the authors got it right–or at least were able to fool a different set of reviewers. Either way, I think you take one crack.
    When this happens to me (as reviewer), I write: I’m sorry, but I’ve reviewed this piece for another journal, and can’t review it again.
    Invariably, I wind up with another piece from the journal within a week. Sigh.

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  11. Since SLACer does not have comments enabled, I’ll respond here. The most important part of the “blind” process is that the reviewee does not know who the reviewer is, because most people will write candid reviews even of their friends, under the protection of anonymity. People who don’t want to hurt their friends mostly just refuse to review a bad paper from a friend. Enemies are a different problem. But if you are unknown, you hopefully don’t have any enemies out to get you because they recognize who you are. And even enemies are constrained not to look like they are exercising personal vendettas to the journal editors who know who they are. And journal editors do get to know the axes of personal or ideological or theoretical conflict.

    I personally have never Googled to learn the author of a bad paper, because I’d rather not know. I have Googled to see who the author of a good paper is. And, by implication, I don’t Google before reading the paper.

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