Leah Fargotstein, a social science journals editor at SAGE, recently sat on a panel where she was asked some basic, yet essential questions about being published in a scholarly journal. Here’s a version, first posted at SAGE Connection, of what she had to say:
Abstracts are basically summaries of articles. They function as “teasers” so readers can get an overview of your article before deciding to read the entire piece. In an online world, abstracts also make your article easier to find via search engines, since abstracts are free for everyone to read. In the space of around 250 words, an abstract should answer three basic questions:
What is your research question?
How did you go about answering that question?
What are your findings?
Some journals require structured abstracts which delineate exactly which subjects should be addressed in which part of the abstract. These abstracts provide a more organized framework for the reader to ensure authors are summarizing their articles precisely. Structured abstracts are more popular in science and medical fields than in the social sciences, but this is beginning to change in the social science scholarly community as well.
Certainly don’t send your paper onto the editor and ask if it would be appropriate for the journal – you’re asking for the work of the peer review process without actually submitting.
2. How much effort should one put into formatting the submission according to the guidelines? Is it a make-or-break proposition?
The answer to this question really depends on the journal and the editor. For any journal with high submissions and a low acceptance rate, it very well could be. At best, an editor will send out the paper that is poorly edited for review and the article author will have to reformat the paper if it is accepted. Given the various endnote programs and style guides out there for academic papers, it is always better to format the paper correctly in the first place.
3. How long does a submission review usually take?
Standards vary from field to field, so it might be helpful to ask your colleagues and mentors what you should expect for typical journals in your field. To give you a rough idea, the first review can range from 30-60 days in the science and medical fields and 30-90 days in the humanities and social sciences, depending on the journal, the time of year, and the discipline.
Responses to a paper that has been revised & resubmitted are typically faster, but not always, especially if a reviewer doesn’t respond. In fact, reviewer fatigue has been a problem for all journals. Peer reviewers are thorough in their work, and they are often professors who are busy working on their own research as well. Be patient with a journal’s editor, but feel free to ask politely about the status of your paper if you think the time taken is much longer than your discipline’s standard. If you have a special circumstance, such as an imminent tenure or promotion review, make sure to note this in your email. Editors might be able to expedite the process if they know about this.
4. Please explain the editorial decision of Reject, Revise & Resubmit, or Accept with Revisions. If you use other decision markers, please describe those, too.
While the responses vary by journal and I am not the editor of a specific journal, I can discuss briefly the general responses that someone submitting a paper might receive. First, there are two kinds of rejections journals typically give: the first is a desk rejection, and the second is a rejection with review. The former generally involves the editor and perhaps another member or members of the editorial board or team reading the manuscript and determining that it is not appropriate for review. These decisions are often related to the scope of the paper, poor quality writing, poor research design, or other factors that the editor thinks will reduce or eliminate the article’s chances of getting through the peer review process. The editor will explain the exact reasons in the rejection letter. A rejection with review means the editor found the article compelling enough to send out for review, but the reviewers of the article found the paper lacking in some way. For high-submission journals, reviewers may have found the paper compelling, too, but the editor must make a decision on whether they found it compelling enough to publish, given the limited space available to journals.
A Revise & Resubmit (R&R) response means that the reviewers and editors found flaws or missing pieces in the paper, but think that, with some changes, the paper could be publishable. This is not a guarantee of publication, but it isn’t a rejection either. Almost all papers that are eventually published start out as R&Rs, though it depends on the selectivity of journal whether most R&Rs are eventually published. An editor may give you an indication of your chances for an eventual acceptance in your decision letter. The editor will also be able to give you a general direction of change that should be made, especially when reviewers give conflicting advice.
Accept with Revision decisions are very rare on a first review. These mean that if you make the changes indicated in the decision letter, your article will be accepted. This is what you might expect to see after a successful R&R.
5. When an author gets comments back on an article from reviewers, in what amount of time should the author expect to reply to those comments for the revision?
Again, the amount of time can vary, but certainly not the next day, or even week. Revisions take time, and editors know this. Depending on the extent of changes requested, revisions can take anywhere from a couple weeks for minor tweaks to six months or more for new data collection and analysis. An editor may give you a deadline for revisions. If you think you won’t be able to meet the deadline, ask for an extension and explain the circumstances. The worst answer you can get is a no, and at least you’ll know before you start putting in the effort to make substantial changes.
6. Some people like to email the editor of a journal before submitting an article. Do you advise that? When would you or when would you not?
If you have a question about the scope of the journal or other specifics of the journal not answered on the journal’s website, then you can email the editor. Otherwise, I would advise against it. If you want to explain your paper in any way, submit a cover letter with it if the journal allows you to do so. Certainly don’t send your paper onto the editor and ask if it would be appropriate for the journal – you’re asking for the work of the peer review process without actually submitting. At most, you could send along the abstract, but don’t expect a detailed response. Editors are busy people, and reviewing submitted manuscripts is their first priority. A better tactic is to email an associate editor or editorial board member and ask them about the journal’s process. They may be able to give you more detail and more of their time.
7. From the editorial perspective, what makes a great journal article submission?
Again, this will vary widely by journal, but a well-written article is always appreciated. An article with clear and sound methods addressing the readers of the journal, with an innovative, developed thesis stands a higher chance of being accepted just about anywhere.
8. What should a person submitting an article for consideration NEVER do?
I think you can probably glean from the above, but never send your full article to the editor outside of the submission process; never be rude to an editor; never try to find out who is reviewing your article; never assume you know who is reviewing your article – as I’ve heard from nearly every editor, likely, you are wrong even if you are sure you’re right; and if your article has been rejected, never email the editor immediately after receiving a rejection. Even if you have questions or feel like there was a major issue in the process, take at least a week and then reread the decision letter. If you still feel like you should write an email, have a diplomatic colleague review it before hitting “send.” And never, ever submit your paper to multiple journals at the same time. Wait for a rejection from one before submitting to another.
9. Other tips/tricks about how to make a submission stand out?
If you have the chance to submit an early draft of your paper to a conference, do so. Conferences are great for getting initial comments and advice from experienced authors who know your field. If not, get comments from colleagues at your institution. Follow all the submission guidelines. If you’ve never written a paper before, or think you could use some help with the process, Writing Your Journal Article in Twelve Weeks is a good resource. If you receive a rejection with suggested changes, take those changes into account before you submit to another journal. The reviewer pool for many disciplines is small – the same reviewer could very well be reviewing your article at another journal.
Most importantly, make sure your paper is as polished as it can be before you submit. You may be waiting weeks or even months to receive an initial decision. Don’t spend your time thinking of all the changes you could’ve made while you’re waiting for a decision.