Journal Submissions, Part 1: Experiencing the (Often Unjustifiably Painful) Evaluations

This is the first post in a two-part series on the evaluation process for articles submitted to journals. [Update: the second part has been posted.] In this first post, I (RDH) will describe a few of my more colourful experiences in the publishing game. In the second post, we (RDH and JAC) will offer our thoughts on the flip-side: the task of the reviewer/editorial board member. The numerous difficult experiences I’ve (RDH) had in getting articles accepted have decisively informed my behaviour as a board member and ad hoc reviewer. For John, the authorial experiences have been happier, but besides serving as an ad hoc reviewer he’s also seen the publishing issues from the “other side” in his former work as an editor. Both posts together serve as our appeal for editors and reviewers to—at the same time— impose more rigorous standards and make sure submissions are reviewed carefully and objectively.

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What do you do when, after submitting an article to a journal and waiting month after month for the decision, you receive reviewer’s feedback that either bewilders or angers you? What is your second, calm response (that is, the response after your preferred method of catharsis)? If you’re anything like me, you get the short but heated rant out of the way and face a decision and a promise. The decision is whether to send the article to another journal, with or without revision. The promise is to yourself, that when the time comes and you serve on an editorial board or act as an external reviewer, you will be critical and fair and won’t act as a gate-keeper of ideas, but one of rigour, logic, and clarity.

My own walk down the publishing road has been somewhat bumpy. Writing biblical Hebrew and Northwest Semitic linguistics articles means that I often have difficulties deciding where my article might fit best. The hardest articles are those that make some connection to a biblical book, because the most desirable outlet is then a biblical studies journal, but those journals often balk at a language-heavy (especially one that is linguistically oriented) article. The worry about readership and they have problems finding qualified reviewers (in my opinion, of course). For whatever reason many biblical studies journals seem unwelcoming of such interdisciplinary work and I’ve never found it easy to get my articles accepted.

For some of you, perhaps hearing about my publishing bumps will offer comfort and encouragement; or maybe they’ll simply be entertaining. For those of you who serve or will likely serve on editorial boards, I hope you take something valuable away from this post.

Below are six examples from my file of publishing failure. Each example highlights something that went terribly wrong with the submission-and-evaluation process. By the way, I’m not encouraging the emulation of my responses described below; I offer them as part of the narrative, recognizing that in some cases my chutzpa and frustration got the better of me. And, if you feel so disposed, we welcome tales of your own experience in the comment section.

Example 1:

Occasion: I sent in a manuscript to a journal, waited 3 months, and received the hard-copy back with reviewer’s comments, along with the rejection letter. The editor’s comments simply indicated that the article was not appropriate for the journal (ambiguous but fair). The reviewer’s notes on the manuscript included, among other similar comments, “Yuck!” in the margin. Now, readers, I ask you—is this *ever* appropriate academic behaviour? The comment wasn’t located at some egregious grammatical error (English or Hebrew), but t was in response to an argument I was making about word order.

 

My response: I pointed out this reprehensible behaviour to the editor, who promptly apologized and indicated that the reviewer would be warned.

 

The end result: I have not sent in another article that journal. I also made minor revisions and submitted the article in question to another journal, which accepted it in a 2-week submission-acceptance process.

Example #2:

Occasion: Before I sent the Ruth/Jonah article to the journal in example #1, I sent it to different journal. I waited 2 months and then emailed the editor (whom I knew personally) to ask if there had been any feedback. To my astonishment, s/he wrote back that the article had not been sent out to a reviewer yet. Why not, you ask (as I asked)? Because my views differed from the editor’s own doctoral students and s/he wanted me (at this point 5 years beyond my phd) to revise my views before it even went to a reviewer!

 

My response: I rather bluntly (but politely, mind you) suggested that this was quite unacceptable and I retracted the article.

 

The end result: I have published in that journal since, but remain suspicious and almost expect biased treatment now. That article then went through the experience in Example #1.

Example #3:

Occasion: I submitted an article in which I indicated towards the end that there might be grammatical mistakes in the biblical text. Within a longer,generally positive review, a reviewer took issue with this statement about grammatical mistakes in the biblical text, calling it hubris to suggest this.

 

My response: I calmly wrote the editor that I would fix the typos pointed out, etc., but that I would not remove my suggestion because I view the language of the texts of the Hebrew Bible to represent normal human communication and so no different in this way from any ancient text—and philologists are not opposed to suggesting grammatical errors in ancient texts.  (If one wants to take a theological position regarding the text, in my opinion it should lie with the message, not the grammar; in any case, the journal was not a theological one and so I felt the entire issue to be irrelevant.)

 

The end result: My article was published with the statement suggesting grammatical errors in the biblical text and I put in a footnote explaining myself.

Example #4:

Occasion: For a number of years I had a finished article sitting in my files. I had tried to submit it to a journal, but it had been rejected without much comment. So I waited a number of years (thinking that the editorial board might change and so also the external reviewers) and submitted it again to the same journal — I had made only minor revisions. It was again rejected, this time with inexplicable claims that some medieval rabbinic commentator had made a decisive argument *against* my analysis. I say “inexplicable” because the quote from the medieval commentary provided actually *supported* my argument.

 

My response: I pointed this out the editor, who still decided to reject the article.

 

The end result: I turned around and submitted that article to another journal, for which it was accepted with minimal comment (and what comment was made was helpful).

Example #5:

Occasion: Right at the end of my doctoral work, I submitted a conference paper I had written (which had received a regional SBL graduate student award) to a journal. The editor reviewed it him/herself and turned the submission down. Primary among the comments were an objection to a few of my footnotes where I took senior Hebraists (who were writing “linguistic” article) to task for using terminology quite out-of-sync with linguistic convention. The footnotes were at places where they made sense, since the issue of terminology can be both important and confusing. The editor suggested I sit on the article for a few years until my thinking on the topic “matured”.

 

My response: I wrote back to the editor asking for suggestions for other journals which might be better suited for my article. (I, of course, had ignored the maturation comment and took the other comments to indicate that my submission was simply “too linguistic” for the journal—a comment I have received from other editors). The editor wrote back with the simple reiteration of his “maturation of thinking on the topic” comment and that he suggested not publishing the article at all until that happened. (Ironically, it’s 10 years later and I’ve studied quite a few more syntactic issues, read a lot more linguistics, and when I returned tot his article 3 years ago and then again this year, my conclusion was … that I would change very, very little. I’m going to update the terminology and bibliography and submit it again next Fall. Either I haven’t “matured” in my thinking, or the editor’s advice was poorly given.)

 

The end result: I submitted the article to a second journal. That story is in Example #6.

Example #6:

Occasion: I submitted the article of Example #5 to another journal. I waited the standard three months. I finally received the one-paragraph letter from the editor indicating that s/he declined the article. There was no explanation. The manuscript was returned as well, but there were only a couple of insignificant punctuation comments on the first two pages (key the sinister music).

My response: Being a curious young scholar (with more than my fair share of chutzpa), I emailed the editor and asked him/her if s/he had the time to explain where my article needed work. Incredibly, the answer the editor gave was that s/he hadn’t read past the 2nd page and simply deemed it “too language-oriented” for the journal! This was a particularly hard line to buy, since that journal has published many language-oriented articles over its long and prominent history.

 

End of result: As I indicated above in Example #5, I have twice in the past 3 years taken this article out to see just how bad it was (even though it had won a regional SBL prize). It is a good study and while I will take the opportunity to update it after 10 years, there is very little I need to do with regard to the actual analysis. But the sad moral of the story is that two editors—one condescending and arrogant and the other essentially negligent in his/her duty to provide constructive feedback—kept an article from publication for over 10 years. I suspect that this story is a familiar one to many scholars, except that in many cases the article is left in the file for good.

Rather than simply posting a collection of sob stories as a form of public exposure-cum-catharsis, I describe these experiences to illustrate what can be learned from them, indeed, what I *have* learned from them. In the next post, we’ll take our experiences and mould them into advice for evaluating articles. We think the field in general (not every journal and certainly not every reviewer, but in general) has swerved off course. Indeed, one could argue that it is not a good thing that I was able to move from one journal to another with the same article. Assuming that the articles fit the goals of the journals involved (and they did), either those articles were simply too poor for publication, or something was wrong with the evaluation process.

To be continued …


18 Responses to “Journal Submissions, Part 1: Experiencing the (Often Unjustifiably Painful) Evaluations”

  1. Reflections on Journal Submissions Says:

    […] at the Ancient Hebrew Grammar blog the first of a planned two part post is up concerning the ups and downs of submitting work to journals.  […]

  2. Robert C. Kashow Says:

    This was enjoyable. As someone getting ready to submit a handful of articles for the first time, I appreciate knowing what lies ahead.

    • robertholmstedt Says:

      Robert,

      I used to get really wound up about it and the months of waiting were tense. For each of my articles, I had mentors and colleagues read the draft before I sent it off, so I knew they were publication quality. I recommend this immensely. Cultivate a small group of trusted readers who won’t pull any punches with your work. Then you’ll be confident in the quality of your article regardless what happens with the journal.

      Unfortunately, what the current system has taught me is that it’s a crap shoot; on the positive side, I’ve learned the good lesson that it’s not worth getting bent out of shape over the results.

      • Robert C. Kashow Says:

        Yeah, I have set up stages of feedback for essays. The first stage is my friends. The second stage are profs I know well. The third stage are those I do research for and/or reading the paper at a conference. The fourth stage is to try to get at least one top scholar to read it.

  3. Charles Halton Says:

    I’ve had experiences on both ends of the spectrum. In one case I submitted an essay to a very good European journal and did not get any feedback other than a curt decline; no reason was given why they didn’t accept it. So, I sent it to a correspondingly good North American journal and it was accepted with no issues.

    I sent another essay to foreign journal and received incredibly detailed and helpful comments–over 75 in total. The journal published the article and the anonymous referee improved my paper immensely. It is amazing how quirky referees can be–from giving absolutely no feedback to more than I ever expected or hoped.

    • robertholmstedt Says:

      Charles,

      It is indeed amazing how quirky referees can be. For my part, I take between 2 days and 40 days to get to an article, depending on the busy-ness of the term. But I do try to give equal treatment to each of the submissions. And to be honest, I think the 75 comments you experienced should be our goals (unless an article is just so good there is little to say about it!).

      (Clarification: 40 days from the time the article has been sent from the journal—it typically take Canada Post at least 10 days to get to me! I I try very hard to write up my evaluation well before this outside margin.)

  4. Calvin Says:

    Very helpful. I fall into the category of not-yet-published, but hoping to be in the not too distant future. Both part 1 and part 2 of this series have helped to prepare me in different ways for the process; much appreciated.

  5. Chris Says:

    I have repeatedly had editors promise to send an article out to reviewers and then never, ever get back to me even when I write to request a status update on the article. I’m sure I don’t have to tell you that I find this very annoying. If you’re not going to accept my piece, at least tell me that so I know I can send it somewhere else.

    I also submitted one paper that critiqued a theory advanced by a particular historian. The critique was not personal, but it was pretty thoroughgoing. The journal I submitted it to apparently sent it to the scholar I had critiqued for review. He not only misread several of my arguments, but also made his review extremely personal. He accused me of calling him a liar (which I didn’t), and said some very insulting things about me and my work. The end result was that I removed all explicit references to this historian from the text of the article and submitted to another journal, which gladly accepted it.

    • robertholmstedt Says:

      Chris,
      Your first example is inexcusable. Your second one is just unforgivable. If the editor had concerns about how pointed your article was, then asking you to revise is one thing. But sending it to the historian whose work you’ve critiqued? Good grief. What an atrocious example of the “buddy club” approach to publishing.
      Thanks for sharing the examples.

  6. Tim Bulkeley Says:

    I’ve had almst equally varied experiences, even from the same Journal (one article very quickly accepted, the next long delay and refusal with n explanation or report at all) as well as one where it took two YEARS to get a reply. As well as god experiences wi8th very helpful comments.

    As a reviewer I try fr the helpful comments, even if I’m recmmending refusal, the time taken varies frm a few days to many weeks depending on when an article comes to me and just how busy I am :(

    • robertholmstedt Says:

      Tim,

      Thanks for commenting!

      There’s no doubt that evaluating submissions takes time. I’ve come to view it like an administrative job in an academic department, which means that if one truly cannot commit the time necessary, the opportunity should be declined until a later point in one’s career. This seems to be even more the case with the fuller job of editor. I cannot imagine taking on such a task unless I was willing to slow my research down to a crawl.

  7. Tim Bulkeley Says:

    I think journals should set themselves standards. A certain maximum time delay (even if it means sending a paper to another reviewer to bypassa blockage), some useful feedback. I also think it right that editors should return some papers saying “This does not fit our journal because…” (That does not constitute a comment on the examples you gave, just that such a response can introduce useful triage to speed the system for everyone.)

  8. Robert C. Kashow Says:

    Question:

    Re: Publication Submissions — In your experience, how long was the turn around time for JBL, JTS, and CBQ?

    • robertholmstedt Says:

      Are you asking about receiving the feedback and decision or seeing the article in print?

      • Robert C. Kashow Says:

        Feedback and decision. But I wouldn’t mind hearing the time table on the later, as well. Grateful for your time.

      • robertholmstedt Says:

        On the evaluation side, it’s a bit hard to be specific, since there is sometimes more than one reviewer and, not having been an editor, I’m not sure of the amount of time the turn-around takes in terms of mail, receiving the articles, assigning, etc. So I’ll just comment on what I’ve been able to reconstruct.

        First, allow for a couple weeks (?) for the article to arrive at the editor’s office, be assigned, etc., Then allow for 1-3 months for the review and feedback (sometimes longer; e.g., JSOT says they give 6 months for the review process! I once waited 6 months, heard nothing, a decided to send my article to another journal, only to receive word that the reviewer decided to read my article in the 7th month.)

        For my part, I’ve turned around reviews in 2 days, but sometimes (at certain busy points in the terms or due to travel) it’s taken me 30 days. I have little idea, though, how quickly the author receives my feedback after I submit it to the editor.

        And, of course, even it your article is accepted, it may not see the light of day for years. I’ll let John speak for the journals he’s published in. For myself, it has ranged from 2-3 weeks with Journal of Hebrew Scriptures (one of the best things about an online journal!) to nearly 2 yrs with JSS (a impressively quick review but then a long time in the publication queue). From the other end, I’ve seen articles I’ve reviewed come out anywhere from 6 months to a year.

        It’s different with each journal. The best piece of advice I can give is this: be patient with every step of the process. (I’ve not always followed this advice myself, but it’s good nonetheless.)

      • Robert C. Kashow Says:

        Thanks. Helpful.

        Also good to know about JHS. I’m reviewing two books for them currently and glad it will come out quickly.


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