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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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 …