During my tenure as the editor of a generalist sociology journal, I came to appreciate the need to help younger scholars seeking to get their work published better understand the editorial process. The popularity of “meet the editors” sessions at academic conferences attests to this need. From the viewpoint of these junior colleagues, the process often seems to be a mystery. Editors are viewed as wielding enormous power, while in the blind review system a veil of anonymity separates authors from those making judgments about their scholarship. And there is truth to this impression given that the editor will ultimately write a letter that seals the fate of the manuscript and in so doing points to particular comments provided by the reviewers to make the case.
One way of making the process less opaque is for authors to consider it from the perspective of the editor. To begin with, while outsiders tend to see the role as characterized by power, editors are inclined to understand what they are doing in terms of the responsibilities of the job. They have a responsibility to the journal, and to that end want to enhance its reputation and ranking. This can only happen if the manuscripts chosen for publication are of high quality and of interest to scholars in the field. The flip side of the quest for quality is avoiding making a mistake by publishing something of questionable value. Thus, the quest for that article that will really ring the impact factor bell is matched by the wish to not have a respected colleague ask, “How could you have published that piece of rubbish?”
Editors are gatekeepers. Quality journals receive far more submissions than they could possibly publish, even if all were publishable. Thus, editors are tasked with not only weeding out work that should not appear in print, but with selecting the very best among meritorious papers, and in helping authors transform a good paper into a better one. Does this sound presumptuous? After all, how can an editor be knowledgeable about the range of methodologies, theories, or areas of inquiry that fall under the big tent called “sociology”?
Here is where the peer reviewer role enters. Editors could not accomplish their goals without the willingness of experts in various disciplinary subfields to provide assessments of submissions. Thus, the quest to find the right reviewers for submissions is a constant time-consuming aspect of the job. Finding the person whose expertise is right for the specific manuscript at hand is part of the challenge. Finding a person who has the time at that moment to commit to writing a review is yet another aspect of the challenge. And the goal is to find three to five such reviewers. What does the editor hope to receive from these reviewers? The answer, in short, is a substantive, critical, yet fair review of the paper, with enough commentary to assist the editor in making an informed decision.
It’s on the basis of those reviews that the editor crafts a decision letter. The ideal letter is clear, explicit, and charitable without raising false hopes or expectations. When the decision is to reject, those letters are typically short, with the message being that there will be no further consideration of the paper. In the case of an unconditional accept (I wrote only one such letter in five years), the letter will also be brief: something along the lines of “congratulations, well done” will suffice. However, for a revise and resubmit or a conditional acceptance, the letter ought to offer concrete guidance and suggestions about what needs to be changed and how that might be accomplished. Given that reviewers frequently offer conflicting assessments, it behooves the editor to point the author to the comments that the editor takes to be most important. Since it is a common practice to share reviews among reviewers, as well as to share the decision letter, authors should not expect editors to write something along the lines of “reviewer C is way off base” or “you can ignore reviewer D’s comments altogether.” The key thing to remember is that the editor, and not the reviewers, is the person making that final call.
Once the decision letter arrives, the author needs to decipher the letter and to think through the reviewers’ commentaries. How to do that is a topic for another post. What is crucial here is to realize that I have described the ideal. Not all reviewers are ideal reviewers, and not all editors are ideal editors. This is a simple truth all too obvious to any experienced author. However, as someone who has lived the peer review process for several decades as author, editor, and reviewer, I can state with conviction that the vast majority of editors and reviewers strive for the ideal. What we have is an imperfect but functional system.
Peter Kivisto is the Richard A. Swanson Professor of Social Thought at Augustana College and Head of the Research Laboratory on Transnationalism and Migration Processes at St. Petersburg State University. His research focuses on immigration, social integration, and civil society. His most recent book is National Identity in an Age of Migration (Routledge, 2016).
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