How to make scientific publication more efficient: Enforce deadlines without mercy, eliminate revise-and-resubmit

Most linguists know that the way we publish our papers could be more efficient (and this of course extends to other disciplines). Many of us could tell stories about how long we waited for a paper in an edited volume to come out (just last week saw the appearance of a book with a paper of mine that was presented at a conference in the spring of 2008 and was hardly changed in the meantime).

What can we do to improve the situation? In this post, I have two concrete suggestions which will surprise some of my colleagues, but which I think could make a real difference. In a wider perspective, these suggestions are not radical at all, because some people are now suggesting that the very principle of selective publication should be abandoned. I think that one can make publication significantly more efficient without such a radical (and in my view undesirable) step.

Proposal (1): Enforce deadlines for reviewers very strictly, e.g. a deadline (for linguistics papers) of six weeks. How can this be achieved? Here’s my proposal: If the editor does not get two reviews within six weeks, the paper counts as rejected. This may sound unfair – after all, it’s not the author’s fault that the editor didn’t find at least two reviewers who were able to send their report within six weeks.

But quick rejection is not about fairness – it’s about efficiency. Waiting for months and months for tardy reviewers is hopelessly inefficient, and thus unfair to the author (and to the readers, thus to the entire discipline). If the author gets a quick rejection plus the admission that two reviewers were not found, then she can submit the paper to a different journal and recommend to her colleagues that they should avoid this journal in the future. Thus, editors will make great efforts to find at least two reviewers within the specified time frame, because they want to continue to publish the best research.

Proposal (2): After the specified time frame (as mentioned, I’d suggest six week for linguistics), deliver an accept or reject verdict. Revise-and-resubmit is inefficient. It creates a lot of extra work for authors and editors. It is the journal editor’s task to select the best papers from among those that were submitted. Revise-and-resubmit makes sense only on the view that it’s the editor’s and reviewers’ task to help the author “improve” the paper. But are they omniscient? All too often, authors modify their paper to please the editor and the reviewers, and not because they believe that the change constitutes a true improvement. But changing one’s paper to please two or three colleagues is not only humiliating, it is also inefficient, because nobody knows how representative those reviewers are. Comments from colleagues are often useful, but I don’t see how it should help science if one of my peers forces me to make a change to my paper that I don’t see as an improvement. Moreover, I suspect that revise-and-resubmit is often chosen not so much because the paper needs to be improved in a specific way, but because the editor finds it difficult to reject the paper, hoping that the author will not resubmit it. And indeed, authors often wonder whether it makes sense to invest the energy to change the paper to fulfill the editor’s demands. But this serves no good purpose. A quick rejection is better for the authors, because they can resubmit the paper to a different journal, making only those suggested changes that they see as real improvements. And if the reviewing time is not too long, then this is not a major problem.

A third way to make our publication system more efficient would be to avoid edited volumes. These often take a long time because the publication has to wait for the slowest author (or the slowest reviewer, if strict reviewing deadlines are not enforced). However, edited volumes are quite deeply entrenched in the practice of linguists (at least in Europe), and one can argue that a lot of interesting work would not be published if authors had to find a journal that accepts it. But edited volumes can be made more efficient as well, by accepting the fact that “peer selection” has a different meaning in edited volumes, so that external “peer review” becomes unnecessary.

Finally, we can make publication more efficient by adopting a uniform text-structure style for the entire discipline. Different style rules for different journals are inefficient. Here’s a proposal for a set of Generic Style Rules for Linguistics. If these were adopted widely (also in M.A. theses and dissertations, i.e. learned by students), then a lot of boring work would simply disappear.

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5 Responses to How to make scientific publication more efficient: Enforce deadlines without mercy, eliminate revise-and-resubmit

  1. Hi Martin,

    Just finished a review with the result “revise and resubmit”. As you said: One reason is to say “no” politely. If you say clearly what you want the author to do (and in more technical branches of Lingusitics there are often reasons for such requests), then the author may decide.

    1) to drop the project since she or he realizes that the approach has a huge hole and it is not possible to fix it or would make the analysis ugly/implausible/to technical to sell …

    2) to work out missing details and have a better paper in the end that can be resubmitted

    3) to ignore the reviewer and resubmit the paper somewhere else

    Depending on the situation in the field and the topic the author may run into the same reviewer again, which does not increase the chances of being accepted, rather the opposite is the case.

    From a journal editors view (and also from a book series editors view) “revise and resubmit” makes perfect sense: If I find some work promising, I want to keep the author. If I reject the work, she or he will turn away. I give you an example that I learned about when studying logic. There was a theorem which was very difficult to prove. Some guy claimed to have a proof. It was 60 pages long, but there was something missing in the middle. Of course a journal has to reject this, bit the stuff in the middle may be fixed and then this would be a huge break trough and of course the journal would be happy to have that paper.

    Some other point: I once suggested to accept a paper with minor revisions. Later I found the paper published without these revisions being made. I asked the editors and they said: Well, the author just did not do the changes. So, if I rate “publish with minor revisions” I am out of the game as reviewer. If I rate “revise and resubmit” there will be another round of reviewing and if the author carefully documents what she or he has done, this round of reviewing will be very fast.

  2. Thanks, Stefan, for presenting the pro case – and indeed I think many people would agree with you that revise-and-resubmit is useful.

    But note that the three options you mention (give up / improve / ignore) are also available with a simple “reject” verdict. What I’m arguing is that “reject” shouldn’t be considered such a disaster. And if the verdict comes after six weeks (rather than six months), not much time is lost.

    What I hate (and I’d think many others hate) is the feeling that I changed my paper to please the reviewers, but then it’s still rejected in the end. I don’t know how often that happens (it would be interesting to see statistics, but it’s probably secret), but it has happened to me.

    You say that as an editor, you may want to “keep the author”. But I think it’s the editor’s role to select the best work, not to bind authors to their journal. Commercial publishers often try to bind authors by giving them contracts, but this is because they make money with their books. But science editors should not have to worry about money, or about filling the pages of their journal. They should attract authors by offering the best conditions (e.g. shortest reviewing times).

  3. Hello,

    Very good idea. A good way of enforcing this would be to incorporate it in the submission platform in such a way that authors, editors and reviewers wouldn’t be able to circumvent it (no emails on the side).

  4. John Cowan says:

    While I think most of this is excellent, I’m concerned about the only-one-review rule. Since the number of reviewers is not normally disclosed, the editor has absolutely no incentive to give the reason for the rejection, especially if it is seen as exposing the editor’s own incompetence in choosing reviewers. The author may then be left with one review, which may be very positive, and a rejection with no reasons given.

    Furthermore, rejection-by-silence amounts to a pocket veto, a pernicious institution. In the U.S. federal government, a presidential veto must happen within a limited time and the reasons for the veto must be provided. If there is neither veto nor signature within ten days, the measure passes without a signature — unless Congress adjourns within the period, in which case the measure fails. During this period before the end of a legislative term, therefore, the President may veto a bill by “putting it in his pocket” without giving any reasons for rejecting it.

    Similarly, an unscrupulous reviewer may take advantage of your proposed process by simply not reviewing a paper within the time limit, thus allowing them not to give any reasons for rejecting it. In the U.S. government this may be unavoidable, but it should have no place in peer review.

    • Thanks for this comment! I understand your concerns, but while political processes must be primarily concerned with fairness and justice, I think that scholarly publication should work by very different principles. Democratic governance is known to be inefficient, but we live with this because of the huge gain in fairness and legitimacy. But scientific publication cannot possibly be “fair” or “just” or “legitimate” – even five different reviewers will not be representative (and thus legitimate), and even if they were, this would be irrelevant. The best science is often innovative, and likely to be misunderstood by reviewers, so there is no way to apply political criteria to the process. We should therefore focus on increasing the efficiency of the process, while living with the inherent unfairness.

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