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.