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Emerald Group Publishing Limited
Copyright © 2010, Emerald Group Publishing Limited
Do not fear the reviewer dragon
Article Type: Editorial From: Library Hi Tech, Volume 28, Issue 4
“Your manuscript which you submitted to Library Hi Tech, has been reviewed. The reviewers have recommended publication, but also suggest some revisions to your manuscript”. Many authors think they failed, because their paper has not been accepted immediately. That is not true. On the contrary it is normal for a peer-reviewed journal. This issue of Library Hi Tech (LHT) is dedicated to young professionals, many of whom just finished their education or started with a first position. Especially for these authors, a refusal of their article is a shock. Some get so discouraged that they stop to work on the paper.
This editorial offers an insight into the world of the reviewers. From the author’s point of view, reviewers may seem like dragons who want to kill their paper, but the reviewers often see themselves as advisers whose role is to help the author improve.
Reading the responses
It is easy for a new author to think that any paper that is not accepted is a bad paper and that a “reject and a resubmit” is at best a friendly gesture from the editor who is really saying that the author should forget the last six months of research. In fact “reject and resubmit” is a positive sign. New authors need to understand the context.
As a general rule, the editors cull out any papers that they think have no chance of meeting the peer-review standards, as well as papers that do not fit the topic areas for LHT. This means that a paper that reaches the peer-review process has already received a positive judgment from an experienced researcher. Something of interest to LHT readers is there. After that initial sorting the question is not: is this paper worthwhile, but can we give the author the help necessary to bring it up to LHT’s standards for research articles.
This sorting process is not the same at all journals. Some journals send every paper on topics of interest to the journal to reviewers. LHT does not do this to avoid wasting the reviewers’ time and to avoid delays in getting back to an author, who will, in the end, have to submit elsewhere. A sentence or two of explanation generally accompanies this initial rejection letter. Authors may of course appeal to the editor, but it is extremely rare that a paper rejected at this point would make it past the reviewers.
For those papers in the last 12 months that made it into the reviewing process, about 25 per cent are accepted with no revision. Most of these are papers that we solicited from well-established authors who are recognized as experts in their field. These are people who publish widely and have significant scholarly positions. Their papers still undergo reviewing, but they have decades of experience meeting the standards for research in library and information science or are some cases the people who set those standards.
Another very desirable category is “minor revision”. A significant 23.3 per cent of reviewed papers achieved this on the first round of reviewing. It means that the reviewers have some suggestions for the author, but very few and the suggestions normally take only a short time to implement. An example might be to include another reference or perhaps add a short explanation. With rare exceptions these papers do not go back to the reviewer. If the editors are satisfied with the changes, the paper can go to publication.
“Major revision” sounds like a negative result, but it is not. The 13.4 per cent of papers in this category have passed the chief hurdle for acceptance. The reviewers believe it should be published, but strongly recommend a set of changes that will take some effort to implement. An example of these types of revisions might be adding a new test for the data or a new section to address some aspect of a topic. Major revision does involve work, but it is work that can be done with confidence that doing so will lead to publication. The editors often, but not invariably, send these papers back to the original reviewer for a quick check. Occasionally a reviewer still wants a minor revision. It is not unusual for them to go directly to publication without further changes.
Recommendations for the category “reject and resubmit” affected 21.7 per cent of the papers last year. These were papers that could not be published in their present form, but where the reviewers felt that the author could fix the problems with a specific set of changes. The “resubmit” part of the phrase is important. It is an invitation to correct the problem. Reviewers do not use this category unless they expect to see the paper again and many take some trouble to explain exactly what the author should do. The changes requested are more fundamental and often involve doing additional research or data collection, but they are doable and authors can (and should) ask the editors if they have questions about what the reviewers recommended.
The remaining 16.6 per cent of papers are rejected with no option to resubmit. Some of these were papers where the reviewers could see no way of fixing the problems. Seriously flawed English can be one cause, though the editors have considerable (in some cases personal) experience with writing English as a second language and will help authors or suggest editing services if the problems are merely grammatical, and not ones where the meaning is hard or impossible to fathom. Plagiarism is another common cause for rejection. Copying from other people’s work without indicating the quotation (for example, with quotation marks) and without a proper reference is fatal and is not tolerated in this or any other serious scholarly journal. All articles submitted to LHT go through a plagiarism detection system. Increasingly the editors try to eliminate these articles before the review process. Occasionally, of course, the copying detection system can make a mistake. An author who thinks that this happened should write to the editor immediately.
The reviewer perspective
Being a reviewer takes time. LHT reviewers say that they need between two hours and two days to do a single review. One reviewer commented that he reads every article, puts it down for several days to think about it and then rereads it before writing the review. The reviewers do not get paid for their effort. They work voluntarily to help to ensure high quality for scholarly publications. This means that they must find time in their busy schedules to read and comment on a paper. Authors who lay out a paper in a clear, clean, concise way that fits the structure of contemporary scholarly works in library and information science do a great service to the reviewer and to their own articles by making them easy to understand. Unambiguous and precise English matters far more than the niceties of grammar. A well-written piece is a plus, of course, but scholarly articles are not works of literature: it is the contents that count.
For the reviewer, articles they can recommend for immediate acceptance or for a minor revision are the easiest, since they do not need to write extensive comments. Recommendations for a major revision means taking the time to explain what exactly ought to change for the final draft to be the best possible. Often this means looking at the paper a second time. Reviewers know that authors officially have only three weeks to complete the revision and the recommendations need to be doable within that time frame. Reviewers who recommend “reject and resubmit” generally take a lot of time to give detailed comments about what was wrong and what needs changing. The more detailed the comments are, the more helpful they are likely to be. Authors should realize that reviewers who write long comments are not heaping on criticism but trying as best they can to be helpful.
LHT reviewers come from all parts of the world with the largest group in North America and the second largest in Europe. At present 43 people assist the editorial staff in carrying out the review process. The number needs to be large, not merely because of the volume of submissions, which grows annually, but because of the need for a wide range of scholarly expertise. The editors add new reviewers regularly, often based on recommendations or on the quality of their articles. Online training is now available. LHT has an informal test period for reviewers. Not all are kept.
While reviewers spend an enormous amount of time on articles to help improve them, they never get direct credit for it, because the reviewer process is anonymous. This is one of the reasons why Emerald publications have instituted “outstanding reviewer” awards. Winners from recent years include:
2010: Edward J Roberts, Seattle, Washington.
2009: May Chang, Baltimore, Maryland.
2008: Axel Schmetzke, Stevens Point, Wisconsin.
2007: Steven Sowards, East Lansing, Michigan.
While the list looks US-centric, only one of the winners was born in the USA. The others come originally from England, Singapore, and Germany and had their initial university education there.
In this issue only one paper was accepted immediately and without revision. With that exception both experienced authors and new professionals had to do revisions. Even when young authors lack experience in judging and interpreting data, they often have strong literature reviews, a substantial amount of data, and most importantly they offer new ideas and perspectives. Library Hi Tech runs a “best young professionals” issue every couple of years. Some of the most frequently downloaded articles come from the last one and the editors have great hopes for the current issue.
Elke Greifeneder, Michael S. SeadleBerlin School of Library and Information Science, Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, Berlin, Germany