Monthly Archives: December 2013

Inquiring with the editor

An anonymous philosopher on the job market, who has several papers under review at journals, writes (from our Suggest a Topic Page):

I am wondering about the etiquette of sending a followup email to the journal editor. Can I simply inform him/her that I am on the market and would really like to hear something on my submission soon because it might seriously influence my chances of getting a job? How long should I wait before sending such an email? 3 months? 6?

I’ll speak from my perspective and hope other editors will chime in. Res Philosophica has a What to Expect page on its website where we outline when authors should expect to hear from us. We send out a brief note after the initial desk review, aiming to do so within three weeks of the initial submission. And then we aim for an initial decision within eight weeks. So we encourage anyone who wishes to to contact the Editorial Manager if they haven’t heard from us after each of those points in the process (three weeks and eight weeks). (Because we use triple anonymous review, the author should not contact the Editor directly.) But I would also encourage authors to contact the Editorial Manager about any question they have during the process.

If the journal has not indicated by when it aims to reach an initial decision, it’s of course still acceptable to contact the Editor (or whomever is appropriate to contact). Some philosophers I know think it acceptable to contact the editor within six weeks, and others eight weeks. I don’t think I would contact earlier than six weeks, myself, absent further considerations. But given the special circumstances, I would think a brief, gentle inquiry would be completely acceptable at six weeks.

On editor’s instructions

Lewis Powell writes in from our Suggest a Topic page:

Sometimes the editors give an author fairly vague guidance on what changes to make in accord with referee reports, saying “take some account of the objections raised in the referee’s report” or the like.  How should an author interpret such advice?

I’ll certainly be interested to hear the range of responses, especially from other editors. To start us off, I’ll say just say a few things.

If there is something from the referee reports that I definitely want the author to address, I will say so in my note to the author. But there are times when either I myself wouldn’t require that an author address any one particular point by the referees (though of course the referees themselves might when making a recommendation to the editor), or the paper is not in my area and so while there may be really important points for the author to address, I’m not certain of it.

In both cases, I still want the author to take very seriously all the comments of the referees. (They are, after all, the experts on the topic of the paper from whom I’ve asked for recommendations.) Taking seriously the comments does not always require agreeing with them and making changes accordingly, however. Sometimes it involves explaining why you think the referee’s point is mistaken. But it is almost always a good idea, even for referee comments that seem to misunderstand your point, to use them to improve your paper. (At the very least you can now see how someone might misunderstand what you are trying to say, and so a brief clarification can be added to forestall such a misunderstanding.)

So I would interpret that advice from an editor as something like the following: “Please take seriously all the referees’ comments. Consider each of them fully, and then determine whether, in your considered view, making changes to your paper in light of them would make your paper better. If they would, please do. If they would not, please explain your thinking about it to me.”

What makes a good referee report?

One thread common to the comments on the two previous posts, on informing referees of decisions and sharing reports with other referees was the question of calibration of referee reports, and, more importantly, how does a referee know if he has written a useful/helpful/suitable report?

When I started composing this post in my head, I began my mentally dividing in to recommendations which make a report useful for an editor and those which make it useful for the author.  Then I realized, there wasn’t any need: Any thing which makes a report better for the editor is likely to make it better for the author too. So here are my suggestions:

Give a summary. Open your report with a 1-paragraph summary of the main contribution of the paper.  If you can’t do that, this is a good sign that the paper is not sufficiently clear in its goals and execution. The summary gives the editor a snapshot evaluation of what the referee finds are the key points — which hopefully will coincide with what the editor and the other referees think are key!

Praise before blame. Whether your recommendation is ultimately positive or negative, always begin by stressing the good points of the paper. (It’s rare that you’ll be asked to referee a paper in which you can find no redeeming qualities). Having your work publicly judged by someone else — especially if you don’t know who that person is — is a frightening prospect for most people, whether they are junior or senior. Always keep in mind that on the other end of the report you’re writing is not only an editor who is in the business of getting good philosophy papers published, but also a real person who has put in months if not years of their time on the paper that you are now reviewing. They would not have sent it off if they didn’t think it had at least some merit.

Be explicit in your recommendation. Do not leave it to the editor to guess whether you think the paper should be accepted, accepted with minor revisions, accepted with major revisions, sent back for revise & resubmit, or sent back completely. Some journals which use online editorial management systems have this built in, in that there is a form for the referee to fill out which requires him to pick one option, but I prefer to also include the same explicit recommendation in the written report, because then you can back up your choice with concrete reasons.

Segment your report. I generally try to structure my reports into three parts. The first contains the summary paragraph(s) and the explicit recommendation with reasons. The second contains general/systematic issues with the paper, suggestions for re-organization, responses to the content, wide-spread typos/errors in grammar/syntax, and suggestions for further reading. The third is for detailed, page by page comments. I for one am unable to read a paper without noting typos or grammatical infelicitations, and I figure if I’ve found them, I might as well share them with the author, even if that is often by far the most time-consuming and tedious part of writing a report. These are probably of the least use to the editor, but can be invaluable for the author, especially if the author is not a native speaker of the language he is writing in.

Questions to ask yourself. In addition to the question of “can I give a 1 paragraph summary of the main contributions of the paper”, there are other questions that you can ask yourself, and then answer in the report, which will make it useful to the editor:

  • Does the author engage in the relevant current literature? Is there anything recently published that has not been considered that should be?
  • Is the paper structured clearly? Do you see how the author goes from one argument to another?
  • Are the historical facts correct? Especially if the author is not generally a historian or dealing with historical issues, this can easily trip people up.
  • Is the paper well-written? This is, of course, a tricky question to evaluate, since ultimately what matters is not beautiful prose but good philosophy. However, as I always tell my philosophy 101 students who complain that this is not an English class, so why are their papers being graded on their use of English grammar/spelling/style? — you cannot completely separate content and style, since such much of philosophical argumentation depends on arguments, and arguments are, themselves, linguistic entities. If premise/conclusion markers are missing, if the structure of the paper is not clear, if there are sentence fragments, this will necessarily cloud the content that is being presented.

And then, of course, there is the more problematic question, the one which no one wants to have to ask in case the answer is “yes”: “Is the work plagiarized?” That is, have substantial portions of it been published before, without proper citation in the current paper? It needn’t matter whether these already-published portions are by the same author or by a different one, if significant parts of already published material are present in a new paper, these parts must be properly cited.

If you are worried about plagiarism, however, this is one thing to keep out of the formal report, and only in the “private notes to the editor”. In lines with the suggestion above of praise before blame, even if you have a case where you suspect plagiarism, self- or otherwise, always assume the best: That you are mistaken, that the occurrence was genuinely unconscious/non-malicious (as can often be the case with self-plagiarism), or that the author has simply been trained under radically different standards than is common in, e.g., western philosophy. Raise your concerns to the editor, but leave any accusation out of the report to the author.

This is, of course, by no means a complete list of suggestions for writing useful referee reports. I would love to read about things I’ve missed in the comments!

Introduction: Sara L. Uckelman

I figured before I post my first post, I should follow Jonathan’s lead and introduce myself.

My name is Sara L. Uckelman, and I recently joined the editorial board of the Journal of Logic, Language, and Information as an associate editor (recently enough that the journal’s webpage doesn’t yet reflect this). JoLLI is in some respects less philosophical than some of the other journals that are represented here in this blog, but it publishes a wide range of papers on applied philosophical logic and at the intersection of linguistics, philosophy, and logic, and so I hope my credentials as an “editor of a philosophy journal” are adequate! 🙂

Like JoLLI, my own research spans a diverse set of topics. I am primarily a logician, but my interests range from the development of logic in the 11th-14th centuries in western Europe, to argumentation theory and dialogue systems, to mathematical modal logic, to the logic of reasoning in dynamic multi-agent systems, and back again to the interface between logic/argumentation and language/semantics. As an editor, I’ve found my varied interests and personal connections in many different areas have been helpful when it comes to finding referees for papers which are not necessarily in my field of expertise.

On sharing referee reports: with other referees

An issue that came up in the previous thread, one which I’ve discussed several times with others, is whether the editor should share the report from referee 1 with referee 2. (There are other issues related to sharing reports with the author, but I’ll save those for another thread.)

I myself have never directly seen the report from the second referee when I referee a paper. But occasionally the author quotes from that report extensively in the reply to referees that I receive in a revise and resubmit. (Sherri Irvin reports in the previous thread that the Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism informs referees of the editor’s decision and includes both referee reports in that email.)

Beside simple curiosity, it seems the main benefit of sharing referee 1’s report with referee 2 is to help referee 2: it serves as a sort of calibration for referee 2 on her report. At any rate, that’s the benefit I’ve heard discussed. (There may also be the potential complication that, after reading a report from referee 2, referee 1 might change her mind, raising all sorts of issues about what an editor ought to do if that happens.)

It seems to me referees have a reasonable expectation that their reports are not being shared outside the editorial team and the author. But that’s simple to change: either inform them otherwise before they agree to referee, or ask their permission and share the report with the other referee only if permission is granted.

So what issues do we see with sharing referee reports with other referees for the same paper?

Informing Referees of Decisions

I recently had a Facebook discussion where the issue came up concerning whether editors should inform referees of the decision they made regarding a submission. Several philosophers I know said they really appreciate when they are told what an editor eventually decided, because they would like to know what is being published in their area, in general, and they might want to refer to the paper, in particular. It can also help a referee confirm their report, like jointly grading a paper. 

I can see at least two issues that complicate this from an editor’s perspective. First, a minor point: writing 200-500 notes to referees each year, especially if they are not simply form emails, is not nothing. Second: It would seem odd to me, in a case where I did not accept the recommendation of the referee, to inform her of that fact. “I’d like to let you know that I didn’t follow your advice” just doesn’t feel right. 

There are, of course, things I could say to soften the message. I could make it clear that I inform referees as a matter of policy, and that I value all recommendations, even those I do not follow in the end. And so on. But it’s not clear to me that any of that helps.

So I’d certainly be interested in hearing what you think. Should editors inform referees of their final decisions?

Introduction: Jonathan D. Jacobs

My name is Jonathan D. Jacobs, and I’m the editor of Res Philosophica, a journal that we at Saint Louis University recently relaunched. (The journal is actually one of the oldest philosophy journals in North America; it began in 1925 as “The Modern Schoolman.”) Res Philosophica is a general journal that publishes articles from a variety of perspectives, both historical and topical. It is published by the Department of Philosophy in conjunction with the Philosophy Documentation Center, a non-profit publisher of over 100 titles in philosophy and related fields.

I’m excited to contribute to a discussion of academic publishing in philosophy. There is much that can be improved, and I think this blog can make some small contribution.