Thoughts on the Editorial Process in Economics and the Social Sciences

In November 2013, I joined the editorial staff of Food Policy, an interdisciplinary journal owned by Elsevier, as an associate editor.

Though I had been serving as associate editor at the American Journal of Agricultural Economics (AJAE) for over a year when I became associate editor at Food Policy, the responsibilities of an associate editor vary from journal to journal.

At the AJAE, associate editors do not handle manuscripts. Rather, we are more like super-referees who can be asked to review manuscripts up to five or six times a year, break ties between conflicting reviews, and provide quick feedback when asked by one of the four editors.

At Food Policy, associate editors have a lot more responsibility. We are assigned manuscripts in out broad areas of research, we choose whether to desk reject those manuscripts or send them out to reviewers, and we choose reviewers when we send manuscripts out for review.

On May 1, I will become editor of Food Policy, replacing the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies’ Bhavani Shankar, and sharing the role of editor with the University of Bologna’s Mario Mazzocchi, serving for an initial term of three years.

Given that, I thought now would be as good a time as any to write my thoughts about the editorial process. This will allow me to go back to these thoughts once my term as editor ends, to see what else I might have learned. So here goes–in no particular order–some thoughts I’ve accumulated on the editorial process in the social sciences. I hope others with editorial experience can chime in with their own additional thoughts in the comments.

  1. It’s really hard to find reviewers. For every article that I want to send out for review, I need two reviewers. If those two reviewers disagree, I often ask for the help of a third reviewer. To get the first two reviewers, I have to ask about four people on average. Interestingly enough, finding a third reviewer is usually easier, maybe because people feel that it is an honor to break a tie between two conflicting reviewers.
  2. It’s really hard to find competent reviewers. Once I have found my two reviewers, it is not unlikely that one of them will send me a review that is not very useful. I’m talking about a one-paragraph review that offers very little in the way of comments the authors can use to improve their manuscript.
  3. That said, I have managed to keep my time to first response under four months in almost all cases. I think there might have been one exception, due to a reviewer who was taking his or her time, but I am not sure. It helps that the Elsevier Editorial System’s page for Food Policy is among the browser tabs that are always open in my browser and that I check that tab several times a day, like I do my email, my blog stats, and my calendar. It also helps that I try to apply the maxim Chris Barrett taught me: “Never touch a piece of paper twice.” In other words, once you start looking at a manuscript, writing a letter, filling out a form, etc., you finish the task before moving on instead of keeping it for later–it’s when you look at stuff, do a bit of work on it, but decide to keep it for later that stuff begins festering in your inbox.
  4. Every author wants quality reviews and wants them quickly; few want to serve as reviewer. Authors of papers previously published in the journal are typically the first people I turn to when looking for reviewers. It is uncanny how many people seem to think the journal is good enough as an outlet in which they can publish their work, but how the same journal is beneath their station in life when they are asked to review a manuscript. Here, I am talking about people who decline requests to review without so much as giving a reason or suggesting two or three alternate reviewers (which I ask for in my email requesting a review).
  5. In this business, “I’m too busy” is a really bad excuse and often means “I don’t care.” Have you ever met a pre-tenure academic who was not busy? Me neither. Chris Barrett–him again–is probably the busiest person I’ve ever met. What I have learned from Chris is that if you truly care about something, you will make time for it, even if it means getting up at 4 am to do it.*
  6. That said, it is perfectly legitimate to decline a request to referee if you are senior in your field, if you have editorial or administrative responsibilities elsewhere, or if you suggest two or three alternate reviewers. But if you are a recently minted PhD and you tell me “I just don’t have time for this right now,” without suggesting alternate reviewers (which I specifically ask for, remember), chances are you are not going to impress anyone.
  7. “I am not an expert” is rarely a good reason to decline a request to review. Editors know what they are doing–at least most of the time. As I state clearly in the personalized email I send out when requesting a review from someone: “Though you might think this is not exactly in your area of expertise, I usually select one expert, and one non-expert as reviewers so as to have both perspectives and, if a paper gets accepted, maximize the chances that it will get cited.” There certainly are cases where playing the “I am not an expert” card is warranted. But they occur more rarely than you might think.
  8. If you don’t ever plan on publishing in a given journal, feel free to decline requests to review coming from that journal. If you are planning on publishing in a journal, however, it is ill-advised to decline requests coming from that journal’s editor without providing a solid reason. First, because a journal’s editorial staff is selected from its best reviewers. Second, because the journal’s editors will often be among the people asked to provide external letters for tenure and promotion cases, and good citizenship in your discipline tends to get rewarded.
  9. Following up on the “Never touch a piece of paper twice” maxim: When you receive a request to review, please respond, and please respond as quickly as possible. I am always baffled by how many people fail to ever respond to requests to review.
  10. Personalized emails work a lot better. This is an idea I stole from Doug Gollin, who is editor of the Journal of African Economies, because it works. Instead of sending a form email to people, I try to personalize it a bit by inserting a personal note before the automatic email. This has improved my reviewer response rates significantly, presumably because people realize there is a human being (and one they may well know personally) on the other side.
  11. Personalized desk rejections work a lot better, too. The only thing worse than receiving a boilerplate desk rejection from a journal is receiving a rejection after the article went out to reviewers. Which is why when I desk reject, I personalize the email by telling the authors (i) why I chose to desk reject (often, it’s simply a question of fit with the journal, and not of quality; when it is a matter of quality, I make a comment that will help improve the manuscript substantially) and, as much as possible, (ii) where to submit next.
  12. Plagiarism of all kinds is a huge issue. One of the perks of working with a big publisher like Elsevier is that the publisher can afford nice things. One of those nice things at Food Policy is a software called CrossCheck, which will scour the web to find similarities between a fresh new submission and other documents on the web. Often, those similarities are between the submission and one of its earlier version. But in (too) many cases, CrossCheck uncovers instances of plagiarism, whether this means self-plagiarism (an author re-using an entire page of a paper he has previously published and whose copyright resides with another publisher, with said previous paper not cited), “light” plagiarism (an author lifting a few sentences or a paragraph from his employer’s website or from a document published by his employers, but for which he clearly was not one of the authors), or “hard” plagiarism (an author submitting an article that is about 50% copied from papers written by other people, and claiming an affiliation that he does not have). Just this past week, I had to reject three out of a wave of five articles for plagiarism reasons. Thank God I had to reject none out of the following wave of eight articles for that reason.
  13. When you work for a journal whose impact factor is relatively high, there is a certain anxiety about maintaining or improving that impact factor. Food Policy is the journal with the highest impact factor in the area of agricultural economics (though Food Policy is not an agricultural economics journal but an interdisciplinary journal that encompasses agricultural economics among the disciplines it covers),  but this is a double-edged sword, because “Can we keep this up? Can we keep improving?” is the kind of thing that keeps editors awake at night.
  14. That said, for all its flaws and frustrations, the process is incredibly rewarding. Over and above the pay and the professional prestige that come with serving as associate editor or editor, it is very rewarding to see good manuscripts come in, go through the peer-review process, come out better than they came in, and finally be published in the journal. It is doubly rewarding when the submission comes from a young researcher for whom the publication really matters. And by taking part in the process as associate editor or editor, you truly get the sense that you are discreetly contributing to the edifice of scientific knowledge–on top of staying at the cutting edge of your area of research.

* True story. When I was in graduate school, I would routinely receive emails from Chris at 5 am.

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