Dealing with editors: ‘nice n’ easy does it every time’


You got to know when to hold ‘em

Know when to fold ‘em

Know when to walk away,

Know when to run

The Gambler’, Don Schlitz (song popularized by Kenny Rogers)

Journal editors must have or quickly develop a ‘thick skin’ in order to function. Those readers who have served as editors will understand instantly what I mean, but for those who have not, the explanation follows. Human nature being what it is, when a manuscript is accepted for publication, authors are happy and congratulate themselves for conducting an excellent study and then cogently and coherently writing the paper. On the other hand, when a manuscript is rejected, some authors blame the journal for rejecting what even a fool could see is truly precious and worthwhile. The authors blame the editors and reviewers. But since most journals use anonymous peer review, the editor(s) become the personification of the journal's ignorance and incompetence, i.e., the focal point of ire.

Fortunately the vast majority of such authors grumble privately amongst themselves (or at least not directly to the editor) and then resubmit their paper elsewhere. However, a few express their anger and frustration by emailing the editor to complain or object. Over the past few years, I (on behalf of the journal) have been accused of not just wilful ignorance, lack of vision and inability to judge true quality, but also: 1) bias against ___(insert name of country or region)___, 2) blocking their career advancement and 3) general stupidity. The first complaint about bias for or against a certain region is so commonly expressed to journals/editors that Patrick Kamath has written an editorial recently refuting the existence of any systematic bias at Hepatology (1).

The converse also occurs. Editors receive probably a disproportionate number of academic visit or speaking invitations, with the ‘ulterior motive’ of trying to curry favour. When I became editor in chief of Liver International, there was a small but noticeable rise in the number of invitations. As much as I would like to think that these invitations were due to my increasing prominence as a researcher or opinion leader in hepatology, or if not that, perhaps my dashing good looks and winsome personality, the reality is that they were more likely ‘getting to know you’ visits that the inviters hoped would eventually translate to more favourable handling of their submitted papers. But for me (and probably also for the vast majority of journal editors), such visits make no appreciable difference in the way inviters’ manuscripts are handled. In fact, if an academic visit is truly memorable and productive, and we set up ideas for future collaborations, or develop a close friendship, then I must recluse myself from handling or being involved in any future submissions from that group. Similar policies about potential conflicted interest are generally found in all reputable journals.

So following the vein of my previous editorials on writing papers (2), reviewing papers (3), authorship (4), and the evils of ‘cheating’ (5), let me expound on how to deal with editors. Regrettably, most journals now receive far more submissions than they can publish, and Liver International is no exception. Over the past few years, submissions have risen steadily in both quality and quantity and we are currently forced to reject almost 90% of submissions. Thus handling rejection gracefully, or at least not firing off an angry email in the first few hours after a rejection when negative feelings run high, is important. The latter approach, which I call a ‘burning-the-bridges’ letter, should be avoided at all costs. While such an angry email allows ‘venting’ of some negative feelings and thus perhaps at least a transient measure of smug satisfaction and ‘salve for wounded pride’, the downside is significant. One should be prepared to forego submitting to that journal for a long time thereafter, or hope that editors/editorial staff have short memories (hint: they usually have long memories).

What about if your paper is not rejected outright, but allowed a revision and resubmission? It behooves the authors to carefully read the decision letter, paying particular attention to the editors’ comments. I continue to be surprised by the number of authors who wilfully ignore the editors’ recommendations. For example, if referee 1 suggested an additional experiment, and the editor's comment reinforces the need for that experiment, why in the world wouldn't one follow that recommendation? We recently rejected a manuscript that had been allowed a ‘revision and resubmission’. A referee had recommended 3 relatively small and simple changes or additional studies, which were underscored by the editors’ comments. The authors only made one of the three changes, completely ignored one comment and brushed off the request for a small additional study with the comment that this would be done in a future paper. These authors either suffer from extreme hubris or are deluded in thinking that journal publication is a ‘seller's market’. With manuscript rejection rates at virtually all journals running in the 60–90% range, it most assuredly is a ‘buyer's market’.

That is not to say that you must always do every additional study recommended by the reviewers/editors. What is important is that the request be addressed in some way—either do the experiment or explain reasonably why you could not or would not do it. An explanation such as “We believe that the additional study would entail extensive work that will take at least 6 months, and is somewhat peripheral to the main message of our paper” is reasonable. An explanation such as “We will do this in a future study” is not. Several years ago, we asked an Iranian group to perform some additional studies in a ‘revise and resubmit’ manuscript. They did what they could but not one of the two suggested additional experiments. The explanation was that the second one could not be performed because key chemicals/reagents for that study were not available due to the international sanctions. The editors considered this reply and eventually decided to accept the paper because of these circumstances beyond the authors’ control. C'est la vie.

So when you receive that decision letter from the editors, you need to know when to hold ‘em (revise and resubmit), and when to fold ‘em (give up gracefully on a rejected paper; change what you can and resubmit elsewhere). But no matter what, when dealing with editors, remember that old song: nice and easy does it every time!