Peer reviews: If you love something, set it free. And again. And again

Being part of the peer review system has a sadomasochistic quality. Nate Jensen’s story about how he had to submit a certain manuscript again and again to different journals to get it published eventually is all too familiar. I don’t keep records as exact as his (would be too depressing), but I remember a single straight accept. I also remember one supposed quick hit (not out in print yet – hope they don’t change their minds) that involved a two-year email conversation between us, a very diligent reviewer, and a baffled editor.

And then there is the cursed manuscript, for which the first analyses were run almost exactly nine years ago. The saga involves one journal that took extraordinarily long to reject and one that gave us an R&R after more than a year – one reviewer had died and so understandably failed to respond to the ever more urgent automated mails from the manuscript submission system. In the meantime, my co-author and I had temporarily lost the will to live and so just ignored the chance of an R&R, only to come back to the wreck of the manuscript three years later (make a wild guess: reject). We have now just submitted a second R&R to journal number four (there may have been another in between which I cannot remember), 14 months after our initial submission to this one.

I used to think that this strategy (affectionally known as “doing a Budge” in some circles for certain reasons) increases the overall likelihood of getting published even for mediocre manuscripts: If your chance of initial rejection is 0.9, four submissions should bring this down to a more agreeable 0.9^4=66\%. And if you lower your sights and begin to target outlets further down the academic food chain, your chances should be even better.

peer review photo
Photo by JoelMontes Peer reviews: If you love something, set it free. And again. And again 2

But this, of course, assumes that reviews/decisions are independent draws. They are not, as I have learned from my own reviewing: In a reasonably specialised subfield, the number of potential reviewers is small, and the number of people actually doing the bloody business is even smaller. In more than one instance, editors seem to have googled (or otherwise consulted databases or their email records) and have contacted both me and my co-author on a sufficiently obscure specialised piece of work to judge something even more obscure specialised. If a reviewer does not like your work and rejects it, chances are that the same person and their friends will review its next iteration for another journal. And reviewers are over-burdened: Recognising that you have already seen this manuscript before is like getting a get-out-of-jail card. There is a serious temptation not to look for any improvements (and often, there are none).

Thankfully, there is a flip side to it. With the cursed manuscript, there is a kind, recognisable, approving voice, who had the bad fortune to review at least two and possibly three versions of the manuscript (not counting the R&Rs). As a reviewer, I recently had the chance to get a look at a manuscript that I had given a “minor revisions” before, but the journal had rejected it anyway. The author had dealt with my suggestions, shortened and streamlined the manuscript in the most appreciable way, then submitted it to a much better journal, for which I could now recommend to publish without revisions. This much more audacious strategy shall be known in some circles, for certain reasons, as doing an inverted Budge.

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