Because there is a pandemic, we are improving the home. Because I’ve spent a year in the so-called office (i.e. the box room), the box room office is in particular need of improvement. Because it’s my box room office, it needs an especially good clean-out before there is any possibility of improvement. That’s why I’m unearthing stuff that has sat on these shelves undisturbed for a decade or so, stuff that was already old when it sedimented there.

One of the artifacts I found is an actual offprint. A what? Let me tell you about offprints.

My young Padawan, this you must know: back when the Internet was still vaguely utopian, peer-reviewed publishing was just as rubbish as it is today. But it was rubbish in a far less efficient way.

Manuscripts went back and forth just as many times, but often still in hard copy, otherwise as newfangled and unreliable “email-attachments”. Editorial Manager, ScholarOne et al. existed only as the stuff of future nightmares.

Even then, authors and reviewers received no compensation at all while publishers flourished, although two digits were normally sufficient to measure their ROIs. And that was because journals were (gasp!) physical things. Few people had heard of PDFs at this time, and the idea of publishing proper academic texts online was slightly outlandish, at least in continental Europe.

And so, when you got published, you received a copy of the respective issue, together with ten or twenty offprints: the pages of your article, printed on the actual press using the journal’s regular paper, minus the stuff that came before and after it, plus a printed cover. If the journal was generous (German Politics was not), that cover would be customised with the title of the article and the name of its author. That’s right: publishers exploited us even then, but at least they cared enough to put in a private print run for each and every one of us.

Quaint, I know. But offprints served a purpose or two: You could use them when you applied for a job. They looked certainly better than a photocopy. You could send them to colleagues who might be interested (this is how exhibit 1 came into my possession – a friend gave it to me). Quite often, however, they would end up on shelves and in drawers, because you knew less than 20 people who might be interested and could not afford the postage anyway.

So much paper physically travelling and taking up space, all because we did not have PDFs or, more to the point, a link that allows the first 50 lucky bastards to get past the bloody paywall. It’s amazing how much things have improved.

Do you remember offprints? Do you even have some stashed away in an old cupboard?

Received September 5, online first June 5, and at least six more months until the piece is assigned to an issue and is paginated. A neat illustration of (some of) the problems with the current system. And no, I don’t have an easy solution.

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.

Photo by JoelMontes

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.

One particularly annoying aspect of doing reviews for learned journals is that assignments tend to arrive in clusters. Six months ago, I found myself in a bit of a pickle, with loads and loads of requests arriving within a short time. And just five weeks ago, another volley of invitations to review hit my mailbox within the space of hours, in one instance within minutes, which looked suspiciously like a flaw in the matrix. As these systems are fully computerised, automated and increasingly urgent reminders are now clustering in my mailbox, too.

This morning, I came around to read the first two of them, only to realise that I had already read and rejected them during the last campaign, when they had been submitted to other journals. As I would have done in their stead, the authors had addressed some minor points but left the basic structure as it was then, meaning that I could basically cut and past my old reviews of them. Something like this has happened to me in the past, but with a single manuscript and a two-year hiatus between those incarnations I reviewed. Getting this twice in a single morning is a little creepy. Now I’m looking forward to my afternoon reading.

Sixteen months ago, we started the Political Science Peer-Review Survey. This week, the input form was shut down. That is about three quarters of a year later than expected, but then again, I underestimated the fallout of my move back to Germany. Moreover, until a few weeks ago there was still a tiny trickle of replies coming in. So far, we have found few major problems with the data. The RA has spotted two instances where the respondent somehow managed to save the data at various stages of the interview, thereby inflating the number of respondents. Moreover, it’s amazing how many political scientists read ‘percent’ and give absolute numbers 😉

Right now, the RA is enjoying is well-deserved holiday. He’ll be back in four weeks time, and we hope to have a data set ready for distribution by June.

On Monday, the Political Science Peer-Review Survey had 506 respondents. Between Tuesday and Friday, we sent out 1,100 new invitations. Five days and many contacts with helpful colleagues later the number stands at 626. Feel free to join them.

If you edit, review or author manuscripts for political science journals, the peer-review process is at the centre of your professional life. Unfortunately, for most of us the process is largely a black box. While everyone has heard (or lived through) tales from the trenches, there is very little hard evidence on how the process actually works. This is why a number of colleagues and I started the peer-review survey project that aims at collecting information on the experience of authors, reviewers and editors of political science journals.

If you are an active political scientist, this survey is for you: we need your expertise, and your input is greatly appreciated. Filling in the form is fun and will typically take less than ten minutes of your time. It is also a great way to release some steam 🙂
Ready? Then proceed to the Political Science Peer-Review Survey.

We also put some (very) preliminary results of the political science peer-review survey online and will release further findings and eventually the data set in the future.

If you think this is worthwhile (and who wouldn’t?), please spread the word. To make this easier, we have created short URL for the survey (http://tinyurl.com/peer-review-survey) and the results (http://tinyurl.com/peer-review-results) that you can forward to your colleagues. Thanks again for your support. It is greatly appreciated.

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