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How (Many) Journals Work: A Far From Incomplete Guide for Public Policy/Economics Scholars*

July 29, 2019 02:30 PM

By Kitt Carpenter, APPAM Vice President

These days at conferences I find myself participating in about as many professional development panels/events as research sessions, and I really enjoy doing so.  I am grateful to have had several wonderful teachers and mentors in my career, and I think it’s important to pay it forward.  During mentoring sessions and informal conversations with PhD students and junior colleagues I am consistently reminded that there are so many parts of the profession that at one point were new to us and that we had to learn but now we think of as second nature.  In this blog post I will give a few thoughts on one specific item that comes up repeatedly: how (many) journals work.  Of course, a key reason to understand how journals work is that it will increase the likelihood you can get published, assuming that is one of your goals.  Here I hope to provide some information that might help demystify the process for new public policy scholars.  As a bit of background, I have had the opportunity to serve as Editor-in-Chief, Co-Editor, Coordinating Editor, Associate Editor, and Editorial Board member at five very different journals over the course of my career, including a stint as Managing Editor of our association’s own crown jewel, JPAM currently edited by Erdal Tekin.  [Hint: If you don’t know what the difference is among those different Editorial titles, this article is for you!]

Before jumping in, I should be clear that my experience is most relevant for applied economists who work on public policy-relevant topics.  If you are an APPAM member from a different discipline or tradition (e.g., maybe you focus on books instead of journal articles), this information is likely to be far less relevant for you.  A general rule is: ask your own trusted advisors and mentors if you have specific questions about whether a piece of advice is relevant/applies to you.  In fact, one of the biggest things I’ve learned in the profession is that reasonable people can disagree (a lot) about a whole range of work-related issues and norms, and so it’s best to ask the same question to multiple trusted advisors and then aggregate and decide for yourself.

Step 1: Pre-Review Check
When a paper is first submitted to a journal, an administrative assistant is typically the first to process it, though sometimes this is done automatically.  A manuscript number is assigned, and some journals do pre-review checks for things like whether the paper exceeds the maximum article length or the maximum number of figures and tables.  At the Journal of Health Economics, we also do a ‘plagiarism check’ at the initial pre-review stage to see if substantial parts of the paper have appeared in print elsewhere. 

Step 2: Managing Editor Review
If a paper makes it through these pre-review checks, the first non-administrative editorial team member to see it is typically a Managing Editor (also sometimes called a Coordinating Editor or an Allocating Editor).  Typically the Managing Editor does a broad skim of the paper for fit and quality.  At this stage, papers are commonly desk rejected.  Sometimes these calls are extremely easy, as when authors think JPAM is a business journal focusing on management practices (Desk reject!).  Or when authors think JPAM is a place for highly theoretical work without implications for public policy (Desk reject!).  But often these ‘up/down’ decisions are really hard.  Managing Editors at this stage can sometimes be making an evaluation about whether the manuscript in its current form is likely to do well in the peer review process.  If it’s not – perhaps because the methods do not seem credible on first read – it can sometimes be better for everyone if the paper is desk rejected at that stage so as to prevent a long drawn out process that ultimately ends in the same decision (rejection from the journal).  For example, a submission using difference-in-differences methods in 2019 that lacks attention to the parallel trends assumption is very unlikely to get through peer review at most journals.  Submissions using regression discontinuity methods that lacks the usual battery of RD robustness checks are likely to face a similar ultimate fate.  In these cases, Managing Editors are trying to make the overall process more efficient by using the Desk Reject option.  [Of course, as an author it is difficult to get rejected in any form – and I have gotten desk rejected as recently as a few months ago!  Learning not to take rejection of an individual paper as a comment on your quality as a scholar is very hard but very important.]

Step 3: Co-Editor Check
For the papers that make it past Desk Reject, the Managing/Coordinating/Allocating Editor assigns it to a Co-Editor.  Typically journals have a broad Co-Editor structure where scholars cover different topical areas of expertise.  For example at JPAM there might be separate Co-Editors for health policy, education policy, crime policy, environmental policy, foreign policy, and so on.  At JHE we have experts in substance use, obesity, health policy, health care delivery, experiments in health, and so forth.  One important feature to note is that even if a paper gets past initial Desk Reject and gets assigned to a topical Co-Editor, it could still be desk rejected at that stage at most journals.  One reason is that the Managing Editor may not have the same sub-area content knowledge as the topical Co-Editors, and so papers that get past the Managing Editor may not get past a Co-Editor (though typically at that stage the reasons are more substantive and less to do with obvious poor quality or bad fit issues).

If a Co-Editor decides to move forward with a paper, it typically gets sent to 2-3 external reviewers who are invited to comment on the work.  Referee reports are requested within 1-3 months at most journals, and then Co-Editors make decisions after having read the paper carefully with the referee reports alongside.  Typically the range of decisions at this stage are: reject with referee reports (typically due to negative evaluations contained in the reports) or invite a revise and resubmit (also with referee reports).  Generally in each case the Co-Editor will explain what parts of the reports led her to the decision, and if the decision is to invite a revision, it is common for a Co-Editor to give more specific direction and instruction about how a revision should be structured.

Step 4: The Final Decision
At many journals – including JPAM – the structure is such that Co-Editors make recommendations to the Editor-in-Chief who has final authority to reject, invite a revision, or accept.  In most cases the Editor-in-Chief typically follows the recommendation of the Co-Editor, though there can be exceptions (as always).  These structures vary substantially across journals.  A benefit of having one (or two) Co-Editor(s)-in-Chief who review all later-stage submissions is that it provides a uniform check on fit and quality for the journal.  Of course, it is a lot of work for that one person!  At other journals such as JHE each individual Co-Editor functions as the final authority; Co-Editors do not review the decisions of other Co-Editors, so effectively each Co-Editor is a Co-Editor-in-Chief.  Often a check of a journal’s website will make this structure reasonably clear.

Another structure that varies quite a lot across journals is the role and function of Editorial Board members and Associate Editors (as opposed to Co-Editors).  For junior folks, the most important distinction is not what the person’s title is but whether the person is *handling* the paper.  Generally speaking, Co-Editors handle papers and make the important decisions of whether to reject a manuscript or invite a revision (or ultimately accept a paper).  In contrast, Associate Editors and Editorial Board members are typically used in advisory capacities to the Co-Editors and Editor-in-Chief.  [Sometimes when I have been an AE or EB member, I described it as being a ‘glorified referee’.]  Journals often use these people as trusted individuals to provide quick and high quality referee reports or to ‘break ties’ in the case of two conflicting referee reports.   Again, though, this varies across journals.  If you visit a journal’s website and there are no Co-Editors but a small number of Associate Editors, it could be that those Associate Editors are actually handling papers and making the critical publication decisions.  [In fact, in several medical and clinical disciplines, Associate Editors *do* handle papers and make recommendations to Senior Associate Editors who then make recommendations to an Editor-in-Chief.]

With that structure in mind, let me cover some questions that I commonly hear when talking to junior scholars in the profession regarding the publication process.

  1. How important is it to meet the journal’s style guide for initial submission? 
    This varies across journals, but in general I advise junior scholars to pay attention to maximum word count and page limit issues.  Apart from this, I think most journals will not hold it against an author if the citation style does not match the journal’s requested style perfectly.  Another way to think about this is that you should focus on content fit with the journal and high quality research much more than relatively minor things like line spacing and page numbering (though sloppy submissions are never recommended!).  Remember that most papers get rejected; typically if you get a revise and resubmit, that is the right stage to make sure that all the style guide issues are taken care of for that specific journal, since the chances of getting an article accepted are much higher at that point.
  2. How often are R&R invitations ultimately accepted/rejected? 
    This varies a lot across disciplines and fields; in some disciplines R&R’s are given very liberally but a large share of those are subsequently rejected.  In my experience in public policy and economics, far fewer R&R’s are given, and a much larger share of those R&Rs convert to acceptances.  [That said, I have been on the ‘bad’ side of an R&R on more than one occasion in my career.]  Another way to think about this is that most Editors these days only like to invite revisions when there is a reasonably clear path to publication based on referee and Editor evaluations.
  3. How much revising should I do before submitting my paper to another journal? 
    This is a great question and depends a lot in my view on how much information there was in your rejection.  On the one hand, there is a reasonable amount of noise in the publication process, and one rejection is just one draw from a distribution.  On the other hand, if the rejection – either desk rejection or rejection with reports – gives a lot of information about why the paper was rejected, I recommend you take that into consideration before submitting elsewhere.  If you received referee comments, it’s reasonably likely you will draw one or multiple of the same referees at another journal, and referees hate it when comments they made on an earlier submission at a different journal were not accounted for.  If you were desk rejected because a Managing Editor didn’t think the paper would clear the quality bar, I think there is more reason in that instance to immediately submit the paper to another journal.
  4. When is it ok to contact an editor about the status of my submission? 
    This too varies a lot across journals.  Some journal websites will give you information on median time to first decision, and others will even provide explicit guidance on when it is appropriate to contact the journal office for a status check.  In general, my rule of thumb is 3-6 months is an appropriate amount of time for economics and public policy journals for a status check.  One thing to keep in mind is that authors cannot see many of the behind the scenes reasons why a paper might be stuck in review for a long time.  Sometimes referees do not deliver.  Sometimes Editors have personal emergencies.  Sometimes papers get lost in the shuffle.  I think it is entirely appropriate to make sure your paper is not in the ‘lost in the shuffle’ category, and in fact some journals will allow you to check its status as either ‘With Editor’ or ‘Under Review’ or ‘Pending Editor Decision’.  You don’t want to take too much information from those status updates, as they can be erroneous for reasons that are not obvious (e.g., an editor has two reports in but they conflict so she has consulted an Associate Editor to break the tie, but it will take that AE some time to do so).
  5. Can I appeal a rejection? 
    You can, but it is almost never recommended in my experience.  This is because it almost never changes the outcome, and it can generate ill will and bad feelings with Editors (who tend to have long memories).  I could imagine a very small number of cases where it might be appropriate to follow up with an Editor, but they are few and far between.  For example, if a referee made a factual error in interpreting something in your manuscript and the Editor’s decision letter makes clear that this referee comment was a decisive factor in her decision, then it may be worth contacting the Editor just to clarify the point.  Always have a trusted colleague read such emails before sending them, and always wait at least 24 hours before making a decision about whether to actually send it.  [Decision making in a ‘hot’ state is never a good idea in my experience.]
  6. How can I increase my chances of getting past the initial desk reject stage? 
    The single most important thing you can do in my view is to make sure your paper is really a decent fit for the journal.  The most obvious way to know this is: has the journal published on this broad topic in the recent past?  If so, that increases the likelihood they are at least plausibly interested in the paper.  The obvious way to signal this in your submission is to note this in your cover letter and, more importantly, to make sure your paper includes relevant citations to articles published in the journal you are targeting.  Asking your trusted senior colleagues is also a good idea.  More generally, when you are first starting a research paper (well before you have a final draft), it can be useful to think: to which journal (or set of journals) am I targeting this paper?  This can help you identify relevant references.
  7. What common mistakes do you see people making in the journal submission process?
    One of the most important mistakes I see junior people consistently make is not being strategic about the specific individuals who are likely to handle your paper at a journal.  A common conversation I have is something like: Me: “Where will you send this paper?”  Colleague: “Journal A, B, or C”.  Me: “Who would likely handle the paper at each of those journals?”  Colleague: “I don’t know”.  In my view this could lead a potential wasting of very precious review time.  Editorial teams are public information.  Once you know who is on the editorial team, you can reasonably guess which person on that team has content expertise closest to the topic of your paper.  As long as that person is not in direct conflict with any of the authors (e.g., an advisor or colleague of an author), she is likely to get the paper if it gets past desk reject.  A large share of getting papers published (or getting grants funded, etc.) is getting your work in the right hands.  The right hands are those that will understand why your question is interesting and important, will be knowledgeable about the data and methods you are using, and will be open minded about the paper’s punchline.  I recognize that it can be very difficult for junior scholars to know these differences across editors, but again this is why having trusted senior colleagues is so important.  A much more useful interaction relative to the one above would be to identify the relevant journals, identify the relevant Editorial team members with content expertise, and then to ask some trusted advisors and mentors who among those would be most likely to be inclined to be positive about your manuscript.  This is the single most important piece of advice I would give junior scholars in our association. 

Let me close by returning to the main caveats I gave above.  First, this is just one person’s view and understanding of how (many) journals work, and you would be well advised to seek out others.  Second, these thoughts are most relevant to scholars working in the public policy and applied microeconomics space.  And finally, there are other ways for your work to have impact besides getting published in peer-reviewed journals.  With these caveats in mind, however, I do hope that this information will help demystify the process of journal publication.  Knowing the general rules and structures should help make you a better and more effective author.


*I have consulted with JPAM’s Editor Erdal Tekin on this blog post to make sure that it properly reflects JPAM’s current editorial practices.  All opinions, views, advice, and errors are mine alone, however.

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