At the end of four years with AJPS I thought I would write what seem to be common failings in manuscripts that come to AJPS. My sense is that these same failings are true for other journals as well. There is no secret to getting published. It takes creativity, a well-formulated question, an appropriate design for answering that question, an enormous amount of hard work and excellence. This is easy to write, but hard to pinpoint. It is much easier to detail those things that will derail an interesting manuscript when it comes to publishing.
I organize my comments around the “seven deadly sins.” These include:, greed, sloth, gluttony, wrath, lust, envy, and pride. Each represents a common failing for authors. I discovered that I wrote far more than I intended, so I am going to dole out these sins over the next several days. Hopefully these comments will be taken as useful advice and not as sermons. I will begin with Greed and Sloth.
Greed. “An excessive desire and pursuit of material goods.”
I begin with greed and for most editors this is commonly expressed as “playing the lottery.” An author blinded by greed believes that getting into a journal is a random event. Editors are incapable of exercising judgment and reviewers are picked randomly. Therefore one may as well start at the top and send the manuscript to one of the “Big 3.” Once rejected, go on to the next. Once exhausted, move down to second tier journals and try them one after another. Typically this means submitting the manuscript the afternoon following a rejection without reading the reviews. After all, the process is stochastic. You might get lucky and get the jackpot right off the bat. This is very unlikely.
Editors take on the job because they are willing to exercise judgment and they often have a vision of what is valued in research. They do not roll a die to determine what makes it and what doesn’t. Likewise reviewers are not iid. Editors do not pick reviewers as a random draw from the reviewer pool. I typically want a portfolio of reviewers who can comment on the general merit of the question, address the research design and empirical strategy (if there is one) and knows the subfield. Rarely is it the case that all of these features are embodied in a single reviewer. Moreover I do not think I would want a single reviewer to give me advice. So a number of reviewers are chosen and they each offer a slightly different critical perspective. Reviewers are chosen with a purpose, not randomly.
It should not be a shock when the same reviewer has previously seen the manuscript at a different journal. This is fine. I would like to know if the advice the reviewer previously offered was followed. The most telling reviews are those that are identical to the previous review – largely because the manuscript has not changed. From my standpoint, how likely is an author going to undertake revisions, if the author is not even willing to pay attention to a reviewer’s prior efforts. Granted, sometime reviewers are off base. However, I have seen very few reviews that offer absolutely no useful advice to an author.
To avoid greed an author should be self-reflective about the content of her manuscript and honestly evaluate where it should go. Before I write up a piece of research I pinpoint my target audience and I select the journal that caters to that audience. Not everything I write belongs in a general journal – much of what I want to say is narrow, but useful for the subfield. I start with sending the manuscript to what I think is the appropriate journal and where it will have an impact.
A hallmark of sloth is when a manuscript arrives that is sloppi, diss-organized, poorly written, ya know, and plain drafty. In the era of word processors, spell checkers and grammar correction, it is odd to receive manuscripts that are rushed, mistake prone and incomplete. But it happens.
One way to think about journals is that you have one shot. You are presenting the journal with your very best work. You may as well make it as clean and well written as possible. While you may think that copy editing, upon acceptance, can rid your manuscript of its worst offenses, think again. Reviewers are going to notice instances where the prose is unclear, where typos abound and when a key figure is omitted. A manuscript that does not live up to minimal standards of formatting is likely to set off alarms for the editor and reviewers. What inference should these gatekeepers make if your manuscript appears slothful? The logical inference is to assume that the science underlying the work is equally sloppy.
Avoiding sloth is easy. First, see what the journal wants. All journals have a style sheet that you should consult before beginning to write. Make certain you fit the style. It is not that hard to do and it will save you plenty of time. Second, make certain the manuscript is perfect. When you have finished the manuscript and you are ready to send it to the journal, stop! Wait a few days, and then go back and read it critically checking for errors. Coming back to a manuscript with a fresh view can often find those pesky errors that remain (and do not become overly dependent on spell correction). The point is there is no hurry. After spending months or years getting your manuscript ready, a few more days will not hurt you.