On Manuscript Preparation, Salami-Slicing, and Professional Standards

By Jan Leighley, AJPS Interim Lead Editor  

One of the most challenging (and potentially mind-numbing) tasks that occurs in the inner sanctum of the editorial office is the veritable “technical check.” Even mentioning this work might trigger some unpleasant memories for colleagues who previously served as graduate assistants for AJPS editors over the past several decades. It might also remind those who recently submitted manuscripts of the long checklist of required “to-do’s” that, if not met, delays the long-anticipated start of the peer review process.

But the requirements of manuscript preparation focusing on the mechanics (e.g., double-spacing, complete citations, word limits, etc.) are only part of what editors and reviewers are dependent on authors for. Beyond the detailed items that staff can verify, editors expect that authors follow our “Guidelines for Preparing Manuscripts,” including not submitting manuscripts that are under review elsewhere; not including material that has already been published elsewhere; or not having been reviewed previously at the AJPS. Before submitting your next paper, take a fresh look at the long list of expectations for manuscript preparation and manuscript submissions at www.ajps.org, as that list of requirements seems to grow ever longer with every editorial term—and the new editorial team will likely update that list as they see fit.

One of the submission requirements that we added a few months ago is: If the paper to be submitted is part of a larger research agenda (e.g., other related papers under review or book manuscripts in development) these details should be identified in the “Author Comments” text box during the manuscript submission process. We added this requirement after we had several reviewers, on different manuscripts, question the original contribution of the papers they were reviewing, as they seemed trivially different from other papers associated with a bigger project. Editors (thank you, John Ishiyama) sometimes refer to this as “salami slicing,” with the question being: how thin a slice of the big project can stand as its own independent, substantial contribution? Another reason for asking authors to report on bigger, related projects has to do with how these “bigger projects,” if involving a large group of scholars in a subfield who are not authors, might compromise the peer review process. Providing these details, as well as a comprehensive list of co-authors of all authors of the manuscript being submitted, is incredibly helpful as editors seek to identify appropriate reviewers—including those who might have conflicts of interest with the authors, or those who may base their review on who the author is, rather than the quality of the work.

As a testament to the serious and careful work our reviewers do, over the past few months, we have had to respond to problems with a number of submitted manuscripts that reviewers have suggested violate AJPS’s peer review principles. One reviewer identified a paper that had previously been declined, as he or she had already reviewed it once. Some, but not all, authors have communicated directly with us, asking whether, with substantial revisions to theory, data, and presentation, we would allow a (previously declined) paper to be reviewed as a new manuscript submission. Usually these revised manuscripts do not clear the bar as new submissions. In some senses, if you have to ask, you probably are not going to clear that bar. But we applaud these authors for taking this issue seriously, and communicating with us directly. That is the appropriate, and ethical, way to handle the question.

We’ve had similar problems with manuscripts that include text that has been previously published in another (often specialized subfield or non-political science) journal. Reasonable people, I suppose, might disagree about the “seriousness” or ethics of using paragraphs that have been published elsewhere in a paper under review at APJS (or elsewhere). The usual response is: How many ways are there to describe a variable, or a data set, or a frequency distribution? To avoid a violation of the “letter of the law” authors sometimes revert to undergraduate approaches to avoiding plagiarism, by changing a word here or there, or substituting different adjectives in every other sentence. The more paragraphs, of course, the closer the issues of “text recycling” and “self-plagiarism” come into play.

This sloppiness or laziness, however, pales in contrast to the more egregious violations of shared text between submitted and previously published papers that we have had to deal with. Sometimes we have read the same causal story, or saw analytical approaches augmented with one more variable added to a model, or a different measure used to test a series of the same hypotheses, or three more countries or ten more years added to the data set. At which point we had to determine whether the manuscript violates journal policies, or professional publishing standards.

When faced with these issues, we have followed the recommendations of the Committee on Publishing Ethics and directly contacted authors for responses to the issues we raise. I realize that junior faculty (especially) are under incredible pressure to produce more and better research in a limited pre-tenure period, and; I recognize that (a handful of?) more senior faculty may have some incentives for padding the c.v. with additional publications for very different reasons.

While there might be grey areas, I admit to having little sympathy for authors “forgetting” to cite their own work; using “author anonymity” as an excuse for not citing relevant work; or cutting and pasting text from one paper to another. This is not to say that the issues are simple, or that the appropriate editorial response is obvious. But it is discouraging to have to spend editorial time on issues such as these. And as a discipline, we can do better, by explicitly teaching our students, and holding colleagues accountable, to principles of openness, honesty, and integrity. Read the guidelines. Do the work. Write well. Identify issues before you submit. And don’t try to slide by.

The discipline—its scholarship, publishing outlets, its editorial operations, and professional standards—has certainly changed a lot, and in many good ways since the last time I edited. What has not changed is the critical importance of expecting our students and colleagues to respect shared ethical principles. Our editorial team has made some of those issues more explicit in the submission process, asking about editorial conflicts of interest, IRB approvals, and potential reviewer conflicts of interest. While this requires more work of our authors, we think it is work that is well worth the effort, and we thank our authors and reviewers for helping us maintain the highest of professional standards at the AJPS.

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The American Journal of Political Science (AJPS) is the flagship journal of the Midwest Political Science Association and is published by Wiley.

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