The dumbest thing I ever wrote to an editor

OK, so first a funny story; then maybe I’ll extract some kind of lesson from it.

Way back when I was a grad student, I had finished the first chapter of my thesis and was ready to submit it for publication. I thought of myself as an evolutionary ecologist (I still do); and without much more thought about it than that, I decided to send the manuscript to Evolutionary Ecology. Mike Rosenzweig was the Editor-in-Chief at the time, and Mike promptly* sent my manuscript back with an editorial decline, on the grounds that the manuscript was straight-up ecology, without any evolution in it.

So what did I do? Here comes the dumb part. I went through two years of back issues**, and wrote Mike back with a list of a dozen or so paper he had accepted that I thought were equally non-evolutionary – on which grounds, I argued, he should change his mind and accept my paper after all. That’s right – I explained to the Editor-in-Chief that I knew the scope of his journal better than he did!

To this day I’m surprised and impressed that Mike didn’t tear me a new one (and a thoroughly deserved new one, at that). Instead, he wrote me a gracious letter suggesting that my paper would fit better in one of several other journals, and (believe it or not) offering to reconsider the manuscript if I couldn’t place it elsewhere. In an uncharacteristic moment of common sense, I then sent the manuscript to the Journal of Animal Ecology, which published it. I happened to see Mike at a conference last month, and I asked him if he remembered this story. He did, and fortunately, he laughed about it.

So what lessons can I extract from this?

  • It’s possible that I was right. Editors are just people, and they make mistakes, and are inconsistent, just like anybody else.
  • Although it’s possible I was right, it isn’t very likely. Journals do have subject-matter specialties, and it’s hard to imagine who could understand them better than the journals’ editors. These specialties matter, too. I’ve heard people contend that online publication and indexing is making journals obsolete, and we might just as well have one mammoth journal (“PLoS Everything”?) – but it remains true that the journal in which a paper appears is an honest signal of what it’s about and who might be interested in reading it.
  • Despite subject-matter specialization, there are almost always several (if not many) suitable outlets for a paper. Rejection from one journal doesn’t mean the end for a manuscript. (I think my record is having a manuscript rejected by six different journals before being published here.) This has two consequences. First, never give up: make revisions and send your rejected manuscript somewhere else. Making the revisions, of course, is crucial, particularly as your new submission is likely to have one or more of the same reviewers; nothing annoys a reviewer quite so much as seeing their comments ignored! Second, it’s not usually worth appealing a rejection: whether you’re right or wrong to object to the decision, as a practical matter, your odds are probably better just moving on.
  • The submission, review, and publication process is often rather murky to the early-career scientist. If it’s murky to you (as it was to me), it’s worth asking somebody with more experience for advice. I didn’t do that, and oh boy, should I have!
  • And finally: no dumb move is entirely wasted. I (eventually) got a good laugh with Mike, and a blog post, out of mine.

 © Stephen Heard (sheard@unb.ca) April 17, 2015


*In those days, manuscripts went in by snail mail, and “promptly” meant a month or so.

**Actual paper ones. In the library. How quaint, right?

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13 thoughts on “The dumbest thing I ever wrote to an editor

  1. Jeremy Fox

    It’s possible that the journal doesn’t have any one sort of paper it looks for because its associate editors disagree with one another. For instance, I’ve heard of an editor at a leading ecology journal who rejects microcosm papers out of hand. Other editors at the same journal don’t. So if your microcosm paper was rejected by that one anti-microcosm editor, you couldn’t reply by pointing out how many microcosm papers the journal had published. (You can argue that the EiC ought to enforce some uniformity on the editors with respect to such matters, and I’d agree. But I doubt it’s possible.)

    More broadly, when an author gets annoyed at a rejection on the grounds that the journal recently published similar papers (which I’ve done too), often the author’s paper is different than those other papers in the eyes of the editors. “Similar” sometimes is in the eye of the beholder.

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  2. Tim Vines

    Another reason journals don’t buy the ‘hey look, you published a bunch of papers like this a few years ago’ line is that they feel a) that area is old hat and additional papers on that area would lack novelty, and b) the techniques/sample sizes involved are outdated and the journal feels it has moved on.

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