A guest post by Kurt Milberger, Coordinating Editor, Michigan State University Press
If you have queries about the status of the essay you’ve submitted to an academic journal, you’re likely dealing with the managing editor. If you’re working with a journal editor to copyedit your essay, you’re likely dealing with the managing editor. If you’re upset by an editor’s decision about your essay or you wonder what happened during peer review, you’re likely dealing with the managing editor. In each of these instances, managing editors are a central node in the network that produces a scholarly journal. They work with the reviewers, the journal editors, the copy editors, and the publishers who bring publications into the world. As such, managing editors are both conduits and advocates for you and your work. Whereas journal editors usually make final decisions about content, form editorial boards, shape journals in terms of special issues and other features, and otherwise oversee the whole publication, managing editors are usually responsible for enacting those decisions and conducting the day-to-day business of a journal. Knowing what a managing editor can do for you as an author is a good first step to understanding journal workflows and preparing your work for publication.
...managing editors are both conduits and advocates for you and your work.... Knowing what a managing editor can do for you as an author is a good first step to understanding journal workflows and preparing your work for publication.
Sometimes graduate students but often publishing professionals whose interests align with a journal’s field, managing editors oversee the various processes that result in the publication of an academic journal. They review submissions for fitness in the journal in consultation with the lead editor before sending them along to peer review; they coordinate reviews by suggesting and soliciting reviewers, setting deadlines, and nagging these hapless, unpaid volunteers; they prepare articles for typesetting by applying journal style, reviewing the use of material protected by copyright law, checking links, and editing style and grammar; and they proofread typeset articles. Many of these tasks might be assigned to freelancers or editorial assistants by the larger journals, but in journals with small staffs and smaller budgets, they’re likely to devolve to the managing editor.
In all these roles, the best managing editors maintain an impartial commitment to producing the highest quality journal as near the deadline as possible. What does this mean for you as an author? To help a managing editor accomplish this feat of cat herding, authors can take a number of steps to ensure their essays move smoothly through the process and have the best chance of being accepted.
Prospective authors are always well advised to read the journal in question, to become familiar with the types of articles it publishes, and to conform to the submission guidelines. In these places, the editors have articulated, as precisely as they can, exactly the type and style of works they are looking for, and the more accurately you can provide them with pieces that meet their desires, the more likely you are to be published. In my experience, the overwhelming majority of “desk rejections”—rejections prior to peer review—result from failure to read, or unwillingness to adhere, to the journal’s submission guidelines. So, if the journal has specified a word count, a citation style, a file type, or other clear guidelines for submissions, make sure you’re fulfilling them before you click submit. Word count and citation style are the most frequently disregarded submission guidelines, but authors ignore these signposts at their own risk. Citation style is a handy way of determining how seriously authors have taken other guidelines, and word counts exist to manage the burden on editorial teams and reviewers. If the journal asks for 7,500 words, rest assured no reviewer wants to read an extra 3,000 words, and a good managing editor will return your essay unread in deference to their reviewers’ workloads.
When you send your work to venues where it doesn’t fit or you fail to follow the submission guidelines, you’re not only wasting the editorial teams’ time, you’re wasting your own.
The direction that your article should look like “the type of thing we publish” is a little bit more ambiguous, but an example should help illustrate the point. One of the journals I manage publishes humanities-style essays on social science subjects: stories about social science research and what it shows as opposed to explications of social science research and how it is planned and conducted. Thus, this journal’s articles are not formatted in the traditional social science style (i.e., intro, method, lit review, data, analysis, conclusions, etc.). A simple glance at some articles in the journal should be enough for prospective authors to realize this fact, and yet we receive dozens of traditional social science–style papers every year only to reject them unread. When you send your work to venues where it doesn’t fit or you fail to follow the submission guidelines, you’re not only wasting the editorial teams’ time, you’re wasting your own.
If you have questions about whether your article might be a good candidate for review at a particular journal, don’t hesitate to write the managing editor with an abstract, a brief description, or even a copy of the article you’re working on to ask whether it would be a good fit. Some might suggest you ask whether you can send along such material before sending the material, but personally, I’d rather it arrived all at once than have to ask for it after confirming that I can’t tell whether your article would be a good fit for our journal without seeing the article.
Now, you’ve read the journal, you’ve formatted your essay according to the editor’s expectations, and you’ve submitted your article. So far, the piece has flown right into peer review, but now it feels like the process has stalled. Maybe weeks or months have gone by without any word from the journal. It’s unfortunate, but scholarly publishing timelines can be exceedingly long. Reviewers are often allotted four weeks to complete a peer review, but they can take time to track down, and reviewing usually slots in near the bottom of folks’ to-do lists where deadlines are more flexible. Remember, almost no one is getting paid to do this work. Thus, as frustrating as it might be, eight to ten weeks is a pretty reasonable timeframe within which to expect an article to be assigned, reviewed, and decided upon by the editor.
Be polite, be courteous, but be persistent, if necessary. If you haven’t heard back by week twelve, reach out and ask for an update.
But if that time has passed and you still haven’t gotten a response, don’t hesitate to contact the managing editor to check in on the status of your article, and don’t flinch from holding them accountable for the promises they make. In publishing as in life, the squeaky wheel gets the grease, as they say, and I’m much more likely to hound reviewers to wrap up the process in response to your reminders than I am to get irritated with you. But please also remember that the managing editor is coordinating other processes and is rarely directly responsible for the fate of your manuscript. An ethical journal editor will consider your essay and your peers’ feedback above your behavior in correspondence when assessing your manuscript, but you can help by directing correspondence to the managing editor anyway. Be polite, be courteous, but be persistent, if necessary. If you haven’t heard back by week twelve, reach out and ask for an update. If the answer is vague and doesn’t include a real timeline, follow up for clarification. It’s the managing editor’s job to get these things done, and they owe it to you, the provider of free content, to do so as transparently and efficiently as possible.
...you have the right to understand what happened to your article during the review and editorial decision process. If the materials you receive from the journal don’t make that clear, don’t hesitate to ask for more information.
It sometimes happens that articles are unfairly rejected, readers’ reports are vague and unhelpful—even rude—or editorial decisions just don’t make sense. Here, too, I encourage you to reach out to your managing editor to ask for clarity. If the reviews seem biased or unfair, feel free to bring that up with the managing editor, even to request additional review. I cannot stress enough the need to be respectful, professional, and understanding in these negotiations (you’d like the editor to think kindly of you and your work, after all), but I wish more first-time academic authors understood the role this kind of correspondence and negotiation can play in the publishing process. I have seen rejected articles published after the authors expressed dissatisfaction with the review process and requested additional review, and I know several journal editors who are willing to provide more extensive feedback upon request than they’re able to give to every author at the point of decision. This kind of information can be helpful in revising the article for publication elsewhere or for your next submission at the same journal. Do not expect that a query like this will change the decision or that you’re owed publication because you’re invested in your own success, but, as the author, you have the right to understand what happened to your article during the review and editorial decision process. If the materials you receive from the journal don’t make that clear, don’t hesitate to ask for more information.
Assuming things went your way, your article is on its way to production. It’s increasingly rare, but some journals will provide some professional copyediting and formatting assistance before the article makes its way to typesetting. At most journals, though, these processes are handled in-house by the same team responsible for collecting and assessing submissions. These are relatively straightforward processes, and I’d encourage you to keep in mind, if you’re lucky enough to get in-depth editing of any kind from a journal editor, that editors are engaged in helping to improve the work for their specific audience. The typical quarterly publishes between forty and sixty articles per year. Compound that by a few years, and a managing editor responsible for copyediting has read hundreds of articles in your field. Start by assuming that their advice and critique are informed by much experience and meant to improve the article’s quality rather than intended as a personal attack. They are also in a better position to understand the journal’s style and the publisher’s guidelines, and so much of their feedback will be designed to help meet those requirements.
Part of the production process, especially at conglomerate publishers, includes ensuring that your article isn’t reproducing copyright-protected materials without permission. Many academics’ understanding of “fair use” differs from that of the publishers with whom they work, and, thus, many article authors don’t think about gathering permissions until far too late in the process. (The Elephant offers advice on when and how to get permission to reproduce copyrighted work.) As soon as your article is accepted for publication, you should receive guidance from your publisher about what kinds of permission they require and from whom. Follow these directions precisely and as quickly as possible. If you plan to include protected material in your publication, you must begin seeking those permissions early, and you should be prepared to pay or seek funding to pay for them, as your publisher will offer no such assistance. From this managing editor’s perspective, authors could take a lot more advantage of my willingness and ability to help track down permissions. If you’re having trouble determining who holds the rights, finding the right contact, or obtaining signatures, check in with the journal’s managing editor. They’ll likely have experience with the institutions you’re dealing with or tips to point you in the right direction. Your library’s copyright librarian is also an excellent source of support during this process.
Once you’ve cleared the permissions and reviewed the copyedited manuscript, the next step is proofreading the typeset version of your article to make sure no errors crept in during typesetting. Here you’ll likely hear from someone on the production team, but it’s just as likely you’re still dealing with the managing editor. After you’ve returned your proofs, it’s just a bit more waiting until your article is finally and truly published. The managing editor can’t make sure your reviewers will approve you work, that anyone will cite it after it’s published, or that you’ll receive the promotion you deserve at the end of your next T&P cycle, but as a central node overseeing the day-to-day operations of the journal, the managing editor can provide essential assistance on your way to publication.
Kurt Milberger is coordinating editor in the College of Arts & Letters at Michigan State University, where he manages three journals and works with graduate students at MSU Press. He tweets @kurtmilb.
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