Service A Journal Editor's Wish List

A Journal Editor’s Wish List

By Jennifer Lackey

On any given day, it’s not uncommon for me to check my e-mail and have over 25 new messages regarding editorial matters. Some are automatic notices of new submissions, others are queries from authors, but most are people declining my requests to referee papers. In my capacity as Editor at Episteme and Philosophical Studies alone, I’ve handled thousands of submissions from start to finish, and I typically have well over 100 active submissions for which I’m responsible. I say this not for sympathy, but to offer a context for what’s to come—I’ve learned a great deal about when the editorial process goes well, and when it doesn’t, from spending so much time and energy on this side of things. So when I was asked by the APA Blog to offer a few comments about editorial work, I thought I would put together an editor’s wish list.

  • When asked to review a paper for a journal, it is best to accept or reject the request as quickly as possible rather than sitting on it. It isn’t unusual for more than a handful of reviewers to be asked to evaluate a submission before finding someone who is willing to do so. Suppose, then, that 5 reviewers are invited, one after another, before an editor hits upon a taker, and each person sits on the invitation for two weeks before declining. 10 weeks will have passed before the submission is even in the hands of a reviewer. Obviously, this is not ideal, especially for younger members of the profession for whom the stakes can be very high.
  • When declining a request to referee, it is invaluable to suggest alternative reviewers, especially ones who might not be obvious candidates. Keep in mind that editors handling submissions are often not experts in the areas of the submission, and so recommendations of reviewers from experts not only speed up the process, but they can also increase the chances of a highly competent review.
  • When declining a request to referee on the grounds that your plate is too full, it is helpful to keep in mind that most people in the profession are overcommitted, and so chances are that the person who eventually agrees to review the paper will also have a very full plate.
  • It is best quickly to look over a submission before agreeing to review it. It happens with some regularity that a reviewer agrees to referee a paper, only to discover when s/he sits down to do so weeks or months later that s/he is familiar with the paper, and thus the process wouldn’t be blind if s/he proceeded. Delaying the review process by this amount of time can be the difference between being able to include an additional publication in one’s tenure file and not for some members of the profession.
  • When suggesting a revise and resubmit, it is often ideal to also agree to review a revised and resubmitted version of the paper. I have seen countless authors frustrated when they respond to one set of comments, only to have an entirely new referee enter the picture months into the process and request wholly new revisions, sometimes ones that are even at odds with the first set. This is sometimes done for reasons that are in the best interest of the submission—a reviewer might worry that s/he is missing the force of a response or has had too many back-and-forths with the author and so requests that the editor find a new referee. But sometimes this happens for reasons that are perhaps best avoided. Reviewers often don’t notice that the request is to review a revised submission; they say after the fact that while the title of a revised paper looked familiar, they thought this was because they had reviewed it for another journal. Given this, they decline the request, mistakenly believing that they are being asked to review another submission for the same journal shortly after they just completed one.
  • When recommending the acceptance or rejection of a paper, it is helpful to make a positive, compelling case for it. With respect to the former, acceptance rates are generally quite low, and so editors are looking not only for the absence of substantive objections, but also for the presence of considerations in favor of publication (beyond, “I liked the paper”). Regarding the latter, it often provides valuable guidance to authors to understand why their papers are being rejected, especially junior members of the profession who are new to the process. Moreover, even when the recommendation is that the paper be rejected, it is helpful to identify what the author did well in the paper since it is very likely that the paper will be revised and resubmitted elsewhere.
  • Junior members of the profession are often more likely to review papers, which of course provides them with necessary experience with the publishing process. But the bulk of the refereeing for the profession should not fall on the shoulders of those members still trying to get tenure.
  • While reviewing papers might seem thankless, please know that your service to the profession does not go entirely unnoticed. For many journals, there are some aspects of the process that are automated—such as reminders about deadlines—but others go directly through the editors, such as requests to review, recommendations to reject and accept, reports, and so on. This means that there is another person on the end of all of those e-mails you’re getting who is grateful for your careful, thoughtful work. Moreover, data is often retained in the online system, showing an individual’s history of reviewing: how many requests have been sent, how many have been accepted, the average number of days for a review, and so on. I am always struck by how some members of our profession are true heroes in these respects.
  • More generally, it is helpful when all involved are respectful and charitable and recognize that there is fallibility at every stage of the process.

Jennifer Lackey is Wayne and Elizabeth Jones Professor of Philosophy at Northwestern University.  In addition to her work as journal editor, she has written Learning from Words: Testimony as a Source of Knowledge and co-edited The Epistemology of Testimony. You can find out more about her here.


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  1. Jennifer Said: “It is best quickly to look over a submission before agreeing to review it.”

    I have never refereed for Phil Studies or Episteme, so maybe this isn’t a problem for them, but for some other Springer Journals (like Phil Studies, at least) this isn’t so easy, given the journal software. In many cases (as with Springer Journals) you cannot see the paper until you have agreed to referee it. (You only get access to the paper once you agree.) Now, it’s of course possible to “agree”, look at the paper, and then un-agree, but that’s tedious, and perhaps confusing, because a message is sent automatically once you “agree” to it, to the editor or an assistant. There’s no automatic way to “un-agree” once that’s done – it has to be a distinct email. Perhaps this is something that can be suggested as a change, or perhaps a more informal method can be used. I note this because, in a couple of cases, I have lamented that I could not see the paper before deciding whether to agree or not. (Sometime, I think, I have time to referee a shortish paper, but not a 30+ page long paper, but with the typical software, I can’t even tell how long the paper is until I agree to referee it, let alone know if I have seen it or not.)

  2. I do not think it is helpful to remember that others are overcommitted when declining to referee because I am overcommitted. If I am overcommitted (really) and take on a refereeing task (because I have remembered that others are overcommitted?), then I will be late or neglectful with some task or responsibility (otherwise I wasn’t really already overcommitted). And in that case it would seem only fair that I be late with the last task I have undertaken — the refereeing task.

    Encouraging overcommitted people to take on refereeing tasks leaves journal editors with no real grounds to complain when the task is poorly done or late.

    I haven’t even mentioned personal responsibilities to children, parents, spouses, and issues of work-life balance.

  3. I want to add that all the rest of the points here are excellent, and that the profession owes you, Prof. Lackey, a great deal for all of your work on what is surely a thankless task.

  4. I won’t accept a refereeing request until I see a manuscript of the paper and know how quickly the journal expects a report. It’s surprising to me how many journals don’t include this basic information in the original request. So I have to write back to ask for it, you have to respond to my email, and the whole process is delayed.


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