SIAM News Blog

Letters From the Editor

By Des Higham

This short blog is essentially an annotated list of generic phrases that academic journal editors might wish to re-hash for use in their decision letters. I hope this resource will benefit three overlapping groups: those of us who serve as editors, those of us who act as referees and those of us who submit articles. It is built on my experiences as an editor, section editor, reviewer and author. These experiences have generally been positive, but over the years I have become aware that a lack of clarity in the communication process can be a key source of inefficiency and frustration. In writing this blog entry, I realise that (a) some issues that I touch on are already covered to some degree by “template” letters supplied by journals, and (b) every set of referee reports is different. However, I believe that a few general topics are worth mulling over. 

The editor’s job is to take an active role in the process and to reach an editorial decision — not just to pass manuscripts back and forth between reviewers and authors. By default we assume that the editor is in agreement with the views of the referees, but it does no harm to make this explicit:

PHRASE 1: The referee reports, with which I concur, ……

Referee reports might impose conflicting demands that cannot be simultaneously addressed. If these are obvious (one reviewer says make it longer, another says make it shorter), then the editor should take a view and report this to the authors. Sometimes, there are technical issues that are not so easy for an editor to spot. I argue that it is better for all concerned if these points are resolved before a revised manuscript makes its way back into the system:

PHRASE 2: If you believe there to be inconsistencies or contradictions between the referee reports, then please contact me for clarification before preparing a revision.

A substantial revision may produce a very different article, and suggestions made by referees can sometimes have unintended consequences. Asking for more background detail in a research article is not an invitation to shoehorn in a 20 page survey. Similarly, a request for more computational results is not a licence to override a journal’s page limit:

PHRASE 3: If you choose to prepare a revised version, you may wish to re-familiarize yourself with the journal’s guidelines for authors at http……….., especially with regard to …….

Of course, the big decision to communicate to the authors is the status of the manuscript with respect to publication; in broad terms, rejection, minor revision or major revision. A decision to reject should be made clearly and unequivocally:

PHRASE 4: I must therefore reject your submission.

In a typical “major revision” case, the authors are given a chance to address the referees’ concerns, and the key editorial decision is being deferred:

PHRASE 5: which will be reviewed again, possibly by different reviewers. I note that acceptance of a revised submission is not guaranteed.

On the other hand, if the referees are generally positive and express only minor worries, an editor may conclude that the submission is almost certainly heading for acceptance. In this case, given that we are still operating in an era where appointment/tenure/promotion decisions can hinge on evidence of refereed publications, why not put this in writing:

PHRASE 6: Please feel free to refer to your manuscript as “accepted for publication in XXXXX subject to minor review.” 

The last two phrases deal with very standard issues; feedback and timing. To make life as easy as possible for those who will referee and edit the revision, authors should respond to each concern, in a stand-alone document:

PHRASE 7: If you choose to submit a revised version, please append a cover letter giving a point-by-point description of your response to all issues raised by the reviewers and highlighting any resulting changes to the manuscript.

So that the system does not clog up with manuscripts that are in limbo, and so that research articles remain timely, an editor also needs to reset the stopwatch:

PHRASE 8: If you choose to submit a revised version, this must be received by the journal office before …date…

Finally, since the whole process relies on the goodwill and expertise of unpaid, and officially unacknowledged, referees, I recommend sending them a personal email of thanks that summarizes the editorial decision and, where appropriate, encourages them to be involved in the next iteration.

[Disclaimer: this blog represents the views of the author, and not of any SIAM committee or journal board.]

Des Higham is a professor in the department of mathematics and statistics at the University of Strathclyde, Glasgow, and serves as section editor for the Survey & Review section of SIAM Review.
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