For five years I served as the Area Editor for Game Theory at “Mathematics of Operations Research”. I guess that most of you know the journal. As the top journal in mathematical game theory, at least this is the way the journal views itself, only about 15% of the submitted papers in this area are accepted. Quick calculation suggests that around 85% of the papers are rejected. As I was the only one standing at the forefront, I was the one who sent (and signed on) the rejection letters, and attached the referee reports that looked as if the referees did not invest enough time in reading the paper. I guess that other editors face the same situation.
This post is written for those of us who do not (yet) serve on the editorial boards of journals. And to those who do or did, but forget how the system works when it comes to their papers.
Some of us submit their papers to top journals because we believe that there is some probability that the paper will be accepted, and so, why not to try. Some of us believe that the paper will be rejected, but the input from the reviewers of a top journal, the associate editor and the editor is worth the delay in publication caused by a submission that is rejected. Yet many of us are confident that our papers are great, that we solve interesting problems, and that the insights we offer are enlightening and important.
As an editor, I got many papers that simply were not the type of papers that the journal looks for. Other papers did not explain why the result they present is interesting, and what the readers gains from the paper. And the contribution of others was simply not significant enough to grant publication at a top journal. After all, 50% of the papers are below the median. If only 15% of the papers are accepted, the paper should be really outstanding to be published at the journal.
A common complaint that I heard is that the review process is too long, and that eventually the referees did not understand the paper. I completely agree with the first complaint, not with the second. With regard to the first complaint, one should keep in mind, though, that sometimes people complain when they are authors, but delay reports when they are referees. Concerning the second complaint, sometimes indeed referees miss the point of the paper, but this usually means that the authors did a bad job in explaining their results. After all, the referees are more often then not experts in their fields, and they could easily understand a well-written paper.
The work of an editor is demanding: you are in charge of many papers in different topics, in most of these topics you have never written anything. And you must rely on the associate editors and referees to know the literature and provide reliable assessments. But you are responsible for the decision regarding the paper: accept or reject. And the anger of the disappointed authors is directed at the only person whose identity is public – you. Once, one author caught me at a conference after lunch and told me in detail what he thinks of my virtues as an editor and of the way I choose referees. You can imagine the feeling. The job is time-consuming, and sometimes frustrating, and getting such reactions is disappointing, especially because you do the job as a service to the community.
So, what do I want to say except of complaining about busy referees and angry authors?
First, I ask everyone to take seriously the referee jobs. If you invest more time in others’ papers, and if you complete the reports quickly, then others will do the same. When I was a junior, I used to complete a report within a week of receiving the paper. Why postpone the job, as it will wait for me anyway? These days, with the additional chores that fall on us with age, I need more time, but usually one month is enough. I do not see why some people take ages to complete a report. And I ask you not to turn down requests to review papers. Even if you are busy, there is always time to read one additional paper. When you take the kid to a Tennis class, when you try to put your baby to sleep, when you take a flight; there is plenty of free time that pleads to be used for noble causes. One month before I moved to Evanston for my first position at Kellogg I got a request to review a paper for “Mathematics of Operations Research”. I told the editor that I have infinitely many chores to complete in this month. He said that infinity plus one is infinity, so I would not feel the difference. The report was in his mailbox before I crossed the Atlantic.
Second, I ask authors to accept rejections. Having a paper rejected does not cheer you up or make you feel good, but all it says is that either you did a bad job in selling the paper, or that you did not properly estimate the contribution of your work. Usually a rejection says nothing about the referees, only about the authors. And this is said by someone who had quite a few papers rejected in recent years. It is easy to blame the unknown referees. But whatever you say on the referees, the authors of the papers that you review say about you. Are they correct?
Now, after five years of service, I am back to anonymity. Again I will be a mere associate editor, who has to chase referees but does not need to face disappointed authors and to deliver bad news. So that I am not forgotten, I upgraded myself and joined the Leisure blog; I can now write whatever comes to my mind, without making anyone specific angry or disappointed. And if anyone is angry by what I write, it will be because of me, and not because of the phantoms that used to hide behind my back.