Thoughts on disgruntled authors and anonymous peer review

I recently completed my last ever volume of the Archaeological Journal as editor, Volume 179 for 2022. When I first took on this role around 5 years ago I had grand plans to blog frequently about the editorial process and provide hopefully useful reflections on papers etc, but that went totally out the window as my job and family life became ever busier, and the editorial work itself took up a substantial amount of time (more perhaps than I realised when I took it on!). Overall I have really enjoyed the experience, and working with the Royal Archaeological Institute more broadly, but there have been  moments when it has been rather stressful. There is a long standing joke amongst academics about the dreaded 'reviewer 2', but perhaps less well known is the 'disgruntled author' who does not agree with the editor's decision! I am lucky that this has never happened often, and in most cases it is a curt email following a reject and resubmit recommendation, but it can be rather disconcerting to be on the receiving end of these sorts of emails. I thought it would be worth reflecting on my experiences here in case anyone finds themselves in a similar situation, or indeed if anyone is thinking of taking on an editor role, some things to do to protect yourself before any problems arise.

I think authors don't always realise that having a paper accepted is not only about passing peer review. There are a myriad of other considerations that the editor has to make, especially in this case when it is a society journal with a specific readership and goals. Is there a good balance between time periods and topics? Will the readership want to read a paper on this topic? Have I exceeded the page budget for the volume? Will the author get the revisions done in time to meet the publisher deadline for print? Now that papers are published online papers can sit and 'wait' online before being assigned to an issue, which makes it much easier to still accept papers if there is no space in the current volume, or if revisions are late. But then there is also the editor's time (don't forget that academic editors are doing this work voluntarily, on top of full time jobs as academics). Papers that have potential but require a lot of editorial work may just not be feasible if the editor is particularly busy at that time. Other times they may be less busy and willing/able to dedicate more time to your paper. Basically, it's not always all about you, and a rejection doesn’t necessarily mean your paper has no merit. 

One response to a rejection I received was particularly memorable. I received a long and aggressive email threatening legal action if the paper wasn’t published, complete with solicitor's letter. At this point any merit the paper may have had was irrelevant, there was no way I could change a legitimate editorial decision because of legal threats; this would completely undermine any credibility in the journal or myself as an editor. The situation was perhaps slightly complex in that the authors had been told they could submit a response paper, but the reviewers raised some serious concerns about the content and language which would have entailed a complete rewrite, which wasn't feasible for the journal timeframe. The authors suggested that because they had been ‘invited’ they had taken this to mean their paper would definitely be published. But this is not the case – even invited papers have to go through the same peer review process as other types of papers. After a lot of back and forth (and thankfully, support from the publisher), it was finally acknowledged that the editorial decision was valid and would be upheld, and that was that. 

I had never imagined that academic publishing could get so aggressive (and I have had plenty of 'reviewer 2' experiences as an author!). The whole thing had quite a negative effect on my mental health, and has made me reflect on how much labour goes into the voluntary editor role, and whether individual academics are fully prepared for this type of scenario. Indeed, I drafted this blog post over six months ago but couldn't quite click the publish button while the stress was still fresh in my mind.

My takeaways from this experience, which may be useful to new editors, or those maybe guest editing a special issue of a journal or similar:

  • Always use the editorial manager system to communicate with authors and reviewers, not email. Using the editorial manager provides an auditable electronic paper trail that is completely transparent. In my case the review process was handled via the editorial manager, but there was substantial communication with the authors via email, which meant I had to spend a huge amount of time collating these emails to explain the situation to the publisher. This is a shame as I used to email directly to build rapport with authors during the revision process, but would now advise against this.
  • Make sure you know your publisher's policies for  inviting papers, and dealing with complaints. Make sure authors know that an invitation to submit a paper or response is not a guarantee of acceptance, and that any such papers are subject to the same review process as non-solicited papers. Point authors to these policies as part of any invitations to submit or call for papers. 
  • Make sure you know the staff at the publisher that are responsible for your journal and build a good relationship with them from the beginning. They can help you if the need arises, and have a lot of experience with the legal aspects of academic publishing.
  • Even small journals should have an editorial committee who can help the editor with any difficult situations, if in doubt discuss things with them. If your journal doesn't have one, take the lead and get one set up, and ensure a good spread of expertise and career stage.
  • Avoid getting involved in any social media arguments about your journal. As an editor you have a duty to keep submissions confidential and to protect the anonymity of your reviewers (my journal is double blind reviewing). Explaining editorial decisions on a public forum could breach this confidentiality.

This final point is an interesting one with regards to anonymous peer review. It would have been useful if all the reviews were public. That being said, I doubt all of the reviewers would have agreed to having their names made public. In an ideal world I'm all for signing reviews, but given the unpredictability of author responses, I'm now leaning more towards anonymity. If authors can threaten editors with legal action, this could also happen to reviewers. I'd be interested to hear other thoughts on this?