Tuesday, 8 May 2012

That's Not What I Meant

As an editor of a journal, the feedback that I give to authors of publishable papers varies from:

optional advice, along the lines of "I think your paper would be improved if you added/deleted/considered X, but this is just a suggestion for you to use or reject. I'm accepting the paper anyway, so whatever you decide is fine" (although I don't word it exactly that way);


make these changes or else, along the lines of "Reviewers (and/or I) found the following errors that must be fixed. Most of the paper is fine and quite interesting, so I'm inclined to accept it but you have to do a very thorough revision or I will not hesitate to reject the paper" (although I don't word it exactly that way).

I always think that I am being unambiguous about whether I am giving friendly (optional) advice or a do-or-die editorial command, but I can tell from some author responses that they are reading between the lines of my editorial decisions, even the friendly ones.

This possible case of reading between the lines was particularly troubling to me:

In a paper that I thought was quite likely to be acceptable after moderate revisions, the authors did a good job with the revisions, but the manuscript needed re-review because the revisions were rather extensive. The reviewer (who had also reviewed the first version) liked the paper, but made a few more constructive suggestions to improve the paper; these did not require additional work or $ (other than thought/time) -- the reviewer (and I) just thought the authors should give some more thought to a few things that would potentially broaden the readership of the paper. In my decision, which clearly stated that I was going to accept the paper whether or not the additional changes were made, I explained why I thought these suggestions were worth consideration. 

The revised revised paper came back with a few changes, but the most significant one was the addition of at least 4 new references: all to papers on which I am a co-author!!

Did the authors think my advice was somehow code for "I want you to cite my work more?" If so, this is disturbing, as this was definitely not my intention and quite a stretch to interpret this from my words or actions. As it happens, the citations are relevant, but the paper was fine without them.

It is sad if the authors were so cynical as to think that I would only be satisfied if they cited my work more. I had already told them that I was going to accept the paper, so it would be very strange (and deeply disturbing) if they thought my decision hinged on their citing my papers. One of my colleagues thinks that my general instruction (based on the reviewer comment) inspired the authors to read more widely in the relevant literature, whereupon they encountered some of my papers and decided that these would be good to cite. Maybe, and that might explain 1, maybe 2 new citations, but 4? Strange.

The paper was accepted, as originally decided, but I involved another editor in further interaction with these authors, as I was no longer comfortable dealing with this group alone.

Have you ever deliberately cited the work of an editor (not a possible reviewer, but specifically the editor), hoping it would increase your chances of having the paper accepted? At what stage did you do this: in the first version (if you knew the likely or certain identity of the editor) or during a revision stage? Do you really think it matters? This is either a test of your cynicism level or of my delusion/naïveté level.

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