What is the best way to manage the review process?

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Contents

Managing the Review Process – Advice for the Accounting Academic

Overview

The review process is an important tool that you can use to improve your research, and it is the pathway to publications in academic journals; therefore, it needs to be carefully managed. Although there are unfortunate exceptions, the review report(s) and comments from the editor reflect a detailed and critical reading of your paper by objective (and often very smart) 3rd parties, and so their advice should be very carefully considered. This often takes time. Seeking the advice of senior colleagues is very helpful. If the editor allows a resubmission then you should prepare a detailed response to both the review report(s) and the editorial’s suggestions. Be courteous. Even if the paper is rejected, the comments are still often useful, and should be carefully considered before you send the paper elsewhere.

Introduction

The review process is a critical component of our academic system. Editors and reviewers play a key role as gatekeepers over what gets admitted into the accounting literature. A poor paper that is accepted can be very embarrassing to those involved; therefore, editors and reviewers are rigorous and will err on the side of rejecting a paper. Top journals typically have an acceptance rate of around 10%.

An accepted paper is a form of academic currency, and without accepted papers (especially at top journals), you will not get tenure. This means that the review process is also emotionally difficult as well as intellectually challenging. Success at this game requires hard work and persistence.

While this article is focused on managing the review process, I note that the review process is intimately connected with the overall management of your research project. Don’t take on a project when you can’t see a clear path to your targeted range of journals. Never send a paper for review that has not been read by anyone other than you and your co-author. Have some colleagues read it and give you critical feedback; these can be individuals at your current university, and faculty you know from your PhD as well as colleagues you meet at conferences, etc. Ideally, you should submit the paper to one or more conferences to get some exposure for it. Conference participants will likely not give your paper a detailed read, but the discussant probably will, and the act of presenting paper will sometimes reveal flaws that should be fixed before you submit the paper for review. Tell friends at other schools that you have a new research paper that you’d love to present at their workshop sometime…maybe they can fit you in. Post the paper on SSRN when it’s in good shape. An editor who recognizes your name will be more favorably disposed to your submission, and a paper free of obvious mistakes is more likely to be carefully read.

Your writing should be as clear and succinct as possible. A great idea, even with fabulous statistics, will be quickly overshadowed by poor exposition. If you read over the paper and find yourself saying “the reader will figure things out by the end of the paper,” it is very likely that the reviewer will not bother to reach the end of the paper. Make it as easy as possible for your reader to understand why your paper is important, and what your key results are...in the introduction, so the editor and reviewers don’t have to go hunting for it. Papers that are convoluted, repetitive, or have grammatical errors suggest sloppy thinking; the reviewer will react accordingly. Finally, my personal rule of thumb is to keep the text down to under 30 double-spaced pages; longer papers are less likely to get a careful and thorough read. Another signal of good research that reviewers will appreciate is to include (usually in the conclusion) some discussion of possible limitations of the paper, and where possible future lines of inquiry might exist. Papers that pretend to be flawless, or the complete and final word on a topic, are likely to be found wanting.

When you submit the paper, include a brief cover letter that points out the highlights of the paper (most importantly, why it is interesting and what it adds to the literature). Editors are busy, and they want you tell them why they should consider publishing your paper. Once your paper is in review, my advice is not to ask the editor about its status unless the review is seriously late (at least one month overdue, and more likely two, based on the review times that the journal publishes). If you do ask about the status of paper, do so pleasantly. Reviewers are often busy, and they won’t take kindly to nagging.

Responding to Various Editorial Decisions

Read over the letter (typically an e-mail) carefully, and don’t send any quick response. Forward it to your co-author(s). If you need a break, do something else for a while. When you do return to the report, be sure to understand what is in it. Ask a senior colleague to read it over and give you advice.

A “Revise and Resubmit”

If the decision is positive (typically a “revise and resubmit” – where the editor will allow you to make revisions following the editor’s and the reviewers’ comments and resubmit the paper), be sure to read the reports in detail. Cut-and-paste the editor’s comments and the review reports into a Word file where you can easily write in your response to them. This file can also serve to hold your initial thoughts as you think about each point, and if you have a co-author, it can be useful to pass this file back-and-forth as you both think about how to respond. If at all possible within a reasonable time frame, do what they ask. Ultimately, you will want a document that gives a detailed response to each point raised by the editor and the reviewer. You will want to be concise and deliberate here. The editor and reviewer have invested time and effort into improving your work, and if you ignore, sidestep, or discount their comments, they will not be pleased. Spell check. If they’ve made a typo in their verbiage to you, fix it without comment. Thank them for their efforts. If you can do so, try to add more to the paper than the reviewer and editor explicitly asked for. You don’t want to submit a completely different paper, but you do want to make it as easy as possible for the editor and reviewer to be impressed with your work.

You may disagree with what the editor and reviewer want; if so, explain why you think your approach is better (or, in some cases, why what they want can’t be done or would be incorrect), and be pleasant about it. If at all possible, put the results to what they wanted in a supplementary table that you can include in your response when you resubmit the paper. Remember, your name is going on the paper if it is published, so you are ultimately responsible for it. Having a senior colleague read over your revision and your response to the editor and review can be very helpful before you return it to the journal, because you don’t want to miss anything.

A typical turn-around time for a revise and resubmit is 2-3 months. If you anticipate the revisions will take longer, a quick note to the editor might be in order so that he knows you are still pursuing the project.

A Rejection

Rejections are, unfortunately, much more common in our profession. Take a longer break before you revisit a rejection. You will not want to simply throw the review report and editor comments away, because they often contain useful information. If you believe the comments have some quality, sending a brief thank you to the editor is often appropriate (e.g., “although of course I would have preferred a different outcome, I was pleased to see the thoughtful comments you and the reviewer have made. If possible, could you thank the reviewer for his efforts?”). We live in a small world as accounting academics, and if you are rude in a response to an editor, it will come back to haunt you. Don’t respond if you can’t think of anything nice to say.

You should spend some time thinking about why the paper was rejected. Sometimes your paper might have been scooped by another recent paper, and you will need to consider whether you can redirect your paper into another interesting area where it could be publishable (or, at least, you should determine if you can explain why the earlier paper doesn’t trump your results). Often the editor or reviewer might believe the marginal contribution is too small. These can be difficult problems to overcome. If you can’t convincingly explain why the results of the paper are important, it may be time to either drop the project or send it to a lower-tier journal. Sometimes it might be a “taste” issue – where the editor or reviewer just doesn’t like the topic (or perhaps your approach to the topic). In these cases, you can often send the paper to another peer journal, because tastes vary between editors (but see below: you should still consider improving the paper before sending it elsewhere). Advice and feedback from a senior colleague can be very helpful when receiving rejection. They have experienced the same thing – multiple times – so they can relate and can offer useful feedback.

It can be emotionally pleasing to be hyper-critical as you read the review report on a rejection, and therefore easy to be dismissive. But even in a bad review, there are often nuggets of insight that you can draw upon. You don’t need to make a detailed response to the review or editor comments, but you should read things over carefully to glean what you can. For example, the reviewer might find fault with your particular statistical methodology. This suggests that in the next revision you should at least consider using a better methodology (or adding a robustness check to show that the methodology the review wanted won’t change anything).

Sometimes the editor or reviewer will have a completely different take on how you should approach a topic, and they may recommend massive changes to the paper. If their comments are off-the-cuff, or otherwise not well thought out, be prepared to ignore them or consider them as ideas for a new and different paper.

A bad review can also be a signal that your paper was poorly written or not well motivated, because if you can’t explain why your paper is interesting, why should a reviewer or editor put much time into evaluating it? Also, if your topic was not clearly spelled out, or if the relationship with prior work was not established, the editor may have struggled to think of who might best review the paper. An editor will not read the paper in detail to hunt down this information, so you should help him out by getting to these critical points quickly and clearly in your paper.

It may be tempting to send the paper off to another journal without revisions. Consider carefully before doing so. Is there really nothing that could be done to improve the paper? A hastily resubmitted paper can cost you. I had a colleague recognize a badly written paper from a prior review a year or two ago for a different journal. The author had made no effort whatsoever to improve the paper, and the editor’s response to the author was not pleasant.

In rare cases you may feel that you should object to the rejection. Some journals have a formal process for this; with others, the process is informal. Before you challenge a rejection, be sure you can clearly, nicely, and objectively state why the decision was wrong. Even then, I have rarely seen objections result in a useful outcome. In my opinion, it is a waste of time (and sometimes money) to object to a rejection which involves the editor’s opinion. If you believe you have an airtight case (everyone, recite together…) ask a senior colleague for advice before continuing.

Acceptance and Conditional Acceptance

These are happy things. However, even with a conditional acceptance (where the editor agrees to publish your paper provided you can fulfill a short list of his requests), you should still respond carefully to what he has asked you to do. Be sure to provide a detailed response to his requests, and do them as quickly as you can while still being thorough.

Closing Comments

There’s nothing quite like reading the words “I am pleased to accept your paper for publication in the….” Prior rejections can make this all the more sweeter. Persistence is a well-rewarded quality in our profession. While you should be prepared to drop projects that clearly aren’t going anywhere, you should also stick to projects that make worthwhile contributions to the literature. Ball & Brown (1968) was rejected by a top accounting journal (it wasn’t accounting research to the editor at the time). Feltham and Ohlson (1995) was also rejected before being published. So, if your paper is rejected, it is in good company!

You will also likely be a reviewer at some point in your career. If you felt you were treated unfairly by the review process, it may be tempting to “dish it out” to some other poor shmuck. While you should be objective and rigorous, you should also be nice. Your goal as a reviewer should be to improve the quality of the research (and, if you can, help another struggling academic with some good feedback and advice!).

Other Helpful Tips

Where to send papers?

Different schools have different expectations for achieving tenure and receiving annual merit pay. Often, the schools will have a "journal rankings" list to give you some idea of the relative value of publishing in a particular journal. My own philosophy is that I should never work on an idea that doesn't have at least some chance at a top-tier journal. Then if it gets rejected, then I can decide if it is worth the effort to move it to a different top-tier journal after revising the paper or to move it down to the next level journal.

Showing Incremental Contribution: A Goal of the Reviewing Process

In my opinion, most manuscripts get rejected because of a lack of incremental contribution. The research design may be adequate, the data and research question interesting, and appropriate inferences can be made. But somehow, even after all that, the question is why are we in a better position because of this manuscript? Why will I think about the world differently now because of this paper? Therefore, a goal of the reviewing process is to heavily promote your incremental contribution to the literature.

Receipt of Revise and Resubmit Recommendation

First of all, say a prayer of thanks for getting past a major hurdle. Once the prayer is over, it is time to get to work! Focus on those items that will take some major effort (e.g., additional data collection and analysis, review of different research stream, etc.). Once those are addressed, focus on the smaller issues. Address each and every point in the revision in a thorough way. Then write a response to reviewers that provides a point-by-point response to each question. Authors are usually given one year to revise the paper. I like to return the paper in 3-4 months to show that I am able to quickly and completely respond with a complete revision.

Sometimes it does not make sense to revise the paper. Are the reviewers asking you to do something nearly impossible? Or do the results of your paper go away after some robustness checks. you must continually assess if a satisfactory revision will be able to be done. Sometimes it will take less effort or you may have a better chance of getting this article published with a different reviewer team at a different journal.

How to Handle Rejection

For most top-tier journals, the rejection rate is above 90%. Knowing this base rate, even the most accomplished authors can expect that their manuscript will be rejected. While frustrating, one should take the opportunity to learn why the reviewers did not extend an opportunity to revise the paper. Was it a lack of incremental contribution? Was it a research design flaw or error? Was it due to a lack of motivation? How can you use this knowledge to your advantage in a subsequent paper?


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