Appealing to the Editor?

Q: Is it proper (or advisable) to appeal an editor’s decision on a manuscript and, if so, under what circumstances? 

Author: David Bills, University of Iowa

 My first response to this question is that appeals to an editor to reverse a decision (and what “decision” means here is really “rejection,” since no one is going to appeal an acceptance) should be very, very rare.  But there are times when you should consider doing so.

Jilted authors should remember that top-drawer journals reject about 90 percent of the manuscripts that they receive.  This means that editors are going to reject some very good papers, papers that are theoretically tight, technically proficient, and nicely written.  But clearing these bars is not by itself enough to earn you a second look.  If you appeal on the grounds of “Hey, I didn’t make any mistakes,” you will get nowhere.  Editors are looking for papers that make significant and clear contributions to the literature.  They want to publish papers that will be cited a lot and that will move the discipline forward.

As an editor, I had to constantly ask myself “What 15-20 papers are mostly likely to have a lasting impact?”  These may not necessarily have been the 15-20 papers with the most sophisticated use of theory or the most impressive pyrotechnical wizardry. For an appeal of an editor’s decision to be successful, you need to convince the editor that your paper a) did not get a fair review AND b) that it stands to make a “top ten percent” contribution.

Every paper deserves a fair hearing.  But what counts as a fair hearing?  Reviewers make mistakes.  So do editors.  From an author’s perspective, these mistakes can be frustrating and infuriating.  Still, mistakes made by reviewers and editors, no matter how serious or neglectful or opinionated, only matter if they lead to a fundamental misrepresentation of your paper. Reviewers’ mistakes are consequential to the extent that they prevent the editor from seeing the potential contribution of your paper.  Similarly, an editor’s mistakes only matter if they prevent the publication of a paper that might have made a significant contribution.  If a reviewer misreads your tables or mangles your theory, you can point this out to the editor, but you can only expect this to carry the day if you can convince the editor that reading the tables properly or following your theoretical reasoning more adeptly would cast your paper in an entirely new light.  It’s not enough to play “Gotcha” with reviewers and editors. 

Much of the confusion over whether or not to appeal what you see as a wrong decision could be abated if reviewers would refrain from sending inappropriate signals to authors.  If you get a review that says your paper should be published, or revised and resubmitted, ignore this.  Listen to the editor, not to reviewers.  Don’t base your appeal on encouraging signs from the reviewers.

The takeaway from all this?  If reviewers or editors misread or wrongly criticize your paper, by all means let the editor know.  If reviewers or editors misread or wrongly criticize your paper AND you think you can persuade the editor that these failures are depriving the journal of a potential “top ten” paper, then and only then should you think about an appeal.

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