As I've said recently, I've been really enjoying the "Letters from the Editors" blog that Jonathan Jacobs and other journal editors have gotten going. I think it's a great resource for not only giving people a better idea of what goes on behind the scenes in academic publishing, but also for discussing important questions about how the review process should work and how journals should be run (e.g. what makes a good referee report, whether referees should be informed of editorial decisions, etc.).
Anyway, Sarah L. Uckelman's recent post, "The Value and Cost of Desk Rejections", recently caught my eye, and got me thinking about a couple of things that I thought might be worth discussing here. The first thing her post got me thinking about, obviously, was the value and cost of desk rejections. ;) My experience with these things has, in full frankness, been a bit frustrating. There's one very highly ranked journal, for instance (which I will not name), that regularly rejects papers literally in an hour or two. Now, of course, one common argument for desk rejections -- one that Uckelman gives -- is that it saves everyone time by ensuring that articles clearly not suitable for publication in the journal are not sent out to referees. My experience, though (anecdotal though it may be), is that, with some journals at least, this isn't plausibly what's going on. I've had papers desk-rejected at journals that the papers were clearly well-suited for, and I've known plenty of other people who have had similar experiences. Now, of course, another possibility -- and another justification commonly given for desk rejections -- is that the editor judges the submitted article to be clearly of unpublishable quality. Here, though, is why I am dubious of this as a justification. I read not too long ago of some really famous articles (by Andy Clark, David Chalmers, and others) that were reportedly desk-rejected by numerous journals. I've also seen journals publish articles that, in my judgment (though of course I am biased), are far inferior to articles those same journals have desk-rejected. My worry, then, is this: don't desk-rejections put too much power in the hands of editors to reject papers, or authors, they just don't like? Wouldn't it be better to have -- as the Australasian Journal of Philosophy has -- a minimum standard of what a publishable paper must meet, and desk-reject only papers that do not clearly meet that minimum standard, and perhaps in addition, let referrees vote in favor or against "desk rejection" during the first week of review (where, let's say, the paper is "desk-rejected" if, and only if, both reviewers advise it)? Couldn't such a policy serve the legitimate purposes of desk rejections (viz. saving editors and reviewers time on bad papers) while avoiding the (morally and editorially) hazardous practice of desk-rejections being systematically influenced by editorial bias? Anyway, just a thought. I'd be curious to hear what everyone thinks.
Another thing Uckelman's post got me thinking about -- and which really isn't directly related to her post -- is the practice that some journals have of rejecting papers without providing reviewer comments. A few very highly-ranked journals, of course, appear to do this far more often than not, the implied justification being that it facilitates quick turn-around times. Although I agree that quick turnaround times are a good thing, I still have worries about the practice. We all know, after all, how unfair reviewers can sometimes be (when we read their comments). Sometimes, in my experience, good editors will ignore or discount poorly justified reviews, and side with another reviewer who gives a good justification for publishing the paper (perhaps offering a revise-and-resubmit in light of one positive and one negative set of comments, and then sending out the revised manuscript to a third reviewer if the initial negative review was poorly justified). This seems to me a good practice. If there are bad reviewers out there (and there are), they should have to give detailed reviews of the papers they referee so that the editor can judge whether, in fact, they gave the paper a fair review. Or so it seems to me. My worry (is it a fair one) is that it is dangerous to systematically allow reviewers to recommending papers without giving detailed reasons. For what incentives then are there to prevent conflicts-of-interest? If reviewers can simply reject papers they don't like (without comment), doesn't this make "institutional capture" (i.e. the journal being dominated by viewpoints popular by an "in-crowd") more likely? Indeed, don't certain venues seem to display this problem? (I won't name journals, but some, let's just say, have a reputation of catering to particular crowds).
Anyway, I haven't thought about these things a great deal, but I thought they might be worth discussing. Hope you've all had a good week!