Jason Stanley has shared his experiences with peer-review on facebook, and consented to have them shared here. Stanley writes,
I see a lot of junior faculty stressed out about getting their papers published in peer review journals. I'm posting this in the hopes that it will help people. I have never had good luck with peer reviewed journals. Around 2/3 of the papers on my CV have been accepted blind peer review, but only four or five of those have been accepted to the first journal to which they have been submitted, almost all of them as R&Rs first (and one of those was a neuroscience journal). My 2002 paper "Modality and What is Said" was finished in 1996 and rejected from 11 journals. And yesterday's desk rejection without comments was the fifth desk rejection without comments I have received since 2011. Here is my view about all of this, after 20+ years being in the mix. There is a lot of sociology to peer review. Whether you happen to be working in an area filled with schadenfreude and resentment, or where people are happy and mutually supportive, makes an immense difference. Philosophy is just a very small field and resentment and pettiness are features of some areas, and mutual support features of others, and it's just luck which you end up working in. Fortunately, in the end, in philosophy, whether your papers are accepted to leading peer reviewed journals doesn't much matter, even for tenure, as long as they come out somewhere. In my experience, papers take on a life of their own. Four of my papers that were rejected from multiple top journals subsequently became among the 20 most cited papers in those very journals since 2000 (of course citation is problematically political and messed up in the very same ways that peer review is; I'm just saying that there are multiple ways to gain recognition in the field. Each is messed up but you only need one route). Also, a tenure file is a bunch of papers that are carefully read. I have seen people not get tenure because of bad papers published in top journals, and I have seen many more people get tenure because of fantastic papers published in supposedly lesser journals. There is a silver lining to getting a paper rejected from a journal; I am sitting on five papers now that didn't get into journals, and some of them of are really awesome. That's many years between me and having no bullets in my gun (always a fear, perhaps an irrational one, but a fear nevertheless, and it's good not to have it). In the end, the best advice I know I got from a brief conversation with Robert Nozick. He told me when he sent a paper out to a journal, he would first prepare a stack of envelopes, addressed to different journals. When the rejections came in, he would simply slip the paper into the next envelope.
Any thoughts? One thought that initially comes to mind is a bit of relief. It's (somewhat) reassuring that even very established scholars in the field (such as Stanley) face systematic rejection, including desk-rejection. On the other hand, it is also disconcerting! If, as Stanley writes, some of the most cited papers ever in top-ranked journals have been systematically rejected (in some cases, desk-rejected) by journals in that same echelon--in some cases, over ten times--what does this say about reviewing standards? Following our recent discussion on whether it is "too hard" to publish ambitious/groundbreaking/paradigm-shifting work in journals, one might wonder whether Jason's experiences are (another?) data-point in favor of the notion that standards might be "off" in some way.
I don't know for sure, but in any case, Stanley's experiences struck me as worth sharing, if only to reassure readers that, no, we're not the only ones who face the "indignities" of peer-review. :)