How to Read Rejection:

Advice for the Puzzled or Peeved

Rob Rupert

Authors whose submissions have been rejected by the BJPS often communicate their reactions directly to the Journal’s Deputy Editor, Beth Hannon, who sometimes conveys those reactions to the Co-Editors-in-Chief. Having a paper rejected can be disappointing. We understand. And when referee reports are thin or don’t seem to call for rejection, frustration likely appears on the scene. In this blog post, we aim to de-mystify the process of review, making its logic more comprehensible and perhaps, as a salutary side-effect, reducing Dr Hannon’s level of stress.

Case 1. ‘The referees liked my paper. How could it have been rejected?’

We respect our referees’ expertise enormously and are incredibly grateful for their careful and thorough work; and we take their recommendations very seriously. But, journal referees are not referees in the sporting world’s sense of the term. In the course of a sporting event, what a referee says, goes—or at least it did prior to the adoption of video review. In the world of journal editing, however, a referee plays a role more like that of expert advisor. Input from any given referee is weighted heavily, but it always comes to the Editors-in-Chief in a larger context, which includes one or more additional referee reports, the perspective of an Associate Editor, and the Journal’s current backlog of accepted but unpublished papers. In some cases, for example, two referees tick ‘minor revision’, but nevertheless make clear in their comments—often in a box meant for editors’ eyes only—that their positive view is more a matter of not having spotted major flaws than it is of judging the manuscript to be truly insightful or significant. Such a manuscript may well be rejected. The number of submissions to the BJPS continues to grow and is now approaching 700 per year, even as BJPS remains a quarterly journal. It is not practical that the standard for publication be ‘two referees don’t dislike it’, or even ‘two referees find it to be publishable’.

Case 2. The split decision

A related concern arises when although one referee dislikes the manuscript, the other referee simply loves it, or at least says robustly positive things about it. In such cases, authors may naturally be inclined to think the latter review is spot on and that the former referee is an imbecile (or lazy, or irascible, or…). Here, apt humility suggests that we abandon a certain conception of quality and expertise: that a given manuscript has a determinate level of quality that any expert should be able to see. In fact, our attempt to identify the calibre or promise of a manuscript might be better cast as the performing of multiple noisy measurements. From this perspective, each philosopher or scientist who reads the manuscript is a measuring device delivering an output as the end result of a process laden with noise. Applying a statistical model of measurement, then—which, admittedly, omits some of the nuances of our full decision-making process—we take the probability that a given manuscript will make a difference to be much higher when two referees react strongly in favour than it is when reports are mixed. This probability- and measurement-based conception of the process serves a worthwhile aim: to reduce our rate of false positives. The Journal doesn’t want to embarrass itself or waste pages that could have been devoted to papers that genuinely advance a debate. But, the Journal also would like to treat all authors fairly, and it risks missing excellent papers if its editorial policies are too conservative. Thus, it is well advised that we make some concession to sensitivity (in the statistical sense). For this reason, the editorial team looks for evidence of diamonds in the rough; it’s not unusual for reviews that are unfavourable on balance to indicate that the submission—despite its perceived flaws—has a substantive and worthwhile idea at its core. By placing some weight on such comments and, in some cases, pursuing the manuscript in question, we reduce our rate of false negatives. (We should be clear, however, that even in these cases, publication will ultimately require that the relevant parties express an appropriate level of support.)

Case 3. The desk rejection

Authors sometimes express frustration at having a submission rejected without its having been sent to referees (that is, at having it ‘desk rejected’). This frustration is of course understandable. Although it’s nice to receive a decision quickly, it can seem slight consolation, given that desk rejections normally arrive with little or no feedback. In such cases, it may feel as if the injury of being left to one’s own imagination compounds the insult of rejection. Wendy Parker and I have worked together as Co-Editors-in-Chief for only a short time, but we’ve already sorted through scores of submissions, and our independently made judgements concerning which manuscripts to reject without peer review show a very high level of agreement. And in the rare case in which only one of us has flagged a submission for desk rejection, we tend to err on the side of generosity, sending the paper to an Associate Editor for further evaluation or moving directly into the refereeing process. Our conception of the Journal’s remit follows closely that of esteemed former Co-Editor-in-Chief Steven French, and so it would be worth any author’s effort to read Steven’s post on how to avoid desk rejection. Note, too, his rationales for BJPS’s significant number of desk rejections; those reasons continue to apply, some more forcefully than ever.

Case 4. Thin referee reports or fewer reports than expected

Given our efforts at a quick turnaround and at finding expert referees, we do not insist that reviewers return lengthy or detailed reports with their recommendations. Thus, it is not out of the question that the author of a manuscript that has, in fact, been read by referees would receive a rejection accompanied by very little feedback. Almost all referees do, however, submit substantive reports, and so the author of a manuscript that has been sent to referees can expect to receive at least one meaty report; bear in mind, though, that if exactly one such report is received, that doesn’t mean the paper was sent to only one referee. Thoroughness and mixed reviews sometimes demand that we expand on the two-referee standard and solicit additional opinions. It is not uncommon, then, for authors whose papers are rejected to receive more than two substantive referee reports, as well as comments from an Associate Editor who has read the manuscript carefully.

We hope that this post does not discourage authors from submitting their work to BJPS. Making it through the review process at a highly selective journal promises significant rewards, such as a robust readership. Papers appearing in BJPS get read and cited. The Journal’s current Impact Factor is nearly twice that of its nearest general competitor (Synthese) and over double that of its best-known, specialist competitor (Philosophy of Science). By Google’s metrics, BJPS has the fifth highest h-5 index in all of philosophy, and the second highest for a quarterly, behind only Noûs (which is relevant because a journal’s h-5 index is driven partly by the sheer number of papers it publishes). Bear in mind, too, that BJPS uses a triple-masked review process; no one but the Deputy Editor knows the identity of an author unless and until the submission in question has been definitively accepted. So, please do keep the manuscripts coming! It is our pleasure to sort through a surfeit of high-quality work, even though it is regrettable to have to reject a significant portion of it.