Friday, November 15, 2013

Anatomy of a Rejected Academic Article

I just had an article rejected. This happens all the time in academia--I even published an article about it back in 2006. But this particular rejection really highlighted the importance of journal choice when you submit. My work tends to cross any number of disciplinary/thematic boundaries and so I have to think about what journal I want to focus on.

In this case, I thought I had identified an appropriate journal yet that turned out to be completely wrong. The article is about the metamorphosis of the School of the Americas, which became the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (WHINSEC) and in particular how it has evolved institutionally within the U.S. Army in unanticipated ways. The journal I chose was not focused on Latin America and the editor is not a Latin Americanist, but I thought the theme fit well.*

Accompanying the reviews (which were of mixed quality, though certainly no worse than anywhere else) was this assessment from the editor.

I am sorry it took so long to get back to you.  We had some very tardy reviewers. The reviewers thought that the topic had merit. But they also found serious flaws. In view of the criticisms of the reviewer(s) found at the bottom of this letter, your manuscript has been denied publication in *********.  Some of my thoughts follow. AFter a lot of reflection on my part, it seemed that given the problems, the paper was just not a particularly good fit for the journal. Just for example, the title of the article included an acronym that I was unaware of.  Now I knew of the school but did not immediately know what WHINSEC was.  If the manuscript is a good fit, the editor of the journal (one with a 13 year tenure) would recognize the acronym. The manuscript actually was written like a chapter in a book that illustrated constructivist IR theory or that examined the school. 

I had not anticipated this. I had put WHINSEC in the title, which called negative attention. My immediate thought was that if the editor deemed this to be a bad fit, then it should have been desk rejected (meaning rejected by the editor without even sending it to reviewers, which is a way for editors to save everyone's time, including their own). Instead, I waited just about five months (I submitted the article in late July).

It's also a lesson about topic. This issue fascinates me and my impression was that people I talked to about it found it interesting at least, but it's niche. I try to show in the article how it has broader implications, but maybe I am not making this clear enough.

So now I sort through the reviews and try to figure out what is useful and what is not, then determine what journal comes next. The delay that accompanies the review process means you don't want to screw up, yet even now after I've been through lots of submissions it's not always easy. But I'll take WHINSEC out of the title!

* I am not going to identify the journal or the editor--my point is not to make a stink but rather to think aloud about the journal submission process.


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