What is going on with reviewers at journal editorial offices? Are they okay? From what I can tell, probably not. I am not sure what all is going on, but it seems that the people conducting these reviews are taking shortcuts in their job and/or are not giving the job much attention to detail. In the last few months I have several instances of my papers being returned to me in the initial article compliance check. In fact, I have gone to Twitter on several occasions to vent about this problem.
I got a paper sent back to me because I did not have my conflicts of interest or author contributions statement in the submission. Evidence says otherwise: #PhDLife #AcademicTwitter pic.twitter.com/gds0Dn0SlM
— Dr. Noah Glaser (@drnoahglaser) July 5, 2023
Paper got returned to me because we did not include information about informed consent…even though the paper did.
— Dr. Noah Glaser (@drnoahglaser) May 11, 2023
Now having this happen on a rare occasion is okay, but unfortunately this has become almost a weekly occurrence. In April I submitted a paper to a prestigious journal in the field. The paper was returned to me shortly after (academic short which is like a week later) with the following message,
Before we can further process it you are kindly requested to make the following corrections to meet the journal’s requirements (please also refer to the Submission Guidelines):
1. Please ensure to include the manuscript title in your blinded manuscript file that also exactly matches the title on the system.2. Please ensure to include the abstract in your blinded manuscript file that also exactly matches the abstract on the system.
3. Please provide a clear and separate heading of Introduction Section.
Here’s the thing. All three of those items were incorrect. The title was 100% identical, down to the capitalization and formatting. The abstract was the same. And adding the ‘Introduction’ header to the paper is in violation of the APA guidelines they claim to use and it is not a journal specific requirement. You can see for yourself here.
I resubmitted the paper (with the Introduction header added) and the paper was returned to me with the same concerns. At this point I had a colleague join me on a Zoom call so we could both carefully review the document and ensure we were not missing anything. The paper was again returned to me with a note that they would not accept anymore revisions if I did not do it correctly this time.
I followed up with this email.
Can you give me clarification on this?
The paper keeps getting sent back over things that do not appear to be incorrect. The title and abstract are exactly the same on the title page and within the submission portal. I have added the introduction header, but this is also against APA guidelines and does not seem to be a stated guideline on the author submission guidelines page. Nor does it seem to be a valid reason for sending a paper back for us to address.
Any guidance or clarification that you might have would be appreciated.
The response that I got is that they wanted me to put the abstract in a third location. It was already in the documents they had and it was also in the editorial manager’s field that requested it. So I pasted the abstract in a third location and hit submit. From there it sat for weeks before being desk rejected…I wonder why. Throughout all of this I was given consistently incorrect feedback that delayed the review process by weeks. Then it turns out that the only actual issue was that they arbitrarily wanted me to send them the abstract for a third time within the same submission. Cool. What a good use of everyone’s time.
Now you might be thinking, “wow! there is no way this is common.” But sadly it is. I now share another example in this ongoing saga of nonsense.
My colleagues and I recently finished and submitted a paper for review. We aimed a bit high and submitted it to a journal that was not a perfect fit. It was desk rejected. This is okay, and is something we knew might happen. The journal sent us an email offering to transfer it to a more suitable outlet within their network of Springer Nature journals. We chose one and accepted the transfer. At this point it loaded everything into an identical editorial manager and posted an alert to the page informing us that no revisions were required as they shared submission procedures and used the same system. Awesome!…or so it should have been. Several days go by and I finally get an email saying the paper was returned to me because it was missing an author contribution statement and a conflict of interest statement. It was missing neither. This is evident in the first Tweet I shared in this article. I emailed the editorial assistant and said I resubmitted it as both items were in the original submission. A few days go by and the paper is again sent back to me. However, this time I get a much longer and more nonsensical email.
From: Springer Nature Editorial Office Subject: Submission Amendments Required
Dear Dr. Glaser, On checking your returned submission, I regret to inform you that the changes we requested have not been addressed in full. We shall be forced to withdraw it in three days’ time, unless the following amendments have been made:
• There is a discrepancy between the primary article title in the manuscript and in the submission system. Could you please indicate which is the correct title? • We notice that there are some author names given in the submission system which are not present in the Manuscript (REMOVED FOR ARTICLE). Could you please supply the missing author names? • Please provide us with an abstract. • As the study involved human participants, please ensure a consent to participate statement is included. • The ethics approval statement is missing an accordance statement with a named standard that your research was carried out in line with. Please can you ensure this information is added to your statement. • The ethics approval statement is missing the name of approval committee or internal review board (IRB). Please can you ensure this information is added to your statement. • The system has identified that all the prerequisites are not present for human ethics as the statements for (Human Ethics Statement, Adult Consent To Participate Written, Human Accordance Statement) are missing in the article and the ethics decision is “Not ok to proceed” • Funding declaration is missing in the manuscript. Please check. • Fig. 1 caption(s) is/are either missing in the manuscript or given in non-editable format. Could you please check? • We notice that human ethics and consent to participate declarations are required in the manuscript. Could you please check? • We notice that there is no data availability statement provided in the manuscript. Could you please check? • Author Contribution is missing for the given authors. Please check. • Competing Interest Information present in Manuscript. Please check.
I replied to the email and expressed my confusion and my irritation with this. I explained that most if not all of these things were already in the document. I was told that if I fixed the issues then it could be sent to the journal. Super great response there! I replied again and gave specific examples of what was wrong with the feedback I was provided. For example, the feedback says I am missing the abstract. The abstract was provided in 3 different places. I told her this and she replied and said that I forgot to include it in the submission portal. I sent a screenshot back showing that I had not. I then replied with a line item response. Here is a summary of my responses:
Discrepancy in article title: I am confused about this point. The title of the paper, “Making the Museum of Instructional Design: An Examination of Learner Experiences in a Collaborative 3D Virtual Learning Environment,” was submitted through the submission system and is consistent with the title mentioned in my cover letter. This is the correct title of the paper.
Missing author names: I am perplexed by this statement. All authors listed on the Authors page of the Springer submission system. Therefore, there are no missing author names.
Abstract: The abstract has been provided in both the manuscript and the Details page of the Springer submission site. It is included in the document as requested.
Consent to participate statement: The consent to participate statement is present on page 5 of the manuscript. Additionally, I have added it to the bottom of the paper for clarity.
Ethics approval statement accordance: I have included an accordance statement with a named standard indicating that the research was conducted in line with ethical guidelines. This information has been added to the statement.
Ethics approval committee or IRB: The name of the approval committee or internal review board (IRB) is included in the ethics approval statement, which can be found on page 5 of the manuscript. I have also added this information to the bottom of the paper.
Missing prerequisites for human ethics: The statements for “Human Ethics Statement,” “Adult Consent To Participate Written,” and “Human Accordance Statement” were already present in the article. I have also added them to the declarations at the bottom of the paper.
Funding declaration: The funding declaration was already included in the manuscript. I have also added it to the bottom of the paper for better visibility.
Fig. 1 caption(s): The captions for Fig. 1 are not missing from the manuscript, and they are in an editable format. I have highlighted the editable captions on page 5 for your reference.
Human ethics and consent to participate declarations: Both the human ethics and consent to participate declarations were already included in the paper. I have also added them to the declarations at the bottom of the paper.
Data availability statement: Contrary to your statement, a data availability statement was already provided on page 28 of the manuscript.
Author Contribution: The author contributions for all given authors were not missing. They were already included in the manuscript.
Competing Interest Information: The competing interest information was already present in the manuscript on page 28.
I also provided screenshots showing where most of these were previously addressed. Given the thorough nature of my response I expected an email apologizing or acknowledging their mistake. Instead I got a form letter telling me I needed to make the revisions.
This back and forth went on for 3 rounds of resubmissions. I had to reach out to the editor of the journal and had to file a BBB dispute against the publisher before I got a helpful response. It turns out that the “problem” had nothing to do with the feedback I had received. They wanted me to put a list of authors and the title into the manuscript itself. I checked the author guidelines and these were not stated requirements. Long story short, they wasted my time for weeks requesting information that was already in the submission in multiple places. Sadly enough, in the couple of days that it took me to write this blog article, I had the same issue happen with a different submission to an entirely different journal. This time I reached out to the editor directly and he resolved it for me.
The Cycle of Frustration
The prevailing experiences underscore an alarming pattern of inefficiency within review processes and a noticeable lapse in attentiveness from publishers and sometimes the editorial departments of journals. The prolonged, often unnecessary, back-and-forth exchanges lead to a needless waste of time and resources, resulting in substantial delays within the publication process. Moreover, the feedback given frequently lacks consistency, accuracy, or fails to adequately address legitimate concerns. This lack of professional conduct tarnishes the credibility of the review process and erodes the essential bond of trust between researchers and publishers.
In cases where reviews are subpar and customer service is inadequate, the expertise and dedication of researchers are unduly exploited. It’s essential to remember that academics invest significant time—spanning months or even years—in conducting meticulous research, analyzing complex data, and drafting comprehensive manuscripts. They undertake this process, expecting it to be balanced by an equally thorough and efficient review process. However, when reviewers neglect critical details, fail to offer constructive criticism, or demand changes that have been already incorporated, it trivializes the researchers’ time and efforts. This undue exploitation not only squanders their resources but also demoralizes them, creating a disheartening atmosphere that hampers academic progression.
These prevalent issues reflect other significant areas of concern and potential bottlenecks within the academic publishing process. Recently, I shared my thoughts on the diminishing quality and arbitrary nature of peer review within my field via a blog post. The problem I highlighted seems intrinsically related to this discussion. In none of the cases I discussed were there substantial issues with the submissions. The publishing team, the editorial board, and the reviewers all possess the necessary information to make an informed decision. For example, if an abstract appears in three separate places, it should not be sent back merely because it isn’t featured in a fourth unspecified location. Even if such placement is a guideline, it should not serve as a valid basis for rejecting a paper. Such actions only transfer the burden onto the most exploited parties within academic publishing.
Particularly, early-career professors, who are most reliant on publishing, are compelled to shoulder an overwhelming majority of the labor, including research, writing, editing, reviewing, and subsequently, relinquishing the ownership of their work. Meanwhile, prosperous publishers are creating bottlenecks and devising novel strategies to add to our workloads. This unsustainable dynamic warrants immediate remediation.