A Guide to the How and When

Most authors think that communication with journal editors is a formal process, controlled and restricted by manuscript online submission systems. They think that it’s ‘not ok’ or inappropriate for them to write directly to editors and that all communication should take place via online systems or in response to messages from a journal. Don’t feel that this has to be the case; most editors of academic journals are working researchers too, just like you! They run research groups, carry out their own work, supervise students, attend university meetings, AND perform journal management tasks. Very often journal editors are not paid for the work they do for academic publications, they carry out these tasks in addition to their other ‘mainstream’ university, research institute, medical school, or hospital work. As you can imagine, or perhaps already know, this means that academic journal editors are very busy, and often do not spend a great deal of their daily time working to handle manuscripts and process peer review. This means that effectively communicating with academic editors is both important and a huge opportunity for authors. The worst strategy is to do nothing if you have questions or concerns about an article you’ve written. So, when should you take the initiative and write to an editor handling one of your papers? You’d be surprised: Amongst THE most common questions we are asked in our author training workshops have to do with issues like ‘my paper has been in review for x months and I’m not sure whether I can write and ask the editor about it?’ Here’s something to keep in mind when submitting papers to academic journals: You are in control. Be confident about your research; here are a handful of common situations you might find yourself in when it will be necessary to write to the editor of an academic journal.

Your paper gets ‘stuck’ in the submission system

Most of the online manuscript submission systems used by journals although authors broadly track the status of their papers. Usually, you are able to see when your paper has been ‘received’ by an editor, ‘sent out for review’, and ‘awaiting decision’. It’s well worth keeping an eye on these systems via your author login that you will have created and used when you first made the submission. Check what’s happening with your paper every few days and write to the editor if nothing seems to be changing. I’d give the journal no more than two to three weeks to send your paper out for review and then no more than two months before it’s time to write to the editor to ask about a decision once your article has passed out for review.

We have templates for emails we can share with you for each of these stages of manuscript submission in case you need to contact an editor. It’s always a good idea to reach out to them via their professional emails (if you can access these) rather than via the journal submission site. Save yourself some time and get in touch with editors directly. It’s always necessary to be polite and businesslike in your communications while at the same time making sure that your emails are both positive and ‘give something back’ to the journal. Here’s an example: if you can see that your paper is stuck in the system and has not been sent out for review, then why not write to enquire about its status while at the same time providing the editor with some suggestions for suitable additional reviewers. People always respond better to inquiries if they are getting something out of communication as well.

You get review comments back that you feel are unfair or that you don’t agree with

This kind of situation is extremely common in academic publishing. You send a paper off to a journal and then comments come back which you feel are either unfair, that suggests your reviewers are being deliberately negative about your work, or simply don’t understand. If there is a case to be made, you believe that you are in the right and, most importantly, can explain WHY to the editor then you should write a letter. We have templates again that can help you in these situations. Above all, it’s important to write down clearly and simply to the editor WHY you feel you’ve been treated unfairly. Lots of papers that were initially rejected end up getting accepted and editors often change their minds in such situations. All is not lost if you get negative review comments or, indeed, if your paper gets rejected. It’s always possible to write an appeal. Why not get in touch with one of our team if you feel you’d like to write an appeal letter to an editor about one of your papers?

Problems, issues, or conflicts with other authors.

Authorship issues are also very common in academic publishing. Disagreements between authors can happen, do happen all the time, including once papers have been submitted to journals. You also might find that one of your co-authors has acted unethically when writing their part of your collective paper or when putting a figure together; plagiarism issues can happen, often without people realizing. It’s especially common when writing an article in your second or third language: you might read something in English, think ‘that sounds good’ and then use it later, inadvertently, in your own work. Or one of your co-authors might. It would be appropriate to write directly to a journal editor in such a situation, where there are authorship issues with a paper. Much better to point these out directly to a journal as soon as you find out rather than wait and run the risk of the journal finding out, or worse – your paper gets published, and then later there is an issue. Everyone’s reputation might be at stake!

Mistakes in submission

Mistakes happen when submitting academic papers. Spelling mistakes and minor writing errors can be fixed later during the production process when you’ll have the chance to make changes, revise the paper in response to reviews, or correct the final ‘proofs’ before your papers appear online or are published in a printed journal issue. If you find an actual factual mistake, perhaps in your data collection, analyses, calculations, or figures, however, then you MUST point this out to the editor. Don’t wait. Write as soon as you learn about a significant mistake that could potentially alter either the accuracy or conclusions of your work. It would be far far worse to wait and then the mistake is picked up by a reviewer or (even worse) a reader once your paper has appeared. Honesty is always the best policy in such situations, no-one will think any less of you if you put your hands up to mistake, and editors and journals will really appreciate it. Everyone makes mistakes.

Decide to withdraw and send your paper to another journal

You might, for some reason, decide to withdraw a paper once it has been submitted to an academic journal. Perhaps you collect more data that shows your original conclusions to be incorrect, you decide that you should try for a higher impact factor outlet, or there is a disagreement amongst authors. It happens quite often in academic publishing that authors submit papers to journals and then decide to withdraw them; editors (and reviewers) will appreciate knowing about such changes as soon as possible and journals will always ask you for the reason behind your decision. If you have a good reason, even ‘we’ve changed our minds’ that’s fine; journals ask these questions because some authors practice what’s often referred to ‘double submission’ where they send the same article to two (or more) journals at the same time and then withdraw later from the slower ones. This is unethical publishing behavior which must be avoided; indeed, if you do this, there is a very high chance you will get caught and very quickly develop a bad reputation. Research fields tend to be very small, and peer reviewers and journal editors talk to one another. Don’t get ‘blacklisted’ by journals!

It’s always a good idea to write directly to journal editors if you have questions or comments about your submissions! Communication is always good in all walks of life and is one of the keys to personal and career success. Wise men speak because they have something to say, after all.

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