Journal editors notify authors of the formal decisions on their submitted manuscripts using a small number of categories. Typically, these categories include “accepted”, “minor revision”, “major revision”, “rejected with invitation to resubmit as a new manuscript”, and “rejected”.
In theory, having formal decision categories should aid clear communication, which is in the interests of both editors and authors. But in practice, these categories are infamous for not being as clear and informative as they might appear. Well, “accepted” and “rejected” are clear. But the others, not so much.
I used to not mind this because I felt like I knew what those categories meant in practice, having submitted numerous papers and also served as a handling editor for a few years. But I’m not so sure anymore. I think conventional usage is changing, for various reasons. But unfortunately, I don’t have any data to go on, just anecdotal impressions, so everything I say below is speculative and should be taken with a large grain of salt. Hopefully commenters will be able to chime in with links to data or other information that would better ground the discussion.
One thing I think may be happening is that selective journals are becoming more demanding, as a way of dealing with increasing numbers of submissions. So that what used to be minor revisions are now considered major revisions, and what used to be major revisions are now grounds for rejection. One way to check this would be to look at time series data on submission and acceptance rates at selective journals.
Another possibility is that journals may be trying to reduce their average “time to final decision”. Some authors like to submit to journals that make fast decisions, and avoid submitting to slow journals. So journals have an incentive to be quick. One way to be quick is to not ask for revisions, instead rejecting manuscripts needing revision with the invitation to resubmit as a new manuscript. To be clear–I have no proof this happens,although I note that I’m not the only one raising the possibility. Suffice to say that, personally, I think rejection with invitation to resubmit as a new ms should be very rare, and that it seems more common than it should be (I’d welcome links to data correcting or confirming my impression here). In my years as a handling editor at Oikos, I hardly ever used this decision, and I handled dozens of manuscripts. In my experience, it’s very rare for a manuscript to have such serious and unfixable flaws and/or limitations as to merit rejection, but yet to also be potentially publishable if it were reframed as a completely new ms. That’s because, in my view, a truly “new” ms shouldn’t be recognizable as a revision of the previous version. After all, that’s what a revision is! But apparently I’m in a minority, because more than once I’ve gotten “reject with invitation to resubmit as a new ms”, accompanied by a request for ordinary revisions. The real giveaway is that rejections with invitation to resubmit ordinarily are accompanied by a request that you detail the revisions you made in response to the reviews of the previous version. But if the ms truly is a “new” ms, why should you have to respond to reviews of the previous version? Shouldn’t those reviews be moot if the ms truly is “new” (say, addressing a completely different question than the previous version)? Indeed, one could argue that there’s no point to “rejection with invitation to resubmit as a new ms” at all. Why not just reject a ms if it merits rejection? After all, if the author somehow does manage to completely reframe the rejected ms as a truly new ms, well, it’s a new ms so can’t it just be submitted as such?
Another thing I suspect is happening is that journals are now using “major revisions” and “rejection with invitation to resubmit as a new ms” as ways to force authors to revise the ms as the editor and referees want. So that even if the requested changes are “minor” in the sense of “very easy for the authors to make” or “not greatly altering the ms”, the decision these days often is “major revision” or “reject with invitation to resubmit”. Basically, what the editor is saying is, “The requested revisions may be easy to make, and may not greatly alter the ms, but I do want you to make them. Without having you try to argue with me over whether or not to make them.”
Having served as an editor, I can appreciate how tempting it is to use “major revisions” and “reject with invitation to resubmit” as ways to cut down on pushback from authors. There were a couple of times as an editor when I asked authors for what seemed to me to be minor but essential revisions, like correcting miscitations, and was frustrated when the authors failed to make those changes. Thereby forcing me to ask them for a second round of revisions. But I think a better way to prevent this sort of frustrating situation is for editors not to rely solely on formal decision categories, and instead provide more specific, detailed decisions to authors. That’s eventually what I started doing as an Oikos editor. Using my decision letter to spell out my overall opinion of the ms. Highlighting any revisions, big or small, that were essential to make. Suggesting how the authors deal with any conflicting opinions among the referees. And most importantly, making clear that the final accept/reject decision would depend on whether I thought the revised ms was up to scratch, no matter how big or small the requested changes were. I didn’t always write such decision letters (sometimes, for various reasons, it didn’t seem necessary). And when I did write such letters, it required a bit of extra time on my part. But I think it was worth it.
In practice, perhaps none of this matters all that much*. I don’t know that improved communication between editors and authors would much affect what sort of mss get submitted or published where. But improved communication might reduce frustration on all sides, which seems worthwhile even if it doesn’t have much substantive impact on what ends up getting published.
What do you think? Do you feel like you know how to interpret the decision letters you receive, or that authors know how to interpret the ones you write? Do you think the meaning of current decision categories is changing? Do you think current decision categories still serve a useful purpose?
I emphasize that in raising these questions, I absolutely don’t mean to question the competence of journal editors. I’ve dealt with a lot of editors over the years, and been one myself. Editors are experienced, professional scientists who’ve volunteered to take on an important but often pretty thankless job. In raising some questions about how editors communicate their decisions, I’m just asking whether the traditional way of doing things is still serving as as well as it could. Maybe there are some tweaks that would improve clarity.
*Although if nothing else, journals need to be honest about the dates on which mss were submitted and accepted, in order to allow determination of priority. Priority disputes are fairly rare in ecology, but I think they’re more common in other fields. Inappropriate use of “reject with invitation to resubmit as a new ms” risks unfairly cheating authors out of priority for new discoveries.