Tell me again what “major revisions” are?

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.

31 thoughts on “Tell me again what “major revisions” are?

  1. “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”?”

    That is an excellent point which I’d not really seen clearly until you pointed it out. It makes a nonsense of the whole “reject and resubmit” thing, and shows it as the fiction that it is.

    By the way, in the rejection letter that was sent to the author of the case I wrote about, and which you linked above, the editor explicitly said:

    With this in mind we would like to invite a resubmission, provided the comments of the referees are taken into account. […] The resubmission will be treated as a new manuscript.

    Which is absolutely nonsensical.

  2. Good to air this all out.

    I basically agree with you Jeremy. My take is that “Reject with Resubmission” is treated as one more step on a ladder (i.e. 3 rungs below accept). And that overall the trend is to start ms on their first round of revision lower on the ladder than in the past (I hardly ever see minor revision anymore even when the changes are truly minor and I did see it 10 years ago). I suspect this starting things out lower is just a function of the flood of manuscripts and high reject rates.

    On the whole I also agree that as long as everybody knows the rules of the game, there is no major harm done

    It i s unfortunate that everybody starting on a lower rung seems to be accompanied by almost always requiring more rounds of revision to get to final accept. It seems to me that 10 years ago that if the author was in good faith in responding only 1 round of revisions was required (or one round of major and one round of minor that didn’t get sent back out), but now nearly every ms goes for at least two rounds of major revision. I don’t think this improves the ms. I personally think it is just editors covering themselves by waiting for total acceptance from all reviewers, which is not how I view the editor role (and I’m pretty sure you agree with me on that).

    It sounds like I used “reject with resubmission” more as an editor than you did, but I still used it rarely. I mostly used it when the paper was by grad students who had a great experiment/idea and just didn’t execute the ms very well. Thus, while I thought reviewer feedback could be helpful, I was basically saying “start over and pay a lot more attention to writing”. I expect I am in the minority on this usage.

    • One thing I didn’t mention in the post is that increasing fractions of papers are being rejected without review, which used to be quite rare in my experience. Which in combination with your comment suggests that fates of papers may be bifurcating. Increasingly, you either get rejected without review, or you get to go through multiple rounds of review.

      • Two reasons for immediate rejection in my experience – increasing numbers of authors stretching the remit of the journal boundary and an increasing tendency of authors to aim for a journal one rung, sometimes two, higher than they ought to; all due to the use of the dreaded Impact Factor for tenure decisions and grant awarding.

      • You’re so right. And of all the changes, the high frequencies of rejected without review is the most damaging. It totally amps up the randomness of the review process.

        And yeah – heading toward no review or infinite review sounds about right!

      • @sleather2012:

        Well, I’m sure that’s what editors think they’re doing. But just based on my own anecdotal experience, in practice I think editors often end up doing more than that, and end up rejecting without review a lot of papers that actually are appropriate for the journal. Effectively, editors end up just making a lot of their own decisions without any second opinion from referees. And I say this as someone who tries hard not to “reach” when submitting mss. I once had the experience of getting rejected without review from one leading ecology journal, making minor revisions, and getting accepted at another, equally-leading ecology journal with the best reviews I’ve ever gotten. It was that (admittedly-anecdotal) experience that motivated me to start thinking about peer review reforms and eventually led to the PubCreds idea. For me, PubCreds was an attempt to create a world in which rejection without review was no longer seen to be necessary.

        Don’t misunderstand, the review process will always have a fair bit of stochasticity and I’m actually quite comfortable with that. We all disagree with one another a fair bit as to what constitutes the best, most interesting science, and so editors are always going to have to make judgement calls with which authors will often disagree. But it’s precisely because we all do disagree with one another a fair bit that I think it behooves editors to get a couple of second opinions to inform their judgements, rather than making judgements unaided. As an editor, one of the things I valued most about referees’ reports is that they helped me stay broad-minded; they helped me see mss with fresh, fair eyes. Now that I’m a blogger, the comments serve the same role. 🙂

      • @Brian:

        “And yeah – heading toward no review or infinite review sounds about right!”

        Which kind of raises an interesting question. What’s best for our science? Selective journals rejecting lots of mss without review, and then putting a lot of reviewing effort into evaluating and improving the remaining mss with very thorough review? Or sending out lots of stuff for review, and then choosing from among those papers some fraction that will receive further minor tweaks to slightly improve them? One argument for the former policy would be that ms evaluation is going to be quite stochastic no matter what, so rather than trying to cut back that stochasticity let’s just pick some small fraction of the mss and work hard at checking them thoroughly and improving them. One argument for the latter policy would be that it’s seen by authors to be much fairer.

      • I think you’ve missed the best option out here, Jeremy.

        (3) Get all manuscripts carefully reviewed* upon initial submission, then allow those reviews (and revisions/rebuttals) to follow the paper elsewhere if required.

        * this could either be on whatever grounds the journal requires, from minimal “technical quality only” to all bases covered, including perceived perfume and sexiness**. This seems to be what Peerage of Science is trying to do (on a voluntary reviewer basis), combined with some PubCreds stuff.

        ** Scientists are basically very bad at assessing any given article’s future impact.

  3. Writing as an Editor who has been editing various journals since 1991:

    I think that one of the problems we now have as editors is that the number of submissions has increased spectacularly so when you once had the time to go through a manuscript and annotate it thoroughly, sometimes line by line, now you have to rely on the authors reading the comments of the referees and handling editors and dealing with them thoroughly. In a number of cases this does not happen as many authors are sure that they know best and try to alter things as little as possible. This inevitably leads to another round of review and revision and so on ad infinitum. It is therefore tempting as an Editor to go for the Major Revision and/or the Reject with option to resubmit option. I think that there is also some pressure to use the to reduce time between receipt and acceptance by using the Reject & Resubmit option when in the old days you might have gone for Major Revision. I try not to do this, but I am sure that I definitely use that option more than I did twenty years ago.

    • I think that there is also some pressure to use the to reduce time between receipt and acceptance by using the Reject & Resubmit option when in the old days you might have gone for Major Revision.

      Please don’t do this. It’s fraud plain and simple. When authors are choosing a publication venue based on how long it takes from initial submission to publication, putting out a different figure in that guise is simply a lie.

  4. My latest revision, which I just submitted, was classified as “moderate revisions required.” There were a bunch of smallish changes, no overhaul of anything, and I would bet the reviewers aren’t going to see it a second time. I think that label’s a good one. It wasn’t accepted or rejected, just “revisions required.”

  5. I personally find “reject with invitation to resubmit” particularly infuriating. My last 2 manuscripts had that and all were rejected after considerable revision. Including one at Oikos which asked for an entire simulation model to be re-run with another set of parameters and equations which we did. It made the paper much more complicated, and it was rejected for being “too complex and specialized”. It seems dishonest to me, accept or reject and let me get on with publishing somewhere else. It seems that this practice by journals / editors really just slows down the publishing process.

  6. There seems to be a consensus among a lot of my more experienced collaborators that the frequency at which papers go out to the reviewer’s a second or third time after revisions has increased. I don’t know what it was like before, but a second look by the referees seems to be the norm for my papers.

  7. Definitely the increase of “reject and resubmit” has to do in part with the acceptance time. The other part is that since you are getting more “reject and resubmit”, you are probably (my guess) more likely to give that instead of minor and major revision. Of course it is not among the most brilliant things that came out of academia. Oh yes, I finished the marathon is 4 hrs and you in 3, but if you look at the last km, I was actually faster. How does it sound?

    Another issue I have with the reject and resubmit thing is that more often than not (in my experience) other 2 reviewers are involved. Since we know that reviewers (and reviews) can be wildly different personality- and scientifically-wise, this creates a bunch of problems and inefficiencies. I am not particularly attached to my recommendations, except when I see major flaws (and in fact I write: this is ONLY a suggestion, then the paper is yours and I am just here to help), but some people definitely are. So more often than not you need to incorporate something you don’t really believe in (minor things, mind you) or actually answer to some claim of the referee within the paper (those instances pop up like a rainbow after a storm) or actually do 1000 additional simulations for the sake of speeding things up. But then, those reviewers are unlikely to see the paper again, so other people come up with some specific and personal comments. Result: frustration, spending time doing irrelevant stuff, furiously backpedalling.

    Since everyone right now are very fond of “reject and resubmit”, including reviewers, it happens for unexplained reasons apart from the desire of giving a “reject and resubmit”, you get two rounds of “reject and resubmit”. Brilliantly, some journals do not accept a third round. Result: frustration, waste of time etc.

    The results is that I have, like others, multiple papers circulating, getting revisions, sometimes after months, so I need to get back on track with that work that it slipped out of my consciousness 2 months ago, then do it again. I do not think it is advancing either science, journals, my career, what else. It is just very inefficient.

    Last thing is related to novelty, Jeremy wrote a lot about it and Brian too. The reviewers has also to comment on novelty, in particular novel enough for that journal. I know most of the time when the contribution is not novel, when it is very novel, but there is a huge gray area, especially related to the journal. Can a paper be novel enough for AmNat and not Ecology? Is it novel enough for Ecology Letters, but not comprehensive enough for Ecol Monograph? Often I have little clue.

    • “The results is that I have, like others, multiple papers circulating, getting revisions, sometimes after months, so I need to get back on track with that work that it slipped out of my consciousness 2 months ago, then do it again.”

      Yes, the insane amount of time it takes from submission to publication is so frustrating! Especially for young people, such as myself, who really depend on publishing something to have a chance to get a job or a grant. Spending one month doing an experiment, several months analyzing the data and writing a manuscript, and then waiting for more than a year to publich the results after several rounds of revisions is something I will never get used to.

      • Let me encourage you not to get used to it! Just because it’s how things have been, doesn’t mean that it’s how things have to be! There are a growing number of fast alternatives: for example, our sauropod-neck paper at PeerJ went from submission to publication in 71 days, including a round of two reviews, another round of editor’s comments and two rounds of page proofs.

    • That thought also occurred to us when we discussed this over at SV-POW! The bottom line is, unless the journals are transparent there is simply no way to know. Perhaps a useful next project for COPE would be defining what statistics journals ought to publish?

      (Aside: I’ve never seen what’s so great about a high rejection rate anyway.)

  8. Pingback: It’s time to reclaim scientific publishing « The Lab and Field

  9. Hi everyone;
    i just want to share with you an experience i had in submitting papers. Actually, i have submitted i paper to an Elsevier journal. After months of reviewing. The decision was a straight reject. When i checked the reviews, i have found that two of the three reviewers have suggested to accept the paper. The third one said that the paper is bad an has to be rejected. I emailed the editor saying that the third reviewer is mistaken with its reviews…

    One week later the editor changed the status of the paper from rejected to Revise and Resbumit. I really did not understand what is that supposed to mean. Do i have a chance of getting the paper accepted?

    • It now seems that there are quite few journals that find it convenient to lie to authors in this way. “Revise and resubmit” seems to mean “Accept with revisions”. in some cases, it even means “with very, very tiny revisions”. The only way to know for sure it to ask the editor what he means.

  10. A hidden benefit of “rejected with invitation to resubmit as a new manuscript”: the revisions resulting from the peer review process (I think) are fair game to include in a pre-print on your personal website or arXiv. The journal has labeled the revised paper a “pre-print” by calling it a “new manuscript”. Did I interpret this incorrectly? It seems to be perhaps a grey area, but they can’t claim you’re violating copyright if they were the ones who ruled it a new paper (this of course assumes the journal allows preprints).

  11. Super helpful, thanks. Finishing my first peer review and the categories were a bit confusing. This post helped me align my reviews with the proper category.

  12. I’d like to say that major revision can mean entirely different implications to the reviewer. I just reviewed a paper as needing ‘major revisions’ where I thought a major set of experiments needed redoing whereas in the very same journal with the same editor (!!), my paper received accept with major revisions where the comments are minor editorial revisions of the manuscript (no major experimental flaws)! Now, either I’m a softie of a reviewer or the reviewers of my ms were too harsh in the final assessment given the substance of their comments.

    To help this problem, the journal could outline to the reviewer exactly what do the scores mean for that particular journal (i.e. if major experiments need repeating, reviewer should score as ‘X’ (most likely reject in that case, now I know). New reviewers to a particular journal are often shooting in the dark with that final score assessment of reject vs major revision vs minor revision. It doesn’t do credit to either the reviewer or the author.

  13. Pingback: Poll on manuscript rejections | Dynamic Ecology

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