Prof. Tom Kelleher of the University of Hawaii at Manoa recently guest edited a special issue of the Journal of Public Relations Research on social media (it'll be published later this year as volume 22, issue 3), and I think it's fair to say it was a learning experience. We e-mailed and talked several times as he struggled to make decisions about which manuscripts to move forward and how to set deadlines and work with authors in order to complete the issue on time.
At one point I tweeted, "Let's do a blog post on making the editorial decision when you're finished." He responded, "Great idea." So here we are (and here, too).
Probably the most important decision an editor makes is determining which reviewers will get the manuscript, because reviewers have far more influence than they probably realize. Although reviewers ultimately provide only recommendations, and the editor has the final say, collectively the two or three reviewers per manuscript provide an assessment that would be pretty hard for an editor to ignore -- particularly because, if I've done a good job with selection, the reviewer is more expert in the paper's topic or method than I am. I typically invite two members of the editorial board, one with topic expertise and one with method expertise, to review each manuscript, and usually (but not always) invite a third, outside person. This gives different and often younger scholars an opportunity to participate in the process and allows me to compare their assessments with those of more established scholars.
JPRR has four categories of recommendation -- reject, revise and resubmit, accept with minor revisions, and accept -- but I've learned to pay less attention to the recommendation and more attention to the reviewer's comments, because I've realized that one person's reject is another person's R&R, or one person's R&R is another person's minor revisions. Thus, if a reviewer asks for major revisions (such as calling for more data collection or reanalysis of the data) but doesn't give me a sense that the research will make a significant contribution to public relations theory development even if those revisions are made, I would consider that a "reject" even if the reviewer called it a "revise and resubmit." [Note: I'm working on revising the reviewing guidelines, and this will include some clarification of the categories.]
After I receive the reviews, I read them carefully and then go back to the manuscript to compare my impressions with those of the reviewers. As I've written about before, the most important consideration is always the paper's contribution to theory development. I am willing to work with authors through two or even three revisions, and I've spent hours line-editing manuscripts when reviewers have expressed frustration with the writing or organization, if the experts are convinced that it makes an important contribution to the literature.
But that's the major difference between a regular issue, in which articles can be reviewed multiple times and the ulitmate criterion is quality of contribution to the body of knowledge, and a special issue, which has a specific deadline and a set number of pages that must be filled by that deadline.
One of many reasons I’m in academics today is that I dread the cold call. I’d get a knot in my stomach when I was an intern at Ketchum in Atlanta years back, knowing my day would be full of pitch calls to busy people with more important things on their minds. James McCroskey might call it “situational communication apprehension.” Given the choice of grinding out pitch calls or grinding out years of grad school I chose the latter.
So one of my biggest concerns taking on this journal issue was how I was going to recruit reviewers. To my delight, my apprehension was unfounded. The vast majority of people I contacted fell into one of two categories: those who planned to submit an article themselves and those who were ready and willing to review.
Social media experts with academic track records and accomplished academics with an interest in social media were quick to offer help. Not surprisingly Twitter and blog versions of the call were helpful recruiting tools. I also paid attention to methodological and content expertise in assigning manuscripts to reviewers.
The same enthusiasm for the project that drove reviewers to volunteer also drove many of them to offer amazingly detailed critiques and suggestions. In turn, authors who were invited to resubmit took their lumps and vigorously revised (in fact most probably didn’t even see it as taking lumps). With each iteration, the special issue looked better and better.
But this is where the unique nature of a special issue becomes most apparent. We had a calendar date when the revisions had to stop and a finite number of articles had to be selected. Until that deadline loomed, I was gratefully able to serve mostly as conduit between reviewers and authors. Later in the process though, I felt the gravity of being the only one with a full view of all the submissions and all the reviews through several rounds.
Here are a few of the dilemmas that I think are unique to a special-issue project:
- Figuring the right fit. One of the articles submitted reported an outstanding piece of research, but the reviewers and I did not feel that it fit the theme of the issue well. I had to refer that one back to Karen for consideration for an open issue of JPRR (if the author(s) choose to go that route). I hated to let it go, but "fit" with the specific topic ended up being a deciding factor.
- Assuming anonymity. In one case, a reviewer saw an author’s attempt to block out a self-citation (i.e., XXXX, 2008) as an editorial oversight. When I mentioned that I thought the author had done this intentionally to preserve the blind review process, the reviewer wrote back, “I've never seen such a practice. And I don't think that would protect the anonymity. A quick Google search and I can find out.” Yet in a separate context, I've seen a JPRR reviewer complain that citing a newly in-press piece makes it too easy to identify the author. With this special issue centered around such a specific new area for scholarship, I’m certain that the contributors and reviewers are often familiar with each other's work. As editor, I tried to avoid having anyone review another's work if I knew the two to have a close connection. But the Google point is well taken. All three parties (authors, reviewers, and editors) have a role in trying to make the process work. Karen, this might be worth some consideration in the revised reviewing guidelines. [Duly noted! -Karen]
- Editorial overrides on deadline. One of the most conscientious and dedicated reviewers will see in print both articles that he/she recommended rejecting. On four different occasions -- two rounds of review for two different papers -- this reviewer offered meticulous critiques. Based on how long it takes me to review journal submissions, I would estimate that this reviewer invested more than a week’s worth of research productivity in this issue (or a week's worth of vacation for those of you on spring break!). And the reward? Being overridden twice. If this had been a normal journal timeline, we might have been able to let the R&R process run its course a little longer before committing a decision. (See Karen’s comment above about one person’s 'reject' being another’s 'R&R.') Anyhow, the upshot is that the two articles are much better now than they were before the process, and the issue is stronger because of that.
Generating interest was never a problem. No pitching required! In fact, the greater challenge was making the most of the exchange once everyone was engaged… Almost sounds like a topic for a paper on social media.
When the issue lands in your mailbox, if you learn from what you read, thank the authors and the reviewers.