Demystifying the EJIL Selection and Editorial Process:

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 EJIL receives hundreds of unsolicited articles each year. We welcome these submissions. They are an important part of who we are. They constitute the pool from which, alongside the pieces we commission ourselves, we build our individual issues. A few of the submissions are just awful. But most are good and, naturally, we receive many more fine articles than we are able to publish. We know it is disappointing for authors to receive a rejection letter. We truly hope that authors will not give up on us if they are not always successful with this or that submission.

In 21 years we have never laid bare our selection and editorial process. This is not exactly an apology: at one time or another I have sat on the Editorial, Advisory, Scientific and other such Boards of over 23 different journals and do not recall ever seeing another journal doing such. Be that as it may, I decided that both our authors and readers should know how the process works.

I also compiled some basic aggregate statistics on our authors over the first 20 years of EJIL – and slightly more detailed stats from the last two years. This made available in the post below. (Relax, nothing personal – country of submission, gender, etc.). We ourselves were surprised by some of the results. But first things first: How is the selection of articles for publication made?

The key thing to note is that EJIL functions with a skeletal staff. Anny Bremner, our redoubtable Managing Editor works out of Florence and EJIL is but one of her many tasks. Karine Caunes, the current Associate Editor, works out of NYU and EJIL is but one of her many tasks. I estimate that for both of them EJIL takes about a third to half of their time. Our copy-editors work freelance and the proofreaders are hired by OUP, for which we are but one – the best I am sure – of their many journals. I, too, have one or two other things on my plate apart from editing EJIL. The Editorial side of EJIL is thus a challenging game of juggling time and making editorial trade-offs, which ultimately, in our judgment, ensures high-quality and interesting issues.

The two basic tradeoffs are the following:

In the first, we spend considerable time and human resources on the selection process – seriously trying to avoid false positives and false negatives. By contrast, we spend less time in the actual ‘editing’ of articles. EJIL articles are very lightly edited by us. We want to believe that this trade-off results in the publication of very interesting and important articles of lasting value, even if at times the linguistic or stylistic polish could have profited from some extra buffing. I dislike heavy editing for another reason, too: it obliterates the ‘voice’ of the author. Many articles in some of the heavily edited journals, especially the student-edited American law reviews, tend to have a similar ‘accent’.

The second trade-off tries to find a balance between commissioned and unsolicited articles. We could easily populate EJIL at the very highest level simply by selecting the best from the unsolicited pool of submissions. It has always been our policy to be proactive in commissioning pieces. I guestimate that in an average year (no year is really average) the ratio is about 50/50. Commissioned articles allow us to shape the content of EJIL in directions which we think are important without having to rely on the vagaries of the mailbag. We are decidedly Dirigiste in this respect. EJIL Board members – its Editor-in-Chief, its Editorial Board and its Scientific Advisory Board – are all pretty opinionated individuals and have views as to what is important and unimportant. These preferences are mostly reflected in the commissioned pieces – normally in symposia. The downside, of course, is our more limited ability to control quality once the commissioned pieces arrive. Sometimes a commissioned piece will not even meet the threshold of peer review, and if it were unsolicited would be rejected outright. But our practice, even in such cases, is to send to peer review and just hope and pray that the author will improve the piece in the light of the reviewers’ comments. I am not known to be a squeamish or cowardly person, but there is only so much that even I can do in such circumstances. The inconvenient truth is that once a piece is commissioned it is more difficult to reject it outright – though this does happen from time to time. We have, of course, one sanction: such an author will never again be commissioned.

Be that as it may, I do not want to give the impression that this is a major problem and I firmly believe that EJIL’s identity is shaped in large part because of its historic practice of proactive agenda-setting in commissioning what we believe to be interesting symposia, debates and reaction pieces.

We receive anywhere between three to eight unsolicited manuscripts a week through our online submission system. Every single submitted manuscript is read by the Associate Editor, currently Karine Caunes, who prepares a short report. Every single MS is then read a second time by me – a nice way to spend a Sunday morning – and I take a final screening decision. A decision to reject a MS without peer review is based on various factors. Often it is subject matter – the piece is not suitable because its subject matter lies outside our current interests; sometimes it is a piece that is interesting, but on which we have published recently or we have something on a similar subject in the pipeline. And sometimes the quality simply does not meet the peer review threshold. When in doubt, we err on the side of caution (not convicting the innocent…) and send the piece for review.

If the decision is to send to peer review, I will also choose the peer reviewers. We frequently turn to Members of our Scientific Advisory Board and to Members of the Editorial Board, but just as often we call upon other experts in the field. We rely on the academic civic virtue of colleagues to do the selfless task of peer reviewing – all the more important in the age of the internet with so much self-publishing going on (Self Selection Rejection? Never! I have been a conscientious objector to SSRN from its inception.). Nevertheless, our reliance on the good will of our external referees may at times add to the length of the review process, as we cannot ask them to drop their many other commitments to serve EJIL. Recently we have taken to making a little gift as a token of our appreciation for our peer reviewers.

For the most part, pieces sent to peer review are accepted for publication, usually after some revision based on the reviewers’ comments. Some pieces are rejected after peer review. The policy of EJIL is not to identify pieces that were rejected after initial screening and those rejected after outside peer review. Likewise, it is normally not our practice to explain the precise reasons for a rejection. Though we have a very orderly Review form, busy academics will often disregard it; sometimes the reviews are short, or terse, at times rude and I sometimes get on the phone to amplify and understand the reviewer. Given our volume, it would be a very time-consuming process to edit each and every one, a process for which we do not have the staff. (When tried in the past, it has also led sometimes to acrimonious correspondence of the ‘your reviewer is an idiot and did not understand my piece’ type.) More often than not, the reason for rejection is subject matter suitability rather than quality. We are keeping this policy under review.

Here is a touchy subject: our response time. We do our best to give replies to our authors in the shortest time possible – between eight and 12 weeks. The rate of arrival of articles is erratic. If a huge batch lands on our desk one week, a screening backlog can develop. Not infrequently reviewers are tardy in sending in their reviews. Sometimes they never come and we have to nudge and nudge or even change reviewer. There is always a delay around Christmas time and over the summer holidays. We really do give each and every manuscript careful attention. So we beg our authors’ indulgence if there is a delay in getting a reply.

With two quirks the peer review process is a classical double blind peer review. The reviewer is not meant to know the identity of the author and the author is not given the identity of the reviewer. I say ‘not meant’ because not infrequently it is easy for the reviewer to guess the identity of the author – usually through the practice of self-citation (see my piece ….). The two quirks are as follows: first, when I myself, in screening submissions, come across an article for which I am enthusiastic, I will designate myself as one of the peer reviewers and send it out only to one additional reviewer. I am aware of the identity of the author. Though we try to select our reviewers with care, and anonymity offers certain guarantees, we expect our peer reviewers to excuse themselves if there is any conflict of interest and the like. This happens from time to time.

Second, as noted, in the majority of cases, though far from all, the careful threshold scrutiny means that when a piece is received by a peer reviewer, the result is likely to be either a full endorsement or a recommendation to revise before publication rather than an outright rejection. In the case of recommendations to revise I hate to act a broken telephone, a go-between for the peer reviewer and the author. So in such cases I will independently ask the author and one of the reviewers if they agree to have their identity disclosed and to liaise directly with one another. Often they agree, and it has proven to be an efficient and fruitful method. When there is disagreement between the reviewers I act as tie-breaker. I would like to add that even Members of the Editorial Board and the Scientific Advisory Board are subject to this process and there have been occasions when their work has been refused. There is no peer review of my Editorials.

One innovation that you may have noticed in recent issues which applies both to commissioned and unsolicited pieces is the publication of ‘reaction papers’ and ‘debates’ alongside the principal piece. Sometimes I decide that, although comments of the reviewer are pertinent, they fall into the ‘I disagree’ category rather than ‘the piece is weak’ category. That will often result in a commissioned debate or reaction pieces.

All communications with the authors on these matters are done through the Managing Editor, who is also responsible for overseeing the copy-editing process and other editing matters.

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John R Morss says

April 13, 2011

Thankyou for such a detailed account of a mysterious process.... May I suggest that the [estimated] 50% commissioned ratio is much too high? Arguably it distorts the overall functions of the refereed journal sector ie its form of service to the academic community... and artificially restricts the 'gene pool' of ideas in the discipline, instead consolidating the power of the various in-groups and other social networks? Is there any way of finding out whether the readership approves of this practice?

Gary Wilson says

June 10, 2011

A very interesting and transparency generating overview. Having worked with a number of journals, one thing that has become obvious is that each has its own approach to selecting submissions for publication, and I have never had the same experience with any two journals. Sometimes one receives formalised reviewer comments to consider incorporating, giving one an indication of a fairly robust blind review process. On other occasions one is simply told in a matter of a few sentences to consider X and y, with no indication of the process which the paper has actually gone through. As the article's title suggests, this very helpfully demystifies the process as far as the EJIL is concerned, and arguably evidences a process that is sufficiently robust, yet flexible, to ensure that the highest standards are maintained.