Groucho and the editor

I had an email recently from the editor of a journal to which I’d submitted a paper. If two co-authors hadn’t been occupying the space in my conscience where my academic integrity ought to be, this is probably how I should have replied.

Dear Professor X,

Thank you for the referees’ reports on our manuscript. Although both reports are rather brief, I think that one can safely deduce from them that Referee 1 has not read the manuscript, while Referee 2 has possibly read but has certainly not understood it. Nevertheless, I note that you endorse the recommendation of both referees that the manuscript be accepted for publication.

In the circumstances, I hope you will understand that I find it necessary to withdraw the manuscript from consideration. I do not wish to publish this paper in any journal that is prepared to accept it as a submission.

Yours sincerely, etc.

All joking aside, I’d far rather go through the usual bruising process of peer review than have a manuscript accepted with what cannot possibly be proper scrutiny. An asinine rejection is bad enough, but an asinine acceptance suggests to me that all I’m doing is pumping yet more worthless and unmentionable matter into the clogged plumbing of academia.

Peer review is meant to be the first stage of the process by which new ideas are digested by the scholarly community — whatever you take the words “new”, “ideas”, “digested”, “scholarly” and “community” in that description to mean. It’s supposed to ensure that what reaches the readership of a journal has undergone some sort of maceration to render it digestible. Most manuscripts I’ve ever seen (or written) have needed plenty of chewing, and that suggests to me that a reviewer who can’t see a way to improve a manuscript simply doesn’t care whether it’s digestible or not — which doesn’t bode well for how any other reader of the journal might receive it. If, as an author, you’re relieved to have a manuscript slip down the editorial gullet without toothmarks, do you really care what happens to it next — or are you thinking of publication as the end, rather than the start, of the process?

Yes, peer review is an mucky and unjust business in which a lot of statements are made that would, in other contexts, border on libel. But at least the emotional aggro that’s involved suggests that somebody cares about what’s published. If academic publishing were to degenerate into a conversation where everybody’s talking at once and everybody’s happy that what everyone else is saying would be interesting if they only had the time to listen to it, then the point of the whole damn process would be lost. (There is a theory that states that this has already happened.)

Remind me of this, please, the next time I’m spitting teeth over a negative editorial decision. It won’t help, but I could do with being tellt.

Postscript. We made minimal changes for the benefit of Referee 2 and resubmitted the manuscript. It was finally accepted within three hours. My co-authors seem quite chuffed. I’m trying to be.

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