Nearly 15 years ago I submitted my first ever article to a peer reviewed journal. That paper was a version of “Motivation for volunteering on heritage railways”. The fact that the paper is now self-published on my website indicates that the paper was never published. It was never actually rejected, but after six years under review I’d had enough.
I won’t name the journal or the editors involved. Although this is not an area I publish in now, (or am likely to) I am somewhat risk adverse. The three editors involved in the process are no longer editing the journal. My memory on some points might be a bit hazy, especially regarding the order of some of the events, but here goes:
- I submitted the paper in January 2000. It was based on my MSc dissertation. This was the days before electronic or online submission (at least was for this journal). I sent the paper (2 printed copies plus a 3.5 inch floppy disk) to the editor at a UK university.
- I heard nothing. I tried to contact the editor but could not find a phone number or email. I got in touch with the press. Still nothing. [Submit somewhere else which desks rejects it. My PhD supervisor assured me this was OK since I hadn’t heard anything after about a year.]
- Two years later (!) a new editor gets in touch by email with a single review of the paper. The reviewer makes helpful comments. I spend a couple of months responding to the comments. I then send the new version to the editor by email.
Interlude: Strange twist here which is nothing to do with the process. My MSc supervisor forwards me an email from a postgraduate student who wishes to read my dissertation. I get in touch with him and he comes to Bristol to read my dissertation in the library. We arrange to meet up and have a cup to tea together. It turns out that his supervisor was the reviewer and guessed that I was the author. Reviewer suggested to student that he get hold of my dissertation as it might be useful for his own work. I now know the identity of the reviewer and know that the reviewer guessed my identity.
- A few months later I get a second review from the same single referee. Comments were mostly helpful, but referee says that a lot of new work has been published since he/she last read the paper. (This indicates that the review was probably done soon after I submitted the paper, but I was not sent the review until about two years after it was conducted.)
- I revise the paper again and send it to the editor. We are probably up to about mid-2003 or 2004 by this point. The editor and I exchange lots of emails. Editor makes lots of helpful comments, helps me with matters of writing style etc. Indicates he/she is keen to publish it. No further reviews are conducted.
- Correspondence with the editor comes to a close. He/she recommends that it should be published in one of the 2006 editions. However, there is a catch… he/she is stepping down from the editorship and won’t be editor in 2006, so it’s not his/her decision.
- 2006 arrives and I hear nothing from the new editor. I email the new editor (not a name I know) who gets back to me fairly promptly. He finds my paper in the trail left by his predecessor. He informs me that it is now journal policy for all papers to be reviewed by at least two people. Mine has only been reviewed by one person so it can’t be published. Editor also informs me that that they want to publish more things which are not about railways.
- Get fed up and withdraw the article.
- Sit on it for a while then put it on my website.
Fortunately I now have many positive experiences of the publishing process to share. It has not been all plain sailing, but even the worst experiences have not come close to the ludicrousness of this article’s journey through peer review. Here a few lessons I would pass on.
- NEVER EVER let any journal not get back to you for one year, let alone two years. You are perfectly within your rights to submit elsewhere.
- Try to be clear on whether your article has been accepted or not.
- If you are not sure if the editor agrees with the reviewers, ask.
- I think I let the new 2006 editor off the hook. It seems a bit strange that a new editor would feel able to apply new rules about reviewer numbers retrospectively and ignore the recommendation for his predecessors.