Peer review is a flawed process. I view it in the same way as Churchill viewed democracy: peer review is the worst method for the evaluation of the quality of a manuscript, except for every other method.
Peer evaluations and editorial decisions do not guarantee that the best manuscripts will rise to the top. Editors these days are driven by journal metrics, particular the impact factor. Unfortunately, this flawed KPI is inherently biased against younger researchers with excellent ideas in favor of older researchers with comparatively stale ideas. Why? Because these older, more established researchers are generally cited at a greater rate than younger ones, ceteris paribus.
“Peer evaluations and editorial decisions do not guarantee that the best manuscripts will rise to the top.”
A fresh PhD graduate may have ground-breaking, innovative ideas to share, but he or she has no “reputation” of which to speak. Editors, therefore, will (conscious or unconsciously) set the bar higher for them.
Then there is the perennial issue of peer reviewers being reliably unreasonable in their evaluations of your manuscript. This madness generally affects younger and older researchers equally. Most peer reviews can be summarized thusly: “Hey! That’s not how I would have approached the problem! Why didn’t you do exactly what I would have done?”
This begs the question: should you ever appeal an editor’s decision, especially if you are an early career researcher?
I’ve only ever appealed a decision (rejection after Round 1) once, and it got me nowhere. The reviewers appeared to recommend minor revisions, all of which were perfectly “do-able,” but the Associate Editor rejected it anyway because it wasn’t a good “fit.” The basis for my appeal is that the question of “fit” should have been made before the paper was sent for peer review, and that all of the suggestions were clearly actionable. The Editors-in-Chief ultimately defended the AE’s decision. It was a waste of everyone’s time, not just mine.
I have heard of appeals being upheld, but mostly by star researchers. I don’t know if anyone has collected statistics on this question, but my intuition tells me that the vast majority of appeals very likely fall flat and go nowhere.
Now, there may be some instances in which an appeal makes sense. For example, if you only receive one peer review and the editor makes a decision on that basis, you could petition a second review. But even if a review is blatantly unfair and unreasonable (and I would argue a sizable minority of peer reviews are, at least in part, so), your appeal will most likely be turned down.
Moreover, because of the subjectivity involved in the process, an appeal against an editor is like an appeal against the God of the Old Testament: it is likely to result in wrath and retribution. An editor can easily “create” an excuse for rejection out of thin air, even if it is not supported in the reviews. Challenging their decision-making will only incite them against you.
“Because of the subjectivity involved in the process, an appeal against an editor is like an appeal against the God of the Old Testament: it is likely to result in wrath and retribution.”
In the end, my advice is, unless you have a very strong case, just move on to the next outlet. As in all walks of life, you win some and you lose some. That’s just the way it goes. You will be subjected to inequity, unfairness, and injustice in the peer review process. But you need to remember: everyone has been in your shoes. Even older academics, like me, were once early career researchers (ECRs) like you. They, too, faced the madness of peer review and persevered.
Life isn’t fair, and neither is academia. Good ideas get suppressed and mediocre ideas get published. I suggest that you just let it go. Do you agree with me? Why or why not?
Professor Andrew R. Timming
This article is published under a Creative Commons 4.0 License.
To submit an article to Dire Ed, visit http://dire.ed.com/submissions/