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Thursday, August 18, 2011

Resubmission Etiquette

According to our survey, the approach of September means that a number of law journals are now or will soon be reading submissions again.  For some (and I have from time to time counted myself among this unhappy number) this means re-submitting a piece that failed to find a home in an earlier submission season.  Not, as George & Jerry would say, that there's anything wrong with that.  Still, many folks seem reluctant to talk about resubmission, as if it were somehow either shady or shameful.  I don't think it's inherently either one, but that there are definitely practices I view as a little dubious.  Of course, I also think it's cheating when a batter pretends he checked his swing -- so, with the warning that my sense of ethics may be a little over-developed, here's my resubmission etiquette checklist for authors -- and editors.

1.  Editors, don't judge. 

My sense is that a lot of authors take steps to shroud the fact that they are resubmitting, probably on the assumption that there is some negative signal from having failed to secure an earlier offer.   First of all, I don't think any negative signal should attach.  Journals intentionally create scarcity for most categories of article.  In an arrowvian sense, rejection or not is not a stable equilibrium, but instead is contingent on agenda setting.  And, relatedly, many journals will stop reading for a season before they get to all their submissions.  On the author's side, the revised version may genuinely be better than the old one. 

2.  Authors, respect the process.   Ok, many prior rejections are not "on the merits," or at least aren't very informative about the quality of the resubmission.  But journals are entitled to economize on decision costs by giving some preclusive effect to their own earlier decisions to reject.  Yes, a different screener might have a different view of the merits.  But journals don't circulate each submission to lots of screeners until the article reaches someone who likes it.  It seems shady for an author to try to engineer the process to get to that same result.  If nothing else, there is something like a horizontal equity argument here: the process could not work if all authors were considered by all screeners.  It isn't fair for some authors to help themselves to additional consideration that not all applicants can get.    

I do think this norm is different for resubmissions after a new board has taken over.  It's less clear there that the presumption is that the new board would want to be bound by the judgments of their predecessors.  But still, the better practice is probably to disclose. 

3.  Want respect, editors?  Don't judge, and announce it.  Obviously, points one and two are related.  Authors are most likely to shroud when they think there is some negative signal.  If the journal wants authors to disclose resubmissions, they should announce their policy on resubmissions.  Saying there is no negative presumption will produce more disclosure.  . 

4.  More explanation is good for everyone.  I think it's helpful for both authors and editors when authors explain how their resubmission differs from earlier versions.  Journals can encourage this behavior, too: for example, by admitting that they do have some negative presumption, but that they are open to articles that have been revised with a clear explanation in the cover letter of what's changed. 

And, of course, in happy fantasy land journals would explain why they rejected a piece that came close to acceptance, allowing authors to then explain in the resubmission how they had answered those concerns.  (Also, while I'm dreaming, the journal's explanations would 1. be internally consistent (difficult, admittedly, when decisions are a group process); 2. give a clear path for revisions; 3. bind the board so that if the author follows the path the article will be accepted; and 4. be delivered on shiny unicorns riding on rainbows).    


Posted by BDG on August 18, 2011 at 11:15 AM in Law Review Review | Permalink


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For what it's worth, I think signaling that a piece has been submitted before is foolhardy. My guess is that you will not get a fair review (and that's assuming you will get a review at all). I would love to be proven wrong, but I would be shocked if anyone gets an offer from a journal that previously rejected them after providing a signaling letter (provided that the journal was not on the verge of giving them an offer before rejecting them in the previous cycle).

In any event, the warning letter does not spare the editors much work, if any; they still need to see just how different the piece is after reading the letter (assuming that they will give it a fair shake), which means they need to read it--the same thing that they would do without a warning letter.

Because law reviews do not generally give you the reason that a piece has been rejected, your changes to the piece might've taken care of what bothered them. Importantly, however, you just don't know. Through a very unwieldy cover letter you might be able to describe exhaustively the myriad changes that you have NOT made in the revision, and this might somehow spare the editor a few minutes of work if you signal the very thing that they hated. Of course if this undesirable thing is a core aspect of the piece, such as its subject matter, your normal cover letter or abstract will do a perfectly fine job of signaling that thing without jeopardizing your chances at other journals.

And if you think there is something deceptive about a journal accepting a piece that they once rejected, that is arbitrarily privileging earlier judgments over more recent judgments, which strikes me as strange.

Of course if you are sending an IDENTICAL (or nearly identical) piece from an earlier cycle, that could be unethical but it's even more clearly bizarre and lazy. In six months you couldn't change at least a few paragraphs???

Posted by: Anon | Aug 30, 2011 12:48:39 AM

Thanks for the good natured reply, and apologies; I guess the subtle postmodern critique carried in your syntax was lost on me.

Posted by: Matt | Aug 19, 2011 12:21:01 PM

@ matt: I thought the sentence's fractured grammar embodied the confusion of a society with unstable preferences. What, you didn't think bloggers used literary technique?

Posted by: BDG | Aug 19, 2011 9:41:14 AM

"In an arrowvian sense, rejection or not is not a stable equilibrium, but instead is contingent on agenda setting."

Maybe I'm confused, but after a few re-readings, I'm still not sure this sentence means anything. Kenneth Arrow may also be owed an apology.

Posted by: Matt | Aug 19, 2011 12:35:15 AM

The idea of "binding" the board to certain revisions = acceptance seems unreasonable. Any suggested revisions are going to be subjective, and such a policy would turn into weird "did we exactly meet your specifications" discussion rather than a "should this be published" discussion.

Posted by: Andrew MacKie-Mason | Aug 18, 2011 10:27:07 PM

@anon 3:05 -- yep, I'm talking mostly about resubmissions to the same board.

Posted by: BDG | Aug 18, 2011 8:05:31 PM

When I have discussed resubmission with other authors, it has always been in the context of an intervening changeover of the board.

As to point 3 of the article, how relevant would such policies be in the age of Expresso. I don't usually visit each individual review's website before submitting. In fact, the beauty of Expresso is not having to deal individually with each review's website. So I don't think that most authors would know about a resubmission policy, even if there was one.

The explanation of why an article was rejected described in the last paragraph is very desirable and I agree that it should be delivered by rainbow-riding unicorns or possibly flying pigs.

Posted by: anon | Aug 18, 2011 4:26:35 PM

Maybe it is assumed in your comments, but to be clear, are you referring to resubmission in August of an article originally submitted in the spring? I only because I had gotten the impression that those who resubmit tend to do it to a subsequent board. I have an article that received a few good offers this spring, which I reluctantly turned down, because I received comments from a fellow scholar that suggested the article was stronger than the offers implied and that I could also explore an area I had previously glossed over to make the article even stronger. The result was that I researched and wrote an entirely new 10 page section to my article and essentially deleted another one. In short, I think it is a new article, but I am torn about whether it is appropriate to resubmit now and potentially irk some editors or wait until the spring. Thoughts?

Posted by: anon | Aug 18, 2011 3:05:12 PM

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