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Playing the ‘A’ game: Opening up the black-box of academic publishing

If, like me, you are new to the academic publishing game, have you ever wondered what happens to your work once your tightly crossed fingers have pushed the ‘submit’ button on the impersonal manuscript submission site? Where does it go? What decisions are being made about your paper submission ‘on the other side’? I was offered the chance last week to attend a Paper Development Masterclass at the Centre for Professional Service Firms, Cass Business School (City University London). This masterclass was designed to offer early career researchers a peek inside this publishing black-box.

The day began with a panel discussion led by editors from the ‘A’ ranked journals Human Relations (HR), Administrative Science Quarterly (ASQ), Journal of Management Studies (JMS) and Journal of Professions and Organization (JPO). The discussion centred on the decision-making process of how editors, and then reviewers, decide whether or not to publish your blood, sweat and tears. Although there were some differences between how each journal made their decisions, there were many similarities that, taken together, can be read as sound advice for PhD students looking to publish their thesis work in top journals that address organisation, professions, work and management research.

Firstly though, let’s set the scene. The editor-in-chief at HR describes a week in the life of a journal editor:

Every Monday morning, at around lunchtime, I receive this week’s abstracts. I skim the abstracts, thinking: Do they fit the journal in terms of style and scope? HR is interested in studying social relations in and around work – does the abstract address issues concerning this area? If I think it does, I will offer the paper to one of my team of editors[1]. Therefore, for me, the abstract is the most important part of the submitted paper.

My associate editors will then read the paper in more detail before deciding if it should be given a ‘desk rejection’ (i.e. a straight-out rejection, with no offer of a review and resubmit). My editors are asking themselves, can this manuscript be made into a publishable paper with reasonable effort? There is a 50% chance the paper will get rejected within 7 days of submission.

If the paper is successful, it will get sent to 3 referees [or ‘reviewers’]. The key words listed on the paper help me locate preferable referees. Once these referees have reviewed the paper, a mutual decision will be made in 10 weeks. Although there is a high rate of rejection at this stage, those who have submitted a paper should at least receive detailed, constructive feedback about how to improve their paper, or what the areas of concern are for the referee.


Therefore, before submitting your manuscript, it’s worth thinking about what questions the reviewers will be asking themselves as they read your paper. The editors provided the following advice [paraphrased]:

  • Does this paper fit with the journal’s tradition and debates? Tip: Think about which journal would be good for your paper. Firstly, look at who sits on the editorial board – are you familiar with their work? Do any of the papers you read publish in this journal? Do you read, and like reading, the journal? What do the special issues address?  If you are really not sure if your paper is appropriate for the journal, you can email and ask the editor, but be prepared for a lukewarm response – the editors are careful not to lead the person on after just reading an emailed abstract.
  • Has this paper got a meaningful point? What is this paper all about? Tip: State your meaning and purpose of the paper directly and clearly in the abstract. What is the gap/problem you are trying to address?
  • Is the language clear? [N.B. The editors are not as concerned with grammatical accuracy but more about what the author is trying to say] Tip: Get your paper read by others to check for clarity, i.e. at conferences, or by your supervisor and PhD peers.
  • Does this paper have a genuine motivation? Who is this going to be of interest to? Tip: Again, state this clearly in your introduction: ‘This is interesting to/for…’
  • Are there some basic problems with methods? If it’s a qualitative study, is there enough data? If it’s quantitative, have you used the correct statistical analysis? Tip: Pay adequate attention to your methods section and make sure you have provided a detailed description and rationale of how you have analysed the data.
  • What is this paper’s contribution to theory? What are the findings? Tip: Again, state clearly what your actually findings are and what it means for the audience. Don’t forget, your findings can inspire other researchers outside of your specific area.

The editors also provided advice on what happens once a paper is either accepted or rejected [again, paraphrased]:

What happens if your paper is accepted but the reviewers suggest amendments? Most journal reviewers will give you their comments in a written email. You should look to read, think about and address every single line of their comments. You can accept those comments you think are insightful or useful, and make the necessary amendments, or reject them if you do not agree. Write a cover letter to explain your rationale for why you did or did not make the amendments – use this cover letter to engage in a conversation to make sure the reviewer feels like they have been listened to. Get someone to read through your amended paper. It should not be sent out unchanged because most journals will use the same reviewers again!

What happens if your paper is rejected? There may be the usual feelings of anger and denial, but once you have got a handle on this, read through the feedback – you will find lots of positives. You could readjust it for another journal. If you do, make sure you take on board the suggestions for improvements.

Finally, the editors made the point that it is important to be realistic when aiming to publish in these ‘A’ journals[2]. The success rate of getting your work actually published is quite low. For example, the editor of HR noted that they receive around 500 submissions a year, and 85% of these get rejected. JMS receive between 900 and 1000 papers annually and only 3-4% are published.

Although I found this panel discussion illuminating, for myself and other PhD students, I can see how these stats can seem incredibly disheartening. However, the editors stressed that they were keen to consider submissions from PhD students because their work is often some of the most interesting, ground breaking and contemporary work to read. Also, the editors acknowledged that publishing in ‘A’ journals isn’t the be all and end all for guaranteeing employment post-PhD: making sure the person applying is well suited to the research project and has the desired capacities to work with the project team is more important for employers than 10 publications in ‘A’ journals. I’ll withhold my judgement on that until my time comes to apply for jobs… but in the mean time, there’s no harm in aiming high!

[1] JMS differs slightly from HR in that you are allowed to specify who you want your editors to be, or not be. It’s worth having a look at who sits on the board and, if you request them, make sure you cite their work!

[2] This discussion is specific to these particular journals that are ranked as ‘top’ journals. So, although the figures may seem dispiriting to the reader, many other journals are less competitive with higher acceptance rates.


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