Informal advice from Michaela Benson, Managing Editor
Having now been editor of this journal since 2011, and after my steep learning curve about how a journal works and what gets to be included and excluded, I’d like to offer the following suggestions:
Some journals have an acceptance rate as high as 90%. Ours is 25-30%.
As would-be contributors increasingly (due to demands to publish) submit work that is not of a finished standard, it is worth doing your homework on what puts off reviewers and upsets editors, leading to rejection.
Following some of the guidance below will also make a desk reject less likely. We depend on a huge amount of goodwill and as our reviewers are under pressure from a variety of different journals, we as editors have to make sure we do not send reviewers research that is an insult to their time.
- Always do the research on the journal to which you are going to submit. Many people appear to just send things off with no idea that there already existing debates about their topic in the journal. Sometimes they have clearly never read the journal. It is not the role of the editor to point out an author’s lack of research.
- Likewise, if the journal you target rarely includes empirical papers and you have empirical work make sure you submit it to the right journal. If your work is narrow and directed to a very specific audience, there is no point wasting your time and sending it to a general sociological journal, like The Sociological Review. This is why specialist journals have been established. They enable specialist debates to proceed.
- The Sociological Review is open to a wide range of different types of contributions, but beware. Few sociological journals will accept work if it has no methodological explanation for how the research was carried out. You’d be surprised how often this happens.
- If somebody tells you to ‘just submit and see what happens’, don’t! This is really bad advice. Badly written, sloppy papers, which have not been proof-read or even finished properly only infuriate referees and enrage editors.
- Ask colleagues to give you proper feedback before you submit. This will help avoid a desk reject and help reviewers focus on how they can help rather than prevent publication. It is not the job of editors or referees to do all the hard work to make a paper publishable. The editorial process is different to the supervision process; we and our reviewers expect to receive a finished article. Sadly, I was not surprised by the rise in undercooked papers submitted before the REF in 2014 in the UK. But the deleterious effect of these under-prepared papers was to slow down the processing of other finished papers that did not need substantive work. It felt very unfair.
- Basics include: does your theoretical explanation fit the data? Do you use empirical material just to confirm already existing theories? Or do you do something interesting and develop theories through the data? Plonking in quotes does not a research paper make! All empirical data needs to be discussed. If you are just reporting research, submit it as a research note rather than a fully developed paper.
- Other basic faults include not being up to date with literature in your field. Make sure there are no gaps in your framework. Papers are sent to ‘experts’ as much as possible – so one of the most obvious reasons for rejection is that you are not familiar with your own research field (with the logic being you do not know what is at stake). And don’t just name or list other sociologists, give the reader a sense of what they say, how they approach the matter at hand. Engage in debates, don’t just provide a list of them. Always give the reader a sense of what is at stake in your area and why you are making a contribution.
- It may help to ask how does your paper contribute to knowledge? I know this is the basic PhD question but many papers could be improved if they asked this question, and many of us need reminding. We receive a surprising number of papers that just rehash the arguments of others. This is not interesting. Does your paper set out the terms for the debate in your field, or does it add new data to debates? If it does either, say so and show how. Say what is novel about your paper (behind this of course lies the question of ‘so what?’). Why does it matter? Why should we publish your paper?
- Also, don’t forget to check the grammar and the spelling. You’d be amazed at how many sloppy papers we receive.
- And do check the word length. If spotted at admin stage, papers are returned immediately if they exceed the specification 7-8k words. But if they go on the editors pile and it takes us a month to get to the paper, that’s a whole month of wasted time. A waste of your time and ours.
- Do take time to think about your title. You want to reach the largest readership possible (what is the point in writing otherwise?), and so do we, so make sure you have keywords in your title. Just because something sounds funky and interesting does not mean that an international audience will have any idea about what you are talking about. Funky titles also date quickly.
- If your paper does get to our reviewers, do take their advice. You may think you are a genius and have been misunderstood (I remember feeling that as an insecure PhD student) but having read many referees reports it is uncanny how editors and referees recognise similar weaknesses most of the time. If a referee has gone to the time and trouble to point out problems, rectify them. Please do not resubmit half addressed issues. There is nothing more annoying than to receive a resubmitted paper which has not addressed the points of the referees. We either have to send it back again for you to rework or just reject it.
At The Sociological Review we welcome quirky and boundary stretching papers. We aim to be more open and less hidebound than other sociology journals, but this does not mean that we do not have exacting scholarly standards.
And to state the blindingly obvious – do not include any unsubstantiated statements (you would be amazed at how many people do) such as ‘individualisation has taken over our lives’. Really? How do we know? Just because one person eg Giddens has speculated that this is the case, is it? Another one is the assumption that internalisation has occurred somehow. How do we know? Is there any evidence?
Likewise, avoid reification; eg ‘society does’ (who in society?). We teach this stuff to our first year undergraduates but sadly a great deal of reification and unsubstantiation appears in submissions. I was and still am shocked by seeing these type of comments.