Inside the Black Box: How Publishing Works
When I’m not busy working on my classwork, thesis or on Sociology Lens posts, I serve as the inaugural Managing Editor for the new American Sociological Association’s Section on Racial and Ethnic Minorities’ journal Sociology of Race and Ethnicity, published by Sage. In this capacity, I am responsible for the day-to-day functioning of the journal including author inquiries and managing our submission portal. Being in this position gives me an insider position to the black box of publishing a manuscript. First, I will explain the manuscript publication process, and then I will conclude with my “Managing Editor’s list of do’s and don’ts when publishing.”
Once an author has a manuscript written, they choose one journal to submit it to and upload it through (typically) their online submission portal. This submission process typically includes information about word count, permissions, funding, abstract, and keywords.
Once it’s been submitted, a managing editor (like me) will review the manuscript for “fit” and/ or “format,” ensuring that the manuscript follows the submission guidelines. All too often do we receive manuscripts that are either over the word count or do not utilize the correct citation style and must be rejected immediately before the manuscripts makes it to reviewers or the editor.
Of the manuscripts that are in the correct format, I randomly assign an editor (since my journal has multiple editors) to review the manuscript. They read the manuscript in depth, and choose to either immediately reject the manuscript–if it either is not ready for peer review or will simply not fit with our journal- or send the manuscript out for review.
The editor then invites reviewers that are hopefully within the same sub-field as the manuscript, so that comments and feedback is relevant and well-informed. Sometimes this step takes multiple weeks, as reviewers either reject the invitation to review for time or personal reasons, or is not interested (or sometimes disagrees with) the piece. Those reviewers that do accept the invitation are given a period of time, typically near 8-10 weeks, to complete a review which includes constructive feedback about the piece’s methods, findings, argument, and structure. The reviewers are able to give comments back to both the author and the editor, as well as their recommendation for the piece- “accept,” “revise and resubmit,” or “reject.”
Once all three reviews are completed (this can potentially take months if it takes multiple months to even get three people to agree to review), the editor renders a decision about the piece. There are multiple decisions that can be made- accept outright, conditional acceptance, resubmit with minor revisions, resubmit with major revisions, and reject. At this point, the author takes the necessary steps to correct and resubmit their manuscript in the time allotted. Then the process occurs all over again.
For those manuscripts that are accepted, congratulations! At this stage, the authors then receive a copyright contract that lays out the terms and conditions of the publication (that this piece will not be published elsewhere) and the piece is prepared for the publication editor. As it is sent off to the publication team, there it is copy-edited and “proofed.” In approximately 1-2 months time, the author will receive their manuscript in .pdf format that it will look like in the journal. This is the last chance that the author is given to make any last minute changes and check over that everything looks correct. After the proofs are completed and returned, all that is left is waiting for the piece to be published!
Meanwhile, the editors are compiling a list of the available accepted and proofed manuscripts for upcoming issues and completing a Table of Contents based on themes, theories, methods, and findings. So sometimes it takes a few months after the proof stage to even see the article in print if there is a backlog of articles waiting to be published.
*Note that not all journals use the same process. Look on their website to find out their specific process, and if you don’t find the answer, email them a question! It’s always better to ask than guess wrong and have your manuscript rejected.
Managing Editor’s List of Do’s and Don’ts in Publishing
Based on my experience, I see time and time again the same mistakes made by authors submitting manuscripts. If you want to make your life easier when trying to publish, here are some things to watch out for:
- Follow the manuscript guidelines! These guidelines spell-out in detail exactly the format of submissions including word count, citation style, and section order. If I receive a manuscript over the word count by even one word, unfortunately I have to reject it without even considering its contents. Oftentimes what is submitted and what a manuscript looks like in publication are very different. If you have any questions about the guidelines, email the managing editor, they are more than capable to help you. You can find these guidelines often on the journal’s website or submission portal. I cannot stress enough that formatting (including word count, double spacing, margins, citation style, section order, etc) is critical.
- Blind your manuscript! Many journals these days use a double blind system, which means that the authors and reviewers do not know who each other are. This way there is no intimidation or power at play, in addition to rivalries that may be at stake. Do not identify yourself in any way in the manuscript. If you must cite your own work, do not say, “in previous work I argued this” and finish off with a complete citation. If I can figure out who you are, so can the reviewer, especially now with the internet.
- Know your editors! As you submit your manuscript, you’ll also have the option to submit a cover letter or letter to the editor. This is your space to thank them and explain why you think this should be considered. But, if you address the editors not by name, by the wrong name, or even not by the right title, that sends the wrong message. (Hint: not all managing editors have their PhDs… yet).
- Be patient! We all want our manuscripts considered in a timely manner, but sometimes things are complicated. In fact, we just had a manuscript where we invited 11 reviewers before 3 accepted to review. That took nearly 3 months, and then each reviewer has another 2.5 months to review. So no, we don’t have a decision for you one month after you submitted your manuscript.
- Be on time! We understand that there extenuating circumstances, but try your best to make deadlines. We have deadlines too, and sometimes you missing a deadline can cause your research to not be published.