Decision Making Is Not Easy

(Part 6 of 7 on the work of an academic journal editor by ATP Editor-in-Chief, Staci Zavatarro, PhD)

I cannot tell you the hours I spend on the phone with other journal editors talking about the excruciating decisions we have to make. We know there are people behind each submission, and sometimes feelings get hurt. That is never our intention to make someone feel bad, but we recognize the process is fraught with rejection.

            Once someone is appointed editor, their identity shifts almost immediately. You have a position of some power to shape the journal and its contents. To grow it how you see fit at that time. To publish articles that make it through peer review that might be outside what people are used to seeing inside your pages. To publish invited essays or commentaries that might cause controversy but could lead to engaging intellectual debates. I realize ATP publishes articles that not everyone likes – that is fine. My job is to introduce readers to quality work with meaning to the field. The next editorial team can totally change direction to make the journal their own.

            As Feeney et al (2018) note, editors, authors, and reviewers are not and cannot be totally value free (p. 47).

The journal editor sees, scans, and reads hundreds of submissions, serving as the first line of decision making for a manuscript—the desk reject or sending it out for review. The editor then uses the network of editorial board members, the journal database, and the reference section of each submission to identify potential reviewers. Contacting each reviewer increases the profile of the editor, as each reviewer sees the editor’s signature. The editor essentially interacts with every author and reviewer in the system (even if that interaction is through an administrative assistant), and the interactions raise the profile of the editor.

            As an editor, I have faced decisions that are tough. Papers at the extremes (clear accept or clear reject) are usually the easiest to handle (Raelin, 2008). I sometimes use my discretion to give an author a chance to revise a paper that peer reviewers did not like. “Being a journal editor, in some ways, is a thankless job” (Feeney et al, 2018, p. 48). These decisions are not easy and sometimes hard to articulate. Yes, perhaps I know the person and know they can make the changes. Sometimes the reviews are so clear and lay out a viable path forward, so I give the authors a chance. Sometimes the reviews are positive, but the paper does not exactly fit the aims and scope. Sometimes the reviews are mixed, so editors have to use our best judgment because reviewers have their own standards of what counts as quality for a field (Giles, Patterson & Mizell, 1989).

            I have rejected friends and senior colleagues. For this, I have received sometimes nasty emails or have been confronted at conferences for this perceived slight. Someone told me I will regret not publishing his paper. Someone cornered me at a conference saying he needs to receive tenure so I need to expedite the review process for him so he can make his quota. While I do not mind questions, I do mind being attacked and lambasted for doing the best I can. Feel free to ask questions, of course, but make them constructive so editors can provide equally constructive feedback.

            Recently there was a blog post going around Twitter where a senior scholar in public administration said only senior people can get published and encouraged early career researchers to engage in actual bargaining with the editor. I would be silly and lying not to tell you that name recognition does matter, but people with big names still do get rejected. What matters most is quality research that fulfills the missions of the journal. Quality can come from senior scholars, early career researchers, and everyone in between. Decisions are not negotiations. While this sounds harsh, there are plenty of other journals in the field and authors who are persistent will usually find an outlet to publish a piece we reject. Indeed, I hope that happens.


Feeney, M.K., Carson, L. & Dickinson, H. (2019). Power in editorial positions: A feminist critique of public administration. Public Administration Review, 79(1), 46-55.

Giles, M.W., Patterson, D. & Mizell, F. (1989). Discretion in editorial decision-making: The case of journal politics. PS: Political Science and Politics, 22(1), 58-62.

Raelin, J.A. (2008). Refereeing the game of peer review. Academy of Management Learning & Education, 7(1), 124-129.

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