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Frustrated with journal editors

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So I'm trying to publish my masters thesis. The methods I used are essentially the same as several ornithology studies that I've read and I've explored a novel bird-plant interaction. My committee was super excited about my results (as was I), and one member in particular has been really helpful with editing the paper for publication and making it as "sexy" as possible. Our top journal choices have all published studies similar to mine (but with different plants), and my committee really thought the paper belonged in any of them and have either published in those journals or reviewed for them.

However, I keep hitting a brick wall with the editors. The first editor rejected it without review because he thought the study was too regional, which was frustrating because they've published studies much more regional than mine. The second editor of a general conservation journal rejected saying that it was more appropriate for a more specialized journal and suggested the journal I was first rejected from. Earlier this week, I sent it to an ornithology journal and got a swift rejection on grounds that my study design had problems.

I've been getting more and more bummed out with each rejection. One of my committee members suggested that the first two journals rejected it simply because it's a US study and conservation journals are trying to be more international, which is crappy if it's true, but I can mentally deal with that. Those two editors also both commented that it was a sound manuscript and should quickly get published elsewhere without much revision, which was somewhat encouraging. The last rejection really dealt a blow, though, and really made me doubt if the paper was ever going to get published and made me feel like a crappy scientist and like I somehow screwed up my entire masters thesis.

I've been mulling it over all day, and I'm starting to feel a bit better about myself. For one thing, the first two editors are experts in my area of specialization, so I should probably weigh their comments a bit more than the third editor who is not. Second, some of the comments the third editor made about why he had issues with study design suggest that he didn't read the methods too carefully. I still feel crappy though, because I haven't even been able to get the paper to the review stage yet.

Not sure if I'm looking for advice or what, but I just feel super frustrated with editors right now.

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Sorry to hear this :( It must be really frustrating to encounter these editors acting as "gatekeepers"! Since your committee says your paper is well written, it's likely they are seeing it from a reviewer point of view, not the editor's point of view. It really sounds like that the problem is not you, but these editors/journals weird decisions. You already know this but I'll say it anyways---you didn't screw up your thesis and you are not a crappy scientist.

Have you talked to your thesis advisor / committee members / coauthors about these editor responses? Maybe they have some tips or strategies. One thing that is possible in my field is to include a cover letter with your submission. In this cover letter, you could specifically point out how your paper meets the journals' goals and "jurisdiction". I've seen cover letters that explicitly cite similar articles previously published by the same journal. Would it be possible to resubmit to one of the first two journals with a cover letter to address the original concerns (and whatever changes to the manuscript necessary)?

Also if it helps, I have some horror stories with editors too: one of our group's paper got turned away from by the editor multiple times and there were multiple revisions and resubmissions before it got to the referee stage; another person had an ineffective editor that let the referee get away with not responding for almost a year (normal time for review is 4-6 weeks here); and another person waited 11 months for the first review and is now waiting 8 months and counting for a second review.

Just to be clear though, journal editors are often volunteering their time and are not really paid for this work, so I don't want to sound ungrateful. And I think the majority of experiences are effective, efficient and pleasant. But frustrations with journal editors are still something many will encounter, so you're in good company :)

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Thanks for your wisdom! I'm feeling a bit better about the whole situation after exchanging some e-mails with my committee. As co-authors, my committee has been involved with the rejections and have offered some suggestions along the way. One has especially been involved with editing the paper and tweaking things for each journal. They have also been pretty surprised the process, and this latest rejection really got under their skin, too. My thesis advisor even went as far as to call the editor a snob in our conversation! It has also been suggested that being a female lead author may be playing a role, at least for the latest rejection. Maybe they know something about this editor that I don't.

I have included a cover letter with each submission with a brief synopsis of the paper and what points I really want to hit home. Citing some relevant papers from the journal might be a good strategy, as would generally stating how the paper fits with the journal's aims. I could try resubmitting to the first two journals, but I feel like the editors might already have their minds made up. I still have a few more journals that I'd like to see the paper in, so I think I'll try applying a new strategy with a new journal.

I can definitely appreciate that the editors are volunteers (along with the reviewers), so I definitely don't want to knock them in general. I don't even feel much resentment towards the first two editors - they had some good suggestions for other journals and the tone of their rejection letters were polite and encouraging. The third editor outright told me my study was terrible and it might get published in a state journal if I was lucky, then proceeded to list his perceived issues... none of which were actually a problem. In fact, I was following some pretty standard methods. I don't think I'll ever be submitting to that journal again, unless maybe it gets a new editor :P 

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