Since I started submitting papers (around the turn of the century) editorial practices have evolved. Here’s a quick guide:
What used to be “Reject” is still called a “Reject.”
What used to be “Reject with Option to Resubmit” rarely ever happens anymore.
What used to be called “Major Revisions” is now called “Reject (With Invited Resubmission)” with a multiple-month deadline.
What used to be called “Minor Revisions” is now called “Reject (With Invited Resubmission)” with a shorter timeline.
And Accept is still Accept.
Here’s the explanation.
A flat-out rejection — “Please don’t send us this paper again” — hasn’t changed. (I’ve pointed out before, that it takes some experience to know when a paper is actually rejected.)
If your paper needed some tweaks, but mostly looked in shape, then it was then it was common to get this decision: “Accept With Minor Revisions.”
I can’t even remember the last time I got an Accept With Minor Revision, except when the only required changes were formatting. As far as I can tell, that category no longer exists. What happened to Accept With Minor Revisions? That is sometimes now called just Minor Revisions, or more often, just Revisions.
Editors are not using “accept” in connection with a manuscript, unless the paper is in its absolutely final version. This is a change from prior practice.
Nowadays, authors have less leverage, it is inadvisable to be vociferous about the need to comply with minor revisions about a paper that is not yet “accepted.” This is neither good, nor bad, in my view.
What used to be “minor revisions” is now “Reject With Invited Resubmission.”
There also used to be an “Accept With Major Revision” and that’s also gone the way of the passenger pigeon. It wasn’t a common thing, but it did happen.
Not all “Reject With Invited Resubmission” decisions are the same. Some of them will go back out to reviewers, what used to be called “major revisions.” Some of them won’t go back out, what used to be called “minor revisions.”
How can you tell the difference? How do you know whether it’s going back out to the reviewers? If you’re in luck, the editor will tell you the plan. But they might hold their cards to their chest on this one, because if they say that they’re not planning to send it back to reviewers, then it authors might try to slide through without as much attention to the revisions.
Here’s one clue: How much time do you have to do the revisions? If you have just a month, then it’s not major revisions. Those are unlikely to go back out to reviewers, I would think. But if you’ve got three months or six months to do the revisions, then those are a bigger deal in the mind of the editor and those are likely to be seen by reviewers again.
Back in ye olden days, a “Reject with option to resubmit” used to mean “There are pretty good reasons why we aren’t accepting this paper, but if you can do something big — like extra experiments or reconfiguring the central premise — then we’ll be glad to take a look.” Nowadays, those papers are usually just rejected.
So why have these changes happened? Why is it that editors don’t say “accept” until the final version arrives in their inbox? I see there are two main factors. The first one is that it’s easier for the editor to make sure that the authors comply with suggested edits. As an editor, as I’ve had authors at the “minor revisions” stage push back against smallish but important changes. This was frustrating for me (and I’m sure it was for the authors too), but it would have been a lot harder to handle the transaction if the authors had already been told the paper was accepted.
The second reason (as far as I can see) we don’t get “accept” decisions at the revision stages is because of changes in scientific publishing and bibliometrics. There are a lot of new and good journals. Authors have options, and people are (often irrationally) focused on rapid turnaround time for their manuscripts. A couple metrics are “time to acceptance after submission” and “time to print after submission.” If a paper is officially rejected with invited resubmission, and a new version is resubmitted with revisions, then this dramatically cuts down on the time-between-submission-and-acceptance metric. If authors get an acceptance with revisions, then they have no reason to rush the edits, and time-to-print would take a lot longer. And the journal looks slower according to the bibliometrics. And journal editors are under pressure to keep those bibliometrics looking good. Am I off base on this? That’s at least what it looks like to me.
In a separate development, journals are more likely to pull the trigger on “desk rejects,” rejecting a paper without sending it out for review. If an editor is pretty sure the reviews wouldn’t end up being positive enough, or if the project can’t be made fit the journal’s scope, this makes sense. Considering how hard it is to land reviewers, you don’t want to waste reviewer effort for a manuscript you’re sure you’d reject anyway. (I’ve gotten a number of raw desk rejects, by the way.)
I don’t think the game itself hasn’t changed that much, it just has different labels. Now it’s harder to tell whether or not the editor is going to send your revisions out to reviewers.
What prompted this post? Well, several months ago I submitted what I thought were minor revisions, and I haven’t heard bupkis back. (I’m in no hurry, though.) And on a different paper, I just got what looks like minor revisions just yesterday, and only a month to do them, and that short time-frame is a bit rough with the field season starting tomorrow morning.
And I got a rejection last week too. At one point those used to bum me out, but, well, I’ve got thick manuscript calluses. My annoyance-after-getting-reviews-back lasts a minute or so. At some point I’ll write about those calluses.