What ever happened to “major and minor revisions?”


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.

14 thoughts on “What ever happened to “major and minor revisions?”

  1. Terry, If you check out the Editor’s Report for a journal to remain nameless (but rhymes with “Biotropica”) the numbers don’t necessarily agree with you. Scroll to Table 4 “Distribution of First Decisions”:
    Minor Revision=6%
    Major Revision=20.7%
    Reject/Resubmit=21.6% (Includes decisons made by EIC+SE not to send to referees)
    Reject: 51.1% (includes Reject without Review by EIC+SE)

    I think we’re one of the few journals that makes these data readily available, and I would love to see more doing so. http://biotropica.org/editors-report-part3/

    Perhaps I need to write a post for the blog explaining how we come to these decisions. One more for the “Draft Posts” list….

  2. Terry – I think you are right to say “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.” At a journal I edit for (like Emilio, I won’t say it’s name but it rhymes with ‘American Naturalist’), we call it “minor revisions” or “major revisions” (not with the “accept” word). The former is rare for a first submission, and I think you’ve hit upon the reasons why. The latter is not rare. I think you are also correct that one reason for editors being cagy about whether the MS will go back out for further review is to exert pressure on authors to take revisions seriously. At least in my case, another reason is that I usually don’t decide until I see the revision – sometimes I am confident I can make a good decision at that point, but other times I want assistance from reviewers.


  3. I share your sense of the situation Terry, and your hypotheses about the reasons behind it. Though I hadn’t noticed any journals using different deadlines for different sorts of revisions.

    And indeed, the fact that deadlines are provided at all for “rejection with invitation to resubmit as a new ms” gives the game away. If the ms is truly rejected, so that any “revision” will be considered a new ms (presumably because it’s been revised so thoroughly as to be unrecognizable from the rejected version), why should there be a deadline on its resubmission? And why should one have to respond to reviews of the previous version. The answer is that the ms isn’t really rejected.

    Shameless self-promotion alert: my old post on the same topic is here: https://dynamicecology.wordpress.com/2014/03/12/tell-me-again-what-major-revisions-are/

  4. Jeremy – totally disagree. I inherited the deadline in the RWIR letter, but the reason why it’s there makes perfect sense. We are deadline oriented – if you give people a deadline, they will work to get something back by that deadline. Getting it back soon is also in the best interest of the authors – those who initially rejected and gave feedback on how to improve it are more likely to handle it again.

  5. Hi Emilio,

    Sorry, we’ll have to agree to disagree on this. The way journals communicate these days confuses authors (especially inexperienced ones). In my view, journals could achieve all of their goals (giving authors a deadline, making clear to authors that they have to make the requested changes on pain of having the ms rejected once and for all, etc.) without confusing authors.

  6. If the authors are confused that’s the fault of the Editors mailing the decision letters.

    We have clear criteria for why we RWIR: either it’s not cast appropriately for our audience but could be, there is something fundamental missing that led to it’s rejection we think is likely “fixable” (see below), or at the initial review we think it’s not suitable for one article category but might be for another. IN short, it’s the “We see potential here, but not without major and fundamental changes. this is very different from revisions, which assume the foundation is in place.

    BUT: I stand corrected, we don’t give a hard deadline, just encourage authors to do it as soon as possible. The template is roughly as follows:

    “Part 1: An explanation for why we are not sending for review or rejecting the present version, why we that with some significant changes it could be suitable for our journal, and a description of what those changes are.***

    Part 2: “Please note that resubmitting your manuscript does not guarantee eventual acceptance, and that your resubmission will be subject to re-review before a decision is rendered. Please submit a cover letter with your revised manuscript in which you detail your responses to the reviewers’ comments and describe the changes made to the manuscript.”

    Part Three: Instructions on resubmitting, i.e., submit as a new manuscript to Manuscript Central.

    Part 4 “Because we are trying to facilitate timely publication of manuscripts submitted to Biotropica, your new manuscript should be uploaded as soon as possible.”

    ***This is the key section that makes clear the different between R/RWR, RWIR, and Revise. We make clear what these are: structural changes in the manuscript, conversion of a full paper to an Insights submission, a study written for a general ecological audience that needs to be recast so that it is “tropical” in context and implications, etc. Occasionally it is done for language issues, if we think the grammar and usage will actually make it hard for people to get a fair review (we are more generous here than other journals given our authorship). Occasionally its because there is some fundamental analysis or experiment missing.

    But there is no hard deadline, just suggestion to “\get moving”, which is another way of saying “we see something potential cool here, so fix it and get it back to us as soon as you can”.

  7. As a grad student in a field, computer science, that peer-reviews conference papers and counts them as real publications, my impression is that for peer-reviewed conference papers, straightforward “accept” and “minor revisions” are both “accept” (with the idea being that if your paper is accepted you should address the criticisms that reviewers DID have of your paper before sending in the print-ready version) and anything beyond minor revisions is a rejection, no opportunity to resubmit. The different kinds of acceptance aren’t labeled differently though. It’s all just “accept and clean up whatever bits we said needed cleaning up.”

    This is a bit tangential to Terry’s post, but I thought some data on how different fields do it might be interesting.

  8. Emilio, I don’t think the data from Biotropica contradict my points here? (But then again, if you think they do, then I’m sure I didn’t communicate my point adequately.)

    If I dig through my filing cabinet (now living in the basement and I haven’t been there for a couple years), I probably could find a bunch of letters — which I received in the post — informing me of an “accept” with revisions. I don’t get those from editors anymore. (And while I might have lost an edge to my writing, I don’t think it’s because my more recent papers are more worse than my earlier ones.)

    When revisions are needed, it’s not accepted. It’s rejected, with a request for a revision. That’s the way it happens with Biotropica. It’s kinda cool that one out of two hundred papers goes from original submission straight to acceptance, by the way. But for the other 50% of papers that aren’t rejected outright, they are still rejected. They are not accepted. It even says that eventual acceptance is not guaranteed.

    Internally, we call them minor and major revisions. But on the author end, the covering letter says reject with a revisions. That’s perfectly fine, I’ve got no problem with it. But it is a non-accept, and the days when you would get an accept-with-revisions seem to be mostly gone as far as I know of (though one person on twitter had an ‘accept with revisions and new experiment’ – really? wow! She’s a chemist, maybe that’s a different world.)

    So here’s an additional point that just occurred to me: the switch to electronic systems reduced the lag time and back-and-forth through the mail that would be involved with R&R decisions. Reject and resubmit with minor revisions through Manuscript Central aren’t more onerous than an an accept with minor revisions. But this would involve a couple more envelopes in the mail. A quick search of my gmail shows that the earliest decision I have in there from Biotropica is from 2006 when Robin Chazdon was EIC, and it was “may be acceptable after substantial revision” for a ‘major revisions’ decision.

  9. I no longer see “accepted” until close to the end. Now it seems to be the severity of the revisions required. But even when I got the “full revision” or “major revision” message followed by a list of 10 instructions about how to resubmit the revised manuscript, I viewed this as an eventual acceptance after revising with the reviewers suggestions and concerns in mind. Of course, my undergraduate student, for whom this was her first time through the process, found the process very confusing.

  10. I agree with Terry: there used to be (back in the Pleistocene, when I got my PhD) the possibility of “accept with revisions.” When that stopped happening, I noticed a step-sized drop in the time between acceptance and publication in what were then my major journals (Am Nat, Ecology, Evolution). Someone with good bioinformatic skills could probably find the era by searching the time to publication data in a journal such as Am Nat or Ecology. It was clearly a marketing decision and I’m pretty certain that it occurred due to competition from the then new journal, “Ecology Letters”. To Michael’s credit, this journal “upped the ante” for ecology and evolution. But, as he notes in the quotation below, it also “fluffed up” the literature, letting a lot more chaff through with the wheat, which is a problem with which we are currently contending. Postponing acceptance to the final revision is one way that journals can try to conduct diligent reviews and yet still publish “fast” turn-around numbers (although, from the viewpoint of the author, the real turn-around from submission to publication is arguably not much faster than in the past).

    To support my assertion, here’s what then new editor Michael Hochberg wrote in his “INTRODUCING ECOLOGY LETTERS” in 1998:

    “Second, Ecology Letters will ensure that manuscripts are rapidly handled and accepted manuscripts quickly published. For the majority of ecological journals, first decisions on papers are on the scale of months, and the time between submitting and publishing a paper is usually more than 1 year, and sometimes closer to 2 years. These delays can be due to many factors, including getting referees to agree to analyse manuscripts and return their reports. However, much of the delay is often attributable to the inefficient functioning of the editorial office, the editorial board members, and the publisher. Manuscripts may be inactive for weeks at a time, if not months. At Ecology Letters the decision times for short articles, similar in length and content to ecological papers published in the most widely cited journals for general scientific audiences, will be 4 weeks from receipt. For longer articles, we will ensure a decision within 6 weeks. The obvious risk associated with rapid decisions is accuracy: scientific quality can only be controlled by the concerted efforts of the editorial staff and the reviewers of manuscripts. To address this problem, Ecology Letters will require at least two reports for each manuscript plus a synthesis made by one or more specialised members of the international editorial board. To make this protocol function properly, the editorial office has been organised to be highly efficient, employing specialised computer software rather than manual filing systems, and contacts by electronic mail and fax rather than conventional mail.

    In closing, there is a need for the rapid but careful handling of high impact research in the ecological sciences. Ecology Letters is committed to this challenge.”

  11. Thanks for posting this! For a young scientist who is relatively experienced with publishing, it’s easy to think that the problem lies with oneself and one’s manuscripts. It’s reassuring to hear that these changes are happening to everyone.

  12. I think it completely depends on the discipline. In the geosciences (geology, geophysics, physical geography, atmospheric sciences), “accept with minor revisions” and “accept subject to major revisions” are quite standard and prevalent, probably making up the majority of initial manuscript decisions. As an associate editor in that field, I’d say that’s the case with the vast majority of our papers- and is typical of most journals.

  13. I still believe that many/most editorial decisions/revisions would be better handled over a pot of tea/pint of beer and face-to-face. The idea of gaming the system for bibliometric purposes is, sadly, rather well known (https://labandfield.wordpress.com/2014/05/29/the-1-day-paper/).

    Though I do often wonder about how we interpret these decisions. I recall as a grad student being taken aside by my supervisor(s) and told what the decision really meant. Well why not just say it then? Or have a set of criteria (dare I say criteroa used across many/most journals in a subject area?!) for the decision “category”.

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