The question in the title does not refer to any of my own papers; rather, I want to *answer* the question from the perspective of an editor. Here, roughly, is how the sausage is made (this is a medium case scenario, your mileage may vary). Keep in mind that this is a journal which has relatively good standards (for number theorists, we are talking somewhere between JNT and Duke).
Day 0: After carefully selecting a suitable journal and performing a final check on your paper for typographical errors, you submit your precious baby to the whims of fate.
Day 20(?): The paper works its way though the editorial system and is assigned to me as an editor.
Day 40: I have had a chance to take a look at the paper and determine whether it is obviously rubbish or not. Moreover, I have identified someone (usually at the level of professor) whom I trust to give an honest opinion of both how interesting the paper is and whether it is suitable for the journal in question. I email that person asking for a quick opinion and any suggestions they may have for possible reviewers.
Day 60: I email the expert again because they have not yet responded to my original request. Often, at this point, the expert will say that they are not qualified to give an opinion, and I return to the previous step.
Day 80: The expert has usually found time to respond, often to suggest another expert to consult (go back two spaces).
Day 100: I have a response from the expert. If they are only lukewarm, I reject the paper. So far, 80% of papers have now been rejected. Measured by the “standards of the industry,” I think that rejecting papers within about 3 months is acceptable to good. If the expert is enthusiastic, they either agree to referee the paper themselves or suggest someone else (often someone younger) to to the job. I then send out a detailed review request, either to the person suggested by the expert or to someone else.
Day 120: I email a different reviewer, because the first review declines for one of the standard excuses (busy/not qualified/lazy and so makes up something about not liking commercial publishers). I email someone else.
Day 130: They agree to review! I give them three months.
Day 230: I email the reviewer to follow up on my previous email. They start reviewing the paper.
Day 250: The paper is accepted. 25% of the time, the comments consist of minor typographical remarks. 50% of the time, there are a few requests for clarification, references, and corrections of minor inaccuracies. 25% of the time, there are substantial comments and corrections. In the majority of cases, the referees do a conscientious job (some papers don’t need many corrections!)
Some General Remarks:.
- Of all the papers I have edited, a small number (at most 2 or 3) have ultimately been rejected because of a fatal mathematical error (i.e., the paper would have been accepted if it had turned out to be correct). In all of those cases, I was the one who found the error.
- I end up rejecting quite a few papers because there is a fixed number of pages I can accept per year. I would anticipate doubling the number of acceptances if there were no such constraint.
- Sometimes papers do fall through the cracks. It can be very hard to find a reviewer for a very technical paper, especially one that builds off previous technical work of the author. Can one reject a paper on the basis that you couldn’t find anyone to review it? I honestly think we may be heading in that direction.
- The main task of the editor is not summary judgement, but administration. It’s not enough to email someone (say, a reviewer) and then consider one’s job done; you have to keep track of when you emailed them, so you know when to email them again (or someone else) if (or frequently when) they don’t respond. (I admit, I’m by no means perfect as a reviewer, either.)
- Any online system set up to coordinate and facilitate communication with authors/editors is more annoying than useful; I work off the grid as much as possible.
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