Written by Brandy Pasquino
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Thursday, 17 July 2014

image for Don't be so repetitive chief, sorry, Mr. Editor-in-Chief Make the letter personal, Mr. Editor-in-Chief

A book by Thaler and Sunstein titled "Nudge" proposed the following solution to the problem of sending angry e-mails, which are often followed by regret: software that cautions you against sending it by saying "warning: this appears to be an uncivil email. do you really and truly want to send it?" A stronger version of this software might also require a user to enter a password to send the seemingly angry e-mail, which may help people who are on the margin between sending it and not to decide whether the e-mail is appropriate for the intended recipient.

How many of you have received a "rejection letter" from an academic journal, employer, magazine, or newspaper that sound all too familiar? For example, "desk rejections" are decisions made by editors to reject a paper submission to a journal without going through the peer review process. This occurs, in part, because competition for journal space has increased over time, forcing editors to make tough decisions. Sometimes these decisions are based on "gut feelings" or "knee-jerk reactions", and they are meant to save scholars the time of waiting many months before receiving a likely rejection from referees.

One problem, however, is that a comparison of rejection e-mails will often reveal very similar language, as if editors have templates that they use to save time. Common phrases used in rejection letters include "not quite right for this publication" or "it doesn't quite reach the level of the journal". In an interview with a scholar who asked to remain anonymous and who has had a tremendously difficult time publishing his work, we learned that scholars would prefer that they say "nah, thanks though!" We were surprised to hear that generic letters give the impression that editors do not take the time to think carefully about the manuscript at hand, which is apparently very discouraging for a scholar who receives an e-mail that has been sent in a slightly different form to thousands of other scholars.

This may simply be a problem of "path dependency" or that editors and literary agents stick to the rubric that they decided upon when they first thought seriously about how to respond to a certain type of submission. Building on Thaler and Sunstein's "civility check", a "repetitive language check" has recently been proposed by experts. This check would involve a manuscript management system that reminds editors of the number of times they previously sent scholars rejection e-mails with similar language. Our anonymous interviewee says that "a small amount of creativity on the part of the editor would do wonders in terms of the confidence of paper submitters." Again, a very shocking revelation.

How might this software achieve the goal of inducing creative writing? Software correspondent, Jeff Libel offers three solutions. First, a response that is deemed to be repetitive based on previous replies could be automatically deleted. This would allow the editor to reconsider his language and start the letter from scratch. Second, cut and paste functionality could be made unavailable for editors who are considered "repeat offenders", which would limit their ability to use language from previous letters for the next letter they write. Third, an editor who bypasses the built-in message warning against sending repetitive e-mails could be automatically logged out of the manuscript management system without notice after, say, 5 offenses. All of these "checks" would, perhaps, help "balance" the time it takes to write a creative letter against writing a repetitive one.

At press time, we learned that the journal Science has instituted a different policy to prevent repetitive rejection letters being sent to paper submitters: it hires a new editor after a decision is made on every manuscript.

The story above is a satire or parody. It is entirely fictitious.

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