Elizabeth Loder: The journal that never sleeps 

Elizabeth Loder explains why decision letters from The BMJ often arrive quickly and at odd hours

elizabeth_loderMost people like to get good news right away, but what about bad news? If someone is going to reject or disappoint you, would you rather they did it immediately or softened the blow by stretching things out? And if you prefer to get bad news sooner rather than later, is there such a thing as too soon?

The BMJ‘s research editors have been working hard to speed up our processes and improve our service to authors. The most common “service” we provide, though, is a rejection letter. We receive thousands of research papers each year and are able to publish only a few hundred. In many cases we know almost immediately that a paper is not right for the journal. For example, The BMJ does not publish animal studies, early phase clinical trials, or studies without any health related outcomes. We also rarely publish small survey studies or single site quality improvement studies, among other things. These papers have no realistic chance of making it into the journal, and they are rejected without additional editorial or peer review. We aim to do this rapidly so that authors will not be delayed in submitting their work elsewhere.

Therein lies an editor’s dilemma. Is it possible to be too fast? It’s reasonable to think that authors, who have put considerable work into a paper, might be affronted if they receive a rejection letter within an hour or so of submission. We have to reject many papers, but we aim to do so as kindly as possible. We have always worried that a speedy rejection will seem particularly insulting.

But my email tells me that we’re wrong. Most authors prefer a rapid decision, even if it is not the one they wanted. How do I know this? Decision letters are sent to the corresponding author, but all co-authors are copied in. Someone usually forgets who sent the original email and hits “reply all,” thus including the handling editor in the ensuing chain of comments. The subsequent discussions are, for the most part, candid and practical. Many authors express anger or sadness about the decision, but in almost every case they seem grateful that at least we haven’t also wasted their time. A handful of sample comments: “That’s a shame. But they haven’t sat on it for ages before giving us a decision.” “We always knew it was entering a lottery but, as predicted, you received a rapid answer and can move on.” “They have been fast . . . that is the good thing.” “BMJ’s response in 30 hours: at least, we’re not expecting too much!”

There are limits, though, to what authors will put up with. Rapidity doesn’t bother them, but timing might. Decision letters that arrive on weekends, holidays, or in the middle of the night are especially likely to provoke indignation. My theory is that authors imagine a sleepy editor who isn’t giving their paper the attention it deserves. The reality is that The BMJ is an international journal with research editors in China, Croatia, Portugal, the United States, Austria, and the UK. Thus, it’s a fair bet that a decision letter arriving in the middle of the night was sent by an editor in another part of the world.

Such was the case a few weeks ago, when I awoke on a Saturday morning to a “reply all” discussion among the European authors of a paper I had rejected on Friday. “Sadly enough,” opined one of the authors, “I suspect that the editors haven’t read our manuscript, or a robot did it between 6 pm and 4 am.” Nope. Not a robot. It was me, working in the United States on a Friday evening. You might be snoozing but somewhere, even on weekends and holidays, a BMJ research editor is hard at work.

Elizabeth Loder is head of research, The BMJ.