Does the Squeaky Wheel Deserve the Grease?

Does the squeaky wheel get the grease? And is that necessarily wrong?

For me, the manuscript submission and review process usually goes like this:
(1) submit paper
(2) wait
(3) obsessively check the journal’s website for progress reports
(4) receive rejection letter from journal editor
(5) sulk for a couple of days/weeks
(6) start to think about an alternate journal for the manuscript
(7) repeat cycle.

But more recently, I’ve heard stories from several people in which a manuscript submission takes a slightly different route.
After (4), it goes:
(5a) write concerned letter to editor disputing rejection
(6a) await additional review
(7a) receive acceptance letter from editor.

During the anger/depression phase of (5), I’ve thought about arguing with the editor many times, but I’ve never done it, so I have no personal experience with this. Mostly I don’t want to look like a whiner or annoy the editor so much that they are inclined to reject my next paper! Yet anecdotal evidence from others suggests that arguing a decision is a viable strategy, or even a standard practice by some PIs.

My first reaction to this was negative; this is just another example of favoritism, nepotism, and an old boys’ club in ecology, and the squeaky wheel getting the grease. I suspect that this is most people’s first reaction, and natural when you find out that somebody else’s paper was accepted while yours was rejected. Many would probably agree that this is not the way the peer-review system was meant to work.

However, recently I’ve been wondering whether there are positive aspects to this. Sometimes that squeaky wheel is a symptom of a real problem and it benefits the whole cart to grease that wheel. To some extent, arguing your case to the editor might select for those scientists whom are able to successfully demonstrate the merits of their manuscript. Clear communication skills are obviously a big part of success in science, so maybe this is another way this trait is favored? Also, the peer review system doesn’t work like it used to. Many journals are now rejecting well over 50% of submissions at the editorial stage, before they even go out for review. This means that a single person’s view is more important than it used to be. That means there’s a greater chance of Type II error—mistakenly rejecting a good paper.

On the other hand, I’m not sure it’s wise to select against those whom are less aggressive or not a big personality. The anecdotes I’ve heard all concern reasonably well-known white male PIs. Does this practice discriminate against underrepresented groups? Against women? Against graduate student or post-docs?

Another benefit might be a reduction in the burden on the peer-review process. A paper reviewed at Journal A already has two reviews and an editor’s comments. Resubmitting to Journal B requires two more reviewers and a new editor. But resubmitting to Journal A probably only requires a little more work by the editor and possibly one more reviewer. So maybe this strategy reduces the ever-increasing problem of not having enough reviewers for the number of manuscripts that are submitted.

There’s also an argument to be made that arguing with the reviewer improves the science. Sometimes reviewers/editors are wrong. More often than not, I’d say their comments are legitimate concerns, even though we don’t necessarily think that on the first read through the reviews. In cases where the reviewer is legitimately wrong about their criticism, I think arguing the point with the editor isn’t such a bad idea. However, I’d also say that this is probably an exception, rather than the rule. I think it worth arguing more in a case where the editor’s decision completely hinges on that single point, but that is also probably an exceptional case.

So what’s your opinion about this? Is arguing a rejection decision good or bad for the field? Have you ever argued with an editor about their decision? Looking back, do you think it was a good decision? Editors: do you have a policy on reconsidering rejected manuscripts?

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