August 13, 2020

Open letter of thanks to Associate Editors

The following is a letter addressing Associate Editors at The American Naturalist, but which may be of interest to readers and authors as well.

Dear Associate Editors,


As I pass the two and a half year mark as Editor In Chief of The American Naturalist, I realized I have not done something long over due: saying thank you. The  success of this journal is a reflection of your efforts:  helping to encourage people to submit interesting work that you hear of (whether in person, at conferences, seminar visits, on BioRXiv, etc), choosing effective reviewers, and providing your own extensive insights into papers.  I routinely hear praise from authors about the review experience at The American Naturalist: both the depth that we go to and the constructive thoughtful and supportive tone. Your Associate Editor recommendation letters are frequently longer and more insightful than the reviews themselves, and that leaves an excellent impression on authors. You show great thoughtfulness in crafting responses, rather than just rubber stamping the reviews you form your own opinions, sometimes disagreeing with reviews and setting aside mistaken concerns, sometimes forming your own objections that go beyond what the reviewers noticed.   Authors appreciate this. I have often (as recently as days ago) heard comments like “I had the best rejection experience ever at AmNat”. Even if we do not choose to publish a paper, we give feedback that improves the authors’ chances elsewhere. I have not infrequently seen papers we declined that ended up in Evolution, Ecology, Ecology Letters, and I like to think the quality of our reviews and letters give authors a step up to get their paper into the best possible destination whether it is in our journal or not.  All this effort takes work that is rarely rewarded with a ’thank you’.  So here I am today, to say THANK YOU from the bottom of my heart. I value your efforts every single day, with every single paper that crosses my desk. I am often in awe of your insights and care, and frequently thankful that you have done a thorough enough job that I can more readily reach a decision. You work so hard for the journal, as volunteers, and this service cannot be underestimated. I am well aware of what effort that takes you often, and how you must balance this with many other demands on your time and attention. So, thank you and please keep up the great work.


I want to remind you all that, in return for your excellent work, if there is ever anything I or the other Editors can do, please let us know. We do sometimes have brief conversations with some of you about tricky decisions, by Zoom or email or other, and please do know that we are here to help you do your great job for the journal.


For me, one of the harder elements of this job is knowing when to nag you all about decision times. Please forgive my occasional nagging emails about particular papers. The Editorial Manager system auto-generates emails to remind you of when there are papers sitting unattended (from the software’s point of view). About a year ago I began chiming in when I saw papers that were on your desk for longer than about 10 days. Those nagging emails, while annoying for you to receive I do not doubt, did seem to help bring the time to first decision down a bit. Remember, we aspire to choose reviewers in ~5 days or so (preferably less) and we aspire to get recommendations from you within a week to 10 days at the outside of receiving reviews. Of course, COVID has upended all that. Some  of us have lost family members, been sick, stressed, your attention drawn to more important epidemiological pursuits for your governments, or attention appropriately diverted to homeschooling kids over the spring and child care over the summer without summer camps. I’m right there with you, and fully sympathetic. I let my threshold for nagging emails slide to about the three week mark.  Since COVID shows no sign of letting up, I’m going to keep it there for now. I’d still much prefer (in service of authors) that papers sit on AE desks for less than a week going out to review, and less than a week coming back from review. But I would also much prefer that COVID ‘magically go away’; since that is clearly not rational, I’ll just treat this as a generic reminder to keep in mind the impatience and nervousness of a graduate student or postdoc author who sees the paper is back from review and is waiting, with baited breath, for a decision that may impact their CV while applying for the next stages of their career. I fundamentally cannot balance everyone’s need here: your need for the time to do a good and thorough job (as a volunteer) while many other demands on your time exist, against authors’ needs for an answer. So, please consider this paragraph an apology for my continued nagging on slow papers; that’s my job. Your job is to take the time you need to give the thorough thoughtful and constructive comments that give this journal its good reputation for thorough (but slow) review and high quality papers. So, never feel you need to reply, explain, or apologize if you get an email from me, and please forgive me for the nagging, as I just try to find the right balance between respecting your time, and serving authors.


Lastly, some news:


Russell Bonduriansky, who has been a co-Editor for nearly three years, will be ending his service to the journal in the coming months, and will be replaced by Erol Ak├žay. Russell was an Associate Editor for over a half decade before becoming a member of the trio of Editors. He will be greatly missed.


An even greater tectonic shift is approaching: Trish Morse, our guiding light, our institutional memory, is retiring this fall (October 30). We have all come to view Trish as the bedrock on which the journal operates. We will be working to make the transition as seamless as possible and I have full faith we will move ahead in good order. Owen Cook will continue in his present role and knows the inner workings of the journal to keep us running very well. That said, please join me in thanking Trish for her two decades of incredible support and leadership. The journal would not have been the same without her, and her thoughtfulness and kindness are inspirations to us all. Trish, THANK YOU.   As a token of our gratitude, the former Editors and I gave Trish a gift: original copies of the first four Volumes of The American Naturalist, 1867-1870 (photos attached).


Again, thank you all for your help and devotion to the journal,


Best wishes,


Dan Bolnick

Editor-In-Chief, The American Naturalist


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