Theory Maybe, but No Decision

After 18 months, two weeks, and 6 days without any a decision on whether to accept Indifference, Indecision, and Coin-Flipping on the part of Theory and Decision (published by Springer-Verlag), and after the failure of the editor to tell me the actual status of the paper in the application process, I have ended the application.

As I have mentioned before, I submitted a version of this paper to them on 5 September 2009, alerting them that one of their editors was creditted in the acknowledgments. I was told that I needed to redact those acknowledgments; I submitted a version with that change on 8 September of 2009.

The paper was submitted by way of a website running software called Editorial Manager, which offers a report of the ostensible current status of each paper. Neither the publisher of this software nor Springer seem anywhere to define the respective stages, nor even to identify them, except in-so-far as, as one waits and watches, various statuses are reported.

It took a little while before the status was reported as Editor assigned, but I had been assured by a JEO Assistant on 9 September that an editor was assigned. The status was subsequently up-dated in early January of 2010, when it became Reviewers assigned. Needless to say that I was concerned that it should have taken four months just to get reviewers assigned. In any case, the status was not up-dated again until 23 March 2010, at which point it was, well, Reviewers assigned, but now with a time-stamp of 23 March, as if reviewers had withdrawn, and new reviewers had to be found.

Nothing in the report had changed as of 28 June, when I finally wrote.

Can you please provide some information on the status of "Indifference, Indecision, and Coin-Flipping" (THEO789), submitted to Theory and Decision?

The manuscript was submitted on 8 Sep 2009. Since early January, the status reported at Editorial Manager has been "Reviewers Assigned", although the time-stamp of the status was changed in late Narch [sic, *facepalm*].
I received a reply on 29 June from the JEO Assistant.
We apologize for the delay in the processing of your paper.

There seems to be some difficulties in finding potential reviewers. However, I have forwarded your mail to Editor.
I did not receive anything from the essentially unidentified Editor. In any case, it seemed that Reviewers assigned meant something other than that reviewers had been assigned; rather, it could mean something such as that reviewers were being sought. And, 9 months after my paper had been submitted, it still didn't have any.

At the first anniversary of the submission, the status still read Reviewers Assigned (with, however, no further changes in the time-stamp); so, on 9 September I wrote

Could you please provide some information on the status of "Indifference, Indecision, and Coin-Flipping" (THEO789), submitted to Theory and Decision?

The manuscript was official submitted on 8 September 2009.
The JEO Assistant promptly replied
We apologize for the delay in the processing of your paper. Your manuscript has been sent out for review and I have forwarded your mail to him.

You will be notified once the decision has been taken.
So, apparently, Reviewers assigned could mean that reviewers were sought, or that they'd indeed been appointed; and it seemed that now my paper actually had them, though it wasn't clear when it got them between 29 June and 9 September. I went back to waiting.

On 15 November, the status reported by Editorial Manager was changed to Under review. So it would seem that a paper could be sent out for review, yet it would take another month-and-some-days before it would actually be under review. Or something. Evidently, the status labels are names, not descriptions; without a special dictionary, they tell one nothing.

I discovered that John Turri, commenting at a 'blog of Brian Leiter, reconstructed the labels of the Editorial Manager statuses as

  1. New submission
  2. Editor assigned
  3. Reviewers assigned
  4. Under review
  5. Reviews complete
  6. Editor has a decision

Anyway, as of 21 March of this year, the status was still reported as Under review. So I wrote

This article has been in your hands for over 18 months. While that is not a record, it is none-the-less a rather dire length of time.

For more than four months, Editorial Manager has labelled the article as "Under review". Whatever one may say for or against this paper, it does not take such time to actively read, digest, and critique. I would like to know what "Under review" actually indicates and, more importantly, what the actual status of this paper is.

I fear that I have simply wasted considerable time having submitted this paper to Springer Verlag, and that I should look for a publisher who might actually want to publish it.
and I received a reply on 21 March.
We apologize for the delay caused.

I have forwarded your inquiry to the editor and will let you know once I hear from him.
Now, that word caused gives me pause. If there'd been some assertion about causation, the caused would be fairly natural. As it is, that's just a bald caused, as if there'd been some concern that the delay might be uncaused — ex nihilo, as it were; but I don't think that they're trying to preëmpt metaphysical concerns on my part. That use of caused may be an attempt to allude to the period of time, never exactly identified for me, when potential reviewers were fleeing into the wilderness, but it could be that I'm looking at wording that has been imperfectly recycled.

The Editor hadn't bothered to contact me as of 23 March (and the reported status was unchanged), so I wrote

Given the history here, I have little expectation of receiving an adequate response from the editor or from anyone else at Springer Verlag before I yank my article from submission.
The reply on 24 March was
We apologize for the delay caused.

I have forwarded your inquiry to the editor and will let you know once I hear from him.
and, yeah, that's verbatim what I was told on 21 March. Recycled.

I could speculate about what the Hell has been and is happening at Theory and Decision, but it would just be speculation. I don't know whether I've been confronted with incompetence, indifference, malevolence, or some combination of two or of three of these; or if everybody's grandparents and uncles keep dying. (I'm pretty sure that one person over at Springer is mostly just helpless in the face of what others are doing, or choosing not to do.) But it's toxically infra dignitatem to continue to endure this situation. If the Editor were to have contacted me, to identify bottle-necks and sticking points, and to offer some reason to expect that the end result wouldn't just be rejection based upon a sloppy, last-minute reading of my paper, then it would be a different story.

So I've written to them

The offer of this paper to Theory and Decision is ended, as more than eighteen and a half months have been allowed to lapse without a decision, and the reluctance to keep me informed has now descended to a refusal to answer queries at all.

Whatever your superiors might direct notwithstanding, please none-the-less spare me any boiler-plate or otherwise vaguely insulting expression of regret.

I'll need to find another journal to which to submit the paper; I fear that this will be difficult. When other journals rejected the paper and gave reason (as did all but one), it was always that the paper was not appropriate to a readership as general as theirs; so I'd need to find a journal that can tolerate what is, for economics, very formal mathematics, concerned with what many readers would mistake for impractical refinement.

I've made or will make a few changes as well. I've modified the formulæ so that braces are only used to bound the definitions of sets, and angle-brackets are only used to hold the elements of lotteries; I'm hoping that these two changes help the reader. I've abandoned the use of partial ordering and, where I quote Savage using it, explained that the term incomplete preordering would now be more typical. I've corrected a spelling error in the acknowledgments. I have gone back and forth on whether to use a which or a that for a particular clause in a foot-note. I may perhaps include a brief commentary, essentially reïterating points about it made in this 'blog, on a paper by Eliaz and Ok.

Up-Date (2011:04/18): I have posted a continuation (and presumed completion) of the tale of these communications with Springer concerning this paper.

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4 Responses to Theory Maybe, but No Decision

  • the apocolyte says:

    The irony of a publication calling itself "Theory And Decision" failing to pull the trigger on what I can no doubt imagine is an incredibly well thought-out and skillfully written paper that fits perfectly within their criteria is ludicrous. Shameful! An insult! That they cannot offer a more precise explanation for their apathetic procrastination is doubly disgraceful.

    I have made the 'decision' to provide here two 'theories' regarding this indictment of their incompetence:

    1)your submission was theoretically beyond their intellectual comprehension, leaving them no choice but to stall any decision and hide behind the veil of pompous superiority and vaguely worded responses to your queries
    2)they are a bunch of slack-jawed weenies

    Keep in mind that I am merely an observer and a layman, yet I stand by my theories. I wish you well finding a venue worthy of your submissions.

    • Daniel says:

      I don't think that most people outside of academia have a good handle on the issue of peer review, and the challenges that it presents.

      Peer review is an attempt to address the underlying problem of ensuring that publications have merit. The idea is to have one or more (typically two) persons who are established as experts judge the work as to whether it is of sufficient merit to publish; those persons may do other things, but their most basic function in the rôle of reviewer is to assess merit. Their names are concealed from the author, on the theory that they will thus feel free to offer more honest assessments.

      In the case of my paper, the apparent underlying problem for Springer-Verlag has been in finding reviewers, and keeping them as such. Yet simply publishing my paper without review would not be in their interest — nor would their doing so be in mine. From the perspective of Springer-Verlag, there would be a problem of quality control (being assured that the work has merit), of delivering to their customers what has been implicitly promised (work that has been peer-reviewed, regardless of what Springer might conclude about its worth), and of maintaining the implicit reputation of an ability indeed to get papers peer-reviewed (as opposed to admitting defeat). From my perspective, having the paper published without peer review would rob it of much of its force. Those who actively wanted to dismiss the paper would wave it away as never having passed peer review.

      But I have to say apparent, because Springer-Verlag has not been good about communicating with me. Something has gone very wrong, and it seems to be that potential reviewers are disqualifying themselves, but the JEO Assistant apparently doesn't know. The editor specifically assigned to the paper (and I think that there has only been one) has not communicated directly with me, and seems to have avoided communicating with the JEO Assistant. The editor more generally responsible for the journal (presumably not the editor specifically assigned to the paper) also has not communicated with me.

      There may be problems here such that it would be difficult or impracticable to design a system that would handle them well. But, be that as it may, their present system seems to have been completely unprepared for whatever it was that happened in the case of my paper.

  • alejandro says:

    Hi,

    It is terrible to read the story you report, especially for all the via cruces you had to pass. Unfortunately, I certainly believe that I am experiencing the same situation. I submitted a manuscript for peer-review to a Springer-Verlag journal which claims to respond in an average of 46 days (in the area of signals and communications). Nonetheless, 9 months had passed and the status on Editorial Manager is: "Reviewers Assigned". It changed to "Under review" last week, but after 5 days, turned again to "Reviewers Assigned".

    I tried to contact the editor in chief 5 months after the submission date, but I never received a response to the correspondence sent. The only response received was from the Journal Editorial Office, basically stating that the manuscript is being reviewed and as soon as they have a decision I would be notified. I feel very frustrated since from my point of view, nine months is too much for reviewing a manuscript or finding a reviewer.

    • Daniel says:

      Unfortunately, I have yet to learn any practical methods for dealing with situations of this sort other than [1] waiting and [2] pulling one's submission.

      For many people, and I am amongst them, experiences of this sort are very hurtful; I hope that you are able to endure. In my case, my paper was ultimately published in a different journal, arguably of better reputation.

      I would completely agree that nine months is unconscionably long for a journal to remain mute other than sending boilerplate in response to queries; but I don't automatically agree that nine months is too long to produce a review. If your work is truly extraordinary, then finding a competent reviewer would perhaps be quite hard, and a competent reviewer might need an unusual amount of time to pore over your manuscript. My guess, given the delay, is that your paper is not mediocre. 😉

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