Advice for Associate Editors
Thank you for agreeing to serve as an Associate Editor for the IEEE Transactions on Information Theory. While selection as Associate Editor may be seen as a recognition of the high esteem in which you are held by your peers, please note that the position is not merely honorary—there is a lot of work to be done! Our readers are counting upon you to exercise your best judgement, based on your extensive technical expertise, to assist authors in improving the quality of their submitted papers so that the high standard expected of papers published in the Transactions is reached. Your job is a difficult one: you will coordinate the review process for a large number of papers, and for each paper you will be the main point-of-contact for authors, reviewers, the Executive Editor and the Editor-in-Chief. The position, though voluntary, is time-consuming: be prepared to spend many hours reading papers, reading emails, chasing reviewers, and writing careful assessments and responses. You can expect to spend about 6 to 8 hours per week on Associate Editorial tasks, though naturally the load will be time-varying, and you will become more efficient as you gain experience.
In coordinating the review process for each paper assigned to you by the Executive Editor, your main loyalty must be to the reader of the Transactions. As noted in the Information for Reviewers, the suitability of a paper for publication must be assessed based on three criteria (two of them objective and one subjective), which, loosely speaking, can be phrased as follows: is the paper new?; correct?; interesting?
Novelty and correctness are obvious attributes that any newly published paper must possess. Novelty is a measure of the results and ideas of the paper: a paper can be considered novel if it contains a new result (even if the result flows from the application of well-known techniques) or if it contains a new idea (even if the idea merely reveals a simpler way to understand an old result).
The third question—is the paper interesting?—requires judgement and familiarity with the community served by the Transactions. The question might also be phrased as “does it matter?” or “will it make a difference?” or “is it useful?” Of course this is a subjective criterion (after all, what is interesting to one person may not be interesting to another); what is intended by this question is whether or not the paper, if published, will serve the needs of the readership of the Transactions. The information for authors states that
“novelty alone does not assure publication; the significance of a paper and its usefulness to this Transactions' readership will also be assessed.”
For example, a paper with new and correct results that are, however, purely of mathematical interest, without any engineering provenance or significance, may be deemed outside the scope of this Transactions, and the authors re-directed to a suitable Mathematics journal. On the other hand, a paper that advances a well-recognized mathematical problem initially motivated by Information Theory and studied by members of our community, would certainly be deemed interesting.
When a paper does satisfy the three central criteria, a final measure that must be assessed is that of length: is the length of the paper commensurate with the contribution that it makes? The Transactions imposes no page limits, and papers can range in length from 2 or 3 pages to more than 20. Short well-focused papers that make an important point briefly are certainly acceptable, and should not be lengthened unnecessarily. Authors should be discouraged from padding their papers by adding superfluous examples or excessively many simulation plots.
As an Associate Editor, you also have specific responsibilities towards the authors. You must strive to:
- provide unbiased feedback in a timely manner, giving comments and making decisions that are supported by a suitable rationale;
- respond promptly and politely to author queries;
- avoid personal comments or criticism;
- maintain confidentiality of the content of the paper, and avoid using confidential information for your own purposes or for the advantage of others.
While fairness is of paramount concern in dealing with authors, please do note the emphasis on timeliness and civility: a lack of responsiveness, or providing responses which are curt or perfunctory, invariably lead to author complaints to the EiC, who must then intervene. The cumulative load of such interventions detracts unnecessarily from useful EiC functions.
In interacting with reviewers, you have a duty to:
- preserve the anonymity of the reviewers;
- preserve the integrity of the review process by communicating the reviewers' comments to the authors without editing them;
- refrain from always asking a particular reviewer to provide comments on papers from a particular group of authors.
Associate Editors also have specific responsibilities towards the Editor-in-Chief and Executive Editor. AEs must:
- alert the RE and EiC promptly about possible conflicts of interest;
- notify the RE and EiC promptly if circumstances arise that make it impossible to complete the handling of the paper in a timely manner;
- inform the RE and EiC of any festering disagreement with authors;
- notify the RE and EiC promptly with any ethical concerns.
As of 2021, the IEEE Transactions on Information Theory receives approximately 100 submissions per month. Submissions occur online via the ScholarOne Manuscripts (S1M) web site. A small number of submissions are out-of-scope, and will be rejected immediately by the Area Editor (RE). Taking into account the subject of the paper and the current load of each AE, the remaining papers are assigned by the RE to an Associate Editor for handling. Each AE will end up being assigned about 2 to 3 papers per month, though these numbers may fluctuate from month to month and may be larger near the beginning of your term. You may occasionally be assigned a paper that is not directly within your main area of expertise, but usually not so far away that you are not able to identify appropriate referees for the paper. If it happens that you are assigned a paper that you cannot or wish not to handle, please alert the RE immediately so that the paper can be re-assigned promptly.
The Paper is Assigned
You will be notified by an email from the RE, sent via S1M, whenever a paper is assigned to you. Each paper is assigned a unique identifier of the form IT-YY-NNNN[.Rr], where YY identifies the year of submission, NNNN is a number that increments by one for each manuscript received, and [.Rr] is a suffix, not present on the original submission, that identifies the revision number, i.e., .R1 for the first revision, .R2 for the second revision, and so on. Normally all steps of the paper-handling process, including all official correspondence with the authors and with reviewers, should be conducted via S1M. Each action (assignment to an AE, inviting a reviewer, sending an email, changing the status of a paper) is carefully recorded by S1M in the audit trail associated with the paper. This audit trail is accessible, for the papers assigned to you, through your S1M Associate Editor Center. Please note that email communications made outside of the S1M system can always be added to the official record by “cutting-and-pasting”; if needed, the Transactions Administrative Assistant can assist with this.
Although the paper-assignment letters are derived from a standard template (and all look much the same) please read each one carefully, as often the RE will have included possible comments on the quality or contribution the paper, or will have included suggestions for possible reviewers. (Should you accidentally delete the email, don't worry: you can always recover it from the audit trail.)
When a paper is assigned, after carefully noting any comments from the RE in the assignment letter, your first step is to read through the paper. In this initial scan of the paper, you should not attempt to read the paper carefully for correctness, but just read it to get a sense of the scope of the results. You should examine the list of references to see which previous papers are being cited. The journals and conferences cited serve as an indicator of the readership that the paper addresses and as a measure of the degree to which the paper fits the Transactions (or, possibly, a different journal). You should also check to see whether the authors have included a cover letter or any other supplementary material, and read through this material, if present. Although cover letters are not always present, it is expected that authors will provide such a letter in case the paper is a revision of a previous submission. Indeed, inclusion of such a letter is mandatory if the paper is a resubmission of one previously rejected by the Transactions. Such a letter should indicate, in detail, the manner of revision, or, in the latter case, how the issues that led to the rejection of the previous manuscript have been addressed. In the case of resubmission, failure to include such a letter can be the sole reason for immediate rejection, and in some circumstances might even lead to a publication ban.
After your initial reading of the paper, you may decide to take one of three actions:
- Inform the RE that you are unable to handle the paper because of a conflict of interest, or because the paper is too far outside the domain of your expertise.
- Execute a “fast rejection”, because the paper clearly does not meet the high standards of the Transactions (for example, it could be poorly written, out-of-scope, unlikely to interest the Transactions' readership, or present a trivial or well-known result). More on fast rejections below.
- Send the paper out for review. This is the normal course of action.
The IEEE Publication Services and Products Board Operations Manual states, in Section 8.8.2.A.3, that an article may be “prescreened,” i.e., immediately rejected, when the authors have (a) not followed IEEE guidelines for style, (b) have not adhered to IEEE policies, (c) have submitted an incomprehensible article, (d) have submitted an article whose subject and contents do not meet the scope of the journal, or (e) have submitted an article that does not meet the minimum criterion for technical substance established for the periodical. Rejection under criterion (e) requires concurrence of the EiC and at least two other members of the editorial board. Thus, under these rules, a fast rejection under criterion (e) can occur with the concurrence of three individuals: for the IT Transactions, these are normally the EiC, the RE, and the AE handling the paper.
To execute a fast rejection, the AE carefully reads the paper again, and writes a thorough draft rationale explaining the reasons for rejection. The AE sends the draft rationale to both the EiC and the RE for comments and concurrence. The EiC and RE also read the paper and provide comments on the rationale. Only when all three individuals agree that indeed a fast rejection is appropriate, can the paper then be rejected by the AE without sending it out for further review. The letter to the authors must mention that the EiC and the RE do both concur with the decision. Should there be disagreement about the fast-rejection decision, the paper must be sent out for review following the usual procedures.
Fast rejections should normally be executed within 10 business days of receiving the paper assignment.
Apart from communicating editorial decisions, reviewer selection is probably the most important task of an Associate Editor. A misstep here will lead to delays, frustration, and author complaints. It is therefore advisable to think carefully about whom to invite. The ideal reviewer is probably somebody currently active in the given area, who is up to date on recent developments, and who will read the paper in depth, providing detailed suggestions for improvement. It is often useful to invite a mixture of senior and junior referees. Senior reviewers are able to provide broad perspectives and insight and often can make helpful connections to related areas. More junior referees, particularly those who are actively working on the topic, will be able to provide detailed comments about the contributions of the paper. Outstanding senior doctoral students working on a given topic can and should be selected as reviewers, but it would be unwise to rely solely on student reviewers for any given paper. Many potential reviewers will already have a history of reviewing for the Transactions; through S1M, AEs can see which papers each reviewer has reviewed in the past, which can be helpful to get a sense of the reviewer's load and responsiveness.
The IEEE Publication Services and Products Board Operations Manual states, in Section 8.8.2.A.4, that for all scientific articles submitted (excluding those that are prescreened), the AE shall select at least two referees who are competent and have experience in the area of the subject matter of the article. Thus, a minimum of two independent reviews are required for each article. Usually, though, three (and, in rare cases, four) reviews are obtained.
The process of reviewer selection in S1M is quite straightforward. There are three stages: select (create a list of reviewers whom you would like to invite), invite (actually send out letters of invitation), and assign (the reviewer is assigned to the paper only upon the reviewers' agreement to take on the review; this happens automatically). You will find papers in their various states in the “Associate Editor Lists” section of your AE Center: the dashboard will provide summary numbers of how many papers have a certain status.
Ordinarily, AEs should refrain from soliciting “informal reviews”; all reviews for a paper should follow the formal procedure outlined above. Occasionally, however, it may be useful to supplement the formal reviews with a quick and informal expert review targeting a specific aspect of the paper, or providing a broad perspective, particularly if such viewpoints are lacking in the formal reviews. Some reviewers will not respond quickly to requests, in which case some follow-up may be needed. Three business days is a normal period to allow for a response. If a reviewer who agreed to volunteer their time is no longer available or responsive, please feel free to reach out to a new reviewer.
Reviewer assignments (i.e., the complete select, invite, and assign process for at least three reviewers) should normally be completed within 10 business days of receiving the paper.
Awaiting Reviewer Scores
Reviewers are normally asked to submit their comments within 60 (calendar) days in which to carry out a first review. Some reviewers will ask for a longer period of time; if the request is reasonable, please grant it. Otherwise, please invite a different reviewer instead.
S1M will automatically send reminders to reviewers on your behalf (three days before the reminder, S1M will inform you of this, and you have the option not to send the reminder). Despite such reminders, you will certainly encounter situations where some reviewers have not uploaded a review prior to the deadline; in this case the paper will enter the “Overdue Reviewer Scores” status. Although a brief grace period can probably be granted, you should certainly follow up with the reviewers if you have not heard back from them within five business days of the missed review deadline. If the reviewer does not communicate, promptly invite another reviewer or move on to making an editorial decision. Should the promised review materialize eventually, it can be forwarded to the author at a later date. If you receive a perfunctory review, you might ask the reviewer to provide more detailed comments on a particular aspect of the paper, or simply invite yet another reviewer. Occasionally, you may need to call in a favor for a quick review from a trusted colleague, or, as a last resort, after consulting with the RE and EiC, assign the paper to yourself. Ordinarily, reviews are passed unedited to the authors; however, in rare cases—for example if you find that the review contains inflammatory language—you may wish to ask the reviewer to amend the review.
Associated with each paper on S1M is a selectable value “# reviews required to make decision”: once this number of reviews has been received, the paper enters the “Awaiting AE Decision” status. Should you give up on waiting for a long-promised review, you may decrease this value, but ideally it should not drop below 2. You should strive to make an editorial decision within five business days of receiving the last review.
When handling a paper, you are the executive; the role of the reviewers is solely advisory. In particular, the editorial process is not democratic; reviewers do not get votes. You must weigh the input you receive, as you see fit, to arrive at an appropriate editorial decision. You should refrain from becoming a relay in a channel between the authors and reviewers, and you should not necessarily feel compelled to align yourself with the majority opinion.
Note that it will be impossible to read each paper under your purview at the same depth as a reviewer—you simply won't have enough time. Thus, to a certain extent you must rely on reviewers whose opinion you trust. You should certainly read the paper carefully enough to be able to defend your eventual decision, particularly in cases where there are conflicting reviews. You may find that you have concerns about a paper that are not reflected in any of the reviews; you can and should express these concerns in your decision letter.
Remember that your first loyalty is to the reader of the Transactions, and that a paper can be accepted only if it is new, correct, and interesting. Your role is not that of a goal-keeper (keeping the ball out of the net), but rather that of a judge who decides whether the paper has achieved the high standard expected of papers published in the IEEE Transactions on Information Theory. Think of yourself as a curator (from Latin, curare, meaning “to take care”) of papers that will be archived in perpetuity, and strive to include papers in the archive only when they have something to add to the developing record of the field.
For each paper, you must arrive at an editorial decision: either accept, reject, or revise-and-resubmit. As an experienced author, you are well acquainted with the type of decision letter that is most effective. You should not simply repeat the comments of the reviewers, as the authors can read these for themselves. Always be polite. A thoughtful decision letter, like a thorough review, will be seen by the authors as helpful (even in cases when the paper is rejected). If appropriate, feel free to commend—in the decision letter itself—one or more of the reviewers for a job well done.
Writing letters that accept a paper is generally easy; the authors will certainly be happy. Rejections are more difficult. When communicating a rejection decision, please take the time to write a convincing rationale, expressed politely, but firmly. If the paper is to be rejected, reject it thoroughly. If you have doubts about the decision, or simply wish to have feedback on a draft letter, feel free to consult the RE and the EiC.
In many cases, you will need to write a letter requesting a revision of the paper. Do so only if you genuinely believe that the paper can eventually be revised to a publishable state. If not, the paper should be rejected right away. You can remind the authors that they are always free to resubmit a rejected paper if they are able to address the concerns that were raised in the review. Request a revision only if the required changes are relatively minor and do not entail a material transformation of technical content; else, a new submission is warranted. Always remind the authors to include a detailed cover letter with any revision or resubmission.
If indeed there is good evidence that the paper can be published after a relatively minor revision, please give the authors clear and concrete advice as to what you expect to see. If you seek a reduction in length, give specific advice as to which particular sections can be reduced, and how. While the authors are, necessarily, the primary audience of a decision letter, consider writing it also for your own future reference, so that it provides a convenient record for what needs to be checked in a subsequent revision. You should keep in mind that the EiC will also read the decision letter, and may occasionally comment.
In most cases, if a paper is returned after a relatively minor revision, and you are satisfied that the authors have addressed the concerns of the reviewers, you do not need to send the paper out for another round of reviews. Send the paper out for subsequent rounds of review only if there remains doubt as to the acceptability of the paper.
Sometimes you may wish to give the authors an opportunity to rebut the comments of a reviewer. Revise-and-resubmit is the usual mechanism for this. Please be clear and unambiguous about key concerns that should be addressed. The authors have the option to withdraw the paper should they be unable to address the given concern.
The Final Manuscript
At the time of accepting a paper, feel free to provide the authors with concrete advice for how they might improve the non-technical aspects of the paper. For example:
- Ask the authors to update references to available published versions of papers cited (and not just earlier preprint or arXiv versions)
- Double-check the paper for English usage
- Give specific advice, if needed, for improving the quality of figures or figure captions
When the authors return the final manuscript, examine it to ensure that the authors have not made major (unreviewed) amendments. If all looks fine, you will need to complete a Checklist, and enter the paper into the publication queue. If you deem a paper to be of potentially award-winning quality (even if it is too “fresh” to judge impact), please record this in the AE Checklist with a paragraph or two explaining your reasons, and then notify the EiC and RE of your action. Such assessments are valuable for identifying deserving papers later for appropriate recognition.
The final checking stage should normally be completed within 3 business days after the final manuscript is uploaded by the authors.
Last Words of Advice
The job of an Associate Editor is a difficult and lonely one. Feel free to call upon the Editor-in-Chief and Area Editor when you have need of advice or encouragement. Feel free to push back when you feel that new papers to handle have been arriving too quickly. Advise the RE immediately when circumstances arise that may affect your ability to handle papers (if absolutely needed, you may request a brief—one or two month—respite from receiving new submissions). Finally, take courage; the Transactions reader is depending upon you!
- An S1M Editor User Guide is available, but most features of the system should be quite self-explanatory.
- The IEEE PSPB Operations Manual
- LaTeX Advice for Authors Preparing Final Manuscripts. Feel free to point authors here.