Elizabeth Chin describes the article submission process from the perspective of the American Anthropologist editor:
What’s in a decision?
So the paper goes out to reviewers. We aim for three. They write their reviews, and often, a reviewer will make a recommendation — revise and resubmit, accept, reject…. But we don’t just assign each review a score, add up the numbers and come to a decision that way. We actually read the reviews and we read the paper. It is entirely possible that a review that recommends for minor revision or accept is not, in fact a good review in the sense that it is helpful in making a decision. It might be lacking in detail that supports the opinion. Same for a negative decision. Reviews need to do much more than that — they need to assess the argument, the evidence, the analysis, the writing….and reviews that are useful do this.
So it’s not like hey you got two positive reviews that’s an automatic yes to what they recommended!
The least fun is having to say no. When I reject a paper, it is ultimately my decision alone. I have read the paper, the reviews, and the opinion of the Associate Editor who looked at it. Mostly I agree with the Associate Editor. Sometimes I don’t. Is the reviewer famous? Doesn’t matter. Is the reviewer my friend? Doesn’t matter. (Also I don’t have as many friends as you might think.)
Sometimes a single reviewer will bring up a point that allows me to see the paper in a whole new way, and that is crucial to my decision — whether the decision is yes or no. Example: A regionally focused article that gets a compelling critique from someone with expertise in the theoretical framework, and two thumbs up from regionalists who don’t address the theory could easily get a negative decision. So, yes, it is totally possible that one review can “trump” two others that essentially agree. This is in part because of the breadth of this journal.
I know it sounds fake but it is very true that papers that are good are just not right for this venue. This is especially true if they are too narrow in focus or if they are not yet articulating a contribution to or intervention with the discipline. Why is it important to articulate a contribution to or intervention with anthropology? Because that is our primary directive for research articles in our author guidelines.
Even with rejections, I generally will add a paragraph specific to the paper identifying the key concerns that lead to my decision. Quite often, those concerns are specific to the journal and not a statement about the objective “quality” of the piece. If the decision is being made on a revision, and the decision is reject, this is nearly always because despite the author’s best efforts, the piece is not there yet. In case it isn’t obvious, “not there yet” is a qualitative assessment. Maybe I should develop a rubric and check sheet?
It’s no fun, but pulling the plug is sometimes the most responsible option. It’s already taken long enough to do reviews and re-reviews. I don’t want to keep authors in the process forever.
That said, the amount of time a piece has spent in review and revision does not increase the chances for acceptance. And by the way, our acceptance rates are actually not frightening. They are pretty generous.