Life as a Western Birds Editor

When the Western Field Ornithologists’ Board of Directors recently prepared the organization’s first membership survey, the expectations about survey participation were relatively modest. Thankfully, this modesty was unfounded, as the survey received broad participation, with 136 responses representing 14 percent of the membership. Moreover, the feedback was almost uniformly positive, with most comments showing a high level of satisfaction with WFO, the WFO mission, and WFO activities.

We also received numerous very thoughtful suggestions. One idea that we decided to immediately pursue concerned describing the production of WFO’s journal Western Birds. Judging by comments from the survey, Western Birds is one of WFO’s most cherished and appreciated products, and we hope sharing some of the background that goes into each issue will further enhance the quarterly’s appeal.

In this article I describe the manuscript review process from the perspective of an associate editor: how submissions are assigned, how long the review process generally takes, who serves as reviewers, and many other steps along the way toward publication.

I have been an associate editor at Western Birds since 2015, having been recommended to the position by Bob Gill, also an associate editor at the time. Funnily enough, Bob is still an associate editor; many of my fellow associate editors have been affiliated with Western Birds for decades, making me feel a bit like a rookie with only nine years of experience under my belt. When I joined the ranks, Dan Gibson (assistant editor) and Phil Unitt (editor) both provided me with guidance on my role, but it took me a few years and a few hiccups to feel comfortable with my duties.

Basically, each assignment starts with a cordial email from Dan regarding my availability to serve as associate editor on such and such a manuscript. I think I have only ever turned down one assignment from Dan, one that landed in my inbox just as I was preparing to spend most of my summer in field camp. As associate editors, we are basically on-call to help as needed, and Dan generally tries to match submissions to the expertise of each associate editor. In my case, however, it seems that I’m often assigned manuscripts about which I have limited subject knowledge. In these cases, my reply to Dan’s inquiry states that, yes, I’d be happy to manage the article but I also confess my ignorance of the subject. Someday perhaps I will receive an article about shorebirds in Alaska, a subject firmly in my comfort zone, but until that day I always warn Dan that my review will undoubtedly satisfy the perspective of an ignorant bystander.

I’ve come to realize that this is not a problem, and is perhaps even beneficial in a self-serving fashion, as I’ve had a great time learning along the way. Who knew that Pin-tailed Wydahs preferentially parasitized Scaly-breasted Munia nests, or that urban-breeding Yellow-billed Magpies selected breeding areas near patches of low herbaceous habitat adjacent to streams? I sure didn’t, but one learns quickly when tasked with managing a review.

Moreover, my general ignorance of the study subject is immaterial, because my first duty upon accepting each assignment is to identify knowledgeable reviewers who can help me assess the quality of the study. In many ways, the associate editor is just a facilitator between the authors and reviewers, and I necessarily put great stock in the reviews that I solicit from the experts. Like all journals, Western Birds is wholly at the mercy of reviewers to ensure the quality and consistency of our efforts, and I’m grateful for the help we receive from reviewers. Remarkably, I have rarely been declined by prospective reviewers, even when I have perhaps pushed the limits of civility. For instance, Peter Pyle has yet to decline any of my repeated requests to review the many molt-related manuscripts that I’ve managed, a dedication and expertise from which Western Birds benefits greatly. I have similarly tapped other reviewers more than once, and I’m grateful for the help.

I typically arrange two reviews of each manuscript, and we endeavor to have reviews completed within three to four weeks of receipt of a manuscript. My “ignorant bystander” review focuses primarily on style and flow of the manuscript, and I trust the subject-matter experts with many of the study-specific details. From my experience, the reviews rarely differ markedly; most reviewers identify similar themes for improvement or clarification, and such consensus among reviewers helps clarify the revision process for authors. When reviewers do happen to differ in their opinions, I typically advise the authors on how best to navigate disparate suggestions. Honestly, the revision process is all rather undramatic; from my experience, reviewers for Western Birds are supportive and helpful, and authors are always open to suggestions and appreciative of constructive criticism.

I have so far served as associate editor on 21 manuscripts for Western Birds, and only two of these submissions were subsequently declined for publication. Every other manuscript I have managed has required revision, some extensive, some trivial. Most authors return their revised manuscripts a few weeks after receiving their reviews, but I still lament the fate of one manuscript, a fascinating diet assessment of an especially charismatic owl species. I never received a revised manuscript from the authors despite repeated polite nudges; sometimes life gets in the way and revisions never materialize.

After the major revisions have been completed, there may yet still be a bit of back and forth with the authors as I make final suggestions. This is the stage at which I begin trying to anticipate all the things I can do to make life easier for Phil Unitt, the editor of Western Birds. When I work with authors, I make many suggestions on grammar and style, and many of these suggestions go unheeded. This is totally reasonable; the review process is a give and take, and it’s important that authors feel like their voice is present in their work.

That said, the buck stops with Phil: Phil single-handedly polishes every article that appears in Western Birds, an amazing commitment that more than any part of the review process ensures the consistent quality of each issue. When I say “polish,” sometimes this may actually involve a little sandblasting. Science is hard, and we don’t all bring the same experience and skill to our work. Phil’s deep knowledge of ornithology and skill as an editor help ensure that all the submissions to Western Birds are as clear, concise, and informative as possible.

I suspect that there are occasions where authors are surprised at the number of edits that Phil suggests; having already received input from me and the two reviewers, the authors probably felt like their manuscript was essentially done. But Phil politely insists upon some of the changes that authors perhaps chose not to implement during the review process, and also invariably sees things that we all overlooked. For this reason, I always revisit each submission that I’ve handled once Phil has worked his magic. I’m always amazed at what Phil sees that others don’t, and I always learn from the elegant solutions that Phil proposes to rectify awkwardly worded sentences. I was stunned to recently learn that Phil has served in this capacity for Western Birds for 38 years, a truly incredible dedication to our organization and its mission.

The nuts and bolts follow at this point: updating Dan Gibson on the status of the submission, marking these changes in our submission status database, arranging the receipt of high-resolution versions of images, etc. We ask that authors contribute toward the publication costs of their articles, but also stress that financial hardship should not prevent the publication of a manuscript. Due to the generosity of its members, Western Field Ornithologists is fortunate to have a robust Publications Fund that can be used in such situations. Hereafter, I honestly don’t know what happens after this step—this is fodder for another behind-the-scenes article. All I know is that a draft issue of Western Birds appears in my inbox, masterfully laid out with mastheads, photos, table of contents, featured photos: magic! We usually have a week to search the draft issue for errors, after which the issue is off to the printer and in the hands of readers soon thereafter.

The process that I describe here involves multiple steps that are broadly similar to the manuscript review process at other journals to which I’ve submitted my work or for which I have served as a reviewer. One major difference, however, concerns the level of support and generosity of time and knowledge that is inherent in the Western Birds process. Most journals have a slightly (or overtly!) competitive air to their submission and review process. After all, publishing is a business, and many journals look to publish high-profile articles that will generate citations and build journal stature, ultimately leading to increased journal revenue.

Western Birds is unique in its mission and the way that the volunteer staff of Western Birds goes about its business. Really, we aim to publish high-quality science and natural history observations for their own sake, not for the sake of generating revenue or improving our impact factor. While metrics like profit and journal visibility are certainly nice, Western Birds is truly a labor of love that reflects the passion of countless volunteers working to provide an edifying reader experience. Western Field Ornithologists is a nonprofessional organization that produces a thoroughly professional journal, and I’m in awe of the sustained effort and long chain of participants that the publication of our journal represents. First in this chain are the authors: thanks to all who provide the interesting stories that fill each issue of Western Birds.

—Daniel R. Ruthrauff, Associate Editor, Western Birds

Dan’s most recent assignment for the journal was managing Robert L. Scher’s “Second Prebasic Molt of a Black-headed Gull at Anchorage, Alaska,” published in Western Birds, vol. 55, no. 1. He is also a member of WFO’s Board of Directors.

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  1. What a great article. Much appreciated!! After publishing more than 100 articles, I find this to be helpful and reassuring. These kinds of articles are helpful to the veteran and the first time submitter. Thanks to you for taking the time to share this information.

  2. Enjoyed your article. My past is largely with university presses, including academic journals, and public libraries. Always find it interesting as to how information winds its way to the reader. Thanks.