Rejections, revisions, journal shopping and time… more and more time

I read a great news item from Nature, called “Does it take too long to publish research?” and wanted to highlight it here. In  particular, I thought that early career researchers might relate to the stories of featured researchers’ multiple rejections: there is some consolation in hearing others’ experiences. (Recently rejected authors might also seek advice in a great piece from The Scientist in 2015: Riding out rejection.) Also, I wanted to write my reflections, identifying some reasons for rejection (these appear in bold, throughout, in case you want to scan for them).

Whilst I’m on the topic of rejection stories: a recent episode of Radio 4’s The Life Scientific featured Peter Piot, who described (if I understood correctly) how difficult it was to get his research on HIV published in the 1980s because it was so groundbreaking that reviewers could not accept it. He knew that his findings were important and he persevered. So that could be one reason for rejection: you’re ahead of your field!

(Peter Piot also described his time working for the United Nations, in what was essentially a break from his academic career: if you’re interested in academic career breaks then you could take a look at the Piirus blog!)

Anyway, back to the Nature news item, where I picked up particular themes:

  1. Authors will have been rejected a number of times before they are even peer reviewed: a “desk rejection”. One of the authors featured was glad to finally get revisions after so many rejections without explanation. Without explanation, we can’t know what the editors’ decisions were based on, but as I noted in an earlier post, editors might be basing their decisions on criteria like relevance to the journal’s readership, or compliance to the journal’s guidelines.
  2. Journals do report on time to publication, but that doesn’t always include the time you’ve spent on revisions. If you resubmit after making revisions then the clock is re-started at the resubmission date, at some journals. Likewise, I have read (or heard: sorry, I can’t find the link) elsewhere that the reported rejection/acceptance rates don’t count papers which are invited for re-submission with revisions, as a rejection. So you might feel rejected when you have to make so many revisions but in statistical terms your paper has not been rejected (yet!). There is still time for it to be rejected after you have resubmitted, of course, and that probably happens more often than you think. Some think that journals are not counting and reporting fairly and I think there is room for improvement but it’s a complex area.
  3. Top journals can afford to be more picky and so the bar seems to have been raised, in terms of requirements for publication (hence increased numbers of authors per paper, who bring more data between them). As the Nature news item says: “Scientists grumble about overzealous critics who always seem to want more, or different, experiments to nail a point.”
  4. Rejections could be as a result of the authors “journal shopping”, whereby they submit to top/high impact journals first and work down a list. This is possibly due to a reliance on the reputation and impact factor of the journal where an article is published by those who hire and fund researchers. Researchers who target journals in the middle range of impact factor seem to stand the best chance of a quick review turnaround, but it seems that researchers are taking the risk of rejection and slower publication in order to stand a chance of appearing in a top journal.
  5. Journal editors and publishers are trying to ensure that the publication process is not slowed down, wherever possible. I’d like to quote one nice example of such attempts: “In 2009, Cell also restricted the amount of supplemental material that could accompany papers as a way to keep requests for “additional, unrelated experiments” at bay.” However, the Nature News item also points out the increased volume of papers to be processed and additional checks that papers might go through these days, for example plagiarism screens, animal welfare reports, competing interest disclosures, etc. Plagiarism screens can be tough: I remember an author telling me about how his paper was rejected for what amounted to self-plagiarism.
  6. The peer review process does take time and at different journals this process might be quicker or slower, but even though (as I’ve previously blogged) there are pressures on peer review system, it is not taking longer than it used to, on average. Neither has the digital world sped it up. The News item goes on to recount some of the innovations around peer review that various journals and publishers are implementing.

This made me think that there’s got to be a project somewhere, for someone to classify the revisions asked for in peer review processes and then count which is the most common. Reasons in my list so far:

  • poorly/not succinctly written (i.e. not intelligible!)
  • too little explanation/text
  • abstract does’t reflect findings
  • ethical issues with the data presented
  • ethical issues with the method
  • method unsuited to question
  • conclusions are over-reaching
  • needs to be set in context of other (specific/non-specific) research & add citations

These could be areas to be revised or indeed, reasons for rejection. I’m sure that there are more issue types and that my list is not complete, so feel free to share some more in the comments.

I know that some authors take the revision suggestions and do not resubmit to the journal that reviewed their article, but withdraw their article from that journal and then submit to one lower on the prestige list, thereby perhaps side-stepping another rejection. And thereby apparently achieving publication more quickly, for the second (or fifth or fifteenth) choice journal could not know of the time that an article spent, awaiting the verdict of a different journal. Perhaps that is why journals prefer to count their publication time from the date of resubmission: they don’t know either, if an article will ever be resubmitted. And is it fair of an author to use a journal’s peer review process to polish their article, but not actually publish with that journal? A complex area, like I said already.

Well, if all this complexity has put you in need of cheering up, then I must recommend the Journal of Universal Rejection to you. If you don’t laugh then you might cry…

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