Do high rejection rates make for a better ecology journal?

By Joern Fischer

I recently came across a paper by David Wardle, in which he examines manuscript rejection rates in ecology journals relative to their “impact” (number of citations). The paper is available here. Nice piece of work — it shows that higher rejection rates do not lead to higher citation rates. In other words, journals that reject 80% of papers do not end up with more highly cited papers than PLoS One, which they were compared against — even though PLoS One rejects only about 35% of papers.

To say that “only the best papers can be published due to space limitations”, and that’s why rejection rates are so high in leading ecology journals is, therefore, simply misleading. Many of the rejected papers are presumably no better than many of the accepted ones (or otherwise a lower rejection rate should lead to lower citation rates, which it doesn’t). To those who believe many rejections seem arbitrary, well … this supports that gut feeling. Interesting!

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6 thoughts on “Do high rejection rates make for a better ecology journal?

  1. Hello Joern, thanks for a great blog site. I liked David’s analysis, but thought his conclusions were somewhat extraordinary, especially the suggestion that high rejection rates were something of a conspiracy by editors and publishers.

    In an over-crowded market, researchers seek high profile journals to elevate their papers above the pack – in classic econo-speak its how we differentiate our product from the mass of undifferentiated commodities.

    My bet would be that if top journals opened their doors to accept piles and piles more papers, as David suggests, then other new journals would quickly emerge to take the exclusive niche, and researchers would instantly flock to the new high status journal. 

    Authors don’t select top journals because they alone publish ‘good science’, they select them to stay ahead of everyone else. I’m always a little surprised how infrequently researchers complain about the system without acknowledging the underpinning economics of it all.  It’s a very over-crowded market and exclusive journals brand our research – we really should get a marketing whizkid to discuss the issue, not us ecologists! Cheers Ian 

  2. “My bet would be that if top journals opened their doors to accept piles and piles more papers, as David suggests, then other new journals would quickly emerge to take the exclusive niche, and researchers would instantly flock to the new high status journal.”

    While possible, this strikes me as unlikely (though of course it is at the end of a another unlikely counterfactual–top journals accepting piles more papers–so one’s mileage may vary on this from the start).
    1) We must acknowledge not just the underpinning economics, but the underpinning sociocultural elements. A brand-new journal will have a hard time establishing itself as high-prestige; simply coming in an declaring yourself the new most-exclusive journal would not instantly make you successful and respected, as even the most status-concerned among us don’t evaluate which journals to publish in purely by exclusivity. Even with the additional pressure of possible droves of researchers driven away (ironically) by Science & Nature et al. accepting *more* of researchers’ papers. Indeed, the competition between various journals trying to the be the new exclusive thing would make such a “prestige market” all the more fraught–each researcher looking for the new “it” journal takes a risk that the new journal will not actually be one of the few jockeying for position that succeeds; they could publish in a new journal that doesn’t last, flames out, or comes to be viewed with low regard for any of a number of reasons. And such new journals would then again be competing for a sweet spot between high enough rejection to be “prestigious” and low enough that people would actually *bother* to submit to it. (Otherwise, of course, we’d all be submitting to the Journal of Universal Rejection and nothing would be getting published.) All in all, the “uncertainty in the market” (as some US politicians have recently been wont to talk about) would create a situation without clear winners and losers or courses of action for many researchers (in the short-to-medium run; in the long run, we are all dead).
    2) The overall idea you pose reminds me of the jokes about economists:
    An economist stands in line at a grocery store. There are five people in front of him, as he waits with his under 10 items. His companion looks over and sees a shorter line several registers down. “Professor, why don’t you go over to that line in Aisle 2?” the companion asks; “…it’s much shorter.” “Nonsense,” replies the economist. “If it were shorter, everyone would have already switched to it.”
    The general and partial equilibrium models that econ came out of have been replaced with increasingly sophisticated substitutes, but there still is, to my mind, an under-appreciation of how far we may often be from any given derived equilibrium, or the problems of defining the “correct” central tendency when underlying factors may be continuously, or discontinuously changing (cf. climax community concepts in ecology).

    I generally worry about listening too closely to marketing or economic wunderkinds… very few of them appear to have actually taken in the numerous critiques and complications raised by heterodox economists seriously, to the detriment (imnsho) of the field. Good briefs on some of these (to my mind, fundamental) problems can be found in the scribblings, links and reviews of the brilliant Cosma Shalizi, e.g. http://cscs.umich.edu/~crshalizi/weblog/algae-2011-01.html#zombie-econ ; http://cscs.umich.edu/~crshalizi/weblog/000031.html ; http://cscs.umich.edu/~crshalizi/weblog/000161.html ; http://cscs.umich.edu/~crshalizi/reviews/fox-rational-market/ and on…. Simple economic stories and projects seem to usually turn out to be the social science equivalent of “just so” stories…

    • Hi AgroEcoProf, thanks for your great reply. I look forward to following your links. As an aging green leftist, I’m not in any way beholden to traditional economics, so I suspect we’re on the same page here.

      Your old economist’s joke is truly wonderful, viz.: – “An economist stands in line at a grocery store. There are five people in front of him, as he waits with his under 10 items. His companion looks over and sees a shorter line several registers down. “Professor, why don’t you go over to that line in Aisle 2?” the companion asks; “…it’s much shorter.” “Nonsense,” replies the economist. “If it were shorter, everyone would have already switched to it.”

      However, I’m bemused at the similarity between the joke, and David Wardle’s argument about publishing. If we do a mashup of the old joke and David’s argument, we get…

      “An ecologist is about to submit a MS to a high status journal. The rejection rate is 80%. His companion looks over and sees another journal with a similar impact factor and citation rate but a rejection rate of just 30% (i.e. ‘a shorter aisle’). “Professor, why don’t you submit your MS to Journal 2?” the companion asks; “…it’s much easier and just as good.” “Nonsense,” replies the ecologist. “If it was just as good, everyone would have already switched to it.”

      Are we all just as bad as the old professor? Or do we chase the long aisle because of the prestige that is offered by the perception that everyone else is chasing it too, rather than because its intrinsically better? Best wishes, Ian 🙂

  3. Heh. Thanks for your reply Ian. Interesting mash-up joke… though I suspect culture and inertia play as much a role as anything there. There are certain journals I would like to publish in because my (immediate/sub-disciplinary) peers and mentors have published in it; some because they are read by people outside of my sub-discipline, some because the “name brand” has a disproportionately positive effect on your career, some because I respect/trust the editor, etc… But I suspect the central issue is often something similar to priming and another experiment I can’t recall, but basically, we are often loathe to drift from an established decision most usually, even when presented evidence against it, and will often make post hoc justifications that actually insufficiently respond to the critique. There is something somewhere I think about how the original efforts that went into the decision are “sunk costs” and therefore there is a sort of information-theoretic pressure not to expend much energy re-deciding…

    Tons of interesting stuff that I feel not enough economists acknowledge, certainly not in intro econ classes, and even precious fewer others know about! After the stimulation from your comment and thinking about these things, I found myself reading several new blogs for quite some time this afternoon… The debate over whether neoclassical economics are superficially or fundamentally flawed is active, vigorous, and often interesting; it also seems to continue to take place almost completely in the shadows of education, media, and academia…

    So, long story short: ” do we chase the long aisle because of the prestige that is offered by the perception that everyone else is chasing it too, rather than because its intrinsically better?” Yes… unless we had some other idea or reason to chase the long aisle that stuck in our mind beyond the point of strict rationality… 🙂

    Cheers!

    Jahi

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