By Joern Fischer
This blog has a bit of a history of commenting on “academic life”, rather than just on the content of sustainability research (e.g. here). In line with that history, and following a series of rejected papers, I thought I’d share my latest thoughts on rejections with the rest of the world.
Before I do this, I might just highlight some of the less amusing recent experiences I’ve had with the peer review process – all of these with so-called reputable international journals:
- One paper was rejected without review because it did not fit the scope of a journal – but that same journal had published a paper with virtually the exact same scope in the previous year (same threatened species as a focus, arguably less interesting study area, no more or better data).
- One paper I co-authored was attacked in a response article. We had never been asked to look at the response article before it was published. Once it was published, we asked to write a response. We were then told our response could not be published, because, in fact, our original paper had not actually been within the scope of the journal. It was rejected without review.
- One paper was rejected without review for not being global enough. The same journal later that year published a paper that addressed only a single village within the same study area we had focused on (we had worked in 30 villages, mapped out implications to an area encompassing over 300 villages, and of course also embedded all this in a global discourse).
- One paper was rejected by a conservation journal without review because it did not contain specific recommendations for a protected area or similar. The same journal regularly publishes papers that also do not do this.
- Two papers were rejected without review for addressing a similar topic to another paper recently accepted. One then encouraged us to submit a response letter to the original paper instead. The content was not considered in these decisions (i.e. whether ours was better or different than the other paper previously accepted), just the topic area being the same.
Most colleagues I talk to still say that peer review is the best we have. I guess so. But can we call the editor-as-gate-keeper model peer review? The above experiences show that the judgment of single handling editors (or editors in chief) is far from consistent. It upholds the standard of individual subjectivity, more than the standard of good science.
It appears that with too much pressure on journal pages, subjectivity is increasing. Journals typically say they “reject things that are unlikely to make it through our very rigorous peer review process”. Well, those papers are probably amongst those rejected without review. But then, I would argue, there are many other papers that might well make it through peer review, but never get the chance. It used to be journals like Nature and Science that were subjective and took what was “cool”, as opposed to focusing exclusively on what was good. Now, that phenomenon is probably down journals with an impact factor of about 3, with great amounts of inconsistency within editorial boards as to what qualifies as “cool enough” to let through in the first place.
There are two ways of being an editor: the editor-as-gate-keeper model versus the editor-as-wise-arbitrator model. In the latter, the editor seeks advice by trusted experts, and weighs their arguments. In the former case (now much more common), the editor seeks reasons to reject, and primarily trusts her (or more commonly, his) instincts to know what is good science.
The vast amount of science I see is “reasonable”, and this is why PLoS One (for example) accepts two thirds of papers. Most papers submitted to good journals are alright. But far more get rejected, increasingly because editors seem to believe in one kind of “right science” (= theirs).
Yes, pressure on pages is real, and so I don’t have a simple solution for this either. But one thing is for sure: the current system is broken, wastes people’s time, sucks motivation out of graduate students, and is highly subjective. Perhaps Peerage of Science is one of the more promising options for the future?