Many top-cited papers initially rejected by good journals

A new study finds that top-cited scientific studies are often rejected, sometimes without even going out for peer review:

Using subsequent citations as a proxy for quality, the team found that the journals were good at weeding out dross and publishing solid research. But they failed — quite spectacularly — to pick up the papers that went to on to garner the most citations.

“The shocking thing to me was that the top 14 papers had all been rejected, one of them twice,” says Kyle Siler, a sociologist at the University of Toronto in Canada, who led the study. The work was published on 22 December in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences

But the team also found that 772 of the manuscripts were ‘desk rejected’ by at least one of the journals — meaning they were not even sent out for peer review — and that 12 out of the 15 most-cited papers suffered this fate. “This raises the question: are they scared of unconventional research?” says Siler. Given the time and resources involved in peer review, he suggests, top journals that accept just a small percentage of the papers they receive can afford to be risk averse.

“The market dynamics that are at work right now tend to a certain blandness,” agrees Michèle Lamont, a sociologist at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, whose book How Professors Think explores how academics assess the quality of others’ work. “And although editors may be well informed about who to turn to for reviews, they don’t necessarily have a good nose for what is truly creative.”

The gatekeepers seem to be exercising their power. Academic disciplines usually have clear boundaries about what is good or bad research and the journals help to draw these lines.

An alternative explanation: the rejections authors receive help them shape their studies in productive ways which then makes them more likely to be accepted by later journals. If this could be true, you need to expand the methodology of this study to look at the whole process. How do authors respond to the rejection and then what happens in the next steps in the publishing cycle?

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