A rejection is a rejection so who cares if it goes out for review

Jan 05 2010 Published by under Ask DrugMonkey, Peer Review, Science Publication

A question of interest to me has arisen in another online venue. As most of my readers realize, journals can refuse to publish your manuscript in one of two major ways.
First, of course, is if the manuscript has been sent out to ~2-4 of your scientific peers and they have decided that it is not of sufficient quality for publication in the journal in question.
The second way is that the editor may decide not to send it out for review at all and simply reject it herself.
Which do you prefer? Which hurts less?
When I think about this, I conclude that I'd rather have more than one reviewer and the editor deciding my manuscript is not appropriate for publication. It makes no practical difference, a rejection is a rejection. Sending it out also burns a couple or five weeks that could be spent submitting it elsewhere for consideration and/or improving it. but still.... rejection by editorial fiat just seems like you were refused a fair hearing.
...kinda like when a grant application gets triaged.

39 responses so far

  • JohnV says:

    Well, if it goes out to review and gets rejected you at least get some feedback about how to improve it, right?
    As a totally unrelated side note, screw you PNAS editor who declined to send a paper out to reviews because "who cares, gram negative bacteria already do this". Way to miss the point. The actual feed back we got from reviewers at science and nature was quite helpful to us for our eventual middle tier publication. Still grind my teeth about this one, obviously :p

  • Scicurious says:

    I'd also infinitely prefer the review, it's a longer period of time, but sometimes you get really stuck in your interpretation of the paper and desperately need a new viewpoint. Even really bad reviews can help.

  • BugDoc says:

    I'm with you, JohnV. Even with the inevitable teethgrinding that follows, it's still helpful to get feedback (assuming the reviewers actually do their job and don't suck).

  • whimple says:

    I have no problem with rejection by editorial fiat. I have a problem where the editor is lukewarm on the manuscript from the start and sends it out for review just to confirm her opinion that it sucks. This is marginally ok if the reviews and negative decision are returned within three weeks, otherwise the content of the reviews isn't worth the wait. All of the good journals will get you reviews back within a month, usually faster. If it takes longer than that, you need to be doing more important work so you don't have to send it to crappy journals. 🙂

  • Odyssey says:

    As an author, I would very much prefer to be rejected after review. As others have pointed out, at least you can get some feedback, and if you're lucky it's constructive.
    As an editor I have rejected papers without review. It happens quite a lot (30-40%). When I do reject a paper this way I do try to provide some constructive feedback. Some papers are so bad it's an easy decision (and protects the reviewers from having to review something that will never be published in a decent journal*). In other cases it's a matter of the journal having a set of standards I try to adhere to. Of course editors can make mistakes, so some good papers can be rejected when perhaps they shouldn't. If I'm not comfortable making the reject decision, even if I strongly suspect it's warranted, I send the manuscript out for review.

    * It can be incredibly difficult to find reviewers, let alone good reviewers, so avoiding sending the willing/good reviewers trash is important. A lot of trash gets submitted to journals...

  • S. Rivlin says:

    I don't know about PNAS. A few years ago, one still needed a member's sponsorship to publish there before it was changed to the standard of other journals. Nevertheless, journals such as Science and Nature have a much higher editorial rejection rate than more field-specific journals, mainly on the grounds that the topic does not fit the journal's readership. This I find to be funny considering that these two journals are multidisceplinary ones.

  • The benefit of getting it dumped on by a suite of reviewers is that they may give you some good feedback that allows you to strengthen the manuscript. When an editor gives it the axe, you usually do not get that sort of feedback.

  • Neuro-conservative says:

    I'm with whimple. I can't stand getting positive reviews and then the editor still rejects and says "more specialized journal." If an editor is going to reject based on insufficient novelty/impact, they should be able to determine that by reading the abstract.

  • namnezia says:

    Neurolover:

    If an editor is going to reject based on insufficient novelty/impact, they should be able to determine that by reading the abstract.

    That's why its always useful to send out presubmission inquiries when planning to submit to a high-profile journal. If you send out a few you can get a sense of which editors at which journals might view your manuscript favorably, and allow you to resubmit when you get less-than perfect reviews (which is aways the case). It will also tell you whether you shouldn't bother sending it to a specific journal at all. In my experience, one problem is that different journals treat the presubmission inquiries differently. Some editors will write you five minutes later and say "don't bother" (which is bad) and in others it takes them a little while, suggesting that it was at least discussed by a group of editors. Also another problem is that often they'll say that they don't have enough information to decide whether they will send the paper out for review or not. But all in all, I think pre-submission inquiries are a useful tool for figuring out a journal's attitude toward your manuscript, thus allowing you to make a more informed decision at the time of submission.

  • Odyssey says:

    I'm with whimple. I can't stand getting positive reviews and then the editor still rejects and says "more specialized journal." If an editor is going to reject based on insufficient novelty/impact, they should be able to determine that by reading the abstract.
    Absolutely. If the editor is guilty of this, he/she isn't doing their job.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    But all in all, I think pre-submission inquiries are a useful tool for figuring out a journal's attitude toward your manuscript, thus allowing you to make a more informed decision at the time of submission.
    I think that this has the grave downside of encouraging buddy-buddy relationships and various editor massaging practices that in the end result in a prioritization of these factors over the merits of the work.

  • whimple says:

    I think that this has the grave downside of encouraging buddy-buddy relationships and various editor massaging practices that in the end result in a prioritization of these factors over the merits of the work.
    For the better journals with full-time editorial staff, I think this downside is vastly less significant than the same buddy-buddy relationships between authors and reviewers. Having a professional editor that doesn't need you to give their next grant a good score, and doesn't need you to review their next paper positively provides a welcome reality-check for the literature. I'm also a huge fan of pre-submission inquiries.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    For the better journals with full-time editorial staff, I think this downside is vastly less significant than the same buddy-buddy relationships between authors and reviewers.
    Then you either have no friends who have served on the full-time editorial staff of a GlamourJournal, nor any who are in Glamour-jockey labs. I have both and the way BSD PIs are able to work over the editorial staff of a Glamour Journal to push through their manuscripts is the stuff of eyebleeds. If you do have the former and have never heard any stories, buy them a couple of drinks and they'll start talking off the record...
    I will say that it makes you feel one hell of a lot better about not being a Glamour focused scientist once you realize how the sausage is made...

  • Neuro-conservative says:

    Pre-submission inquiries make no sense to me (at least in terms of avoiding the scenario I described in #8 above). How is that any different than just submitting the paper and hoping that the editor will exercise appropriate judgment?

  • DrugMonkey says:

    How is that any different than just submitting the paper and hoping that the editor will exercise appropriate judgment?
    In the scenarios with which I am familiar GlamourJockeyPIs use the presubmission phone and/or email interactions to massage the editor about how great it is, why it is absolutely the next thing, why it will result in a gajillion cites and oh, btw, how they heard that the other Glamour Journal is considering something in the NextNewThing and hadn't your journal better get on this before they get left behind, and...
    Professional editors who are not your friends will swear up down and sideways that they are never swayed by anything other than the science. If you try to get them to deny that PIs pull this crap, they will not do so but will insist that they are not ever convinced by such shenanigans. Ask why it continues unabated and why they do not put into place hard and firm policies that *any* such attempts to massage the editorial process will result in automatic denial and you will hear a lot of chaff. If you front one of them on blog you will get a lot of nasty threats about you defaming their Glamourous Journal, again, without any substantive verbage to convince anyone that [my representation of what goes on] is ruthlessly put down by the editorial process.

  • Pascale says:

    I agree that it makes little practical difference, but I feel better if the manuscript gets sent out for review. I have been rejected by editor decision, and they often give some feedback (usually something along the lines of fit with their journal vision), but not the sort that peer-reviewers give.
    I must admit as a reviewer I hate getting sent papers to review that are crap and should never have been sent out (like a case report of something that has been reported before). Usually a fast review, but a waste of time nonetheless.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    should never have been sent out (like a case report of something that has been reported before)
    Really? Because I am kind of a fan of adding up similar Case Reports in lieu of a large scale epidemiological survey that will never be done. Sure it would be nice if a single case report was enough to stimulate exhaustive subsequent surveillance of every rare health thing but c'mon. In lieu of that, I think there is a role for ongoing me-too case reports.

  • Monisha Pasupathi says:

    I've done this as an editor and i've been on the receiving end, and i guess i'm a minority in that i've found the quick "no" useful in saving me time.
    as an editor, i try to give useful feedback (i feel people really deserve real reasons why i'm not sending for review), though I haven't always received useful feedback when i've been triaged. But I triage way less frequently than has been mentioned above - probably less than 10 percent of the time.

  • namnezia says:

    In the scenarios with which I am familiar GlamourJockeyPIs use the presubmission phone and/or email interactions to massage the editor about how great it is, why it is absolutely the next thing, why it will result in a gajillion cites and oh, btw, how they heard that the other Glamour Journal is considering something in the NextNewThing and hadn't your journal better get on this before they get left behind, and...

    There's a difference between a presubmission inquiry and buttering up the editor. Most high-profile journals, if you read their guidelines, will actually encourage you to send a presubmission inquiry, and they have an official mechanism for this. So this is nothing that's off the record or whatever. It simply speeds up the process by not having to reformat the paper and wait for a rejection, you can just send an inquiry to a few journals and then make an educated guess about where to send the paper.
    That being said, I agree with DM that it is evident that many fancy PIs will butter up editors and establish buddy-buddy relationships which lead to favoritism, which is unfair for the rest of us. It would be nice to say that I'm above being "focused on glamour journals" but unfortunately at this stage in my career some of those high-profile papers would be beneficial... Otherwise I'm all for publishing in society journals where the editors change on a rotating basis and are true experts and working scientists themselves and most papers are reviewed.

  • anne says:

    “It makes no practical difference, a rejection is a rejection”
    Well, It depends. It can actually make a great practical difference to experience rejection since life is full of opportunities for everyone to reject or welcome. What was rejected, how and why was rejected is a very useful experience to have. It may help setting up your own controls to reject or welcome possibilities and choices. And making your “niche” an invaluable option for some or many to come in and contribute meaningfully.

  • But I triage way less frequently than has been mentioned above - probably less than 10 percent of the time.

    What kind of shit-ass journal do you work for?

  • DrugMonkey says:

    For the record, while I may make the occasional gentle crack about Acta Scandinavica titles, not all of the blogstaff around here agree that legitimate peer reviewed journals are to be called "shit-ass" depending on their impact factor, topic matter, circulation or other. Some of us take the position that those who disdain scientific findings because of where they are published are idiots, poor scientists (because they are walling themselves off from potentially interesting stuff) and generally snobby asshats.
    just sayin.

  • S. Rivlin says:

    Say what you wish about the old days, but science today has become just another blood sports where the winner is the one who, by hook or by crook, gets his papers published in the highest IF journals and being awarded the fattest NIH grants. The biggest loser is science itself. Many scientists today have learned the lesson, already practiced by most athletes, thaught by Cassius Clay (Muhammad Ali) who coined the phrase "I'm the greatest." Soon we'll have new TV programs featuring "America's Idol Scientist" and "The Biggest Ass Scientist."
    For the upcoming discussion about "online civility," one should consider the relationship between a scientist being pompous and him/her being uncivil. I believe the two go hand in hand.

  • The biggest loser is science itself.

    Yup, the biosciences are total losers today. No interesting dicoveries or advances are being made. The mad rush for fame and fortune has completely destroyed the biosciences, which are now totally moribund and making no progress whatsoever. Things will move much faster if we ban all journals from considering "impact" in making editorial decisions, and we refuse to fund any large expensive projects/labs. Just give everyone a stack of petri dishes, unlimited supplies of yeast extract, and a room full of fucking rats, and LET 'ER RIP!

  • qaz says:

    Sol (#23) - if we do get our own TV programs, does that mean we'll also get sports-star salaries and rock-star groupies? Heck, if I could get a sports-star salary, I wouldn't have to write a grant anymore! I could fund my own science!

  • namnezia says:

    Rivlin - I'm not sure what good old days you are talking about. There have ALWAYS been pompous scientists. Take James Watson's admittedly pompous attitude and somewhat sneaky tactics for figuring out the structure of DNA. However, I think most scientists (today and in the "good old days") are genuinely interested in their science and are not out for self-promotion and fame. For that matter there has ALWAYS been corrupt individuals and I don't think they are more prevalent in science than in any other walk of life. I'm starting to understand CPPs annoyance with your cynicism...
    As far as DrugMonkey's comment about more obscure journals. Yes, it would be foolish to ignore less glamorous journals since they often have very good and solid science. But one problem I have with these journals is that, particularly if you are getting started, nobody is going to bother to read your paper. Maybe the people who are directly in your subfield, but not other people that you think might be interested in your research and that you would like to reach as an audience. So in my view, high-profile journals are more about exposure, rather than having the best and most solid, innovative science. So I have a question for you. Say you are a junior faculty, not fresh out of postdoc, but maybe you've had your lab for 3-4 years, you already have a handful of decent bread-and-butter publications, maybe a grant. Yet you know tenure time is near, and your senior colleagues have stressed how important outside letters are for your tenure. You also have completed a project which you think has a shot to get into a high-profile journal, but you know this process could take a year or so, during which you might be able to get maybe another couple of papers into second-tier journals sooner. Is it worth diverting your lab's resources to get this paper into the fancy journal or is it better to not divert the flow of productivity and continue with solid publications in second-tier journals? On one hand, a fancy publication will broaden your audience, maybe get you invited to talk at a meeting or at another university. On the other, your lab will be more productive and your life less stressful if you don't. What are your thoughts?

  • You also have completed a project which you think has a shot to get into a high-profile journal, but you know this process could take a year or so, during which you might be able to get maybe another couple of papers into second-tier journals sooner. Is it worth diverting your lab's resources to get this paper into the fancy journal or is it better to not divert the flow of productivity and continue with solid publications in second-tier journals?

    No brainer. If you think you have a shot, go for the high-profile pub.

  • Funky Fresh says:

    This is a great academic discussion, but it didn't save the poor schmuck who had to review that crappy paper that clearly didn't belong in that journal. Just saying.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    26-27.
    PP is right in the prescriptive sense for career. higher IF is better because this is still highly valued currency.
    for this specific case, it is always a balance. no pubs at all is bad, everyone agrees on this one. You'd rather have the argument at the P&T committee be about relative impact than the fact that you didn't publish anything at all. assuming you have *some* publications trickling along, the cost/benefit of a particular next manuscript being fought up the chain or dumped lower down is too individualized for general prescription.
    I do know at least one individual who banked a career launch on the "Glamour or Bust" theory. almost ten years on and there was a failure to get R01 support, a job change, research direction change, few pubs, no GlamourPubs, still no R01.... Not a "bust" exactly but I do wonder if there would have been more success if the choice had been to get the more incremental pubs and get an R01 in place from the start instead of insisting that a GlamourPub would make everything wonderful....

  • Agreed on the nuances you describe, DM. My answer was based in large part on the fact that "a handful of decent bread-and-butter publications, maybe a grant" are already in the bag, and thus it is exactly the right time to "go long".

  • DrugMonkey says:

    yeah, I think I underappreciated that the example made it seem that the basics were covered. As you say, once that's there, go for it.....

  • Agree with CPP if you've picked off the low hanging fruits swing for the goddamn fence! As they say go big or go home.

  • whimple says:

    My $0.02: You always want to work on important issues and aim high with your work. That being said, it takes some accumulated SciCred to be able to publish in the very top journals. You can have a Nature-calibre result, but if you aren't perceived as a Nature-calibre scientist, no one is going to believe you enough to let you publish there, no matter how convincing your data is. Working on ratchetting up your SciCred is crucial. Putting out a whole pile of forgettable papers in never-heard-it journals hurts your SciCred. If no one is ever going to cite it, you might as well not waste your time.

  • I don't know if I can be that cynical, I think you publish to get the knowledge and the data out there for public consumption. Citations matter but they aren't the end all be all IMHO.

  • whimple says:

    I wasn't actually trying to be cynical. Not all knowledge is equally valuable and you should spend your time, effort and resources trying to get the good stuff.

  • namnezia says:

    Whimple - But are you saying that if you have something which is solid, but of limited interest, you shouldn't bother publishing it?

  • What he's saying is that you should be focusing your efforts in the first place on identifying and pursuing lines of inquiry that are likely to be of more than limited interest. You don't just plod along doing "solid" shit and hope for the best. You need to strategize to optimize the relative frequencies of ending up with shit that is "solid but of limited interest", "totes high-impact awesum", and "uninterpretable garbaggio".

  • S. Rivlin says:

    namnezia, whimple, etc.,
    You are all actually support my point about high profile journals, fat grants, impact factors and so on. As Genomic Repairman said, you publish your science to get it out for the new knowledge it contains, not because of certain degree of recognition that the scientist desires. Before citation index and impact factor, one looked for good science in many journals. That does not mean that citations and impact factors are not important measurements of the importance of a given scientific discovery. However, the drawback of these grading systems is the atitude they have created among scientists who assume that simply by succeding in publishing their science in high IF journal they would achieve not just the recognition for themselves, but for their science, too. In other words, publishing in high IF journal means that the science the publication describe is better simply for being published in that journal, and thus, any science published in an obscure journal is a priori inferior. Time is the one factor missing in this whole self-glorification process, since only time really determines how important a scientific work really is. Sometimes even highly cited papers in their first two years of existence fizzle into obscurity among the majority of the scientific papers. Unfortunately for young, beginning scientists who look for a research job in academia, the expectation of search committees from such candidates to publish in high IF journals and already to have an NIH grant, preferably an active one, under their belt, is discounting possibly excellent scientific work by others who publish their science in a lower IF journals. Hence, a judgement of the importance of science is made long before such judgement is possible, simply because it is publish in one journal and not another. This whole system is not different from the concept of pedigree in horses and dogs, when one buys a young colt based on its pedigree only to find out that as it matured it cannot race against other horses with a lesser pedigree. High IF journals are just like a pedigree, but they surely do not guarantee better science. And that's why I believe that today they are being used by scientists mainly for their own glorification.

  • whimple says:

    As Genomic Repairman said, you publish your science to get it out for the new knowledge it contains, not because of certain degree of recognition that the scientist desires.
    I do my science because I want the results to be meaningful to people, including myself. The public paying for the work has the reasonable expectation that my work is going to lead to improvement in the quality of their lives, preferably sooner rather than later. When I fulfill this expectation through my hard work and insight, I publish the results in high impact journals. My work is helping make the journals be high impact, not the other way around. Personal recognition is irrelevant. What is relevant is convincing the scientific community that the direction my research leads is worth following. I'm obviously convinced this is the case and publishing in "good journals" is useful to me in convincing the field that these scientific avenues are worthy of additional exploration. If I can get the field to work with me, I can leverage my ability to help fulfill the expectations of the public for what science is about.

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