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One for three

May 18th, 2005

Yesterday’s mail from the journals included one rejection, one acceptance and one revise-and-resubmit. Not a triumphant day, but I was happy enough, since major economics journals often have rejection rates of 90 per cent or more[1], and revise-and-resubmits generally lead to acceptance in the end.

As a result of this process, a big part of an academic’s research life consists of dealing with rejections. I gave up counting them after the first hundred or so, and it’s water off a duck’s back to me now, but this is something people starting out in academic life often find very hard to deal with. I can’t say I find the system satisfactory, but I don’t have an adequate alternative to offer.

fn1. The same is true in quite a few other disciplines, though not all.

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  1. GoTF
    May 18th, 2005 at 09:15 | #1

    Rejections can be hard to deal with, especially when you’ve invested a lot of time and effort in an article and believe it to be a top-notch piece of work. However, for most people rejections are understandable – rejection rates are well known and to be part of the 90 per cent is not unexpected.

    I recommend having papers read by as many colleagues as possible prior to submission. This will improve the quality of your paper and will often soften you up for rejection. Also, you don’t always need to publish in top-tier journals. There’s no harm in having publications in second and third tier journals so long as over time you get some first tier publications as well.

    I do verily believe that post-graduate programs would be improved immeasurably by the inclusion of some sort of publication course or target. Just a thought…

  2. Neil
    May 18th, 2005 at 11:22 | #2

    I was lucky enough to have my very first submission accepted. Led me to believe that the whole process was easy or that I was brilliant. I still don’t find rejections easy, ten years after my first one. I recently had a run of 9 rejections in a row, and that certainly wasn’t water off a duck’s back. You start to worry if you’ve lost it…

    Acceptance rates don’t tell the whole story, BTW. For a generalist journal, low acceptance rates correlate with high quality (the best journals in my field, The Journal of Philosophy and Philosophical Review, have acceptance rates of 1-2%). But for specialist journals, acceptances rates can be much higher without loss of quality. Some of the philosophy of science and logic journals have acceptances rates above 25% yet are still very prestigious. Submitters select themselves.

  3. May 18th, 2005 at 13:14 | #3

    The most annoying thing is when you get 3 referees’ reports back all telling you to do totally inconsistent things to the argument or structure of the paper, and the editor provides no guidance.

  4. Neil
    May 18th, 2005 at 14:09 | #4

    That’s annoying, alright. But the *most* annoying thing is when you get one line rejections. One I had recently: 2 reports, the first recommending revise and resumbit, making many helpful suggestions and also saying some very nice things about the paper., the second consisting of one line: “This journal should not publish papers like this” (Ouch). The journal rejected.

  5. May 18th, 2005 at 14:36 | #5

    Mark and Neil, I’ve had similar experiences with inconsistent reviews. In all cases the paper was rejected by the journal, then resubmitted to other (of similar quality) journal and accepted subject to minor changes. I guess that choosing the ‘right’ journal is an art.

    From the other side, I have been refereeing four papers this month and I try to be strict but fair. Results: one rejection, two major changes, one publish after minor changes.

  6. Neil
    May 18th, 2005 at 15:45 | #6

    None of this would matter (inconsistent and inappropriate reviewers; bad journal selection, etc) if turnaround times were short. I have had two papers under submission for over three years! 6-8 months is more usual. Let me commend John, our host, for his reviewing policy, which I also try to follow. I will not accept a paper to referee (and I very rarely turn them down) unless I can turn them around within a week. If all journals could produce reports within, say, a month, the opportunity costs of submitting to journals would be low (my discipline does not allow multiple submissions) and a lot of frustration would be avoided.

  7. May 18th, 2005 at 16:59 | #7

    Another annoying thing is “too Australian focussed” from international journals! I wrote something on the Waterfront Dispute and submitted it to a Canadian journal in 99 whose general interests and approach seemed a nice match and I made sure to contextualise it internationally but that’s what I got.

    Neil is dead right about turnaround times. I waited a year for the 3 inconsistent reviews and by then I could hardly be bothered having another look at the very intensive research I’d done to write the paper in the first place.

  8. May 18th, 2005 at 16:59 | #8

    ps – in my experience British journals are particularly bad for long turnaround times.

  9. joe2
    May 18th, 2005 at 17:39 | #9

    I note your footnote 1., J.q.

    Hope that the dicipline on Blogs is maintained–
    No dicipline, apart from reasonable rules.

    Hate to imagine, making a living by publishing journals. Imagine, that for many academics it is more about getting the views out rather the cash.
    Especially now in Oz, with the threat of even less outlets to put the stuff out.

    The internet is looking good and get it out.
    Don’t just talk amongst yourselves,folks.
    The rest of us need to hear your stuff.

  10. May 18th, 2005 at 17:47 | #10

    Three in one day? Ulp. Now I feel really sluggish.

  11. Neil
    May 18th, 2005 at 17:47 | #11

    Joe,

    The funding rules require that we publish in refereed journals. There are many good things about doing this: it imposes some quality control and it allows for the pursuit of topics that are not obviously practical (but which can turn out to matter in surprising ways). But there are many problems with the system as well. None of us publish for money, at least not directly. There is no direct return. There is an indirect financial return, though: we get to keep our jobs.

  12. May 18th, 2005 at 17:48 | #12

    I also had one acceptance and one rejection yesterday so I felt sort of half validated.

    I wonder what others think of the trend to have to pay to put articles in journals and then have them available for all to view. I am considering putting an article in a particular Australian journal that you have to pay for but feel a bit like I would be “paying my way in” even though it is still a peer-reviewed process. The submission fee for the journal is over $500 too.

  13. Neil
    May 18th, 2005 at 17:54 | #13

    In philosophy, we’re beginning to see a trend that is the precise opposite of the one Jen mentions: high-quality peer-reviewed web-only journals:

    http://www.philosophersimprint.org/

    http://www.jesp.org/

    It’s fair to say that no one is sure what to make of them yet. But there is an interesting precedent: by far the best philosophy reference work in the world today is the on-line and free Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

    http://plato.stanford.edu/

    We’ve never had submission fees in philosophy. But then we also don’t produce patentable ideas or practical spin-offs.

  14. Peter
    May 18th, 2005 at 18:57 | #14

    In response to GOTF, I would offer contrary advice, at least in Computer Science. If you have your paper read by many people before submission, you run the risk of:
    - others stealing or adapting your ideas (perhaps unwittingly), and/or
    - the journal referees saying that your material is not new.
    My advice is: Have a few trusted people read it but not anyone you don’t know.

    For me, and for most people I know, the biggest shock was not the rejections themselves, but the non-objective nature of peer-review. The mythologists of science and the so-called scientific method have created an image of peer-review as the systematic guarantor of progress and scientific integrity, the mechanism which allows an Einstein to publish imaginative new ideas yet stops creation scientists and other nutters from getting a hearing. Instead, the reality is that the process is as flawed and failure-filled as any other human activity.

    Roy Weintraub’s account (in “How Economics Became a Mathematical Science”) of the review process used for the famous Arrow-Debreu paper in Econometrica on the existence of equilibrium in an (artificial) economy is a good example: One referee, who knew the authors well, recommended acceptance as a “very important paper indeed”, but gave no reasons in his short report for this, and clearly did not check the mathematics. The other referee, who may have, was “emphatically against publication, until the paper is revised”, according to the associate editor. Yet the paper was accepted with hardly any revisions at all. There is no evidence that anyone checked the technical mathematics of the paper. So the most famous paper in 20th-century mathematical economics is published after cursory review by one referee and against the recommendation of the other.

  15. May 18th, 2005 at 20:22 | #15

    In my area journals are not charging authors anymore, but the subscription prices for journals went through the roof. Furthermore, I can not use grant money to pay for publication anyway.

    Mark, the issue of too local a focus is many times laughable. Authors in the US may refer to the most parochial issue, citing the most obscure low circulation American journal without trouble. We tried presenting important conservation issues in Australia, but our forests were not of international relevance and we cited proceedings of a major international congress in Australia that were too obscure for one of the referees.

  16. Jim Birch
    May 18th, 2005 at 21:04 | #16

    Can’t handle rejections? Start a blog.

  17. May 18th, 2005 at 21:19 | #17

    It’s a worry, Luis – particularly since we’re all often advised that to get ahead you have to publish in American and UK journals.

  18. jquiggin
    May 18th, 2005 at 21:57 | #18

    The problem of US journals rejecting papers with Australian content is also severe in economics

  19. May 19th, 2005 at 07:21 | #19

    “The most annoying thing is when you get 3 referees’ reports back all telling you to do totally inconsistent things to the argument or structure of the paper, and the editor provides no guidance.”

    Mark – In my experience there is a major problem with the refereeing/editing process, in which editing is normally the loser. Referees often make points that while not wrong in themselves detract from the article by introducing digressions. As a reader, I can spot the influence of referees in some academic journal articles, when points appear without sufficient structural reason. As an editor myself, I now very rarely pass referee reports directly to authors. Rather I take them as advice to me on the quality of the article, and I pass on to the author the points I believe would improve the article, or use the conclusions to reject it. But then I hope that people might read the articles I publish, while most academic journals seem to exist so that authors can accumulate DEST points, and refereeing – good, bad or indifferent – is needed for that, while editing is not.

  20. May 19th, 2005 at 14:46 | #20

    Something of a digression, but Private Eye used this rejection line: “Try Punch.”

  21. May 19th, 2005 at 15:34 | #21

    Jen Smith:

    The discussion over “pay-to-publish” is part of a very wide barney going back and forth over the costs crisis in scholarly publishing. Basically, university libraries can no longer buy all the journals and conference proceedings academics need for their work; some in academia are getting aggro because the work that they created, edited, and typeset for free is becoming inaccessible; you have some governments starting to realise that the research they publicly fund is being privatised by journal publishers; and then you have commercial journal publishers who are trying to run a profitable business in a world where their position is under threat.

    Personally, I’ve got no problem with pay-to-publish if the content becomes open access; if you publish your work through a conference you end up paying through the nose in registration fees and staying in the conference hotel anyway.

  22. Neil
    May 19th, 2005 at 16:41 | #22

    Robert,

    I disagree. The costs of web-based publication is very low. The only costs necessary to publishing scholarly work are the time spent on reviewing. The solution to rising costs is for academics to take control of the journals and publish them online, freely available. The only reason this hasn’t happened is because the existing journals are known quantites. It’s a collective action problem; if enough good academics defect to free (peer-reviewed) journals, we can simply cut out the publishers and most of the costs.

  23. May 19th, 2005 at 20:33 | #23

    “The solution to rising costs is for academics to take control of the journals and publish them online, freely available. The only reason this hasn’t happened is because the existing journals are known quantites.”

    And some academics are judged based on the ranking of the journals where they published. Given that most new free electronic journals have no ranking yet, academics tend to opt for the safest option. I now try to publish in journals where I can make PDF copies freely available after limited time post publication (say 6 months to 1 year).

  24. May 19th, 2005 at 23:16 | #24

    Andrew, that’s a good approach. The journal in question was one of the leading organisational studies journals in the UK and another paper I published in a similar journal has had a fair few citations and is on the syllabus in a few university courses in Europe – so it wasn’t just the DEST point accumulation thing.

    It would have been impossible to rewrite the paper in any sensible way to accommodate the suggestions – as one referee wanted a section cut out as extraneous to the argument whereas another thought that it was key to the argument and should have been expanded. The editor really ought to have provided some guidance.

    I’ve had other reports forwarded with a letter from the editor saying “I don’t think this suggestion from the referee is sensible but you might like to consider this point they make” and that’s a lot more helpful.

  25. May 20th, 2005 at 10:18 | #25

    Turnaround time is probably the biggest problem. If referees can’t turn the paper around in a week they should decline the task.

  26. joe2
    May 20th, 2005 at 17:46 | #26

    R.N. gives a little opportunity for academics to spruik their stuff.
    Blogs obviously. A sexy book based on a thesis.

    There has to be other ways of getting info out to public.

    You cant just talk amongst yourself in journals. What about uni’s giving students a go on a public radio station owned by the university? I fear for the rest of my life, all I will hear, are the views of conservative thinktanks and no new ideas.

  27. Peter
    May 21st, 2005 at 04:37 | #27

    I’ve just come across a paper by Joao Ricardo Faria, in the Bulletin of Economic Research (Jan 2005, 57 (1): 1-12), entitled “The game academics play: editors versus authors”, which applies differential game theory to the process of publishing academic papers. Paper is here.

    One interesting statement the author makes is that Robert Solow has never had a paper rejected by a journal.

  28. joe2
    May 21st, 2005 at 17:11 | #28

    While the media has focused on Kylies tit, i am most happy that the torture debate has gone nowhere. What is happening at Deakin Uni? A Law School……?

    We should be so lucky,lucky….

    Wish Kyles’ the best , to do otherwise, would be “un-australiain’.

  29. anon
    May 27th, 2005 at 15:21 | #29

    I’ve had two papers rejected out of around 50. And that’s submitting to the major journals in my field.

    I am an editor and reviewer for several of those journals and many of the major conferences.

    From experience, the fundamental reason so may papers get rejected is that they are just not that original.

    Part of the problem lies with the metrics applied to academic careers, where quantity is valued over quality (Australia is particularly bad for this). The great Australian academic career is optimized by those who succeed in generating as many papers as possible that meet the minimum publication threshold, rather that those who continue to extend themselves and in the process publish fewer higher quality papers. It is a terrible waste of taxpayer funds.

    This is one of the reasons I left academia for the private sector.

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