Publish or perish. After years of hard work, months of effort are invested into writing, submitting, and revising a paper with the aim of publishing in a high impact journal. We summarize our findings and submit our work. But sometimes, we are met with the disappointment of rejection. And so, heads held high, we revise and re-submit in the hopes of publishing in lower impact journals. After many years of revisions and rejections, Dr. Vincent Calcagno, an ecologist and evolutionary biologist at the Institute for Agricultural Research in Sophia Antipolis, became interested in exploring the prepublication histories of journal articles. What is the history of articles that are accepted, and what is the fate of those rejected?
As described in the November 2012 issue of Science, Calcagno and his team surveyed 200,000 researchers who published articles in 923 different biological science journals between the years 2006-2008. With responses from 80,743 authors, Calcagno’s group found that biological scientists are surprisingly successful in targeting journals with 75% of articles accepted by the initial targeted journal without any resubmissions. The authors attribute this high acceptance rate to the ability of researchers to accurately assess the impact of their manuscript and follow “risk-limiting” strategies for journal selection. Unsurprisingly, Calcagno found that most manuscripts that are initially rejected are resubmitted to a lower impact journal within the same research field. Interestingly, the 25% of manuscripts that were initially rejected and subsequently published in lower impact factor journals had more citations.
An increase in citation levels following rejection and resubmission may be the result of multiple rounds of peer review and revision. Most likely, reviewer suggestions for additional experiments or changes to the manuscript help to bolster the strength of the findings and improve citation impact. Or, it may be that articles which challenge an established idea face strong resistance during peer review and are rejected because of conflicting interests.
When eventually published, these unconventional concepts create a larger impact by driving the field in new directions. Perhaps the upside of rejection is an improved paper.
V. Calcagno et al., (2012) “Flows of research manuscripts among scientific journals reveal hidden submission patterns,” Science, 338:1065-1069