It used to be the case that it was worth sending awesome manuscripts to the highest impact journals because, if they were going to reject your manuscript, they did so quickly and efficiently. I think those days are gone. This leads me to pose a question, based on the following not-so-hypothetical situation:
Imagine that you have a manuscript that you think is good enough for a very high-impact journal that we will refer to here only by the single-word name of Journal. If you want to be dramatic about it, imagine that you are an early-career academic (student, postdoc, assistant professor) with the dual need of rapid publication of your awesome research results and ideas in as prestigious a journal as possible.
You send the manuscript to Journal, and are lucky enough to have your manuscript reviewed rather than immediately rejected. Or, at least, you thought you were lucky, until you emerge, well over a year later, with a much reviewed and much revised manuscript that is ultimately rejected for not being "suitable" for Journal.
In the end, quite a few people reviewed the manuscript, and some of the reviews were very positive. One, however, was very negative. Perhaps not coincidentally, this review was from someone in the research group with the most to lose if your manuscript is published.
You think that you and your co-authors wrote the manuscript in a very polite and professional way, focusing on the important questions and discussing, not attacking, the work of other groups. You hoped that, if the manuscript were sent to possibly-not-objective reviewers, the editors would weigh any negative comments against this possible lack of objectivity, looking closely at the criticisms to determine if they were valid and substantive. The editors did not do this.
So there you are with a rejected manuscript after a very long time of hoping that you would ultimately survive the lengthy review process at Journal. Now you need to find a rapid way to publish your research results.
If rejection is rapid and the reviewers are ethical, the rejection can be a neutral experience. You are no worse off than when you started, although perhaps a bit dejected. If, however, the entire process leading up to rejection takes an extremely long time, then you may be worse off than when you started.
But: If publishing in Journal or another journal at a similar level is seen as very important -- or even essential -- to your career, what do you do with your next awesome paper?
Do you send it to Journal anyway despite your belief that the editor mishandled your previous manuscript, which spent an unconscionable time in review, because if you do happen to get a paper published in Journal, your career will benefit immensely? Perhaps you can convince yourself that your bad experience was a fluke. You were unlucky; maybe next time would be better. And you aren't guaranteed a better experience at another journal anyway. And you could always withdraw the manuscript and submit it elsewhere if things started to drag on too long.
Or do you decide that the risk of a lengthy and unfair review process isn't worth it and send your manuscript first to Very Good Journal, knowing that there is a better chance of having it published there, and published more rapidly? As long as the journal is well respected and in publication databases, people can find your paper.
So: Are the high impact journals so prestigious that it is worth sending manuscripts there, no matter how long the review and how incompetent the editorial process? Or are the risks of a long and fruitless review/editorial process too great, especially for early career scientists?
8 hours ago