Tuesday, June 01, 2010

High Impact Risk Assessment

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?

34 comments:

Morgan Price said...

I think publishing in the highest "impact" journals is overrated. But, are you confident that you would get a fairer and faster review process at Very Good Journal?

Anonymous said...

Very interesting post. I am an ealry-career scientist currently debating whether to send our very interesting results to Journal. I have had (n=1) a very good experience at Journal in the past with a lengthy but linear and fair review process that led to publication. This makes me think that the view as you have presented it is a bit cynical, but I may be deluded. I hear of established academics who refuse to send their work to Journal after what they perceive to be an unfair peer review process. But for early-career people - like it or not - we need Journal-type publications and don't have this luxury. This isn't going to change anytime soon. I just wish these (professional) editors could show a bit more spine and not simply transfer the outrageous requests for more experiments onto us. This would waste way less of everybody's time.

Anonymous said...

Nobody takes Nature seriously anyway.

GMP (GeekMommyProf) said...

In my experience, sending to ultraprestigious Journal for early-career faculty without a lot of clout is not worthwhile.

The papers I have had published in Journal went in because they were good (but not necessarily head-and-shoulders above some other ones that didn't get into Journal) AND the lead authors were senior faculty with a lot of clout, who kept with the fight and/or knew the editor personally.

Occassionally, the hassle of publishing in Journal may be worth it, but not routinely. Even when faculty are tenured, so presumably +/- 1 paper won't leave you in dire straits and you could afford to fight it out for a year if need be, we also have students and postdocs who need papers sooner rather than later. While funding program managers do like papers in Journal, you cannot put all your eggs in that basket and not have any papers during the entire grant because of the delay from Journal.

Life is too short to waste it waiting for reviews from Journal.
So I would say so for most young people, going with Very Good Journal or Very Good Letters is the way to go. I have had papers in Very Good Journal cited as often or more per year than what the impact factor of Journal suggests, so good work gets noticed. Affording to wait for Journal is adviseble only when the number of people in the lab is large enough that no one's CV is going to be ruined by the absence of one paper; this is rare for early career faculy (at least in non-bio STEM fields).

Anonymous said...

A high impact journal will reject many more manuscripts than it publishes. So the very negative review is what causes the problem, and does not matter if you see it from the point of view of the author or editor. This matter is complicated given that the reviewer is presumed (known for certain?) to be a direct competitor with the "most to lose".

But, a second rank journal could very well choose the same referee. Groundhog day!

If you care certain that the one referee IS the problem, then I would include a note to (whichever) editor with your next manuscript and express your concerns over this person's impartiality. I would not ask that is person is not used as a referee but flag it up to the editor in advance and ask him/her to consider these commentsc carefully. It would help if you could suggest alternative expert reviewers.

Beaker Half Full said...

I am literally in the middle of this right now. Sent paper to Journal and got rejected and now am dealing with revisions for Very Good Journal. Hoping that the latter journal won't extend my misery because in my eyes, being in grad school too long is worse than not getting into Journal.

Comrade PhysioProf said...

Obviously, this question has no yes/no answer. The risk/benefit analysis must be engaged on a case-by-case basis, taking into account such factors as (1) how great you really think the work is, (2) how close you think competitors might be to the same finding, (3) how much trouble it would cause you and your co-authors to get scooped, (4) how much benefit would derive from actually getting the paper published at Journal, (5) how much back-and-forth with editors and reviewers you are willing to tolerate, etc.

Anonymous said...

as long as hiring committees continue to pay an absurd amount of attention to how many Journal papers you have, us early-career scientists will keep sending our manuscripts there regardless of the review-process....

Anonymous said...

wow.. your hypothetical describes my experience at the end of my graduate career. after a year of dragging on they offered us a 'chance' to take our 5 figure paper (w/ 10 supplementals) and turn it into a 1 figure paper that would get RE-REVIEWED.

We walked away - sent to high level 2-word journal w/ the reviews (including the one we believe was from the group who's work we were refuting) from 1-word journal and it was accepted as two full papers (no more supplementals!) by that editor w/o even sending for further review..

I no longer care about getting in those journals. I rarely find useful stuff for my field in them, in contrast to the 2 (or more) word journals. If that's the reason I don't get tenure, the system has problems.

Anonymous said...

1 "Journal" publication = $$$

1 "Very Good Journal" publication = not so much

Send it to "Journal" every time and put it on the arXiv even if "Journal" does not like it (believe me, they will not reject your paper for doing this)

Phiala said...

I try to maintain a mix of both. I'm in a government lab rather than academia, but the expectations for publishing in good peer-reviewed journals is similar. A few things go to top journals that are likely to be slow, others to faster journals. I've had a number of papers in the last few years that spent a year in review, and not all were accepted.

My favorite: a big-name Twoword Journal I'd published in before. The most recent time, just before this particular manuscript, had taken a year. But, big-name and completely appropriate for this project. So I sent the paper in. A few months later I got reviews, and made the requested extensive revisions. Waited. Waited. Waited. 13 months from when I'd submitted the original paper I heard back from the editorial office: "We can't find reviewers for your manuscript, so we're going to return it to you. Good luck getting it published."

I complained loudly to the EIC about unprofessional behavior on the part of a major journal, and the paper was eventually accepted. Turns out I wasn't the only person to whom this happened, but at least one other was too junior to feel like she could complain.

Twoword Journal has long been one of my favorites, but I'm not going to send papers there any more.

Anonymous said...

I think this emphasis, which is real, on publishing in Journal and the like is overblown. I wish everyone would let go of the need for this in terms of 'essential for ones career.' I sense that FSP agrees with this, at least in part. What say you FSP?
LD

Anonymous said...

I have been in almost exactly this situation recently. A few years ago I was lead author on a paper we believed was very important, but also under threat from competing groups. We submitted it to a very prestigious (one-name) journal and got three reviews back: two very positive, one very negative. After three cycles of review, when the negative reviewer remained negative (even throwing in some rather inappropriate personal attacks), the paper was rejected. This took nearly eight months.

Ultimately there was a happy ending, because we submitted an appeal, which was accepted and the manuscript was sent to two new reviewers, who ultimately were positive, and the paper was accepted. It took a full year to get into print. HOWEVER in the meantime a very similar paper was submitted by competitors to a still very good but slightly less prestigious journal (a two-name journal). This paper was also accepted, and although the submission date was six months later than ours, the acceptance date was about the name and the publication date was one month earlier. So, although we had the slightly more presitgious paper it wasn't first.

Now, a few years later I am leading another paper which we again believe is very good and important, and deserves to be in Prestigious One-name Journal. In this case we would even be slightly more confident of acceptance. BUT again the research area is competitive and timing is critical, and after the experience with this journal the first time we have decided not to risk the possible long delay - even if the paper is not rejected. We have instead after very lengthy discussion decided to send to the much faster still-prestigious two-name journal our competitors published in last time.

So yes, in this case timing somewhat outweighs the need for prestige (although the other journal is also quite good). It is not only the possibility of rejection after a very long review process - if review takes too long there is a real chance that other groups could publish first.

Anonymous said...

As an early-career social scientist, I've been told that I have to publish in the top journal in my discipline to get tenure. So for me, it's more risky not to give it a shot, even if it takes a long time to go through the process.

Joseph said...

I have had this happen to me at a journal. Fairly positive reviews after a long wait, a painful period of revisions while we tried to make everyone happy and a final rejection in a single line. It delayed a thesis paper untilt hee nd of my post-doctoral traing and I still can't look at that paper in a good light.

My view is that the most important thing is to keep resubmiting despite these setbacks. In the absence of a fatal flaw or a concern about substance (i.e. when rejectiosna re on priority) then I tend to revise and resubmit as quickly as possible.

But I have made mistakes in all directiosn when submitting papers so I understand the dilemma. I wish I had a better solution to it, too.

John V said...

Have the reviewing periods for top journals increased? I doubt it.

Also, although of course I'm unfamiliar with the merits of the specific paper to which you refer, I put more weight on the opinion of the multiple reviewers than I do on the author's own opinion of a manuscript. Particularly when there is some back and forth about the merits, as there was.

So I think if authors can objectively realize the value of their papers, they should send it to as good a journal as it deserves. Some excellent papers race through Science and Nature. If authors are constantly at war with reviewers, perhaps they should recalibrate.

Choosing to stay with a journal after review has made it clear they have serious issues with a paper often is a sign of an author who is miscalibrated about the worth of a paper.

Kevin said...

The "very important journal" thing is greatly overblown. Even Nature and Science publish a lot of crap that needs to be (and isn't always) retracted.

Publish good work in good journals, and don't worry about being "impressive".

Anonymous said...

I think it may depend on your department. For example, I am at a PUI and am the only person in my subdiscipline. Many of my colleagues (members of my tenure/promotion committee) may not know that "Very Good Technical Journal" is on par with "Journal" for the discipline, or that it is better than "Decent Technical Journal," but they sure are impressed with "Journal."

Anonymous said...

It's a hard choice.

Personally I have soured on the two big one-name "Journals". (But, luckily I'm at an institution that does not add a lot of extra weight to publishing in these journals vs. our journals more localized to our field.)

Late in graduate school I had a very similar drawn out experience to what you describe. Except, the one negative reviewer was demonstrably wrong. Their entire argument rested on "The authors did process X to their data and therefore the features they're reporting are artifacts and don't exist." Well, the features were visible in the raw data. And, we didn't do "process X" exactly because it can add artifacts and confuse things. And, because "process X" was all the rage in our field at that time, we explicitly stated in the text that process X had not been performed on the data.

The paper was rejected at a late stage nearly 9 months after original submission. The rejection was after an additional 2 reviews, one of which explicitly pointed out the fallacy of the one earlier negative review. We appealed, but, the editors at "Journal" stood their ground and wouldn't reconsider.

I would have (somewhat) accepted this outcome if the rejection had been based on "this article doesn't fit our criteria at this point" or "we don't have space to publish this article". But, the rejection was explicitly based entirely on that one negative review.

I then rewrote and resubmitted the paper to one of our field's more specialized journals that is known for having a very fast turnaround time of typically less than 3 weeks per round of refereeing and then immediate publication upon acceptance. As it turned out the delay allowed a competitor (from a different group than the negative reviewer) to get their paper completed. The two papers (ours and the competitor) came out within a week of each other. Had "Journal" not yanked us around, we would have scooped the competitor by many months.

Anonymous said...

I've had this exact scenario get played out. I'm a postdoc, I had an exciting result, submitted to Journal, got a review that was (in my opinion) unfair and probably from a competitor, and ended up bogged down for about a year. The paper was finally published in Branch of Science Prestigious Journal.

At the scientific level, the paper was much much better after going through all the reviews. I'm much happier with the submission+one-year version than the first-submitted version. The basic science was unchanged, but the discussion of the ramifications and such was much better.

As for career prospects, I expect that a publication in Journal may have helped me get a job, but I'm much prouder the science of the paper after all the revisions, and I think that shows when I talk about it now. It's rare for people in my field to publish in Journal anyway, so it's definitely not a mark against me. It probably doesn't hurt that I was able to keep other publications going during that year.

All in all, I would say that it was a positive experience, but I wasn't looking for faculty positions that year, so there wasn't the urgency that people that are looking or on a tenure clock might feel. I'm much less likely to try it again now, when I'm planning to apply. The return on investment of time and mental energy is just too low, given the probability of getting in the journal, especially without a Big Name Coauthor.

Anonymous said...

I think that graduate students and PIs are better off sending their work to "very good journal". which in my fields of biomedical research is often published by a scientific society or a non-profit entity and has academic editors who think about the reviews. At all but the most dis-functional universities, this will weigh in at almost the same weight in the tenure process or postdoc hunt. Where it gets tricky is for postdocs. Sadly single name journals and their progeny have a cachet in the job hunt that does not live up to their quality. However, I was very pleased that one of my current postdocs, who is outstanding and one of whose papers went through exactly the process you are describing, just got offered four very nice positions without a pub in a single name journals and their progeny. Also, one of his pubs in Very Good journal has nearly 60 citations in 2.5 years.

queenrandom said...

You know, I've had an editor for a CNS journal tell me that the impact of the journal really doesn't matter as much as the impact of the paper, which these days is much less correlated with the journal impact than it used to be. So, I lean toward the Very Good Journal route (although always taking this route could lead to selling oneself short). More papers, quicker papers. In fact, this is exactly what I am doing to publish my thesis research; I need rapid publication so I'm submitting to a very good journal that is known for its fast review process; my mentor and I sat down and looked at journals by turnaround time and picked the highest impact for a quicker turnaround. But I think it's a tad more important for students & other trainees to have the quicker review; my views will probably shift when I get my own lab. Ultimately I think its highly dependent on when you need the paper to be published.

inBetween said...

This has happened to me twice, and the second time I foolishly sent it to three different JOURNALs and one VERY GOOD JOURNAL, all with the same result. So, two years pass and my best work ever is still unpublished and now in review at A PRETTY OK JOURNAL. At least I already have tenure, but the damage to my faith in peer review is permanent.

I just love being rejected by a journal who says may study population isn't appropriate for their broad audience, only to see them publish data from the exact same population by another research group (with a more limited-scope research question) 6 months later...

Anonymous said...

I've had mixed results at Science and Nature. I tend to agree with most of those posting here - it helps at these journals to have a well-known co-author. I have plenty of publications at very good journals that have been cited a lot - so I think they had impact on my field even though they weren't published in Science or Nature. And my biggest impact work was rejected at those venues without review. At least it was done quickly and I could go ahead and publish in my field's letters journal. My NSF program manager routinely shows this work at conferences; maybe that is better than Science and Nature?

As for how your academic home views all this, I guess none of you work where I work (engineering college at a large public university). At annual evaluation time I was once chastised for only having two publications. My response: but one was in Nature and the other was in Science. My dean's response: that is still two.

Alex said...

The only time I've ever submitted to Journal (or the other Journal) was when my boss absolutely insisted that we submit there. And he insisted _after_ the work had already been turned down at a Very Good Journal. I wasn't the lead author, so I let the lead author fight (and lose) that battle. And he got a very quick rejection from Journal. Followed by a very quick rejection from other Journal (at the boss's insistence) and then a very quick rejection from the third Journal (at the boss's insistence) (and since there were 3 Journals you can deduce that this was biomedical-related).

At this point, we should have just taken 2 weeks to revise, polish up a few things, maybe do 1 more little experiment and redo a figure, and then send it to a Decent Journal intended for a very different audience. However, the boss insisted on this long string of submissions that had zero chance of happening, and in the end it was accepted at a place that was probably less prestigious than it should have gotten into. I blame the boss for demanding quick-fire submissions to a bunch of different places rather than pausing to rework it.

Don't ask me why the boss requested this.

Anonymous said...

A couple of years ago I was interested in applying for a generic postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Sydney, so I emailed the HOD of the dept I was interested in working in. I received a really nice email from the HOD that also informed me that without a pub in journal I would be unable to successfully compete. So that's why we keep sending stuff off, with a certain amount of cynicism.

OTOH, a common view in my field is also that Journal publishes 'showy' science rather than real advances. So you can have it both ways, and neither is good.

Anonymous said...

In my field I see no evidence whatsoever that papers in Journal actually have higher quality in any sense. They are rather (in someone's opinion) more newsworthy, both literally and figuratively - that is, the popular press looks to them to decide what is important in current research and I think the editors make their decisions with that in mind. I have never published in these journals - I have been a co-author on some manuscripts that were rejected but never submitted anything as first author - and I have received tenure and promotions and even an award or two. Perhaps my field is just less enslaved to Journal than some others.

John V said...

Science and Nature papers are accepted by their editors because they project high general interest and scientific advance. After a few years, however, merit is generally measured by citation count or simply content, and the journal counts for much less.

There seems to be confusion between papers being good because they are published in those journals and good papers being published there. No review process is perfect, and certainly many excellent papers appear elsewhere, but Science and Nature have many excellent papers, and no doubt a few that are flatly wrong or useless. I find their reviewers generally very perceptive and thorough.

The value of publishing in Science and Nature has diminished as many universities now have people who distribute press releases about hot research, which used to be the more exclusive domain of the journals. Often results do not even have to be published now to get wide and sensationalist coverage.

Anonymous said...

Sure, there are good papers in Science and Nature, as in other high-end journals. I just don't see the evidence that papers in Science and Nature are better than others on average - they are just splashier. In many cases I think the splashiness leads to papers being accepted which would actually not have made it through in other journals.

In my limited experience I do see some evidence of what FSP describes with biased reviewers. Some reviewers may well become more hostile when reviewing for Science and Nature because they feel more jealous when competitors publish there compared to elsewhere.

EliRabett said...

That's what they invented arXiv for

Dave Backus said...

Isn't the question whether peers and people deciding on promotion and tenure are capable of judging quality independent of where the piece is published? If they are, there's all the more reason to get it out and perhaps avoid Journal in the first place.

Anonymous said...

Do people think there is a difference between the different "high impact" single-word titled journals in terms of editorial speed/fairness, need for a very big-name author on the paper, etc.?

EuropeanFemaleScienceProfessor said...

Just had that happen to me, and boy, was I pissed. Only one negative reviewer, and I *know* it's they guy I was blasting (as politely as I could). Oh well.

I was considering just publishing it to my web site when a low-level conference popped up. I chopped the paper in half (it was for a journal), submitted it, it was "pseudo-reviewed" there, and it was "accepted". This will at least get it published, although I have to travel to give it....

Let's dump this all and go for open peer review - let the reviewers comments be backed by their names!

Anonymous said...

Go for the Very Good Journal. With hirsch-indexes, estimated potential citations will not matter for much longer. All we hear about in our faculty now are h-indexes.