Q: Can journal rejections sometimes work to your advantage?

Detailed Question -

My manuscript has been rejected by my two preferred journals even though I incorporated the peer reviewers’ comments. The other journals in my field have lower impact factors than I would want to publish in. What should I do?

1 Answer to this question

Having your paper rejected by a journal can be disheartening, but I have some good news: papers that are rejected before publication may actually attract more citations when they are eventually published!

This trend was discovered in a recent study published in Science, entitled “Flows of research manuscripts among scientific journals reveal hidden submission patterns.” The authors, Calcagno and colleagues, were aware of the long journal submission process and how rejections routinely delay publication, and wanted to find out whether the process could be hastened if authors submitted their papers to lower-impact-factor journals at the outset.

In this study, the authors sampled bioscience papers published between 2006 and 2008 across 16 specific subject areas. They contacted the corresponding authors listed on these papers and sent them a short survey to determine whether the sampled papers had previously been rejected by another journal and, if so, which journal (the last rejecting journal). They received responses from 80,000 of 200,000 authors contacted.

They then mapped the rejecting journals mentioned by the authors to determine patterns in the flow of manuscripts. As expected, the journals Nature and Science were at the center of the maps, indicating that maximum papers were rejected by these journals before they were published elsewhere. Further, most manuscripts that were rejected were subsequently published in a journal with a lower impact factor.

This study also had some unexpected results. First, 75% of the surveyed authors said that their papers had not been rejected previously. On the basis of this finding, the study authors concluded that in general, bioscience manuscripts are submitted to appropriate journals, in which they are likely to be accepted at the first instance itself. Now this finding has been widely debated among scientific communication circles on Nature News and The Scientist, because it may not be adequately representative of the general flow of submissions.

But here’s the most interesting part.

This study found that citation counts were higher for papers that had been previously rejected than for papers that were published without prior rejection. Moreover, this trend was true regardless of the journal impact factor. This seems to indicate that peer reviewer comments received on submission to high-impact-factor journals help improve the final quality of papers, even if they are subsequently published in a journal with a lower impact factor.

So I think authors facing rejection must not worry too much and instead improve their papers as per the peer reviewer comments and hope to attract more citations on subsequent publication.

There is also something to learn from history.

In the late 1960s, an economist went through rejections from three journals before eventually publishing the paper, “The Market for ‘Lemons’: Quality Uncertainty and the Market Mechanism,” which went on to become one of the most influential papers in economics. The author, Prof. Akerlof, was awarded the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences in 2001.

To conclude, I would request you to not be discouraged by the situation you are in. Even if you have to submit your paper to a journal with a lower impact factor than expected, the citation count of your paper, when it is eventually published, may be higher than it would have been if your paper were accepted at the first attempt, because you have incorporated the peer reviewer comments from your first two submissions.

Good luck with your submission! Let me know how it turns out.

What do you think of the above study on flows of research manuscripts? Do get back with your views and comments.