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"Gotcha reviewing": Do journals err on the side of rejection rather than acceptance?

Sneha Kulkarni | Aug 10, 2016 | 45,929 views
Have you ever fallen prey to “gotcha reviewing”?

Every researcher experiences journal rejection at some or the other juncture of his/her career. Rejection is so common that it is considered a natural part of the publication process. Some of the most common reasons for rejection of research papers include research questions not matching the scope of the journal, badly structured papers, lack of originality, flaws in study design, etc. As a matter of fact, researchers are most likely to face rejection when they submit their manuscript to high-impact journals since many of these journals have a rejection rate of more than 90%. Many researchers are of the opinion that top-tier journals are more inclined toward rejecting a paper than accepting it. Neil Herndon, the editor-in-chief of the Journal of Marketing Channels from the South China University of Technology in Guangzhou calls this phenomenon “gotcha reviewing” in an editorial.   

Herndon explains that “gotcha reviewing” occurs when a journal’s “emphasis is on finding what is wrong with a paper to provide a basis for rejection.” He attributes this behavior predominantly to selective, i.e., high-impact journals. According to him, one of the chief reasons behind this is overburdened journal editors and reviewers. Thus, the practice of refusing papers on the basis of even fixable errors is rampant. Moreover, he states that top-tier journals are known to harbor gender bias, regional bias, seniority bias, and affiliation bias. Consequently, Herndon warns, this leads to the loss of good research ideas and can be demotivating for early career researchers whose submissions are more likely to be rejected when they are pitted against senior researchers.

Many in the scholarly circles believe that there is another aspect to the screening process of journals. Journals routinely indulge in mass rejection with the intention of increasing their impact factor. They do this to imitate the top-tier journals’ acceptance rate, believing that being selective would make the journal highly attractive to authors. It has been observed that there is no correlation between a journal’s impact factor and the proportion of papers it rejects; nonetheless, this trend continues to be in vogue. What this leads to is immense waste of time and resources of researchers. Moreover, researchers are forced to cut corners in order to make their study appear novel and impactful, which is extremely damaging to science.

Is there a solution to this problem? In his editorial, Herndon proposes the idea of “developmental reviewing,” wherein the editor and reviewers attempt to salvage good research by providing guidance to authors to improve their paper rather than contemplating rejection. Developmental reviewing should be the gold standard for any journal with an objective of upholding good quality research, states Herndon. Rather than rejecting a paper based on first impressions, he proposes this:

First of all, a reviewer has to invest the time to really carefully read a paper, deeply understand its theoretical base and methodology, meticulously examine its hypotheses, statistics, and results, and see if the discussion insights, theoretical implications, managerial implications, public policy implications (if any), and future research suggestions are all supported and fit together as a unit. Only then should the reviewer begin to consider any criticism of the work and make suggestions for its improvement.

Most of us would agree with the view that the main intention of any evaluation at the journal end should be accepting and salvaging good research. However, a valid question that arises here is: Is it viable for journals flooded with submissions to play the role of mentors? Reviewers and editors are hard pressed for time owing to the ever increasing volume of publications. Additionally, editors feel pressured to maintain the impact factor of their journal. In such a scenario, they might not be inclined to play the role of guides to authors. The lack of incentives for peer reviewing, the extreme competition in academia, the pressure of maintaining a journal’s reputation, and such other factors culminate into the “gotcha” behavior. Thus, adopting developmental reviewing would require changes at various fronts, and reviewers and editors by themselves may have limited reach and success in fixing this.   

Have you ever experienced “gotcha” reviewing? In your opinion, how should journals adopt developmental reviewing while managing the volume of submissions? Please share your opinions and experiences in the comments section below. 



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