The only winning move is not to play
March 19, 2013
I find myself reading a lot recently about “portable peer-review” — posts like Take me as I am, and my paper as it is? by scicurious at Neurotic Physiology, which excellently diagnoses a terrible, wasteful problem in scientific publishing:
My papers don’t often get in with minor revisions. Often I’ve got a ridiculously puffed head about my own work (apparently), and send them to places which reject them out of hand, or suggest major revisions and piles of new experiments which we just cannot do for various reasons. Then the paper ends up shuttled around. Send it in, wait 3 months, get rejected. Reformat (+2 mo or even more depending on collaborators and how much other crap you’ve got on your plate at the time) and send it out again. Years go by. In the meantime, suggested reviewers begin to hate me and I run out of new ones (only so many people in the field!).
I really wish there was a way to get out of this. This sort of thing contributes to the long lag times and slowness of scientific advance.
What a waste! What a drag on the progress of science! What a ridiculous situation we’re got ourselves into, with our chasing-after-prestigious-journals games.
An inadequate solution
The solution proposed by scicurious is:
You submit a paper to a large umbrella of journals of several “tiers”. It goes out for review. The reviewers make their criticisms. Then they say “this paper is fine, but it’s not impactful enough for journal X unless major experiments A, B, and C are done. However, it could fit into journal Y with only experiment A, or into journal Z with only minor revisions”.
As an incremental improvement on the current system, this is good, if rather impractical to implement.
But it doesn’t go nearly far enough. It still wastes time by going to multiple journals, probably with different formatting requirements, requiring assessment (albeit more lightweight) by several editors. And it does all that in the name of getting a designer label onto the paper by placing it in a “good” journal.
What are we, fourteen?
High-school kids are dumb enough to judge other kids by how fashionable their clothes are, by the labels on them, by whether they’re the clothes other kids think are cool.
Have we really not got beyond that?
The ugly truth
Trying to get into “good” journals is an idiot game. (Notice I don’t say “an idiot’s game” — more on this distinction below.) Although the political and bean-counting value of getting into Nature is huge, the scientific value of getting into Nature is zero. A paper in Nature is literally no better at all than the same paper would be in PLOS ONE. (In fact, it’s probably less good, because it will be butchered to fit the draconian space requirements.) Spending time and effort in trying to get a given piece of research into Nature is just about the least useful thing that can be done for that research.
I think deep down everyone knows this. But of course scientists still waste innumerable hours formatting their work first for Nature, then for Science when it gets rejected, then for PNAS when it gets rejected again, and so on “down the ladder”. But that direction is only “down” by agreement. And the reason of course is because it’s widely (though not universally) believed that wearing these designer clothes is the way to get jobs and grants. That’s why people who are not idiots play this idiot game.
(Thanks heavens for funders and assessors who explicitly state that the journal a work is published in has no effect on how it’s evaluated. You can find such statements from The Wellcome Trust, and regarding the Research Excellence Framework (REF). I want to see more granting and evaluation bodies make similar statements, and I look forward to seeing a university hiring policy that says the same.)
A better way
Happily for me, I don’t need a job or a grant, so I have the luxury of standing on the sidelines, shaking my head sagely yet smugly at the ridiculous manouevres happening on the pitch.
I admit to my shame that I have played the getting-into-a-good-journal game in the past, just because I blindly copied what I saw my colleagues doing without really thinking about it. One result is that our neck-anatomy paper was needlessly held up for more than four years. No-one benefits from these delays. They are a completely avoidable net loss for science.
No more. I am done with having my work rejected for spurious (i.e. non-scientific reasons). I’m only planning on submitting to journals that don’t do that. I reject the idiot notion that the natural lifecycle of a piece of work involves multiple submissions-review-reject cycles. From now on, my cycle is: do some work, write it up, submit it, see it published, move on to the next thing.
And note that “move on to the next thing” is a crucial step here. What really burns me is not the four-year delays on the papers I mentioned above, but all the other work that I’ve not done because I’ve been buggering about, excuse my French, with the corpses of these long-dead projects instead of getting the next thing done. And if that’s true for me, I bet it’s true for you, as well. Yes, you, reading this!
As of now, except in exceptional circumstances, my plan is only to submit to venues where I know scientifically sound work will be accepted. That means “megajournals” like PLOS ONE, PeerJ and (I don’t know, I will look into it) maybe some or all BMC journals. It also means edited volumes that I’m invited to contribute to (though they have their own issues). It probably also means certain other journals, such as PalArch, though they don’t make it explicit (and it would be good if they did).
First clarification: to be clear, I am not arrogant enough to think this means I will never again have a paper rejected. No doubt there will be occasions where I’ve made significant scientific errors, and reviewers will have to point those out and recommend rejection. I don’t mind that: it’s peer-review actually doing its job, and I’d rather fix those mistakes before publication. What I’m done with is rejections on the basis of “not impacty enough for this journal”, or the often equally specious “not a good fit”.
Second clarification: I don’t absolutely rule out exceptions. There might be occasions where, say, an impact-selective journal announces plans to put out a special volume that I want to be part of. I might submit to that; then again, I might not. I’ll judge it as it comes. But the point is, any exceptions will be exceptions. When I start thinking “where shall I send this?”, my list won’t start with Palaeontology and JVP. I’m glad to have got those notches on my bedpost, but I don’t feel any great need to go back to them.
Third clarification: I do understand that others might not be in a position to make the same leap. I am 99.7% certain that Darren won’t, for example, as he is convinced of the absolute necessity of Science‘n’Nature papers to advance his career. Matt, on the other hand, can and I think will — he’s got a tenure-track job at a university that he likes, has no plans to move on, and doesn’t need “prestigious” papers for his tenure case, only good ones.
(It pained me to have to make that distinction. What a stupid world, where “prestigious papers” and “good papers” are not synonymous, and don’t even overlap that much.)
But for people who, like me, don’t need to have an eye on the possible job-power of “prestige”, it seems obviously better to do what advances science best and fastest. And what a tragedy that advancing science isn’t what gets jobs.