Monday, August 24, 2015

Why was my paper rejected ?

Just got a tip from Retraction Watch for this paper:

Phillips, David
    2015    Who gets published? Comparative Education 51(3): 303-304.

Phillips present a list of common reasons for the rejection of manuscripts from journals in the field of education research:
  1. ·         wrong journal;
  2. ·         too long/short;
  3. ·         journalism;
  4. ·         extract from report/dissertation unadapted;
  5. ·         no clear topic;
  6.          too little context;
  7. ·         too little theory;
  8. ·         clear gaps in literature;
  9. ·         polemical;
  10. ·         research not fully explained;
  11. ·         failure to relate findings/conclusions to aims/theory/literature;
  12. ·         language/style not checked;
  13. ·         text not proofread;
  14. ·         not situatedin comparative education [or in the appropriate discipline]
  15. ·         plagiarism/legal issues.
My first reaction was, "I'm not sure how helpful this is." Anyone who is a graduate student or a professional ought to know these things. They are taught in graduate seminars, they are taught in the professional socialization that goes on in graduate programs and academic departments. They should be pretty obvious. But then I thought about the most recent paper I have reviewed for a journal. It was the second-worst paper I have reviewed in over 30 years of reviewing manuscripts. This paper had defects #: 2, #5, #6, #7, #8, #10, #11, and #14. So perhaps lists of factors like this do have some value.

So, why are MY papers being rejected these days? Not counting rejections from Science or Nature (see discussion here), I have have a bunch of rejections over the past 3 years, compared to only a single rejection (that I can recall) in the rest of my career. I don't think the quality of my work has declined. A major reason for the rejections is that the work is interdisciplinary or transdisciplinary. My colleague Sander Van Der Leeuw warned that as I got into transdisciplinary research, I might have trouble getting papers published. Most journals are disciplinary in focus, an orientation that is reinforced by the reviewers they use. The metaphorical disciplinary silos are alive and well in the world of academic journals.

 I had two papers rejected by American Anthropologist. In both cases I was using methods and concepts from  one or more (non-anthropological) disciplines, and made the point that perhaps anthropologists might want to pay attention to these other fields. Well, maybe not..... (click here for my intellectual dissatisfaction with the discipline of anthropology). One paper was resubmitted to the top journal in the field of Urban Studies (with a higher impact factor than AA. Ha!), and it is now published. The other is still being revised. An interdisciplinary paper that I think is important and exciting has now been rejected by three journals. Maybe fourth time around is the charm.

While I hate to admit this, the lesson here may be that younger scholars should refrain from publishing transdisciplinary papers. It's much easier to get a straight archaeology paper published than a paper that mixes archaeology with disciplines that might seem unlikely (e.g., economics, political science, sociology). Some of my recent (published) transdisciplinary papers have had graduate student co-authors, though, so perhaps the lesson is for younger scholars to avoid transdisciplinary single-author papers. Think about getting a senior co-author for anything out of the ordinary. I do make a bigger effort to get rejected papers with student co-authors into print elsewhere right away; I have less urgency for papers with faculty co-authors (yes, I feel very guilty about one particular paper..... Sorry!).

BUT, you can't get a paper accepted OR rejected if you don't submit it. If you are a graduate student in archaeology and you haven't published a paper yet, what are you waiting for?


Clifford T. Brown, Ph.D. said...

Funny story: I recently had what I thought was a very strong paper rejected out of hand, without review or explanation, by a top archaeology, BUT they suggested a sister journal might be interested. The other journal snapped it up and the second editor said he thought it was the most important paper he'd received in the last 5 years.

Both editors can't have made the right decision--the two journals have the same topical coverage--so maybe it is a crap shoot: random, subjective opinions by both editors and reviewers. I'm not criticizing peer-review in general, but, like peer review of grants, it's certainly fallible.

So, having a paper rejected need not be a mystery.

Clifford T. Brown, Ph.D. said...

PS--Probably good advice about young scholars avoiding transdisciplinary publications. It can be a little perilous, but the rewards are also potentially great.


Michael E. Smith said...

@CLiff - Yeah, there is far too much of these seemingly arbitrary decisions. I don't see them as problems with the peer review process itself so much as problems with the actions of individual editors.