Monday, November 12, 2012

Rejected by Science, yet again!

I've just had another rejection from Science magazine. My previous rejection from Science came almost instantaneously. It didn't pass the initial scan, and I heard back within a couple of days. This one took about two weeks, which means it did make it to the "Board of Reviewing Editors" but not to the peer review stage. Here is the statement I received:

"Your manuscript was evaluated for breadth of interest and interdisciplinary significance by our Board of Reviewing Editors and by in-house staff. Your work was compared to other manuscripts that we have received in the field of social sciences. Although there were no concerns raised about the technical aspects of the study, the consensus view was that your results would be better received and appreciated by an audience of sophisticated specialists in a long paper format. Thus, the overall opinion, taking into account our limited space and distributional goals, was that your submission did not appear to provide sufficient basic insight to be considered further for presentation to the broad readership of Science."

This is quite a generic blurb. It contains nothing that indicates just what they didn't like about the paper, other than that it "did not appear to provide sufficient basic insight." My guess is that no one in archaeology, or perhaps even in the social sciences, looked at the manuscript. Therefore the editors aren't able to say with confidence that it lacks basic insight, only that it appears to lack basic insight. This statement contains nothing that might help us revise the manuscript, or even a judgment on what specifically was good or bad about it.

I have complained before about bias in the selection of archaeology papers at Science. Now this could all just be my own sour grapes. Of course, I'm upset at my rejections. But conversations with a variety of colleagues suggest that my view of archaeological bias at Science is widespread. At the University of Toronto last week I was talking with colleagues about this topic, and one had a similar view of the archaeology papers that get published in the journal Nature: Nature publishes a biased selection of papers that do not accurately reflect the scope of scientific research in archaeology. For both journals, if it's not the earliest this or that, or something about a narrow range of topics not representative of research in the discipline, forget it!

A citation analysis of archaeology papers in those journals over the last ten years would be enlightening. Although not directly relevant to the issue of current bias in editorial policies, a paper by Lee Lyman, Michael O'Brien and Michael Schiffer (2005) does shed some light on the issue. They published a citation analysis for Science and Scientific American in the period 1940-2003. Their goal was to test whether the onset of the New Archaeology in the mid-1960s led to an increase in scientific articles (as judged by papers in those journals). They find,  instead, that an increase in papers began a decade earlier. (Personally I would question equating articles published in these outlets with the overall scientific content of the discipline). That article, however, does highlight some of the relevant factors in how the journal Science decides to publish archaeology, and it identifies past biases in coverage, some of which continue today.

First, they suggest that the archaeology coverage in Science focuses on "the most newsworthy archaeological phenomena. By 'newsworthy' we mean news of the 'oldest' or 'first' but also multidisciplinary pieces that catch the attention of numerous readers, scientist or not" (Lyman et al. 2005:159). They highlight the importance of "editorial choice" in determining the archaeological coverage in the journal.

Second, the graph of topics represented in Science (p.165) rings true for work since 2003. Most abundant in the period 2000-2003 were papers on  archaeometry and dating, followed by paleoenvironments, and then domestication. The other two categories -- "overviews" and "other" -- were much less frequent.

So, what about scientific archaeological research on other topics? Sorry, they are just not "newsworthy" for Science.

Lyman, R. Lee, Michael J. O'Brien, and Michael B Schiffer
    2005    Publishing archaeology in Science and Scientific American, 1940-2003. American Antiquity 70: 157-168.


Anonymous said...

Perhaps a relevant book. Recently published on the economics of scientific publishing and funding:

How Economics Shapes Science by Paula Stephan (2012)

Christopher Morehart said...

Speaking of this, I just had an article on raised field farming rejected by Nature literally (and I mean literally) two hours after I submitted it. The form rejection email suggested I try my hand at another one of the ton of journals owned by Nature Publishing. I am not saying that it should have been published, but I wonder if editors are trying to get more authors to submit to Nature's other journals. Oh well, maybe I'll shoot for Science and see if it lasts three hours...