Friday, October 12, 2012

Don't take it too hard

This one appeared yesterday on Nature news.


A study of scientific papers’ histories from submission to publication unearths some unexpected patterns

Just had your paper rejected? Don’t worry – that might boost its eventual citation tally. An excavation of the usually hidden trajectories of scientific papers from journal to journal before publication has found that papers published in a journal after having first been submitted and rejected elsewhere receive significantly more citations on average than ones submitted only to that journal.

This is one of the unexpected insights offered by the study, conducted by Vincent Calcagno of the French Institute for Agricultural Research in Sophia-Antipolis and his colleagues [1]. They have tracked the submission histories of 80,748 scientific articles published among 923 journals between 2006 an 2008, based on the information provided by the papers’ authors.

Using this information, the researchers constructed a network of manuscript flows: a link exists between two journals if a manuscript initially submitted to one of them was rejected and subsequently submitted to the other. The links therefore have a directional character, like flows in a river network.

“The authors should be commended for assembling this previously hidden data”, says physicist Sidney Redner of Boston University, a specialist on networks of scientific citation.

Some of what Calcagno and colleagues found was unsurprising. On the whole, the network was modular, composed of distinct clusters that corresponded to subject categories, such as plant sciences, genetics and developmental biology, and with rather little movement of manuscripts between journals in different categories.

It’s no surprise too that the highest-impact journals, such as Nature and Science, are central to the network. What was less expected is that these journals publish a higher proportion of papers of papers previously submitted elsewhere, relative to more specialized and lower-impact publications.

“We expected the opposite trend, and the result is at first sight paradoxical”, says Calcagno. But Michael Schreiber, an expert in bibliometrics at the Technical University of Chemnitz in Germany, argues that this “is not surprising if you turn it around: it means that lower-impact journals get fewer resubmissions.” For one thing, he says, there are more low-impact journals, so resubmissions are more widely spread. And second, low-impact journals will have a lower threshold for acceptance and so will accept more first-time submissions.

On the whole, however, there are surprisingly few resubmissions. Three-quarters of all published papers appear in the journal to which they are first submitted. This suggests that the scientific community is rather efficient at figuring out where their papers are best suited. Calcagno says he found this surprising: “I expected more resubmissions, in view of the journal acceptance rates I was familiar with.”

Although the papers in this study were all in the biological sciences, the findings show some agreement with a previous study of papers submitted to the leading chemistry journal Angewandte Chemie, which found that most of those rejected ended up being published in journals with a lower impact factor [2].

Whether the same trends will be found for other disciplines remains to be seen, however. “There are clear differences in publication practices of, say, mathematics or economics”, says Calcagno, and he thinks these might alter the proportions of resubmissions.

Perhaps the most surprising finding of the work is that papers published after having been previously submitted to another journal are more highly cited on average than papers in the same journal that haven’t been – regardless of whether the resubmissions moved to journals with higher or lower impact.

Calcagno and colleagues think that this reflects the improving influence of peer review: the input from referees and editors makes papers better, even if they get rejected initially.

It’s a heartening idea. “Given the headaches encountered during refereeing by all parties involved, it is gratifying that there is some benefit, at least by citation counts”, says Redner.

But that interpretation has yet to be verified, and contrasts with previous studies of publication histories which found that very few manuscripts change substantially between initial submission and eventual publication [2].

Nonetheless, there is apparently some reason to be patient with your paper’s critics – they’ll do you good in the end. “These results should help authors endure the frustration associated with long resubmission processes”, say the researchers.

On the other hand, the conclusions that Schreiber draws for journal editors might please authors less: “Reject more, because more rejections improve quality.”

1. Calcagno, V. et al., Science Express doi: 10.1126/science.1227833 (2012).
2. Bornmann, L. & Daniel, H.-D. Angew. Chem. Int. Ed. 47, 7173-7178 (2008).

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