It’s time for a rant again, one that has been simmering for a long time now. The topic: the way some journals pervert the review process in order to make their stats look better than they are.
Good statistics? What’s that?
Basically, most journals want to present themselves as
- publishing only the best research, and
- publishing quickly, and
- getting cited a lot.
Let’s ignore the last point for today, and focus on the first two. There is an easy trick for “improving” both in one go. And that’s to do with how you handle papers that need revisions.
Normally, when an editor sends a paper out for review, it comes back with one of the following recommendations:
- Publish as is
- Minor revisions
- Major revisions
For arguments sake, let’s say there is a paper that both reviewers recommend be accepted pending minor revisions. And the reviewers did a good job: the paper is indeed almost perfect; it needs but a few days work to make it ready for printing.
In this case, I’d expect the editor to send the paper back to the authors with the request to either make the changes the reviewers want, or rebut them in a letter to the editor. That’ll take a week or two (or maybe three if the author(s) happen(s) to be in the field or on holiday), and that’s that.
How a “no!” may mean a “yes!”, but make the journal look better
What in fact often happens is that the paper is rejected. Yep, rejected! Not because the journal doesn’t want to publish the paper. Not because the revisions would take very long, so that there is a high risk of the paper requiring a second round of reviews to check if new publications published in the interim need to be addressed, too. Not because there may be a major change in the paper’s content caused by revisions.
No, the reason is usually two-fold:
- it drives up the journal’s rejection rate
- it shortens the journal’s turn-around time.
And this works this way: the paper may be re-submitted, and quite often the editor asks the author(s) to re-submit, but it still counts as rejected. Some journals are honest, and count papers that are later published not as ‘rejected’, but most don’t. And then the journal turns around as says “Look at our high rejections rate – we publish only the BEST stuff there is!”
Ah, no, I say, in fact you publish a lot of stuff that you still shove into your “rejection” rate. You may actually be publishing any BS sent your way, but your reject it once or twice first, which gives you a 50% or so rejection rate outright. DUH!
As for 2., that’s equally easy to see: the paper will very likely be altered and re-submitted. The date on the final version, the one that appears in print, should then be the one of the original, first submission – but whenever I have seen this entire thing happen as a reviewer, it was usually the date of the second submission that was on the paper. This cuts out all the initial editor assessment, review, review collation times. That’s nothing but cheating, but there you go.
What to do about this?
Well, I wouldn’t know. As an author, if you get one of those “rejected, please re-submit” emails, you know your paper needs only minor changes, and very likely will either not require a review (I have seen that happen!), or the review will be by the very same reviewers (provided they agree), thus fast and positive if you make the changes. So why would you send your paper elsewhere? You’d just risk additional trouble – stupid reviews, stupid editors, and so on.
So all we can do is make “blacklists” of journals that play this stupid game – but that needs to be done very cautiously, so that there are no erroneous entries. Thus, we can’t really do this publicly. I, for one, know a journal or two I will never submit to (again, in one case). At least not while the current editorial team is still there. And that’s about all I can do.