Study of research manuscript submissions shows initial rejection may lead to higher impact

A large-scale survey of the process for submitting research papers to scientific journals has revealed a surprising pattern: manuscripts that were turned down by one journal and published in another received significantly more citations than those that were published by the first journal to receive them.

The study, led by researchers at McGill University and published by the journal Science, covered papers carried in 923 journals from the biological sciences between 2006 and 2008. The researchers generated an email to the corresponding authors of virtually all articles published during that period in 16 subject categories. This computerized survey retrieved the submission history of more than 80,000 articles – 37% of the more than 215,000 articles covered by the survey.

The findings shed new light on pre-publication processes, which constitute a significant amount of the time allocated to scientific research. Roughly three-quarters of all articles were initially targeted to the journal that would eventually publish them, indicating that authors were generally efficient at targeting their research and limiting the risk of rejection. Surprisingly, however, articles that were rejected by one journal and resubmitted to another were significantly more cited than “first-intent” articles published the same year in the same journal.

“We think the most likely explanation is that inputs from editors and peer reviewers, and the greater amount of time spent working on resubmissions, makes papers better and improves the citation impact of the final product,” said Vincent Calcagno, who initiated the project as a postdoctoral fellow in theoretical ecology at McGill and completed it after moving to France’s Institut national de la recherche agronomique. Calcagno co-authored the paper with Prof. Claire de Mazancourt, his former supervisor at McGill’s Redpath Museum who is now working for the Centre national de la recherche scientifique in France, as well as Emilie Demoinet of McGill’s Department of Biology; then-undergraduate student Kathleen Gollner; Prof. Derek Ruths of McGill’s Department of Computer Science and Lionel Guidi of the University of Hawaii.

The findings also suggest that researchers may benefit from the strategy of publishing groups that facilitate resubmission of declined manuscripts to other journals of the group. “These results should help authors endure the frustration associated with long resubmission processes and encourage them to take the challenge,” the researchers conclude.

One notable caveat: the survey found that papers resubmitted from a journal in one discipline category to a journal in a different category yielded lower impact after publication than those resubmitted to the same discipline category. While many academic experts have been calling for more interdisciplinary research, “what this suggests is that, for some reason, there may be barriers to this kind of interdisciplinary work gaining the same degree of impact as research done and published within their own (academic) communities” Prof. Ruths noted.

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