Monday, December 14, 2009

10 ways papers are rejected

As an author, there seems to be a myriad of ways that reviewers justify rejecting papers. As a reviewer, it can be a struggle to define why a paper is unfit for publication.

My goal here is to codify ways papers are rejected. For authors, it should help to improve a paper, if not rebut criticisms, by understanding the categories by which reviewers and editors reject papers. For reviewers, it should help sharpen the key points to make to authors so that they can improve their work.

The examples I give are all from papers that I have had rejected, but subsequently were accepted later. Reading through them, I sometimes wonder how I ever got anything published.

1) Poor fit for a journal. If these were relationship break-up lines, this is the equivalent of “It’s not you, it’s me.” There rarely is a objective analysis of “fit”, so it’s an easy catch-all rejection. Higher profile journals are more likely to use this reason at the editorial stage. Here are two examples:
a. Science: “Although your analysis is interesting, we feel that the scope and focus of your paper make it more appropriate for a more specialized journal.”
b. Nature: “We do not doubt the technical quality of your work or its interest to others working in this and related areas of research. However, we are not persuaded that your findings represent a sufficiently outstanding scientific advance to justify publication in Nature.”

2) Poorly referenced. No paper can include every study, but often there is a set of studies that the coauthor is thinking about that they did not find in the paper. Usually, but not always, this means that the authors forgot to reference the reviewer.
a. Example: “the authors of this manuscript have done an extremely bad job with respect to consideration of relevant literature for their review. It is specifically the duty of a research review to consider the whole range of literature in a balanced manner”. [this comment was followed by a list of 8 papers that all had one author in common].
b. “By completing a more thorough literature review and bringing concepts and information from those reports into this one, the authors could greatly strengthen this manuscript.”

3) Assumptions. When reviewers feel that the authors make incorrect assumptions, the results often do not matter.
b. “Their analysis is based on the supposition that changes in these drivers at any one location will have the same effects on these response variables as that which is currently seen across space in their data set. This may or not be true.”

4) Hypotheses. One description is that hypotheses are weak or absent. Sometimes a paper will be referred to as anecdotal. Many papers have no formal hypotheses, but when a reviewer feels a paper is too unstructured, this point will often be made. I haven’t found any examples of these in my reviews, but I’ll dig some more.

5) Methodological flaws in acquisition or analysis of data. For example, often experiments are too experimental. Gradient analyses are too unconstrained.
a. The authors “used a highly controlled, if not overly-artificial experimental system to address several key theoretical questions in plant ecology”
b. “Unfortunately, this ms suffers in my opinion from too many methodological flaws to really increase our understanding”
c. “the authors seem to pick and choose certain variables and ignore others that have been demonstrated to have a major influence on plant isotope composition”
d. “The approach that they followed seems to be a sort of wild west expedition where they sampled as much as they could seemingly randomly”

6) Poor demonstration of stated results. Sometimes a reviewer doesn’t believe authors showed what they said they showed.
a. “I was also very concerned about the conspicuous lack of critical data: Why are so many method details and results not presented?”
b. “Although the manuscript has the potential to show some interesting trends, it does not currently deliver on its objectives.”
c. “the introduction states that the aim is to determine how landscapes interact with herbivory to determine N availability, yet this does not appear to be addressed in the rest of the manuscript.”
d. “it is not entirely clear to me what they want to show with these data.”
e. “The manuscript does not live up to our expectations”

7) Results are not novel or confirmatory. This is the most common killing comment. Although the scientific method states that results should be repeatable, there is no reason that independent confirmation should be published apparently.
a. “The results are in complete accord with a book chapter I wrote back in 1986.” [23 years before the paper. No citation given.]
b. “In this sense, the data are confirmatory.”
c. “The questions…were certainly worth exploring, but the results seem pretty clear, pretty simple, and not too surprising.”
d. “While I do appreciate the scale of your study, this doesn’t seem like a particularly novel finding”
e. “While this was a detailed fertilization experiment with many collected data, it is not clear what it contributes to our understanding of relationships between nutrient limitation and N:P ratios for a number of reasons”

8) Excessively speculative discussion. This one often doesn’t kill a paper, but in conjunction with other comments is enough for rejection.
a. “I find the discussion unnecessarily speculative in places.”

9) Length to content ratio. Again, hard to kill a paper with this, but certainly not a positive.
a. “I don't think the analysis as currently executed is interesting enough to warrant a treatment of this length”
b. “I was taken aback by the number of co-authors (23). The reported study did not exactly crack the human genome, so the laundry-list approach towards authorship may be inappropriate for this manuscript.” [I guess length to content also applies to authorship.]

10) Poor writing. One missed verb tense opens the door for this one. It's a subtle way to question the authors' scientific ability.
a. “occasionally one encounters run-on or circular sentences, which could use rewording.”
b. “In general, the writing is wordy, causing the reader to slog through unnecessary text, and in many places, the wording obfuscates the authors intended meaning.”

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