Comments On The Peer-Review Journal Publication Process And Recommedations For Improvement

In the February 2010 issue of the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society, there is an informative well-written article by

Schultz, David M., 2010: Rejection Rates for Journals Publishing in the Atmospheric Sciences. Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society. 231–243.

The inappropriate experience with the publication process that Ross McKitrick has informed us about – see [and which I have also experienced] makes reading this article by David Schultz very informative.

Among his findings is the unique role of the magazines Nature and Science in terms of their rejection rate. Nature’s rejection rate is listed as 91%. While this is inevitable given the limited number of paper that they can publish, but it also means they are a narrow gatekeeper with an enormous opportunity to control what is considered (by them) to be of importance in science.

Schultz writes

“Nature and Science take this approach [of editorial control] to the extreme. With over 10,000 manuscript submissions a year, Nature, with a 2008 rejection rate of 91.95% (up from 91.45% in 2006, and increasing every year as the number of submissions increases……admits to having “to decline many papers of very high quality but of insufficient interest to their specific readership…..Similarly, Science says that, “priority is given to papers that reveal novel concepts of broad interest…. returning a large unstated fraction of submitted manuscripts to authors without peer review. Clearly, receiving such a large number of submissions from a large number of disciplines vying for a small number of printed pages requires heavy editorial pruning.”

In Table 1 of the paper title “Possible factors affecting the rejection rates at atmospheric science journals” the role of the Editor as a gatekeeper is summarized with his text

“…the editors—the people who decide to reject or accept based on reviewer recommendations—clearly affect the rejection rate. Specifically, a simple physical model (Schultz 2009a) can explain the editor rejection rate as a function of the probability of reviewers recommending rejection, the number of reviewers, and the editor’s decisionmaking strategy  (i.e., reject when at least one reviewer recommends rejection, reject when a majority of reviewers recommend rejection, reject when all reviewers recommend rejection).”

This indicates that the ability of the Editor of a peer-reviewed journal to be a gatekeeper is broader than just Nature and Science (as Ross’s has documented).  As Schultz writes

”….the policy of some journals is to reject manuscripts that require more than minor revisions to keep time to publication short and the quality high (e.g., Famiglietti 2007).”

Based on my experience as an Editor [e.g. as Chief Editor of the Monthly Weather Review and Co-Chief Editor of the Journal of Atmospheric Science], if an editor adopts the policy of rejection when just one reviewer recommends rejection, but the other reviewer(s) do not, he has inappropriately suppressed a paper that could be an important scientific contribution.  Such a policy is ripe for abuse as we have seen documented in the experience of Ross McKitrick.

There is also another issue. There is also a reward system for publication in certain journals such as Nature and Science. At Colorado State University, for example, in their ecology program, Nature and Science publications were weighted much more heavily than other professional journals when a candidate was being considered for promotion and tenure.  The journal Physics Today has an article in its March 2010 issue by

Day, Charles , 2010: Physics in China. March  pages 33-38

where it is reported that

“Some universities in China, not necessarily the best ones, reward the authors of papers published in Nature, Science, and other high-impact journals with bonuses comparable to one’s annual salary.”

It is clear from these examples, the Schultz 2010 paper, and from the experiences of Ross McKitrick, as well as my personal experiences which I will continue to document, that there is a serious problem with the peer review. process.

To remedy this serious concern, I have the following recommendations:

  • papers which receive just one recommendation for rejection should not be a sufficient reason for the Editor to prevent its publication.  If an editor is considering reject for just one review, the other reviewers should be consulted first to ascertain if the reason for the rejection is robust. If not, the paper should be published.
  • for all papers (accepted and rejected), all of the reviews (anonymous unless the reviewer indicates otherwise) and the Editor’s decision should be made available online and publically available.

Only with this openness, can we restore confidence in the peer review process.

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