A few years ago, I sent a manuscript to Psychological Science. I sent it there because it dealt with a problem that I thought would be of interest to a wide audience: the intersection of decision-making, human rationality, linguistics and the intersubjectivity of meaning. The editor who read the manuscript decided to reject it without sending it out for review, even though he said it was “well done” and “interesting”. However, he thought that it was better suited to a specialty journal. Not that I have anything against speciality journals–they are after all the backbone of scholarly publishing. However, when the topic of a paper is especially broad, dealing with methodological, theoretical, and meta-theoretical claims in Nobel prize-winning work, then I have to wonder what decision rule the editor was using.
You see, in the olden days, you sent a paper to a journal and you got a couple of reviews back, along with the editor’s own comments about your paper and perhaps on what to take seriously in the reviewers’ comments. You didn’t always agree with the feedback or like the decision, but at least you had a sense that the paper was peer reviewed. When an editor tells you a paper is well done and interesting, but better off in a specialty journal, you learn nothing other than something about the whims of the editorial staff, at least when you know the paper is quite sweeping.
The journal’s defence of this uninformative process is the same as that of the Old Woman Who Lived in a Shoe. It is simply inundated with so many submissions that it has to reject many without peer review (remember, in the old woman’s case, she simply didn’t know what to do). It only has so many physical paper pages on which to print its selections. Okay, I get that, not that it makes a whole lot of sense in this day and age to publish in print and regulate scientific dissemination on the basis of physical page counts. At least it doesn’t make good scientific sense (and certainly not environmental sense). It might make economic sense, but isn’t APS, which publishes Psychological Science as its flagship journal all about promoting psychology as a science? How do they reconcile that objective with the science distorting policy of a couple of editors gambling on which papers will have the greatest impact for their journal (which will boost their impact factor, thus creating even more pressure for even less transparency in reviewing since they will have to reject even more papers without much consideration). I’m not saying the editors don’t gamble well. The journal’s impact factor is great, so they must be good at picking horses. But, it leaves me wondering how committed to science this approach can be.
At any rate, what really struck me in that rejection letter was the presumption that because they were rejecting my paper that it could only be published in a specialty journal. First the assessment: “We are therefore declining further review of your paper and believe it would be a better fit for a more specialized journal.” Then the quantum of solace: “I am sorry to report such unwelcome news but I hope that the quick decision offers some compensation. Also, I want to mention that, because the journal receives so many manuscripts (nearly 2,600 new submissions last year), roughly two out of three submitted manuscripts are declined during this initial evaluation.”
Okay…. we know you’re popular, but why presume the news is “such unwelcome news”? “Unwelcome news” is presumptuous enough, but such unwelcome news! If the editor had said this unwelcome news, it would have been one thing, but such in this context has a different meaning. I presume editors choose their words carefully, so the presumptuousness was intentional. But maybe I am being too charitable. After all, when I read that the “quick decision” might offer “compensation”, I had to laugh. Really? Is it professional for editors to infer the psychological reactions of authors? I think it is just awful, condescending behaviour. A more appropriate sentence would be “I regret having to reject your manuscript, but I do hope that the rapid turnaround on our review process was at least beneficial in allowing you now to plan your next steps.” Or something along those lines. In case it’s not clear, “quick decision” might be interpreted as one that was made automatically with little reasoned effort–what is popularly called “System 1” thinking these days, or “thinking fast”–jargon and metaphor, respectively, for automaticity.
As if that wasn’t bad enough, then the rub: “Finally, it’s worth noting that our experience is that manuscripts declined by Psychological Science are typically well received by excellent specialty journals. I wish you much success publishing PSCI-XX-XXXX in such a journal, and I encourage you to continue to consider Psychological Science as an outlet for your work.” Okay, I get it! You really don’t think my paper is worth publishing anywhere else but in a specialty journal. Indeed, you (dear editor) must be so confident in that assessment that you are only willing to wish me luck in publishing in a specialty journal. That is, you have essentially concluded that because you’ve rejected my manuscript in your generalist journal that no generalist journal anywhere would be interested in the paper. Is this the height of overconfidence in your own decision-making? I think such statements are unprofessional of a journal editor, not to mention unnecessary. First, you presume my psychological reactions, then you forecast my ostensibly limited options.
The paper in question was eventually published in JEP: General. Not exactly a specialty journal, unless you call your speciality psychology.
At any rate, time passes. Then, towards the end of last year, I submitted a manuscript on an entirely different topic to Psychological Science. Amazingly, the editor even sent it out for review. One review was mainly positive; the other mainly negative. The Editor claimed to have “perused” my manuscript as well. Now peruse is an interesting choice of words since it can mean almost opposite things, and it is unclear what meaning this editor intended. It could mean he considered it with attention and in detail, or it could mean he looked it over in a casual or cursory manner. As a small suggestion, I’d recommend less ambiguous terms. Given that the editor did not pick up on a very clear error made by one reviewer (who thought I was analyzing four data bases when in fact I had analyzed five–and, yes, for reasons I won’t go into, that mattered; or at least it would have, had it been true), and indeed repeated the error in his own comments, I must conclude that perused in this instance meant reading in a cursory manner. At any rate, that’s not the main point.
What caught my attention was the penultimate line: “I wish you well with this project and I hope the reviews are useful as you revise the manuscript for a specialty journal.” Whaaaaaat? This was even weirder than last time because the issue of generality-specificity of the topic didn’t even come up in the editor’s or reviewers’ comments. What this also made clear is that the view expressed by the first editor is not an isolated example. Is this Psychological Science’s editorial policy? To assume that the papers they reject would only be acceptable to speciality journals? It seems the editors are not content with rejecting papers from their generalist journal, they implicitly reject authors’ papers from all generalist journals.
Anyway, the paper in question was recently accepted for publication in PLoS ONE. Last time I checked, that journal is a tad more general than Psychological Science.
The reviewing process was also quite a contrast. Instead of telling me how selective they are and where I might be able to publish my manuscript, the editor at PLoS ONE actually said that the paper won’t get published for telling a particularly great story or because of how they forecast its impact. Rather, he said, “What you will need to do is to be very transparent about what your data show and do not show. Please try to be as objective as you can. You will eventually get this paper published in PLOS ONE not for a particularly great story that is hardly supported by the data, but for a scientifically sound study and a similarly sound interpretation of the data.” Wow, isn’t that refreshing? It reminds me of what I’ve always thought science dissemination should be like. The difference in approach raises a much more general issue that deserves a separate post–namely, the economics of science dissemination under the paid subscription hardcopy and open access digital only models, and how those economic models affect the quality of science itself.
But, here I have a much smaller aim: simply a word of advice to Psychological Science editors about their rejection letters: if you only change one thing, stop assuming that the authors whose papers your reject–namely the roughly 90% you reject–have no other options for publishing to a general audience. At least, stop conveying that assumption openly in the closing statements of your action letters. It is presumptuous, unnecessary, and unprofessional.
Finally–and this is directly to those editors, present and future–if I should give your journal another chance at some point in the future, please do not hold this free advice against me. That too would be unprofessional. Editors, like authors, should be grateful for, and act on, constructive feedback.