Noting rejection rates for journals across disciplines (from 1967)

One of the anti-PLOSone arguments is that its acceptance rate is too high at about 70%. Since I had my RK Merton compendium open to this article, I thought I would quote some bits to backup my argument that the anti-PLOSone folks are completely full of crap on this point.  Here's the citation:

Zuckerman, H., & Merton, R. K. (1971). Patterns of Evaluation in Science: Institutionalization, Structure and Functions of the Referee System. Minerva, 9(1), 66-100. (I believe this might be in JSTOR if you're at an academic institution, but it's also reprinted in Merton, R. K. (1973). The sociology of science: theoretical and empirical investigations. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. Find in a library.)

Table 1 (p 471 in the book)

Rates of Rejecting Manuscripts for Publication in Scientific and Humanistic Journals, 1967

  Mean Rejection Rate % Number of Journals
History 90 3
Language and Literature 86 5
Philosophy 85 5
Political Science 84 2
Sociology 78 14
Psychology (excl. experimental and physiological) 70 7
Economics 69 4
Experimental and physiological psychology 51 2
Math and statistics 50 5
Anthropology 48 2
Chemistry 31 5
Geography 30 2
Biological Sciences 29 12
Physics 24 12
Geology 22 2
Linguistics 21 1




from page 472

The pattern of differences between fields and within fields can be described in the same rule of thumb: the more humanistically oriented the journal, the higher the rate of rejecting manuscripts for publication; the more experimentally and observationally oriented, with an emphasis on rigor of observation and analysis, the lower the rate of rejection.

These variations in the institutional behavior of learned journals may in part reflect differences in the extent of agreement on standards of scholarship in the various disciplines.

So what explains the high rejection rates of the mega glamour mags? Obviously requires more analysis, but they're more about attention than communicating within a particular community so they work differently. You might say that it's appropriate to compare PLOSone with a mega glamour mag, but clearly based on the stated editorial philosophy, that's not the way it is envisioned or how it's actually being run.  There's a lot more in the Zuckerman and Merton piece on this, but I'm supposed to be writing my proposal... so you'll have to read it yourself.

Oh, and yes 1967 was a long time ago, but I think this still holds.

3 responses so far

  • stripey_cat says:

    I think it could be useful to consider what % of submissions to a particular journal are totally inappropriate; the barrier to entry for humanities research is much lower than for the sciences (pencil and paper versus lab and funding!), so you'll likely get more cranks, over-optimistic undergrads and papers written for no real reason. Nature and Science are so high-profile that I suspect a lot of papers are submitted on the off-chance of getting in, rather than because the author really thinks they're up to scratch; I also suspect that a much higher proportion of otherwise-acceptable papers are refused for lack of space.
    (Note this is the sort of random hypothesising I'm talking about in the first paragraph - no evidence to see!)

  • G.D. says:

    Another hypothesis for the difference in acceptance rates: In the humanities, there seems (I might be wrong; please correct me if I am) a far larger proportion general journals (accepting papers from basically any field in, say, philosophy, where the quality is the only judge) than there is in the natural sciences, which seem (again, I might be wrong) to have many more rather specialized journals.
    How can this fact (if it is a fact) explain the difference in acceptance rates? Because it creates a situation where authors in the humanities to a much larger extent go journal shopping - no matter the topic of the paper, you submit it first to the top-rated journal, then (with minor revisions) to the second-rated, and so on - I've heard about papers being submitted five or six times to various journal - rather than sending it immediately to a journal specializing on the particular topic of the paper (and giving it up if it isn't accepted there).
    Thus, if this is correct, we have the following situation: in many of the natural sciences, papers are submitted directly to an appropriate journal, where the number of papers submitted only relatively modestly exceeds the number of papers published. In the humanities, however, the total number of submissions is much, much higher compared to the number actually published simply because, statistically, each paper is submitted many more times (and gets rejected several times before being published) than in the natural sciences.
    Ok, just a random hypothesis

  • John V. Karavitis Rejection rates have to be high, else these peer-reviewed journals would lose all credibility. Besides, how much really "new and original" work is out there? Most PhD-level work is just research on the minutiae of already-restablished research. "There's nothing new under the sun", as they say. So you have to be as strict as possible without completely stifling research. You want real research, not charlatanism, yes? John V. Karavitis