Why You Should Reject the “Rejection Improves Impact” Meme


Over the last two weeks, a meme has been making the rounds in the scientific twittersphere that goes something like “Rejection of a scientific manuscript improves its eventual impact”.  This idea is based a recent analysis of patterns of manuscript submission reported in Science by Calcagno et al., which has been actively touted in the scientific press and seems to have touched a nerve with many scientists.

Nature News reported on this article on the first day of its publication (11 Oct 2012), with the statement that “papers published after having first been rejected elsewhere receive significantly more citations on average than ones accepted on first submission” (emphasis mine). The Scientist led its piece on the same day entitled “The Benefits of Rejection” with the claim that “Chances are, if a researcher resubmits her work to another journal, it will be cited more often”. Science Insider led the next day with the claim that “Rejection before publication is rare, and for those who are forced to revise and resubmit, the process will boost your citation record”. Influential science media figure Ed Yong tweeted “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger – papers get more citations if they were initially rejected”. The message from the scientific media is clear: submitting your papers to selective journals and having them rejected is ultimately worth it, since you’ll get more citations when they are published somewhere lower down the scientific publishing food chain.

I will take on faith that the primary result of Calcagno et al. that underlies this meme is sound, since it has been vetted by the highest standard of editorial and peer review at Science magazine. However, I do note that it not possible to independently verify this result since the raw data for this analysis was not made available at the time of publication (contravening Science’s “Making Data Maximally Available Policy“), and has not been made available even after being queried. What I want to explore here is why this meme is so uncritically being propagated in the scientific press and twittersphere.

As succinctly noted by Joe Pickrell, anyone who takes even a cursory look at the basis for this claim would see that it is at best a weak effect*, and is clearly being overblown by the media and scientists alike.

Taken at face value, the way I read this graph is that papers that are rejected then published elsewhere have a median value of ~0.95 citations, whereas papers that are accepted at the first journal they are submitted to have a median value of ~0.90 citations. Although not explicitly stated in the figure legend or in the main text, I assume these results are on a natural log scale since, based on the font and layout, this plot was most likely made in R and the natural scale is the default in R (also, the authors refer the natural scale in a different figure earlier in the text). Thus, the median number of citations per article that rejection may provide an author is on the order of ~0.1.  Even if this result is on the log10 scale, this difference translates to a boost of less than one citation.  While statistically significant, this can hardly be described as a “significant increase” in citation. Still excited?

More importantly, the analysis of the effects of rejection on citation is univariate and ignores all most other possible confounding explanatory variables.  It is easy to imagine a large number of other confounding effects that could lead to this weak difference (number of reviews obtained, choice of original and final journals, number of authors, rejection rate/citation differences among discipline or subdiscipline, etc., etc.). In fact, in panel B of the same figure 4, the authors show a stronger effect of changing discipline on the number of citations in resubmitted manuscripts. Why a deeper multivariate analysis was not performed to back up the headline claim that “rejection improves impact” is hard to understand from a critical perspective. [UPDATE 26/10/2012: Bala Iyengar pointed out to me a page on the author’s website that discusses the effects of controlling for year and publishing journal on the citation effect, which led me to re-read the paper and supplemental materials more closely and see that these two factors are in fact controlled for in the main analysis of the paper. No other possible confounding factors are controlled for however.]

So what is going on here? Why did Science allow such a weak effect with a relatively superficial analysis to be published in the one of the supposedly most selective journals? Why are major science media outlets pushing this incredibly small boost in citations that is (possibly) associated with rejection? Likewise, why are scientists so uncritically posting links to the Nature and Scientist news pieces and repeating “Rejection Improves Impact” meme?

I believe the answer to the first two questions is clear: Nature and Science have a vested interest in making the case that it is in the best interest of scientists to submit their most important work to (their) highly selective journals and risk having it be rejected.  This gives Nature and Science first crack at selecting the best science and serves to maintain their hegemony in the scientific publishing marketplace. If this interpretation is true, it is an incredibly self-serving stance for Nature and Science to take, and one that may back-fire since, on the whole, scientists are not stupid people who blindly accept nonsense. More importantly though, using the pages of Science and Nature as a marketing campaign to convince scientists to submit their work to these journals risks their credibility as arbiters of “truth”. If Science and Nature go so far as to publish and hype weak, self-serving scientometric effects to get us to submit our work there, what’s to say that would they not do the same for actual scientific results?

But why are scientists taking the bait on this one?  This is more difficult to understand, but most likely has to do with the possibility that most people repeating this meme have not read the paper. Topsy records over 700 and 150 tweets to the Nature News and Scientist news pieces, but only ~10 posts to the original article in Science. Taken at face value, roughly 80-fold more scientists are reading the news about this article than reading the article itself. To be fair, this is due in part to the fact that the article is not open access and is behind a paywall, whereas the news pieces are freely available**. But this is only the proximal cause. The ultimate cause is likely that many scientists are happy to receive (uncritically, it seems) any justification, however tenuous, for continuing to play the high-impact factor journal sweepstakes. Now we have a scientifically valid reason to take the risk of being rejected by top-tier journals, even if it doesn’t pay off. Right? Right?

The real shame in the “Rejection Improves Impact” spin is that an important take-home message of Calcagno et al. is that the vast majority of papers (>75%) are published in the first journal to which they are submitted.  As a scientific community we should continue to maintain and improve this trend, selecting the appropriate home for our work on initial submission. Justifying pipe-dreams that waste precious time based on self-serving spin that benefits the closed-access publishing industry should be firmly: Rejected.

Don’t worry, it’s probably in the best interest of Science and Nature that you believe this meme.

* To be fair, Science Insider does acknowledge that the effect is weak: “previously rejected papers had a slight bump in the number of times they were cited by other papers” (emphasis mine).

** Following a link available on the author’s website, you can access this article for free here.

Calcagno, V., Demoinet, E., Gollner, K., Guidi, L., Ruths, D., & de Mazancourt, C. (2012). Flows of Research Manuscripts Among Scientific Journals Reveal Hidden Submission Patterns Science DOI: 10.1126/science.1227833

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