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February 2, 2012

The image accompanying a post on Dorothy Bishop's BishopBlog is of the Grim Reaper. It holds a paper bearing the words "Reject Without Review". Professor Bishop believes that this encapsulates the academic researcher's lot - specifically hers.

"So at last, your paper is written," she begins. "It represents the culmination of many years' work...You carefully format it for your favoured journal...You anticipate a delay of a few weeks before you get reviewer comments.

"A decision letter within a week: 'Unfortunately we receive many more papers than we can publish or indeed review and must make difficult decisions on the basis of novelty and general interest as well as technical correctness.'"

According to Professor Bishop, professor of developmental neuropsychology at the University of Oxford, this is an increasingly common occurrence: "I've been a [journal] editor and I know there are difficult decisions to make. It can be kinder to an author to reject immediately if you sense that the paper isn't going to make it through the review process. But this experience has made me reflect more generally on factors affecting publication, and I do think there are things about the system that are problematic."

She adds: "If a journal commonly rejects papers without review, then it shouldn't be fussy about the format in which a paper is submitted. It's just silly for busy people to spend time getting the references correctly punctuated...if there's a strong probability that their paper will be bounced."

More importantly, she notes the problems academics have with submitting novel research.

"My guess is that our paper was triaged on the novelty criterion because it involved replication," she writes. "We're not the first people to do this kind of research. There have been a few previous studies, but it's a fair summary to say the literature is messy."

Despite the paper not covering new ground, Professor Bishop explains, the fact that she obtained strikingly similar results to a previous study was exciting - for her, at least.

"The fact that two independent labs on different sides of the world had obtained virtually the same result gave me confidence in the findings," she says.

"My excitement was clearly not shared by the journal editor, who no doubt felt our findings were not sufficiently novel...But is the focus on novelty good for science?"

Professor Bishop is not alone in her frustration at the difficulty of getting published.

"The very essence of the scientific process is to challenge paradigms and share the experimental details with other scientists who can then reproduce or refute the findings," writes Pamela Ronald, professor of plant pathology at the University of California, Davis, on The Tree of Life blog.

"Publication is key for this process. We needed to publish."

With this in mind, Professor Ronald notes the utility of submitting her paper to open-access resources before offering it to traditional journals.

"Ultimately it may not matter where the results are published; if it has legs, it will stand," she says.

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