Journal print quotas still shape rejection decisions in online era

Decisions by journal editors about whether to accept or reject a paper are still influenced by whether the periodical already has enough studies to fill its forthcoming print editions, despite the shift towards online publication, research suggests.

Scholars based in the US and South Korea analysed data on papers submitted to 54 psychology journals from 2004 to 2017 and used publication delays as a proxy for how many studies each journal had accepted but not published.

They found that an increase in the publication delay was correlated with a rise in the rejection rate, even after controlling for other factors, suggesting that if a journal already had enough articles to fill its forthcoming issue there was less chance of even a high-quality study being accepted.

The research, published in online mega-journal Plos One, also found “that a low publication delay period (ie, a lack of accepted, yet unpublished, papers) may decrease the quality of the journal because the editor may assume a more lenient view of newly submitted manuscripts in order to fill the quota”.

The authors of the study, from Georgia State University, the Georgia Institute of Technology and the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST), call on journals to “publicly disclose their publication delays, or the number of pre-published accepted papers, to help potential authors better time their submissions”.

The study’s lead author, Brian Park, assistant professor in managerial sciences at Georgia State, said the study provided further strong arguments in favour of purely electronic publishing that went beyond more common motivations such as reduced costs, improved access and environmental concerns.

“We show in this paper that print-based publication might harm the very core of academic evaluation and that we need to take action to address such administrative friction,” he said.

“Do we need a monthly or quarterly dump of printed publications? We highly doubt it. Most of the scholars around us read electronic academic papers and print only a few of them if necessary.

“We also believe that the editors should be free from such constraints to allow a more impartial view of the submitted papers, as we have shown in our paper.”

The authors suggest that editors should have “a more flexible approach to page budgeting”, skipping issues when short of papers and adding one when there is a backlog of accepted studies. Some journals, such as the American Economic Review, have already adopted this sort of approach.

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