The Back-Up Plan

April 21, 2010

Many a successful journal article is published not in the publication where the author first submitted, but in another one, following rejection from the first. This trickle-down publication process helps get work reviewed and disseminated, but it also means long waits for authors, who can’t start the process with a second journal until they have been rejected by or withdrawn a submission from the first.

The journals of the American Economic Association have started an experiment that acknowledges the reality that papers move from one publication to another -- and the system could save authors considerable time, and publications money. In the experiment, authors of papers that are rejected from the flagship journal -- American Economic Review -- can now opt to have referee reports sent directly to one of four other journals published by the association.

This can cut the time in which the second journal decides to either publish or reject an article to within a few weeks of when it is submitted, as opposed to as long as six months. And this means a reduced burden on those asked to review articles that have already received a thorough review.

While several journal editors in other disciplines said they were skeptical of the idea, economics journal editors are praising the system for producing real economies of scale. And they say that the time savings can mean a great deal to someone on the tenure track, who can know either that she has found a place to publish or that she may need to rework a paper.

The new system was part of a broader set of changes in the economics association’s journals. Last year, the association created four “broad field” journals to complement American Economic Review. These journals -- in applied economics, economic policy, macroeconomics and microeconomics -- are the participants in the program. A key reason for creating the program, economics journal editors said, was that so many papers that are rejected by AER are quite good. The 100 papers a year that are published represent only about 8 percent of submissions.

Robert A. Moffitt, a professor of economics at Johns Hopkins University and editor of AER, said that many review reports for rejected papers are quite positive, suggesting only that the work didn’t quite make it over the bar, or was slightly too specialized for a flagship journal.

Moffitt noted that every part of the process is voluntary. The author who has been rejected sees the reports and decides whether to have them forwarded to the next journal. And the editor of that journal decides whether to use them, or go through the standard process (or to seek just one additional review). There are no data being collected, and some authors may want everyone to think that their article ran in their first choice journal, so there isn't a precise figure available on usage of the new system. But Moffitt and others said that a significant minority of submissions to the four field journals are now accompanied by the referee reports from AER.

He said that he didn’t think anyone’s chances of being published in the other journals would be hurt because of the admission that those journals weren’t their first choices. With so many papers getting rejected from AER, he said, everyone knows that many papers start out there.

Alan Auerbach, an economist at the University of California at Berkeley who is editor of American Economic Journal: Economic Policy, agreed. “Everyone in the field knows that there are a handful of journals that everyone uses,” he said, so no one would be offended by receiving a rejected paper from AER. “We are in the same association and don't view ourselves as directly competing, so we thought that this kind of interaction would be in everybody's interest,” he said. “It reduces the redundancy of review efforts and the turnaround time.”

The most typical referee reports that are passed on, he said, are those that say “it’s a close call,” but he had even received forwarded referee reports that recommended summary rejection. He said that he has found many of the reports to be sufficient to make a decision, either to accept, to suggest revisions that would lead to acceptance, or to reject -- sometimes within a week of submission. That's a rare speed for most peer-reviewed journals.

Given that his journal is also hard to get into (an acceptance rate last year of 18 percent), the time gain may be most helpful to the rejected author, especially if the person is best off seriously reworking the ideas rather than just resubmitting to yet another journal.

In some cases where someone has had referee reports passed along, Auerbach said, he may feel the need for more information, and he can always use his own referees. But in these cases, if he is only waiting on one report, time is still saved.

Karen Gray Edwards, director of publications and membership for the American Sociological Association, said that no such system had ever been considered there. “While we have a single general journal for any type of exceptional sociological research article, the others are specialty journals and are unlikely to have much overlap in content areas,” she said. Edwards added, however, that “the community of ASA journal editors is small and collaborative,” and that editors would not hesitate to refer an author to another journal that might be a better fit.

Tom Boellstorff, professor of anthropology at the University of California at Irvine and editor in chief of American Anthropologist, said he saw too much of a gap in subject matter for such a system to work in anthropology. “The journals are all so different that there would be no automatic way to do it,” he said, noting that in contrast to the journal he edits, many of the others are quite specialized -- Visual Anthropology Review, Journal of Linguistic Anthropology, Medical Anthropology Quarterly, and others.

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