In response to a recent post about how ongoing digital costs are changing some fundamental assumptions about publishing economics, requests popped up to explore the cost of rejecting papers. And while at first I thought about the mechanics of rejecting papers, the transactional aspect soon shifted in my mind to something more basic about how publishers establish boundaries.
The cost of peer-review was recently covered by David Crotty here, in response to a study pegging the economic value of free peer-review at £1.9 billion. But the cost of rejecting papers isn’t equivalent to the aggregate value of peer-review, which was posited as hours of volunteer effort translated into wages. The cost of rejection I’m talking about is more tangible and calculable. It has a clear budget. It’s something we pay for year after year, a cost of doing business. And the effects of these costs are felt at the local or journal level, first and foremost.
How do we begin calculating the cost of rejection?
Let’s start with the expense of the editors. If your editors expend the same amount of energy, on average, reviewing a paper that gets rejected as one that gets accepted, then the math is pretty straightforward. If there is an initial screening process that culls a percentage of uninteresting manuscripts with little time or effort, then you can probably factor that percentage of manuscripts out of the calculation entirely — or you can weight them somehow. Other arrangements in between or in addition to these two options could easily be boiled down to a mathematical approximation.
Once you have the framework established, it’s easy to run the numbers since the cost of rejection has an inverse relationship with acceptance rate. If the overall editorial budget (editors, deputy or associate editors, and some editorial board costs) is $1M (not including composition, copy editing, and so forth), the journal has a 15% acceptance rate, and the editors don’t do much after peer-review decisions are rendered, then the cost of rejection would be $850,000/year. If certain editors are more active throughout the publication cycle, they have to have their time allocated pre- and post-acceptance accordingly.
Of course, some software and administrative costs exist in any scenario — the licensing of online submission and manuscript tracking software in addition to staff to run it and monitor submissions and author communications. If you’re running an installation of a major online submission system at the rate of $50K/year, then 85% of that cost ($42,500) could be allocated as the cost of rejection. Similarly, 85% of the cost of manuscript processing staff could also be factored in.
In this simplistic scenario, a journal with a $1M editorial budget is spending more than $892,500 to reject papers, plus a majority of the salaries of the staff processing manuscripts. That’s a financial investment the journal has to recoup by publishing the remaining papers.
The cost of rejection has certainly been going up, since the number of submissions has generally increased over the years. Nearly every journal is rejecting more papers than it was 10 years ago.
Interestingly, the cost of rejection for an author-pays or page-charge journal is theoretically higher. Not only does the rejection process take a share of editorial budget, software, and staff, it also creates a clear opportunity cost for an author-pays or page-charge journal — a paper rejected is a paper not charged for.
No matter the business model, the revenues of any publication have to cover a fair amount of “not publishing.” The same goes for book publishers with their slush piles and failed acquisitions. It’s never easy making just the right thing for an audience.
Efforts to reduce these costs of rejection by creating collaborative review networks are, I think, doomed to fail. They assume peer-review is somehow equivalent between journals. This just isn’t true. Articles are rejected for a lot of subjective reasons. Many journals take different stances relative to their markets. They each have editorial personalities, reputational goals, and internal cultures. They each reject for different reasons.
And these reasons are often, consciously or unconsciously, strategic.
Seen in this light, rejection isn’t about the quality of a paper qua paper, but one organization’s current opinion relative to its own definition of novelty, interest, value, worth, and quality. You could recast “the cost of rejection” as “the cost of differentiation.” And because rejection is about being different, comments on a paper rejected from one culture are probably not too useful to evaluators in another culture.
Rejection is a route to definition.
We’re an industry driven by filtering. But filtering is a tool of competitiveness, a method of brand definition, and a path toward editorial distinctiveness.
The cost of rejecting papers is about more than just filtering papers — it’s the cost of establishing an identity.