In the past, journal growth was mostly horizontal. Publishers were always on the lookout for the next new discipline, sub-discipline, a cross-disciplinary approach based on new methods. If you acted quickly, lined up your editors and launched before your competition, you were likely to secure your place as a successful journal. Act late and you found yourself in a crowded field starving for submissions.
Journal growth seems more vertical these days. Instead of building horizontally through specialization, many publishers have been focusing on their cascade — a term used to describe a portfolio of related journals ordered vertically by measured (and perceived) importance.
This realignment of thinking, from a horizontal to a vertical approach, is likely the result of technological integration of the publication process. In the paper-based model, transferring a manuscript to another journal meant lots of photocopying, bundling, and mailing. It was far easier to send the author a rejection letter.
Electronic management of the manuscript submission and review process has been around for several decades; however, it was initially designed and built around the traditional silo model of one-journal-one-process. Moving a manuscript from one journal to another often meant resubmission.
Solving the transfer problem has created a widespread perception that rejecting a manuscript–especially after considerable time and resources have been devoted to its review–is downright wasteful. If it’s publishable, why not publish it?
Today, transfer is often built into the submission process of many journals. If you didn’t get into Journal A, editors can recommend transfer to another title within the publishers’ portfolio, and sometimes, between them. Many submission systems require authors to select from a list of secondary and tertiary titles when uploading their manuscript, and when manuscripts transfer, reviews and editorial decisions can go with them.
Solving the transfer problem has created a widespread perception that rejecting a manuscript — especially after considerable time and resources have been devoted to its review — is downright wasteful. If it’s publishable, why not publish it?
This rhetorical question sounds simpler than reality. Often a publisher and its editorial board are supportive of the idea of publishing more papers in theory, only they want these papers to go somewhere else, lest they dilute the exclusivity of the journal and its brand. Editors are also hesitant to be associated with a “journal of rejects.” While there are excellent arguments for increasing transparency in the peer review and publication process, keeping rejection and transfer information private and confidential provides a poignant counter-argument.
Before working on the myriad details involved in starting any new journal, a publisher considering a cascade journal built initially from its source of rejected papers should consider its manuscript flow. If current submissions cannot support a new journal, then it should reconsider the prospect before devoting itself (its staff and its money) to a new title. Consider the following hypothetical scenario:
The American Society for Irrational Exuberance (there is none, but there should be!) is the publisher of The ASIE Journal. ASIE J receives 1000 original manuscript submissions each year, 40% (400) of which go through the peer review process, and 60% (600) are desk-rejected. One-quarter (100) of peer reviewed papers are accepted and published in ASIE J (green flow), for an overall acceptance rate of 10%. Of the remaining 300 peer reviewed papers, the best 200 are transferred to their new journal, ASIE-Two, which employs a much less stringent acceptance criteria. The editor of ASIE-Two recommends publication for half (100) of these manuscripts; however, just one-half of the corresponding authors accept the editor’s offer to publish in ASIE-Two, the other half revise their manuscript and submit elsewhere. We are left with just 50 published papers (blue flow).
Peer review is not a perfect process and editors are not always able to detect the most important papers. A few of the manuscripts that were transferred to ASIE-Two, but rejected, were published in the top journal in their field (Top J). Other transferred-then-rejected papers were published in disciplinary journals (A, B, C) or found their way into megajournals. Similarly, a few desk-rejects (red flow) find their way into good disciplinary journals, yet the vast majority were ultimately published in lower ranked titles, megajournals, or could not be found (undetectable).
If you considered the number of manuscripts coming in to ASIE J each year (1000), and its selectivity (10%), you might initially believe that this journal could support a second journal, but it can’t. Initial manuscript flow has to be much greater. Until ASIE-Two can start attracting its own submission flow, it will need to rely on its parent journal for support. However, ASIE J cannot afford to be less picky or risk its standing among its competitors. If ASIE J is too picky, it risks angering its society membership and author base.
“We’ll start small and grow over time,” the pragmatic editor of ASIE-Two might humbly offer. But, without sufficient papers, the journal will likely remain unindexed and not receive any recognized performance ratings. This will make it difficult to attract its own submissions. Convincing authors to have their manuscript transferred to a new journal with no standing and an uncertain future may be harder than the above flow diagram suggests. Manuscript transfer is wonderful invention, but it doesn’t solve a fundamental flow problem.
Anecdotally, I’ve heard from smaller society publishers that they are suffering from declining submissions from titles located upstream. Rejections from Lancet, JAMA, and Cell are flowing down their own journal cascades. Even disciplinary publishers have established cascade journals intended to keep manuscript flow from their competitors. In this environment, is tempting to conclude that you need your own cascade. Nevertheless, many smaller publishers are not in a position to start these kinds of journals. They simply don’t have the flow.
Note: The above diagram (called a parallel plot, flow diagram, or alluvial plot) was generated using JMP (SAS). Data tracking the fate of rejected manuscripts can be found in products such as HighWire’s Rejected-Article Tracker.