While journal editors and reviewers typically make sound choices about what manuscripts to accept or reject, a trio of researchers from the Australia, Canada, and the US report in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences this week that a number of studies that went on to be highly cited had been rejected along the way.
"The shocking thing to me was that the top 14 papers had all been rejected, one of them twice," the University of Toronto's Kyle Siler tells Nature News.
Siler and his colleagues sifted through more than a thousand manuscripts that had been submitted to three medical journals — Annals of Internal Medicine, British Medical Journal, and The Lancet — in 2003 or 2004 to see what those manuscripts' ultimate fate was.
Of these, 63 were accepted, and 757 of the rejected manuscripts were published elsewhere. The remaining rejected manuscripts were, the researchers said, either changed beyond recognition when they were published or "file-drawered" by the authors.
They also report that 772 manuscripts were desk-rejected by at least one of those three journals, and the ones that were eventually published were cited less frequently than the articles that went for peer review before their initial rejection. However, 12 of the 15 most highly cited papers were desk-rejected at some point.
"This raises the question: are they scared of unconventional research?" Siler says at Nature News.
Fiona Godlee, the editor-in-chief of BMJ, says that the rejection of these papers may not have been in error, It might've, Nature says, been too technology focused, for example, to fit with the clinical scope of the journal.