One of the least pleasant aspects of the scientific profession consists of engaging in lengthy and tiresome arguments with referees, after submitting an article for publication and failing to receive the enthusiastic reports, the accolades that our work clearly warrants. This is especially the problem when the manuscript is submitted to a so-called “high impact” journal.
Seldom are the reports those which any self-respecting author would seek and welcome — accurate, knowledgeable, attentive, capable of pointing out serious shortcomings (thereby avoiding a potential embarrassment for the authors). Submitting a report of that type would require that the average referee, a fellow scientist, spend on the manuscript much more time than one can be realistically expected to do.
Normally, authors have to deal with tardy, negative reports (recommending rejection of the manuscript) based on subjective assessments of value, reflecting primarily the reviewer’s opinion (read: prejudice), rather than some accepted criteria of scholarly excellence . Lengthy and bitter discussions can ensue, the aggravation can be significant, and more importantly, a conspicuous amount of time is wasted in drafting rebuttals (and the aggravation can be significant).
The question is: is this worth the hassle ?
Often times, it would be much easier to withdraw the manuscript after the first round of reports, especially if there is consensus among the referees that the work does not meet the “special criteria” that would warrant publication on that prominent journal , and re-submit it to a less prestigious one (i.e., more focused, addressing a narrower readership and with a lower Impact Factor (IF)). In my experience, reports are usually of higher scientific quality, are submitted much more timely, and the Editor arrives at a decision fairly quickly. Everything is drama-free, to the benefit of both efficiency as well as scientific progress. And yet, most of us will insist with seeking publication in the journal of higher IF, even if this means going through several rounds of reports, appeals, letters to Divisional Editors. Obviously, all of this causes a non-negligible delay in the publication of the work, and because the initial rejection is typically confirmed at all levels, one is eventually stuck with the only option of submitting the manuscript to a lesser journal anyway — only, six months later than if the manuscript had been immediately withdrawn.
Why do we do this to ourselves ? I do not think that we do it to please some bean counter working for our university administration. It is true that annual faculty evaluations will emphasize the importance of publishing scholarly work on “high impact” journals, but I think it is fair to say that most of us (tenured professors) can go on just fine ignoring the bean counters.
Students and postdocs may certainly benefit from a publication in some prestigious journal, but I often wonder whether the importance of these publications is overrated (but I know that these considerations are very much field-dependent). It is true that a few articles in, say Physical Review Letters (especially as first author, even better if with not so many authors, better yet as single author) will definitely catch the attention of a search committee member. However, there can also be a negative side to insisting each time with going for the most glamorous journal, especially if that consistently results in delaying publication of work. A CV that has a lot of entries that say “Submitted” or “Under review” may not necessarily do much for job seekers.
My belief is that, in my discipline (physics), the reason why many of us prefer to go through the trouble of fighting for months with the Editor and the referees of a high IF journal, is that the gap between those and second-tier ones is widening. And what this ultimately means is that the readership of second-tier journals is becoming very small, compared to that of high IF ones. But it is truly important these days, for the career of a scientist, that one’s work be published some place where it will be read, hence cited. The main benefit of high IF journals is really that they are more widely read, and while this correlates with their IF, the IF in and of itself is not the cause. I would bet that if we were guaranteed the same number of citations, we would not worry at all about the IF of the journal to which our paper should be submitted.
Obviously, we are in the presence of a positive feedback mechanism, here. Because the gap is widening, the bulk of the scientific debate is confined to relatively few high IF journals, while the others become marginal. Thus, the incentive for scientists to send their work to high IF journals grows, and with that the gap widens even further.
Highly specialized journals, focusing on a relatively narrow field of inquiry, end up hurting, and I am afraid some of them may be at risk of disappearance. This would be a shame, because many serve a very important function, namely that of collecting highly focused articles, offering thorough descriptions of experimental or theoretical work, whose level of detail greatly exceeds that afforded by more general, higher impact journals, which usually impose severe length restrictions on submitted manuscripts. These longer communications can be invaluable for scientists, especially graduate students looking for technical advice .
It would be beneficial for a number of reasons to have a good selection of journals to choose from, and I think that there are good reasons, aside from that mentioned above, to make sure that specialized journals do not disappear. But, how to do so ?
Many believe that the key is to raise the impact factor of the journals; some Editors are apparently willing to play all sort of “tricks” to achieve that goal. I think that that may be going at it the wrong way. It seems to me that the key is to convince groups of scientists who share similar research interests (e.g., those who attend the same focused conferences), to submit their “regular” articles (i.e., the vast majority thereof, those that are not of the type or level that would warrant seeking a high profile publication) to one of such journals which may become the de facto official repository of articles in that field.
A forceful pitch on the part of the Editors, monitoring preprint repositories, contacting and encouraging authors to submit uploaded papers for which their journal is appropriate, can be a very important part of the equation.
The short-term disadvantage of publishing on a low impact journal would be, in my view, offset in the long term by the convenience of having a reliable publication venue for incremental contributions constituting the bulk of scientific exchange, in the long run actually underlying the type of advances that ultimately warrant “high profile” publications.
 Hypothetical example drawn from my fantasy, not at all related to work I may have submitted recently. First sentence of the report: “This paper describes purely numerical work — no actual theory”. I have had a very hard time bringing myself to read the rest…
 Obviously, the fact that two referees agree does not mean that they are right. Indeed, because prestigious journals aim at being very selective, referees wanting to perform the task without spending too much time with the manuscript will take the easy way out and recommend rejection based on issues such as the insufficiently “broad interest of the work” — easy to invoke without much substantiation and very difficult to counter on the part of the authors. Editors will almost never attempt to assess critically by themselves the reliability and merit of a report, no matter how blatantly mean-spirited and preposterous — a rejection is a rejection is a rejection, and a prestigious journal must reject. A lot.
 The increased emphasis on high IF journals promotes a way of writing articles that is
flimsy less concrete, poorer on details and “recipes”, and looking more at the “big picture” (read: full of blah blah blah). I am noticing that my younger colleagues, who are not nearly as keen as those of my generation on writing long, exhaustive articles aimed at sharing useful technical information with the rest of the community, have difficulty doing it the day they are explicitly required.