Wooden spoon

Say you are a condensed matter physicist, and you have submitted an article for publication to the prestigious (well, kind of) Physical Review Letters (PRL). You did so because you are objectively convinced of the novelty, importance and broad interest of the results that you and your collaborators have obtained. Suppose that the reviewing process is lengthy, difficult, time-consuming and aggravating, and ends with the rejection of your manuscript. It was a close call — several rounds of reviews were needed, and the manuscript had the support of one or more referees, but in the end the Editor decided not to accept it. This is actually a fairly common scenario.

Often times, the Editor of Physical Review B (PRB, the condensed matter section of Physical Review) will offer you to publish your article therein, typically without the need for further reviews.
I have the feeling that there are many articles published in the specialized sections of Physical Review which had initially been submitted to PRL. Some of them garner a substantial number of citations, possibly contributing significantly the the relatively small difference in Impact Factor (IF) between the specialized sections of Physical Review and PRL [0].

Authors accept the offer of the Editor of PRB (in the above example), even though PRB is not as prestigious as PRL, primarily because they are sick and tired of dealing with reviewers and are eager to see their work published, in one form or another. The present lack of other physics journals that can compete with PRL in terms of IF makes it scarcely compelling for authors to submit elsewhere articles rejected by PRL.
However, I am becoming convinced that we should all make an effort not to accept the “wooden spoon”, the consolation prize described above, namely the quick and relatively effortless publication in a specialized section of Physical Review. Instead, the authors should bite the bullet and submit their articles to a different journal, even at the cost of a prolonged review [1] for the following reasons:

1) The fact that articles that are “borderline” for acceptance in PRL, for which the decisions are difficult, end up in all likelihood in some specialized section of Physical Review, constitutes for the Editor of PRL a powerful incentive to reject, because the article will be published in Physical Review anyway. Things might be different if the Editor of PRL worked under the assumption that the article may well be lost to a competing journal.

2) By submitting to a competing journal the same article, an article which in our expectations may receive a respectable number of citations, we contribute to enhancing the IF of that journal, in the long run providing all of us with an alternative to PRL for submission of our most significant pieces of work. I do believe that our community stands to benefit from having alternatives to PRL as upscale publication venue.


[0] Yes, I am suggesting that wrong editorial decisions may be an important, often neglected cause of PRL’s declining IF.

[1] These days articles can be uploaded to ArXiv and cited before their actual publication. This greatly alleviates the pressure on authors for a quick publication that existed only a decade ago.

5 Responses to “Wooden spoon”

  1. Luis Says:

    Massimo, nice post. However, I don’t think passing up the chance of turning a rejected PRL into a fast PRB (say, a Rapid Comm.) would be a good deal for most post-docs and young researchers out there:

    – As you mentioned in a previous post :
    ‘A CV that has a lot of entries that say “Submitted” or “Under review” may not necessarily do much for job seekers.’

    – Regarding your point [1] above: in this day and age, citations to arXiv versions are, for all practical purposes (e.g., number of citations, h-number, the eyes of hiring committees, …), pretty much useless since they are not counted in the ISI database, etc. (“wasted” would be the word, perhaps?).

    So, if a PRL-level paper in arXiv does not get published somewhere by the time potential citing articles get into “proof mode” (Phys. Rev. proof editors usually ask authors to check whether an arXiv citation has been published or not), then that citation is essentially “lost”.

    • Massimo Says:


      indeed, when I wrote the post I had in mind someone in my position, not necessarily a postdoc for whom “published” is more important than “submitted”. I will tell you, however, that search committee in physics are not as anal as one may think when it comes to assessing a candidate’s publication list. It is mostly the potential impact of someone’s work that is assessed, and if I were a postdoc I would much rather be the author of that unpublished preprint everyone talks about at the March meeting than of a published PRB that gets ignored.

      Regarding [1], I was primarily thinking about priority, not so much about number of citations — hopefully the number of lost citations to which you are referring will be negligible (if 3 months worth of citations make such a big difference, I am afraid the paper is not very well cited anyway).
      There used to be a time when people worried about being scooped, which is why preprints were immediately sent out to colleagues and competitors — with Arxiv I think this risk is eliminated.

      • Luis Says:

        hopefully the number of lost citations to which you are referring will be negligible (if 3 months worth of citations make such a big difference, I am afraid the paper is not very well cited anyway).

        True, I agree. I’m just saying that the idea of missing out 3 months worth of citations on a “hot paper” may be an unnerving thought for those in the (time constrained) job market, even though “history may vindicate” their work later.

  2. Schlupp Says:

    Wasn’t that competition already founded some time ago? It’s called “Nature Physics”, only it left PRL so far behind so fast that it is in different league after all.

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