Paper after paper rejected, yet no front page story for me

Yesterday The Times led with a story that a paper on climate science was rejected by the journal Environmental Research Letters. Sorry, it is behind a paywall so you will have to take my word for it. But the Telegraph and Mail both have articles on it, both of which manage to imply ‘McCarthy’ style persecution of Prof Benngtsson, one of the authors of the paper. I have had many papers rejected from a number of journals. Also as a peer-reviewer I have recommended the rejection of more papers than I care to remember. I am upset. Despite my heroic efforts none of the Times, Mail or Telegraph have ever run articles either lamenting my fate at the hands of McCarthyite persecutors, or when I was the reviewer, making me feel important by claiming that I am part of such a conspiracy.

The journal Environmental Research Letterspublishes about a paper every other day, on average. I think they claim to reject about two-thirds of papers submitted to them. Basically, they reject about one paper per day. The Times could, quite literally, run a story on a paper being rejected by this journal most days of the week, every week of the year, except perhaps over Christmas when the hard-working editors probably take a break.

So, running a story on a paper being rejected seemed, on first sight, just plain silly to me. Although that is because I am scientist who knows how journals and peer review works. I worry that the large majority of readers who are not scientists may be misled into thinking that a paper being rejected may actually be remarkable, or even that it is indeed evidence of conspiracy.

But OK, but we could give the journalists the benefit of the doubt and say that just because thousands of papers are rejected without any obvious conspiracy, this does not mean that there is no conspiracy here. However, the journal, and their publisher the Institute of Physics has put out a statement. This includes one of the peer-review reports. They are asking permission from the other reviewers to publish the other ones.

The report looks very reasonable to me. A lot of what it says is that the research is not novel enough to publish. Basically the reviewer is saying that the data is mostly rehashed already published stuff which is not re-analysed in a sufficiently new and interesting way to bother taking up space in the journal. This argument of lack of novelty is the reason for rejection of most papers in many letters journals like this one. I have written countless reviews for other letters journals in which I have said similar things.

I have also had a lot less professional reviewer reports on my work than this one. The standard of peer reviewing is pretty erratic as scientists are so busy, and to be honest because some scientists are not very competent, that journals can have trouble getting good reports. This report looks above average to me, and certainly not evidence for any conspiracy. If that is evidence for McCarthy-style persecution then all I can say is that I, and pretty every scientists I know, are also victims.

The report does mention that what the reviewer referred to as ‘simplistic comparison’ could give ammunition to climate-change deniers. It is arguable that this should not be a factor in peer review, but this is one sentence in an over 700-word report. It is clear that this was not the reason for rejection. However, predictably this sentence does provide the ‘less-than-helpful’ phrase that appears in the Mail and Telegraph articles. They both suggest that this is the reason that the paper was rejected. Judging from the full report, this is not true.

So while without seeing the other reports, it is not possible to be definitive, it really looks like this a made up story: Paper is rejected, as they are every day, but it makes the front page as it suits some newspapers’ agenda of attacking climate science.

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