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I am a Masters student in math and thus new to academia and publishing in general. I am a coauthor on a number of recently submitted papers and had the (somewhat intrusive) thought, what happens to papers that get rejected? Of course, the simple answer is that they get corrected/improved based on referee reports and resubmitted somewhere else, but are there cases where papers simply never get published or stay in limbo forever? In these cases, what happens to the results/theorems/proofs they contain? (My question was also partially motivated by the fact that in one of our papers we cited a preprint from the 90s, which has been cited dozens of times but does not seem to have ever been published in a peer-reviewed journal.)

On the one hand, publishing in peer-reviewed journals is pretty difficult, and I'm sure papers are more often rejected than accepted. So there are bound to be papers that never end up making the cut. But on the other hand, looking at various researchers' academic websites, all of the papers in the "submitted" category seem to be pretty recent, suggesting that all of their submitted papers from before, say, three to four years ago ended up published. Or perhaps it is common to "silently" remove an in-limbo preprint from one's CV after a certain period of time?

I guess all of this is a long-winded way of asking: "What proportion of papers are eventually accepted?" Like I said, I'm in math, but answers regarding other fields would be interesting as well!

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    My area is Engineering, and there are many journals. As long as an article is being worked on, sooner or later it will be accepted by one of these journals. I've had to dump some articles because my students stopped working on them, and also because the research aim/problem in these articles is old. I don't list these articles any where in my CV or my web page. Jun 21 at 6:53
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    In my experience, only researchers who are experienced with the publication dynamics in their community have a "submitted" category on their academic web page. So they have a pretty good gut feeling whether a paper will be accepted (possibly after revisions) and hence they know that the papers they post there will not end up ultimately rejected. As a personal experience point, I've had a paper that didn't make it anywhere. Reviewers always agreed that the results are strong, but that the proofs were too easy. This is not something that can (or should) be fixed, so it ended up as a tech report.
    – DCTLib
    Jun 21 at 8:07
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    looking at various researchers' academic websites --- I often see (on websites, not necessarily on CV's) categories such as "manuscripts" or "unpublished manuscripts" or a similar term that appear to include relatively polished teaching notes (usually on a specific topic, not entire course notes), expository manuscripts not necessarily written for students, and other such manuscripts, and I suspect that some of these can sometimes be papers not accepted anywhere (tried) and abandoned, or maybe just papers worked on that wound up not leading to anything seemingly worth trying to publish. Jun 21 at 10:39
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    In math there existed Rejecta Mathematica for limbo papers: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rejecta_Mathematica - but not many people submitted their papers there. Jun 21 at 22:16
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    Somewhere in darkest Peru is a tribe of bears who sleep on beds made of shredded rejected papers. The only bear found so far was discovered at Paddington Station in 1958.
    – Jon Custer
    Jun 22 at 15:02
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As long one tries hard enough long enough, there's always a journal out there that will publish a paper (assuming the paper isn't absolute nonsense). That's because there are so many journals out there it becomes statistically improbable that they will all reject. You could draw an analogy to university admissions. It's true that universities reject more than accept, yet it is very improbable that someone who writes 100 applications will be rejected from all of them unless they are woefully unprepared. In academic publishing, there's the added advantage of being able to amend the paper in response to the previous referee reports before submitting to a new journal.

That's not to say that every paper that's prepared eventually ends up published. It's possible the authors stop caring about the paper. These papers will indeed end up in limbo. The odds are their results won't be very important, because the authors after all stopped caring. One reasonably common scenario would be that the results in the paper have been decisively superseded by another paper that was published while the paper was in preparation. For example, the discovery of the Higgs Boson in 2012 rendered all papers that assumed the Higgs didn't exist obsolete. I am not aware of any examples myself, but I imagine these papers simply died and were forgotten.

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    If anyone knows of a Higgless paper that died before publication, please let me know and I will edit.
    – Allure
    Jun 21 at 7:35
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    'It's possible the authors stop caring about the paper.' It's also possible the authors are on fixed-term contracts, run out of time, and have to go focus on something else to make a living. Jun 21 at 8:41
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    "there's always a journal out there that will publish a paper" In electrical engineering, there is a folk theorem commonly called Golomb's theorem which says "For every paper P, there exists a journal J that will accept it for publication." Jun 21 at 16:33
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    One further point is that different journals have different standards. Indeed, some journals have no standards. Jun 21 at 17:31
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    @DanielHatton Exactly, and simply just that. I got a paper submitted to a journal since Feb 2016, and more than 2 years later, April 2018, I found myself still revising, editing, adding things to that manuscript and at that certain point, I was already fed up. One cannot stay too long on such thing, during that time, I already got 3 more conference papers, and I needed to finish the manuscript too to get graduated. The extra long life-cycle of publishing to that journal drained all my motivation to finish it. Life goes on. We move on.
    – Jim Raynor
    Jun 22 at 15:23
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There are well-known papers in math which have never been published. One of the most famous such papers is this. As far as I know that paper has never been rejected but the referee(s) requested revisions which have never been made.

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    A comment above mentioned Rejecta Mathematica, and I just found another case (rejecta.github.io/mathematica/files/articles/RMv1n1-Miller.pdf) which was cited many times while in limbo. Do you know of any reasons why someone might not choose to try again and publish a paper that clearly generates some amount of interest? Jun 22 at 0:53
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    @MarcelK.Goh: Publishing a paper in mathematics is not reduced to producing some interesting and non-trivial results and ideas. The extra efforts involved may be considered unnecessary and boring by some people especially if their status does not depend on the number of publications any longer.
    – markvs
    Jun 22 at 1:41
  • That makes sense. I guess that since most papers are available on the arXiv as soon as they are written, getting a paper published in a journal is mostly about validation and peer-review, the importance of which diminishes over time as a paper is judged by the community to be significant or not. (I would personally trust a 20-year-old arXiv paper that has been cited 40 times over a newer paper with no citations even if it has been peer-reviewed.) Jun 22 at 2:44
  • @MarcelK.Goh: I agree.
    – markvs
    Jun 22 at 3:19
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Of course submit to another journal.

If all your papers are accepted by the first journal you try, then you are aiming too low.

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  • ...or don't publish enough.
    – Lodinn
    Sep 26 at 20:28

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