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I have heard over and over again that most journal editors have a negative attitude against papers with one author when the author is a less-experienced non-academic (let's say a Master's graduate), without paying much attention to the quality of the paper.

I have even read a blog about how Einstein had the same problem in publishing his first papers.

Does such a phenomenon exist? If it does, how unethical it is? and what could be done about it?

PS:

Once, I sent a manuscript, which I thought was substantial and important, to 10 journals, and all of them rejected it before sending it to review. Then I've done something unethical out of my sense of despair, based on cluelessness and what I had repetitively heard. I only altered the title and added 2 academic friends as co-authors, nothing more. Then I sent it again, to one of the journals who had rejected it before. Subsequently, it was sent for peer review and got accepted after minor revisions.

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    Side, tangential comment: the goal of research should be "to be read and to be properly acknowledged", not "get my idea published on a journal". So, abstracting from the specific problem you have, traditional publishing is doing you a disservice (don't worry, it is a general behavior they have with respect to science), have a look at alternatives: not-for-profit publishing, public preprint servers, etcetc ... If you read an interesting paper from nobody on arXiv, what would you think?
    – EarlGrey
    Apr 28, 2023 at 7:58
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    "I have heard over and over again" From whom? Apr 28, 2023 at 12:42
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    The Einstein anecdote is incorrect. Even his early papers were published in the top journals of the time.
    – GEdgar
    Apr 28, 2023 at 18:27
  • @AdamPřenosil. From friends in academia who had reviewed my manuscript and believed it was publishable in the highest-ranked GIS journals. They were overwhelmed by the repetitive desk rejections and proposed to submit it again under a different title and with co-authors.
    – Ash
    Apr 28, 2023 at 20:01
  • @Anyon Thank you. yes, you are right. Nature rejected Hans Krebs.
    – Ash
    Apr 28, 2023 at 20:11

8 Answers 8

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I can't comment on your specific situation. But the overall question seems to essentially be are there biases in journal publishing? The answer is certainly 'yes' (as there are in pretty much all areas of life).

The identity/affiliation of the authors can influence the editors/reviewers (also for grants, awards, etc). This seems to be widely acknowledged (even see this PhD comic) although I'm not aware of any study attempting to quantify it.

Should it be this way - no. Some journals run double-blind peer reviewing which can help with this, although the editors may still know the identity of the authors (double blind peer review is rare in my field). But it's extremely difficult/impossible to remove all biases from any activity in which humans are involved.

How unethical is it? This is difficult to answer, it goes against the principles of science. How unethical would depend on details of the specific case. There can be very good reasons for editors to desk reject papers, and papers also get desk rejected for the wrong reasons. This is not necessarily malice or unethical editor behaviour.

We need to recognise that journal publishing is a business. Papers by 'big' names will inevitably get more citations which improves the journal impact factor, etc. So editors have some incentives which may conflict with the pure scientific ideal.

I have never heard of a bias specifically against number of authors (although this may be field dependent).

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    One other thing to note: there's a difference between prejudicial bias and statistical bias. Papers written by students are less likely to be written to the standards of the field than by experienced authors. So statistically one would expect a bias even in an unprejudiced process.
    – Kimball
    May 2, 2023 at 12:57
  • +1 I can relate! ... are there biases in journal publishing? The answer is certainly 'yes' ... Should it be this way - no. || ... ... Nonetheless, I've had success with single authorship. For newbies, I think getting a hang of the art of research is important, even more than 'result' from research! May 4, 2023 at 6:04
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I can give a personal anecdote - I recently wrote my first paper, which was a single author paper in pure mathematics. I wrote this between my 3rd and 4th year as an undergraduate, and submitted it at the start of my 4th year.

It was accepted by a high quality journal, and should appear very soon! I will begin my PhD in September, and despite this I have had no problem with academics taking me seriously. Perhaps the fact I'm at a well known and highly respected university helps, and maybe the culture is different in other areas of academia - this is just my own experience.

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  • Fortunately, in mathematics, the cultural context is pretty mature. This is evident by looking at percentages of single-author papers by each discipline.
    – Ash
    May 2, 2023 at 2:24
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I'd think that most editors would agree to the statement that whether a paper is rejected or not should exclusively depend on its content and not on its authorship. I also think that most editors, most of the time, try their best to live by this principle.

There is unconscious bias however (and maybe occasionally conscious bias), so it seems realistic, by and large, that a one-author paper by a newbie has higher chances of being desk-rejected by the editor than the same paper with one or more big names among the authors.

Still I'd think that the newbie who writes a paper that is indeed good enough has very good chances to not be desk rejected. Based on my experience as author, reviewer, associate editor and editor, bias will rather make an editor too reluctant to reject a big name paper than making it very likely to reject a really good paper by a newbie.

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    +1 agrees with my experience too. If there's a single-author paper by a newbie, bias is more likely to manifest as extra care taken (e.g. checking if reviews have been addressed carefully, checking if the reviewers are qualified to review) before accepting the manuscript.
    – Allure
    May 3, 2023 at 0:45
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Many newbies think they know how to do research, and would like to report the Earth is flat. Consequently, an editor will immediately know that the person does not belong, which leads to rejection.

Single author papers are fine as long as the author is competent. Check out the story of Zhang Yitang; https://www.quantamagazine.org/yitang-zhang-proves-landmark-theorem-in-distribution-of-prime-numbers-20130519/

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    Zhang may not be a good example for two reasons: (1) From this answer, "Writing single-authored papers in math is extremely common". (2) He was not a newbie when he published his famous paper.
    – Nobody
    Apr 28, 2023 at 9:51
  • I'm sure the mathematicians here will tell you how many papers claim to have proved P=NP every year. I'm sure many of these papers have a single author. As for being a 'newbie', the editor will think Zhang is a newbie as he is unknown. To verify that he is not, the editor will have to read the Abstract or the paper. I.e., his name does not signal he is competent. The editor could have dumped his paper without reading the Abstract. On the other hand, a paper from a Fields medalist will not invoke such thoughts. Apr 28, 2023 at 20:54
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    @VitaminE please don't be so negative towards newbies. This could lead to Association fallacy or group attribution error.
    – Ash
    Apr 28, 2023 at 21:03
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    @Ash I'm just stating how the world works. We are dealing with humans, who come equipped with all sorts of biases. Apr 28, 2023 at 21:07
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The editors may use author's credentials and reputation as a proxy to quickly estimate the quality of the paper. "Paying attention to the quality", i.e. giving a paper a careful read, is not free, it expends finite and valuable resources, and the editor should allocate them wisely. Mistakes may occur, which is of course painful for the authors, but I don't think this makes it unethical. Say, you increase the level of attention given to every paper; that may lead to accepting a rare good paper with an unconventional author at the cost of wasting thousands of hours of expert time proofreading junk.

What you could do about it as an author is to submit the paper to an editor with research interests and expertise directly in the area of the paper. Editors will typically read the title and abstract of the papers they receive, and if it's in "their" area, they will have their own opinion of the paper's potential.

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  • Thank you for your insightful answer.
    – Ash
    May 3, 2023 at 8:33
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There are at least two different ways to interpret your question.

Would editors of prestigious journals reject a paper because it is a single-author paper written by a new author?

Absolutely not. Any competent editor (and prestigious journals can get competent editors) will try to assess the paper based on its contents, and send it out for review (or a pre-review check) if warranted. Of course the reviewers may be influenced by the authorship, though they should not be. Reviewers are rather more of a mixed bag than editors, and some of them may unfortunately not be competent. There is not much that can be done about this, other than editors avoiding reviewers who have previously given them low-quality reviews.

Is a single-author paper written by a new author and submitted to a prestigious journal more likely to be rejected than a multiple-author paper with at least one experienced author submitted to the same journal?

Yes, I think this is definitely the case. This is simply because the experienced author(s) will have a better idea of how good their work is and what journal to choose for it. They will also be able to write the paper in such a way as to make it clear how good it is, which is a skill that new authors sometimes lack. It is very important as a new author to at least get someone experienced and close to the topic to read a draft and comment on the writing and journal choice before submission. (This person would not become an author, but would normally be thanked in the acknowledgements.)

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  • +1: Very good take. I consider them part of art of research ... ... experienced author(s) will have a better idea of how good their work is and what journal to choose for it. They will also be able to write the paper in such a way as to make it clear how good it is, which is a skill that new authors sometimes lack. May 4, 2023 at 6:10
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Unfortunately, there are plenty of biases in publishing that I don't like. But to answer you generally, no. Editors don't care about experience, they care about expertise. If you can dance with the top people in your field and not miss many steps, then you can make it into these prestigious journals. Not guaranteed of course, but you have a shot. What's my proof? This. These girls are children, compared to us. And yet, without a Bachelor's degree to their name, they still were able to get accepted into the American Mathematical Society. Caveats? Their work isn't peer reviewed yet. But either way, the fact they made it into a conference filled with PhDs and professional mathematicians tells you that your status is only an indicator, it is not a complete measurement on your abilities or where your work truly belongs.

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    Is your proof that single-author papers by newbies can make it into prestigious journals really based on a two-author submission being accepted into a conference's "Special Session on Undergraduate Mathematics and Statistics Research, I"? Granted, the authors are high school students rather than undergraduate students, but your argument seems to have a few holes in it.
    – Anyon
    Apr 28, 2023 at 15:51
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    Don't get me wrong, it's a great experience to present work at a conference, and I am making no judgment on their work itself - just that "got accepted into the American Mathematical Society" makes it sound like a much bigger deal than it actually is. A better indication of the reception of their work would be if and when it is published in a peer-reviewed journal. Apr 28, 2023 at 17:04
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    Note the politely encouraging but pointedly non-committal quote from the AMS director: "Members of our community can examine their results to determine whether their proof is a correct contribution to the mathematics literature". Making it clear, by implication, that it has not yet been established whether the work is even correct, let alone significant. Apr 28, 2023 at 17:05
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    Yeah I'm aware of all the critiques. I stated these up front (and yes, I'm smart enough to know the difference between a conference and a peer reviewed publication). I know these critiques, and i read the article. But, I do not care. My main point was, expertise matters. Being a "newbie" is highly correlated with expertise, but it isn't the full picture. In principle, if an undergraduate can publish in Journal of the American Statistical Association by themselves, then they should be allowed to do so. Publication is conferred with strength and contribution, not necessarily your title. Apr 28, 2023 at 20:53
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    @Anyon if that was already done in 2009, what is new about the solution in the article (which dates to 2023)?
    – Allure
    May 3, 2023 at 9:20
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What the editor cares is about the content, with proper scientific approach undertaken in the manuscript. There are many single authored articles in many reputed journals. (Myself included). I have shown my professor my own written manuscript, and he would decide whether he wants to be the coauthor. This gives me a chance to write, select the journal, and to go through the entire review process on my own. And from my own experience, affiliation did not matter in my case.

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