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I am a second year PhD student. I also worked on topics outside my thesis. The results are good and I want to submit it to top journals. However, I am surprised by the attitude of most of the editors of top journals (ex: macromolecules, ACS Omega, ACS Nano). They accept articles (and are lenient) to manuscripts that are from a lab whose PI has good relations with them.

How can a a new researcher push through in this environment? What are tips and tricks from experienced researchers? Should I try to network with other researchers by sending them emails praising their works? What can we do?

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    Maybe if a journal only publishes work from labs friendly with the editor it's not actually a good journal anymore.
    – Bryan Krause
    Dec 2, 2023 at 5:07
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    Why ask a question if you already believe that the system is rigged against you, and nothing can convince you otherwise? That is just a waste of your time. Dec 2, 2023 at 11:14
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    What does your advisor think of the paper you're sending out?
    – Bryan Krause
    Dec 2, 2023 at 13:46
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    Second year PhD students are likely not ready at all for publishing pretty much anywhere without significant interaction with their advisor. Start there.
    – Jon Custer
    Dec 2, 2023 at 15:25
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    The system is not fully rigged. Its complex. There is an initial barrier to cross. You have to make yourself known. I was asking whats the best way to do that?
    – Robin
    Dec 2, 2023 at 20:53

6 Answers 6

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They accept articles (and are lenient) to manuscripts that are from a lab whose PI has good relations with them.

How would you know? Do you have insider information as to how the journal makes decisions? Given you're a PhD student (and not an editorial board member or journal staff) I highly doubt you know how the journal is making decisions.

You write that your papers aren't even getting sent to peer review, and you think it's because you don't have good relations with the editors of the journal. If you truly think that, you are almost assuredly wrong. Good relations with the editors of a journal can positively bias them into accepting your papers, but poor relations will not bias them into rejection (and I say this based on years of experience in publishing).

Check out this question for another person theorizing about why their papers are getting desk rejected. Note the top-voted answer says nationality of the authors does not play a role in desk rejection, and it would be highly unethical if it did. The same also goes for identity.

As for how you can "push through" these desk rejections, also check out the question above, in particular xLeitx's answer. I quote:

Nationality of the authors does not directly play a role in either of these decisions. However, I would be lying if I did not say that desk rejects are significantly more common for middle or far eastern countries, such as Iran, Pakistan, or China. This is mostly because more authors in these countries submit papers that are blatantly outside of the scope of the journal, very poorly written, very poorly formatted (e.g., figures that are entirely unreadable), which do not follow at all the reporting conventions of the journal, or where there appears to be very close to no novelty in the work.

The bar to not getting desk rejected is usually fairly low (the best-of-the-best journals might have a higher bar). If you are not clearing it, odds are your presentation needs serious improvement, or the work is patently bad. Since you're a PhD student, you can attack both of these problems by asking your advisor. You can do this even if the work is unrelated to your thesis. Your advisor is there to help; it's up to you to approach them.

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  • I know because editors of similar rank journals are my advisor and aome other professors with whom I have good relation. They themselves say this. Secondly; I havent said that my articles are desk rejected. I meant desk rejection is very common if editors dont know who the authors are.
    – Robin
    Dec 2, 2023 at 10:57
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    @Robin if they weren't joking, then they'd be the people you should ask. If your advisor is an editor of a similarly-ranked journal, he/she'd be even better a person to ask. And no, desk rejections are not common if editors don't know who the authors are.
    – Allure
    Dec 2, 2023 at 12:36
  • Hey, I know that some articles make it to peer review only based on who the authors are. Yes, the publishing system is really broken.
    – Daniel
    Dec 7, 2023 at 10:00
  • @Daniel yes, hence I mentioned positive bias in the answer.
    – Allure
    Dec 7, 2023 at 11:36
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I'm not sure your question is entirely fair. You seem sure that only papers from "friendly" PIs and labs are even considered. I don't doubt that there is some bias at the top, but why are you so sure that you paper would be outright dismissed? Given the number of papers published in those journals, I have a hard time believing that there is no way to break into them without connections.

Anyway, that isn't really an answer. I would say you have two options. The first is to find one of those labs/PIs that you have identified as "connected" and set up some sort of collaboration. Then you, by association, could become connected and your work might get in.

You could also just not submit to those journals - the comment from @Bryan Krause says it well - why bother with those journals if the editors are just publishing their buddies work?

Add-on: When you say publish independently, do you mean without your advisors support? If you've been having trouble with this, it could be that you need a more experienced set of eyes on your manuscripts.

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  • Thank you for your comments. In some field its a closed community. They accept mostly their buddies papers and cite them. They create a huge barrier for someone to penetrate. However; the journals have prestige. I just want to know how to even the playing field.
    – Robin
    Dec 2, 2023 at 7:04
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    That's unfortunate. I think my advice still holds though. If you want in to the club you have to find someone already accepted and ride their coattails for a bit - or you can choose not to play the game and publish elsewhere. Or, the more realistic answer for a 2nd year student, you should focus on improving your work and producing papers that really have a shot at high impact journals.
    – sErISaNo
    Dec 2, 2023 at 20:49
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The short answer is to do the kind of work that these top tier journals respect and publish. There's no easy formula, there's no recipe other than to publish that kind of work.

If you want to publish in Journal of Econometrics for example, your work needs to be in the top 1% of econometric theory and practice. It must be innovative, the proofs have to be correct, so on and so forth. There's no such thing is a tip or trick here, it's usually (usually) a skill issue. These top journals, they have a high reject rate for a reason.

In fact, American Economic Review explicitly tells grad students (us) NOT to send stuff there that isn't ready- the top tiers aren't places where you send your work to get good feedback, they're places where you send your work because it's currently at the top of the line work in your field, and that isn't just for my field, that's any of the top 5 in any field we pick.

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Although I acknowledge that a second-year Ph.D. student may not be prepared to publish independently, the underlying question is still valid. Contemporary scientific publishing has significant problems, as evidenced by examples where accomplished scientists published faked data and flawed research in high-profile journals. Furthermore, a "buddy system" between editors and scientists, coupled with evident biases against junior scientists and those hailing from non-U.S., non-China, and non-EU countries, do exist. To overcome these obsticles, a prevalent strategy involves seeking collaboration with established scientists, often resulting in co-authorships without significant contribution. This practice allows certain established scientists to accumulate a significant number of publications and bolster their h-index without substantial scholarly contributions.

Drawing from my decade-long career, a personal experience exemplifies these issues. During a period of a couple of years I didn’t have funding and had some health-related challenges. Consequently, my productivity suffered. It didn’t help that I had changed my research field. Upon resuming my research activities and submitting manuscripts as the corresponding author, I faced successive rejections from editors, justified by seemingly arbitrary reasons. Subsequently, when the same manuscripts underwent peer review, reviewers endorsed them without suggesting any substantive changes. Adding an insult to an injury, an editor who initially rejected my manuscript on the grounds of misalignment with the journal's scope later solicited my review for a manuscript from a different research group on a nearly identical topic. After several such experiences I started enlisting one of my more established coauthors to submit as the corresponding author, which appeared to solve the problem.

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  • Wow. This exactly mirrors my experience. Particularly the part about rejecting papers for arbitrary reasons. I had a paper that reviewers recommended for publication but the editor rejected because he said that their might be another explanation for my results than what I wrote in my conclusion. When I asked him to list a single possible other explanation he couldn't, yet he stood his ground and rejected. Dec 8, 2023 at 10:02
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This is and remains a complex issue. As said by others, writing and positioning a paper is a skill which takes a lot of practice to develop and where an extra set of eyes can help a lot. Even after over a hundred coauthored papers I often need feedback from others to ensure my implied ideas are clear for readers (and editors) not involved in the work (that is everyone). So perhaps independent publishing may be a bit overambitious in this stage of your career. Also fitting with journal scope is a complex game to play, which does involve some subjective decisions from handling editors. Also here experience in how to position a paper to pass the bar of specific journals takes time to grow (and even after 20 years I sometimes get desk rejects for failing to get it right). In summary, getting work published is a skill on many levels where collaboration and experience matter. I would advice you to build up that experience over a number of years and not be too disappointed or frustrated if a highly aimed manuscript gets rejected.

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I asked this question to one wise scholar. Here is his answer:

One thought. I suggest that before you submit a paper to any journal, look at other papers already published in that journal. Maybe that suggests some minor changes you might make to your paper so it better fits that particular journal.

Next remember the title of the paper and the Abstract. These will greatly influence the referee and editor. So work very hard to make the title “snappy” and the Abstract as attractive as it can be. The abstract must be written for the nonexpert. No very technical words!!

Think about the References in the paper. While many may be old, a few should be in the last 5 years - papers or books.

Now don’t put any result in the paper unless it is a good one. Don’t fill the paper up with everything you know - the best papers may or may not be long, but it should be very very clear to the reader what is the main result. If it isn’t, rewrite the paper so it is.

Also realise that when you submit a paper to any journal, but particularly a good journal, that it may be rejected. Don’t let it worry you, it happens to almost every mathematician. See if the rejection letter gives any useful advice - sometimes they do. Never argue with an editor about rejection even if the reasons are stupid. Just set about deciding where to submit it to next.

Wise Scholar

P.S. I used this advice of the wise scholar and got published in good journals. I can add from myself one thing: Your reputation as a scholar is as important as your publications. Take care and good luck!

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  • Thank you so so much.
    – Robin
    Mar 28 at 15:29

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