A few days ago I was browsing open-access social-science journals and I found one ‘author guideline’ explicitly saying that they are accepting student submissions if and only if the manuscript is co-authored with the academic advisor or a senior researcher.

I have acquaintances with several editors and editorial board members at various journals and I know from experience that some of us tends to be careful with manuscripts coming from PhD students. This manifests in practices that I find questionable (e.g., insisting on three unanimously positive specialist peer evaluations before acceptance, while a senior researcher’s manuscript may go with only two positives) and in other practices that I find to be biased (like an easier desk reject, or being less willing to deal with them, which results in longer peer evaluation cycles).

Is it justifiable for editors to restrict – formally or informally – the opportunities for PhD students to publish in their journals, like restricting them to submit only co-authored papers or subject their manuscript to more strict criteria than those of senior researchers before acceptance?

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    I am not from the Social Sciences, but yes, that sounds very questionable to me, especially as a formal policy.
    – xLeitix
    May 31 '15 at 9:15
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    Do they define student in any way? After all, in some countries (like mine) PhD students are not considered students for most purposes. (Not that it is okay in my opinion, if the policy is only against, e.g., undergraduate students.)
    – Wrzlprmft
    May 31 '15 at 9:20
  • No that journal did not gave a specific definition of 'student'; from what they say they can refer to both BA/MA and PhD students (as they all have advisors).
    – HunSoc
    May 31 '15 at 9:32
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    Not on Beal's list. It is a hybrid journal, both printed an open access. However they charge 10USD for publication per article page (if accepted). I can't say for sure it is not pay-to-publish.
    – HunSoc
    May 31 '15 at 9:49
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    Agree with those who say it is unethical! check this: link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s11192-015-1617-3
    – user35724
    Jun 10 '15 at 22:46

In my opinion, such a policy is absolutely unethical.

One of the key principles of science is that scientific work can be done by anybody. Good science can be done by people who aren't even in academia, let alone by students. A scientific paper should be evaluated on its merits, not an argument from authority based on its authors.

Now, humans being humans, reviewers will tend to bias towards known authorities and prejudice against unknowns, students, etc. But this journal's policy, rather than fighting against such a tendency, explicitly enshrines and adopts it. Likewise with the informal policies that you describe: anything that amplifies unfairness in judgement rather than de-amplifying it is highly suspect and likely scientifically unethical.

This doesn't mean that one should drop standards. Rather, it means that one should treat a paper coming from a well-known PI at an august institution with just as much suspicion as one from a student author from a developing-world university you've never heard of before. Being status-conscious primates, we're not very good at doing this, but such a condition is the goal towards which we should strive.

PS: Note that a policy the other way, i.e., student journals that don't accept papers without student authors, is not problematic because it is inverting the privilege gradient.

  • Yes. The main point is, while it may happen, it can not be an official policy!
    – 299792458
    May 31 '15 at 16:00
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    While I’m sure that you’re right in general, I note that when I reviewed papers I was actually slightly more demanding when the author was a ‘name’. May 31 '15 at 18:19
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    @BrianM.Scott Then I salute you sir, and thank you for your service.
    – jakebeal
    May 31 '15 at 18:39
  • I would agree in general. I do see a problem case though - imagine as a popular journal you receive tons of submissions. you are receiving so many submissions in general that your staff cannot possibly go through them all without creating a run-away backlog. You find that most of the low-quality submissions are coming from papers authored only by a student without the help of a senior. What new rule are you going to create to ensure you can keep up with submissions? Bonus points if your solution also increases quality of submissions.. Sep 25 '15 at 14:54
  • @DoubleDouble Given the way that publications usually work, I strongly doubt that this case is likely to occur.
    – jakebeal
    Sep 25 '15 at 15:09

I know that academia varies strongly and I am not familiar with the customs and procedures in the social sciences. Therefore this answer is based on assuming my field’s situation and it may ignore some pecularity of social sciences that plays into this. Anyway, I want to take another point of view at your example, i.e., the explicit exclusion of papers with only students as authors:

Most papers whose primary author is a student originate from some work happening under supervision, whether the supervisor is a co-author or not. Going by authorship standards, the latter question depends on whether the supervisor made an intellectual contribution to the paper. Often this is ignored and the supervisor is made coauthor for no reason other than being the supervisor. This unethical “custom” is ensured by the student’s strong dependecy on the supervisor and there is no need for journal policies to enforce it.

So, most papers that could potentially be submitted a journal without an advisor as an author are originating from work happening under a supervisor and thus the mentioned restriction can easily be surpassed by the authors by just asking their supervisor to coauthor the paper. Note that easily refers to the practical aspects, as it would be unethical and may have a slight negative impact on the student’s career. Thus, the main consequence of this policy is that supervisors are added to papers ignoring authorship ethics.

Now it is debatable whether rules that lead to unethical behaviour are themselves unethical, but in my opinion they are at least to some extent and hence this policy is unethical – in particular as I can see no positive effect justifying it. I would refuse to review or author for a journal holding such a policy.

  • I see your point, but following this logic, another main consequence of this policy is to prevent gift sole authorship to students (which is also ignoring authorship ethics).
    – HunSoc
    May 31 '15 at 15:23
  • I also never heard of an official journal policy in the Social Sciences which ban student authored manuscripts altogether, but I was aware that informally, there is some bias against such papers at some editorial boards, hence my original question.
    – HunSoc
    May 31 '15 at 15:29
  • nother main consequence of this policy is to prevent gift sole authorship to students – Do you mean that students are allowed to claim the sole authorship when there actually is a coauthor? If yes, you are right, but is this really something that frequently happens?
    – Wrzlprmft
    May 31 '15 at 15:48
  • How often does a PhD student have a paper ready to submit without enough input from their supervisor(*) to merit a coauthorship? Such a contribution is likely to be in experimental design (or equivalent), analysis, and/or actually getting a paper (& figures) to a publishable standard. (*) Or another academic/postdoc who helps supervise some of their work
    – Chris H
    Jun 1 '15 at 9:03
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    @ChrisH How often does a PhD student have a paper ready to submit without enough input from their supervisor(*) to merit a coauthorship? — In strong PhD programs in my field, about once per semester per PhD student, starting around the third or fourth year of their PhD program.
    – JeffE
    Jun 11 '15 at 2:06

It is both justifiable and unethical.

It is justifiable because, in practice, the peer review process is rarely good enough to catch all or even most errors that might appear in a manuscript. The presence of a senior researcher on a manuscript indicates (not in a foolproof way, but it's better than nothing) that someone with the experience and interest to catch (some of) these errors has already had a go at it.

Of course there are cases where exactly the opposite is true (a senior researcher pushes for inclusion of a flaw based upon their hunches/experience), but on balance having a senior person responsible on board improves the quality and lowers the error rate, which lessens the burden on the peer review process, which makes the journal less likely to publish something which is wrong. (And if they do, people are more likely to blame the senior author than the journal.)

But it is unethical because the long-term success of the academic endeavour depends critically upon the ability of peer review to actually be a good review of the work. The journal shouldn't be shirking its duty there, or at least if it does it should do so apologetically. The editorial staff's job includes summarily rejecting papers that have too many basic mistakes (unclear abstract, no references, etc.) that more often are made by Ph.D. students alone, but they can and should do that on the basis of the content of the paper, not the seniority of the authors.

So unless this is the Journal of Opinions of Prominent People whose Importance is a Social Construct, I would view the policy very unfavorably.

  • 3
    Note that just that all authors of a paper are students does not mean that their supervisor did not carefully read the manuscript. The benefits of “internal peer review” are (hopefully) common wisdom and if the advisor isn’t an author, what better choice for an internal reviewer is there? (And tomorrow a manuscript introduces a rule that at least one senior scientist must be acknowledged for critical comments on earlier versions of the manuscript or similar.)
    – Wrzlprmft
    May 31 '15 at 20:41
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    @Wrzlprmft - It's still likely that on average papers with a supervisor's name in the author list are better-read by said supervisor than those that aren't.
    – Rex Kerr
    Jun 1 '15 at 6:39
  • Sorry, IMHO that is not justifiable. You can't try to fix one problem (incomplete revisions) by implementing another problem (a unethical policy). I won't even elaborate on expanding this logic to other problems to not automatically lose the discussion :) Sep 24 '15 at 13:31
  • @FábioDias - If your only measure is how good overall outcomes are, it's absolutely possible to partially fix one problem by introducing a second compensatory problem that fixes more than it breaks. In other words, it's justifiable in that it arguably results in better outcomes than lousy peer review without additional measures to help ensure the accuracy of the paper. This doesn't mean that it's the best course of action, or that it's right, just that it sorta works, and its sorta-workingness is a justification for the policy.
    – Rex Kerr
    Sep 24 '15 at 15:22

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