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Our paper was rejected multiple times; several months later, another group published similar results in Nature. Though some details were different, the main logic and key points of the research were the same.

A reviewer of our paper said our work lacked "broad readership" - this critique does not make sense to me. Is this because there are no "big guys" in our paper? Or our figures were not enough to impress the editors? Or because our university is not famous enough?

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    "Though some details were different": As the say goes, the devil is in the details, and in science they can make all the difference between a good paper and a bad one. – Massimo Ortolano Nov 29 '16 at 20:16
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    Flagged for lack of clarity - you might be able to improve it but it is unclear what you mean by broad leadership, and it also feels like your question might be more of a rant rather than an actual question, to which I have to say, I fully sympathize and appreciate how you are feeling. As a broad suggestion for future projects, it might be helpful to solicit feedback from colleagues you trust who are not intimately involved in your work - it might be that your writing or presentation is unclear, causing your work to underperform its merits with reviewers. – Bryan Krause Nov 29 '16 at 20:30
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    @exsonic01 Even if I can fully relate to your frustration, I assume that the editors/reviewers gave you more precise reasons in their rejection letter than the lack of "broad leadership". Summarizing these reasons as lack of "broad leadership" may indeed be a poor choice of words, but I think that the detailed comments should be more informative than that. – lighthouse keeper Nov 29 '16 at 21:10
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    Though I haven't seen this language used, if it was the editor saying "broad leadership" rather than a reviewer, I suspect what they mean is that they did not feel your paper was sufficiently revolutionary for their tier of journal. The editor would likely base this decision on lukewarm reviews, even if those reviews are not fully negative. Your options in this situation would be to A) publish in a lower-tier journal, to make sure your work takes precedence in the field even if it lacks some exposure, or B) better emphasize the novel aspects of your work in a future submission. – Bryan Krause Nov 29 '16 at 21:14
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    This may be me being stupid, but is it possible that it's a typo that was meant to say "broad readership"? i.e. perhaps the article was too niche for that journal? – Ian_Fin Nov 30 '16 at 11:07
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Though I haven't seen this language used, if it was the editor saying "broad leadership" rather than a reviewer, I suspect what they mean is that they did not feel your paper was sufficiently revolutionary for their tier of journal. The editor would likely base this decision on lukewarm reviews, even if those reviews are not fully negative.

Your options in this situation would be to

A) publish in a lower-tier journal, to make sure your work takes precedence in the field even if it lacks some exposure, or

B) better emphasize the novel aspects of your work in a future submission.

I also like the suggestion by @Ian_Fin that "leadership" may have been a typo from "readership" which I think would make much more sense, but my conclusions and interpretation are the same: this is the editor saying your work is not sufficiently groundbreaking for the tier of journal and either belongs in a more specialty journal or you would have needed to improve the writing to clarify the significance to the broader community.

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In my experience, it means that there aren't big guys/labs/university in your list of authors/institutions. I have seen this many times, where a study on a species X from a Developing country from a big lab in a developed country gets published, and when another study on a species X from a developing country performed by scientists from the same country is not even sent to review because it is not considered interesting for the journal's readership. I am not talking here about methodological mistakes or major flaws, as sometimes those papers are not even sent for review. At the same time, I have seen papers considered uninteresting by professional editors of journals like Nature, but considered major contributions and landmark papers for journals with scientific editors (and that have open review processes). Which suggests that professional editors rely more on percieved prestige of research groups and institutions to make decissions when they do not know enough about a given subject. That is obviously bad for science.

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I don't think we can judge the exact circumstances to treat this as a general question. Could be an issue of prestige, could just be statistical variance, could be that that other paper really was better.

I would give you (or others in same situation) practical pieces of advice:

  1. Aim more for decent journals (e.g. ACS subspecialty) versus the biggest prize journals if you are worried about this sort of outcome.

  2. Write very clearly. Follow all the Notice to Authors instructions and use good English. Have strong native speakers brush the paper up if you are not a good English prose writer.

  3. Push it through fast so you don't get scooped (1 and 2 help here, but there are other things you can do along the way).

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