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After a paper is rejected several times by several journals it begins to become clear that the research was off the mark no matter how much editing, fixing, and revisions are done. Therefore,

What do scholars do with unpublishable papers?

Do they stick them in a file drawer and pretend it never happened? Perhaps they burn them? Or do they try to pull something from the ashes for another paper. It's somewhat depressing to spend months on a project to watch it murdered during the review process. Surely there is some sort of afterlife for a rejected article?

68

There's always room to publish any paper, even a computer-generated one that doesn't make sense. You just need to target the "appropriate" publication/venue.

Being more serious now, I have rarely seen any rejected work that "just died". For good or bad, the paper or parts of it were always later reused / resubmitted and eventually accepted.

I am not saying that's a good thing, because some papers/ideas/research topics are really terrible and absurd, but too many researchers are usually too stubborn / invested to accept it. Many of them, in fact, have made a career out of this (like republishing the same absurd/non-working idea for decades) and everyone seems to be okay with it.

These days there's really room for everything: publishing is a huge business. Again, it all depends on your standards.

32

These days you always have the arXiv, or other preprint servers. This way, the manuscript is available and can be found through many (but not all) searches. Indeed, citations show up on Google Scholar, HEP spires etc.

In my field, we submit to the arXiv first, so papers we have trouble with are already available. For this reason, many people don't bother with difficult to publish articles, and leave them as arXiv-only papers.

I am aware of many completely correct, well cited, arXiv-only papers. Indeed, I would be curious to know what the most highly cited arXiv-only paper is.

Some years ago I used to think that peer review provided so little extra value that journals would simply die, and arXiv-only would become the norm. This has not happened, but it still might some time in the future.

15

I think that in general, researchers submit and resubmit their work until it's published. If an article is really troublesome, it will die in the file drawer, hence the "file drawer problem" experienced in meta-analyses.

A better practice could be to post the manuscript on a preprint server. The research would then be accessible to everyone.

  • 1
    While I agree with you in principle, better practice is ambiguous in a way that misses why people keep trying. It's better for academia as a whole if people could just leave bad papers in a graveyard. It's probably not better for their careers. Some countries (and universities) use deeply quantitative approaches to promotion and hiring. Moreover, if the paper took months of work, no one wants to have their work go wasted. – virmaior Aug 11 '17 at 10:23
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    But even bad paper have data that can be use, for example, in a meta-analysis (which can take into account the quality of the data). Or they show a method that we should avoid. So they have their value. – Emilie Aug 11 '17 at 12:37
  • Well, there is at least one journal that seems to have one reviewer who appears to want to prevent you from publishing.... - With a friend/colleague we submitted a paper and never resurrected it, despite talking about it for two years now. There is another paper that was submitted recently and again has one reviewer who doesn't seem to understand the paper/or just doesn't want to see it published... - without the co-authors, I possibly would let the paper die and wonder why I bother... maybe it might be an idea to find another journal, but there are only few for my field... – DetlevCM Aug 23 '17 at 16:40
11

Blaise Cronin tracked the fate of papers rejected by the Journal of the Association for Information Science and Technology in his editorial The resilience of rejected manuscripts.

Out of 180 rejected manuscripts, 74 could be tracked:

  • 2 of them were successfully resubmitted to the same journal
  • 59 were published in another journal
  • 2 were included in PhD theses
  • 1 was transformed into a technical report
  • 6 were found in repositories
  • the rest were published as conference papers or posters

And of course, some would rest in the bottom of the drawer (I have one of them myself waiting for better times).

So, in answer to your question, it seems unpublishable papers are put aside (it's not worth your time or you have something else to do) or made available through some less restrictive venues (at least, you've made something with it).

9

What do scholars do with unpublishable papers?

The answer depends a lot on the researchers involved. Leslie Lamport has gone on record saying that he "rarely sends rejected papers elsewhere", but I would guess most academics nowadays can hardly afford such a strong stance.

In informal discussions you will sometimes hear the term "dump venue" being thrown around. What exactly constitutes such a dump venue is up for discussion, as all rankings, but for most academics these dump venues are conferences and journals that are not good enough that one would usually write a paper explicitly for it, but not bad enough that one would be embarrassed about one's work appearing there.

And at least in Computer Science, there absolutely are venues in all quality tiers. It is rare that research work that we do turns out so bad that there isn't any conference or workshop where we could put it, without having to resort to spam journals (which is a no-go for me and my colleagues). In the rare case where work turns out to literally be close to unpublishable, the sane decision is to cut your losses, and let it die. However, this has happened to me at most 3 times so far.

  • "this has happened to me at most 3 times so far" This would IMO be a more interesting data point if compared to something. For example, how many papers have you submitted in total, or how long have you been in the field? – a CVn Aug 11 '17 at 14:20
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    I have ~ 80 published papers to date. – xLeitix Aug 11 '17 at 14:22
  • It is rare that research work that we do turns out so bad that there isn't any conference or workshop where we could put it Yeah, but at some point it's not worth your time to keep re-submitting it. – Thomas supports Monica Feb 14 '19 at 1:31
7

I do not see many solution as to what to do with a 'failed' article. I multiple rewrite of it has not been accepted, it might underline some fundamental flaw in its content.

The problem is not what do to with the article, rather understanding why it's not accepted. Is the research methods wrong? Is is superficial? Subjective? Is it adding something to the field, a new method, new point of view (is it original and relevant).

If your research method is correct and the data interesting, it's surely worth salvaging.

  • 7
    A paper could be good, but difficult to publish because the results aren't exciting enough. For example, the paper might reproduce someone else's results, or make a small modification to an existing algorithm that makes it just a little faster. – mhwombat Aug 10 '17 at 13:02
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    @mhwombat related: was listening to a Mozilla Science community call describing f1000research.com as a suitable place to publish things that are important, good science but might not be "exciting" or "impactful" enough for the big fancy journals to accept. – Reinstate Monica Aug 10 '17 at 16:12
5

Since the question asks for examples, I'll contribute mine. In my long and (I think) reasonably successful scholarly career two or three short papers were rejected by just one appropriate journal, for good reason. Essentially, they just weren't interesting enough or new enough, despite what I thought when I wrote them. I didn't think the reviewers were murdering my work.

I still learned a lot and enjoyed the research that went into them. Some of the ideas resurfaced in later work. I think if I wrote them now I'd post them to the arXiv so someone might stumble on them and enjoy them.

  • I had a similar experience with one paper. Even though the work had been intriguing, I never got a good clear understanding of the underlying biological mechanism and couldn't convince myself that it was important enough to spend a year and $100,000 trying to figure it out. Wrote it up as best I could but the reviewers were also unenthused and I never got around to trying other journals. As with Ethan, if I wrote them today I'd probably have sent them to Biorxiv but it wasn't around in the late 1990s. – iayork Aug 10 '17 at 19:39
  • You can still post them on the arXiv :) – darij grinberg Aug 11 '17 at 11:41
  • @darijgrinberg Yes, in principle, But I wrote them in the days before word processors. I'd have to TeX up the typescripts, which would surely call for rewriting along the way ... – Ethan Bolker Aug 11 '17 at 13:37
4

Depending on what you mean by "unpublishable", online mega-journals can be a good place to publish work. They're unlikely to attract many readers there, but will be citable etc. PLOS ONE was founded with the ethos that:

All work that reaches rigorous technical and ethical standards is published and freely and immediately available to everyone.

In other words, they don't select papers based on 'novelty' or other tricky criteria that make it hard for decent, but relatively dull work (e.g. replications) to be published, although I'm not sure if this applies in your situation.

  • 3
    Your answer suggests where otherwise unpublishable papers could go, but that's not what the question asks. – JeffE Aug 11 '17 at 1:10

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