195 – Publishing persistence

Sometimes getting a research article published in a peer-reviewed journal requires a high degree of persistence. I’ve found this to be particularly the case for some papers that are a bit outside the mainstream.

When trying to publish a research paper, the best one can usually hope for is for the editor to require changes to the paper in response to reviewer comments, which one duly makes, and, after some further too-ing and fro-ing, the paper gets accepted. The reviewers’ comments might be anything from insightful and helpful to annoying and irrelevant, but whatever they are, we aim to go through this process.

But some papers are much harder to get accepted. I’ve just had this experience with the paper that describes the work we’ve done developing and applying INFFER (the Investment Framework for Environmental Resources). This is a really important paper to me – one I’ve got a lot more staked on than most. I think its the most important and valuable work I’ve ever been involved in.

But the paper is a bit unusual. It doesn’t quite fit the mould of a standard environmental economics or policy paper. We set out to describe the framework in detail, in much the same way as computer models are often described in journals like Agricultural Systems. But this proved to conflict with the expectations of reviewers in the journals to which we submitted the paper.

We first submitted it to Land Use Policy. The first comment of reviewer 1, in response to the question, “Does the paper represent a contribution to knowledge?”, was “Not particularly”! Not surprisingly, the paper was rejected.

So we tried a different journal: Environmental Science and Policy. The editor there didn’t even want to send the paper out to reviewers. He was interested in the topic, but not in a paper of this style.

Next we went to Journal of Environmental Management. Again the reviewers didn’t like it. Reviewer 2 started by saying “I am not sure how to review this paper” and later said “this paper doesn’t really belong in the scientific literature”.

By now, we were getting the message! There was nothing in any of the reviews saying that there were problems with INFFER, but the style of the paper was clearly a problem.

So we re-wrote it from scratch, putting more emphasis on the results of applying the framework, while still including enough description of INFFER for the paper to serve as its main reference. We sent this new paper to Land Use Policy, which is where we wanted to publish INFFER in the first place.

I was happy and relieved last month when, after some positive reviews and minor revisions, the new version of the paper (Pannell et al., 2011) was accepted. It is now available on the journal’s web site here. If you’d like a copy of the full paper, email me.

This all shows that, when it comes to publishing, persistence is crucial (Pannell, 2002), but obstinacy is foolish. You have to be prepared to adapt a paper to suit the preferences of reviewers and editors. In this case, I’m even willing to concede that the modified paper is better than the one we started with.

We started writing the original paper in November 2008, so it took almost three years from go to whoa. That’s plenty long enough, but it’s only about half as long as one of my other papers: Pannell et al. (2000). See Pannell (2002) for the full, sorry story of that one. Pannell et al. (2000) ended up being widely read and highly cited. Hopefully the new paper will turn the tables on reviewer negativity in a similar way.

David Pannell, The University of Western Australia

Further reading

Pannell, D.J. (2002). Prose, psychopaths and persistence: Personal perspectives on publishing, Canadian Journal of Agricultural Economics, 50(2): 101-116. Pre-publication version here (66K). Final published paper at journal web site here.

Pannell, D.J., Malcolm, L.R. and Kingwell, R.S. (2000). Are we risking too much? Perspectives on risk in farm modelling. Agricultural Economics 23(1): 69-78. Full paper (65 K)

Pannell, D.J., Roberts, A.M., Park, G., Alexander, J., Curatolo, A. and Marsh, S. (2011). Integrated assessment of public investment in land-use change to protect environmental assets in Australia, Land Use Policy 29: 377-387. Journal web site here

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