Vincent Calcagno has a fascinating piece up at the LSE impact blog, in which he looks at the review and publication histories of an absolute pile of articles. There are whole set if interesting findings there that are well worth the read. For example:
But, surprisingly, we found that about 75 per cent of all articles we declared to have been submitted to the publishing journal on first intention. Even assuming that, for some reason, authors were less likely to respond in the case of a resubmission, we still find that a majority of published articles are first-intent submissions. This suggests that authors are, overall, quite apt at targeting a proper journal and, conversely, that journals make sure they have a sufficient public: no journal was found to be entirely dependent on resubmissions from others.
However, the finding I found most interesting was this:
in a given journal and a given year, an article that had been resubmitted from another journal was on average more cited than a first-intent submission. Resubmissions were less likely to receive zero or one citation (about 15 per cent less, controlling for publication year and journal) and more likely to receive several (e.g. 10 and 50) citations, shifting the mean to higher values. This intriguing result suggests a “benefit of rejection”. The simplest explanation would be that the review process and the greater amount of time spent working on resubmitted manuscripts does improve them and makes them more cited, although other mechanisms could be invoked.
I wonder, though, if there is another factor that should be considered. Peer review is inherently conservative – there is a lot of thought policing that goes on through this process (I’ve gone on about this before, here and here). I wonder how many of the “resubmissions” were rejected not because of insufficient quality, but because they were doing interesting work that threatened one or more reviewers, leading to rejection. This makes sense, as new and edgier work will eventually get cited more than middle-of-the-road replication of old results – at least, that has been my experience. So perhaps Calgano has given us empirical evidence for the intellectual policing function of peer review.