what should the acceptance rate of sociological science be? or of any other journal for that matter?

A few days ago, I noted that Contexts is actually competitive in the sense of publishing a small fraction of what we get. I noted that our acceptance rate is similar to respected journals. I wrote the blog post because I thought it was interesting. I also thought that it might help the journal. If people knew that we actually took care to curate the journal, that we didn’t publish whatever we got, we might attract some really good authors.

In the comments, though, something interesting happened. Kim Weeden wrote to say that Sociological Science‘s acceptance rate was now below 20%, when I noted that it used to be around 20%-25%. Then, a third anonymous commenter wrote:

I find it fascinating that SocSci has such a low acceptance rate. No doubt there is some percentage of submissions that are flawed beyond what can be reasonably improved in a single revision, but I can’t believe that’s > 80%. (If it is, the discipline is surely in trouble!) With virtually no space constraint in a purely online publication, it seems like the decision has been to prioritize the “status marker” aspect of publication, a la ASR or AJS, with the same sort of judgment of what is or is not “interesting” being a main factor in a manuscript’s fate. (Note that personally I’ve never submitted anything to SocSci, so this is just an observation, not bitterness over a rejection!)

Great question. Soc Sci‘s existence raises a very important question about publishing. Soc Sci is online – there is no print limitation on how many articles they can have. It is new, so there is no tradition or custom about the number of articles published. It is author financed (for the most part, I think), so there is no budget that limits articles. Thus, we have a few questions:

  1. Why is the acceptance rate so low?
  2. Why has it been dropping?
  3. Why not increase the acceptance rate?

I don’t work for Soc Sci and have no insider information. Unlike the commenter, I did once send in an article unsuccessfully, but I hold no grudge. I’ve been shot down at every single major sociological journal and more book presses than I can remember and that is normal. But I can still offer some ideas.

  1. Taste and curation: Soc Sci is not an open access publishing platform a la  PLoS One. It reflects the taste of the editors.
  2. Competence vs. quality: Soc Sci has an implicit threshold of quality beyond the competence of the article.
  3. Personnel limits: PLoS can publish tons of materials because they have this vast system of editors. In contrast, Soc Sci has a normal editorial team and board. It can only handle so much.
  4. Prestige: Maybe the Soc Sci founders really want to show open access can have the same cache as a traditional flagship journal or esteemed specialty journal. If so, rejection is a key strategy.
  5. Garbage: At PLoS one, you are allowed infinite revisions until it is competent. In contrast, Soc Sci has a “take it or leave it” policy. Either it is ready to go, or they won’t take it. That means a low acceptance rate.
  6. Visibility: Maybe the # of articles in sociology that are “ready to go” is constant, but the acceptance rate drops as the journal becomes visible and less strong authors send in manuscripts that really aren’t ready.

Long time readers know that I am a “journal pluralist.” We want lots of different publication models and not just the traditional hierarchy of flagship > everyone else. If you buy my view, then there is no “right” acceptance rate for Soc Sci. If they want prestige, they should reject a lot. If they want to open up science, they should be less picky. If you want development of ideas, then you’ll need to R&R. You can’t have it all, but you are certainly allowed to choose one strategy and then build a great journal around that model. And if they want a free online version of a high visibility journal, then they are making good progress and I wish them the best.


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Written by fabiorojas

December 3, 2018 at 5:17 am

Posted in uncategorized

3 Responses

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  1. Interesting to see this kind of reaction on Soc Science. (I’m not an insider of Soc Science either). My sense is that lots of papers in our field (perhaps not >80% but certainly more than a half of published or unpublished papers that come across my desk in our field) cross neither competence nor quality thresholds that grant publication. Note that my assumption is that the field is responsible for not publishing papers if they are bad, since they will only muddle the field. (Journals have more the reason to not publish bad papers, as that will dilute attention paid to their good papers). Some may reasonably disagree and say that that should be up for readers to decide and not editors or reviewers.

    By the way, Soc Science seems to have an explicit threshold of quality. From their website: “Sociological Science is a general interest, open access sociology journal committed to the highest standards of rigor and relevance.”


    ken gagne

    December 3, 2018 at 1:01 pm

  2. I’m only speaking for myself, not the editorial team. And, I don’t read all the papers that come in (Jesper does), just those that hit my deputy editor queue or that happen to catch my eye when I check the journal’s submission site.

    I’d say it’s a combination of 2, 5, and 6. We don’t issue R&Rs, so the paper has to be essentially ready to go. I see quite a few papers to which I would issue an R&R if I were reviewing for a traditional journal, but that don’t meet the threshold for a conditional accept.

    That said, I’ve been a bit shocked by how many seriously flawed papers we are sent. And, I mean flawed, not “uninteresting.” Flaws that should be covered in any decent first methods or research design course.

    I also see quite a few papers that authors sent out too soon. Maybe this is because authors have become accustomed to using the R&R to really finish a paper. Or, maybe it’s specific to Sociological Science: we’re known for quick turnaround, so we get more papers from authors trying to get a publication in advance of a professional deadline.

    The decline in our acceptance rate over time is from increasing visibility of the journal. We don’t have a marketing budget, so early on we relied on our professional networks and social media. We reject plenty of papers by people in our networks. (No one edits a journal to make friends!) However, if you assume any non-zero and positive correlation between quality of work and institution rank/resources, a pool of papers dominated by authors at elite institutions will yield a higher acceptance rate than one with broader representation.

    Now that the journal is established, we’re seeing more submissions from a broader range of authors within sociology, but also more submissions from outside the field. We will reject papers from economics, political science, etc. that don’t bother to engage the sociological ideas or literature on the author’s topic, even if the science seems sound.

    Liked by 1 person

    Kim Weeden (@WeedenKim)

    December 3, 2018 at 1:48 pm

  3. Doesn’t publishing, even in an online journal without space constraints, come with the implicit endorsement of the work by the editorial board? This is sort of like your 1)/2) but a little different. I wouldn’t want to endorse a paper that I don’t think is especially interesting if I were an editor, even if I wouldn’t necessarily decry it strongly.



    December 4, 2018 at 2:38 am

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