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(Paper presented at the 1986 annual conference of Australian social psychologists)

NON-SCIENTIFIC BIAS IN THE EDITING OF THE AUSTRALIAN JOURNAL OF PSYCHOLOGY



J.J. Ray

University of New South Wales

Abstract

Statistically significant evidence is presented to show that papers acceptable for publication in overseas journals are not acceptable to The Australian Journal of Psychology. The reasons for non-acceptance appear to be personal rather than scientific.


The material I wish to present here may at first seem a little personal but I think that it is nonetheless statistically sound and makes a case study that could potentially be of interest to all users of academic journals. I think its interest extends far beyond the particular journal that I wish to discuss.

Over the last 15 years I have had roughly two-hundred academic papers published in books and journals throughout the world. Most of the data on which those papers were based was gathered in Australia and much of it therefore would seem to be of particular interest to Australian readers. Studies in the political psychology of Australians, for instance, could be particularly influenced by Australian political systems and realities generally and might not even be readily intelligible to readers living under different political arrangements in, for instance, the United States. I have therefore overall submitted roughly half my total output of papers initially to Australian journals -- the Australian Journal of Psychology in particular. The A.J.P. would therefore have assessed at the very least 50 of my 200-odd published papers. One might therefore be forgiven for expecting that at least 50 of my published papers also appeared in the A.J.P. In fact I have had published there three articles in my own name, two articles in joint names and two replies to attacks on one of my papers. These seven articles do make me one of the journal's top authors in terms of number of articles published there since 1970 but the more remarkable fact is the much vaster number of subsequently published articles that they have rejected. In fact, when we compare the frequency observed of 7 with the frequency expected of at least 50 the Chi squared is 36.98 (d.f. = 1; p <.001).

So there is clearly something highly significant going on. One might have thought that an Australian author would have a better than average chance of being published in the A.J.P. In my case very much the opposite seems to be the case. Can there be some systematic explanation of such a very strong effect? Why are some articles that are accepted readily by overseas journals so overwhelmingly unacceptable to -the A.J.P.? One possible`explanation is that The Australian Journal of Psychology has very high standards and that the other journals which publish my work have very low standards. This however seems unlikely on a number of grounds:

1). I understand that The Australian Journal of Psychology has a rather high acceptance rate -- something like 30% or more -- compared with British and American journals -- which seem in general to accept roughly 10% or less of what they receive.

2). The vast majority of the journals which have accepted my work have much larger circulations than does The Australian Journal of Psychology. Circulation may not be a totally reliable guide to the quality of an established journal but it is surely one of the best of the available objective indices.

3). The Australian Journal of Psychology seems to be toward the bottom of' the various prestige rankings that have been done and I in fact have found some reflection of this when I make reference in my articles to those of my earlier articles that have appeared in The Australian Journal of Psychology. Overseas referees often complain about my using such "obscure" references.

4). Although the A.J.P. does seem to get a reasonable number of citations from authors writing in other journals, these authors seem overwhelmingly to be Australians or New Zealanders. The impact of the journal on the scholarly world at large is, in other words, negligible.

All the evidence is then against an explanation of the poor acceptance rate of my submissions to The Australian Journal of Psychology in terms of journal quality.

What other explanation could there be? I think an alternative explanation emerges very naturally if we look at those of my papers which have been accepted in The Australian Journal of Psychology. All of them were accepted by editors who at the time had never met me. I have never had a paper accepted by any editor who knows me.

This has been particularly marked in more recent years (as I become better known). For instance, under the editorship of Leon Mann (1981-1986) my success-rate in fact dropped to zero with the AJP while I had in excess of 70 papers published elsewhere. As I have always been aware that Prof. Mann finds me a trial, I did of course cut back on my submissions during that time but it seems clear that the six submissions I did make should have had at least one success. All eventually appeared (sometimes in a revised form) elsewhere.

It seems quite clear, then, that my papers have been rejected for various personal reasons. To my knowledge every paper of mine ever rejected by the AJP has finally been accepted for publication elsewhere -- generally in British or American academic journals. This should mean that the question of quality could hardly be an explanation. What then are these personal qualities in me that produce such a strong aversive reaction?

Put simply, I am a norm violator. I am disrespectful of convention and have odd political views. The reactions to me of the various editors of The Australian Journal of Psychology surprise me not a bit. They don't want to give any encouragement to anyone who is such an upstart. My submissions therefore, are evaluated not on their merits but on an evaluation of me personally. Scientific objectivity flies out the window when a paper of mine is received.

The grounds most commonly given for rejecting my papers are further evidence of this. By far the most common reason given is that my sampling is not good enough. This is particularly ironical as I give particular care to sampling. I believe I have even written more on sampling than any other Australian psychologist -- a total of 4 published articles. It is certainly not something I am careless of. In fact, all of my rejected articles have, to my knowledge, been based on some attempt at community samples -- generally random doorstep samples of an Australian city or a random postal sample of an Australian State. None of them were perfectly representative. The perfect random sample has to my knowledge yet to be gathered. There is always at least some problem with volunteer artifact -- the fact that some people drawn for the sample refuse to co-operate. I am therefore not saying that my samples were perfect. What I would like to do is compare them with the samples that do get published in the Australian Journal of Psychology. It should come as no surprise to find that the, vast majority of these are in fact not even attempted samples. They are simply available groups of white rats or freshmen students. If my samples are imperfect, then the samples that get published are ludicrous. There is no comparison. Mine are almost invariably far better, far more representative. To reject my articles on the grounds of sampling is then simply to say that the editor just wants to reject my article anyway and will seize on any straw to justify his actions.

"But what about blind review and the referee system?" Someone will ask. The answer is not far to seek. I never request blind review because I cite a lot of my own previous publications and my identity would be obvious anyway. Secondly, the referees are generally in the same category as the editor. There are only a small number of active Australian social psychologists and most of them would at some time have attended one of the annual conferences of Australian social psychologists. Since I have given a paper at every one of these conferences since their inception (not counting the one held while I was overseas on Sabbatical leave), most potential referees of my work would have met me personally at some time. They too could easily have personal reasons for being hypercritical of my work.

I am not of course here being so dismal as to say that everybody hates me. I like many of my colleagues and liking is normally reciprocated. What I am saying is that the establishment figures who run the journal probably have friends rather similar to themselves whom they call upon to act as referees and such people seem to react adversely to me. Perhaps they resent such prolific output (I have had up to 36 articles published in a single year) in someone who has never occupied a senior academic position.

This explanation that the "old bulls" resent a non-establishment rival is however so hard on people claiming to be scientists that one feels obliged to seek alternative explanations. A possible explanation could lie in what are widely held to be two prominent elements of the Australian national character -- a dislike of "knockers" and a dislike of "tall poppies". I probably offend on both counts. The volume of my output surely makes me a tall poppy in need of cutting down and it is also true that most of what I write is critical of what others have done in the field. I am the quintessential "knocker". "Knockers" (or, in less emotive terms "critics") are probably essential to scientific advance but, ever since Galileo, they have had to know how to take their lumps.

This explanation in terms of Australian national character is borne out if we look at the acceptance of my work by Australian and New Zealand journals generally. I have had a total of 37 papers published in these journals (e.g. A.N.Z. J. Sociology, A.N.Z. J. Criminology, Politics, Media Information Australia, New Zealand Psychologist), This success rate however compares with an expected frequency of 100 ( Chi squared = 39.69, df = 1, p < .001). Clearly, then, geographical variations in culture can have surprising explanatory value. It is perhaps ironic that I have made many attempts to get papers on that topic published in Australian journals with no success whatever. A common response to such papers has been that they "are not of psychological interest". This despite the fact that the AJP has in fact published several papers on the same subject by other authors.

So, all in all, then, I look back on the phenomenon with more amusement than disquiet. The constant rejection of my work has meant that I have often had work published in widely circulated overseas journals instead of having it buried in an obscure journal with little international recognition. I have on the whole benefited greatly from the personal animus of my colleagues. I also wonder in passing if the ancient adage "A prophet hath no honour in his own country" might not in fact make the whole affair rather complimentary to me.

Overall, then, my only disquiet is that some users of academic journals may think that they are edited on scientific criteria. That would be only very partially true.




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