Scientific disciplines grow from new concepts, ideas, theories and expert opinions, not just data. But conceptual papers are the hardest kind of scientific paper to publish.
Too many researchers…seem to think that any non-empirical paper is simply an essay and devoid of deeper scholarship. Nothing could be further from the truth. More than once I have received comments from reviewers claiming a paper is nothing more than an essay, implying essays are little more than opinions. But aren’t all papers “opinions” in one form or another?
~ Rudy Hirschheim (2008)
By definition, a conceptual paper doesn’t present original data…but it must present an original concept. It synthesises knowledge from previous work on a particular topic, and presents it in a new context to provide a springboard for new research that will fill knowledge gaps.
Conceptual papers shouldn’t follow the status quo; they need to show how moving beyond the current norm will enhance knowledge.
Most researchers have experienced the struggle to get a conceptual paper published. I’ve co-authored two conceptual papers and I’m currently battling to get a third into existence. All have been more difficult to get through peer review than any of the data papers I’ve published.
“Pollinators, pests, and predators: Recognizing ecological trade-offs in agroecosystems”:
6 journals; 12 months before acceptance.
“Limitations of the ecosystem services versus disservices dichotomy”: 1 journal, 2 reject-resubmit revisions; 12 months before acceptance
Current manuscript: 5 journals, 2nd reject-resubmit from the last journal.
So why is it so hard to contribute a new idea to Ecology? A few thoughts from my experience as author and reviewer, please leave your own in the comments.
Journals don’t educate reviewers about differences in article styles
Most ecology journals have one or more categories for authors to submit conceptual papers for review. These are called various things, like Forum articles, Viewpoints, Perspectives, Opinions etc. Aside from brief (often vague) descriptions of style and format on the journal’s website, there are no criteria provided for reviewers to judge these categories. As a reviewer, I’ve never received advice on how to review a conceptual paper for these journals. And I’ve never been encouraged to consult the journal’s website for more information on the category I’ve been asked to review. This matters, because conceptual papers have very different expectations compared to data papers, the gold standard of scientific publications.
Editors don’t agree on journal scope, author guidelines and expectations
As an author, some of the rejections I’ve received have been from editors rejecting us without review because our paper “didn’t meet the criteria of a Review paper”. Even though we’d submitted our paper under one of the journal’s specific conceptual categories (see above), not under the Review category. Other times, we submitted to a journal using the journal’s proposal system for conceptual papers. The editor that read the proposal liked our idea and invited us to submit the full paper. A different editor then handled our full submission and rejected it without review. So why do journals have so many different categories for submission, if editors aren’t trained to recognise these categories?
Do journals prefer new ideas from senior/established researchers?
I have no data on this, so don’t quote me. Why do so many high-impact journals only publish “invited” conceptual papers?
Scientists aren’t trained to write (and therefore review) conceptual papers
Concepts are embedded in context and based on expert opinion. Yet the current paradigm in science training and practice is facts/evidence-based. As scientists, we’re trained not to have opinions and to control context out of experiments. For peer review, we’re trained to identify standards of study design, statistical analyses, presentation and formatting etc. But there are very few standards for judging someone else’s ideas. It’s easy to subconsciously revert to subjective opinion and critique conceptual papers based on personal views/experience on the topic.
So here are some thoughts on reviewing conceptual papers:
- Conceptual papers DON’T NEED TO PRODUCE DATA. “But meta-analysis!…” One of the most common criticisms from reviewers that I’ve experienced is that we haven’t produced data to back up our ‘new idea’. Conceptual papers aren’t about data, they’re about context.
- Focus on how the argument is built, not the argument itself. As a reviewer, you don’t need to agree with the authors’ opinion/new idea, but you do need to be convinced that their argument is a valid contribution to the literature. As an author, you need to convince everyone, including people beyond your peers, that your idea is valid within its context. Many Humanities disciplines teach these skills, e.g. the ‘old-fashioned’ and misunderstood Rhetoric.
- If a journal doesn’t tell you whether the conceptual paper you’re reviewing is a resubmission, ask the editor. Before pointing out flaws, new reviewers should know what elements the authors have added onto their original text in response to previous review comments. I think this is more important for conceptual papers than data papers, because critiques of conceptual papers are more likely to be subjective than objective.
I can’t find any published guidelines for reviewing a conceptual paper in Ecology. But here are some from other disciplines:
Gilson LL & Goldberg CB (2015) Editors’ comment: So, what is a conceptual paper? Group & Organization Management, 40: 127-130.
Hirshcheim R (2008) Some Guidelines for the Critical Reviewing of Conceptual Papers. Journal of the Association for Information Systems, 9: 432-441.
Whetten DA (1989) What constitutes a theoretical contribution? The Academy of Management Review, 14: 490-495.
© Manu Saunders 2018