Friday, August 27, 2010

The Sting of Rejection

In the latest issue of OR/MS Today, there's an interesting and provocative letter from Professor James Ignizio.  You may well know his name from the literature on multicriterion decision making.  Certainly his record (about 150 peer reviewed journal articles) speaks for itself, and (largely out of jealousy :-) ) I will not comment further on it.  Pride of authorship aside, if Prof. Ignizio has a paper he thinks makes a publishable contribution, I'm inclined to respect his judgment.

His letter describes a similarity between his first submission to an OR journal (Operations Research, to be price) and his most recent submission, 40 years later, both of which were rejected. The first rejection, of a paper that described the solution to an important real-world problem (if I can use "real-world" to describe space travel), specified insufficient advancement of OR theory (my emphasis added), while the most recent gives a similar "insufficient contribution" reason. (The rapid turnaround of the most recent paper guarantees that this was a "desk rejection" by the editor.)

I had a similar experience years ago, with a paper on quantity discounts co-authored with a colleague in operations management from another school. The problem was his, the methodology mine. The solution method mixed a bit of nonlinear programming, some Lagrangean relaxation and a dash of partial enumeration. The rejection criterion from the first journal to which we submitted was that the solution approach, while somewhat novel, used off-the-shelf methods and did not involve any brand new techniques. (The paper was subsequently accepted by a different OR journal of comparable stature.)

What my experience and Prof. Ignizio's have in common is that the rejection criterion seemed to focus on a lack of advancement of theory and/or lack of a brand new algorithm. I could understand this from Math of OR, but it seems to be an increasingly common attitude among top OR journals in general. There may be a lack of appreciation in some quarters for (a) whether a significant problem is being solved (and I'll stipulate freely that the problem in Prof. Ignizio's paper was more significant than the one in our paper) and (b) whether the solution approach, if not an algorithmic breakthrough in itself, might trigger a "hey, I can use that" response in a reader struggling with an entirely different problem.

In defense of journal editors, the pendulum can easily swing too far the other way. I've reviewed entirely too many "look, we can solve this with an (obvious) linear programming model" submissions (not to mention a student-written conference paper which posed a goal programming model with a single criterion). Clearly some contribution threshold has to be met to justify slaughtering more trees for journal pages.

All that said, though, the academic publication model in OR appears to be gravitating toward something along the following lines: theoretical and computational breakthroughs go into high level journals (where they are likely to be read by other people doing theoretical research and not so much by potential users); models and solution techniques for actual problems go to high level journals if there is something singularly clever (and not at all obvious) about either the model or the solution; and moderately clever models and solutions for realistic problems are relegated (if I dare use that word) to journals in application area (where the readers may appreciate the result but not understand the model or methodology very well) or to Interfaces (where the details will typically be omitted). That may short-change operations research practitioners (who will miss a potentially useful contribution if it is published in a content-area journal far from their own domains) and academics trying to be relevant despite the odds.  (As an example of the latter, I co-authored an application paper years ago in the Canadian Journal of Forestry.  I'm told by people who should know that it's a well-respected journal in the forestry domain, but I'm in a business school, so I got about the same amount of credit I would have gotten for hitting TV Guide. Fortunately, I was too obtuse to be deterred.)

I'm not sure what the right answer is.  I do think some journals are making a conscious effort to be more inclusive.  Whether they're succeeding remains to be determined. Meanwhile, practitioners complain about the lack of relevance of academic "theorists", and we academics wonder why.

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