Honest signaling in academic publishing

PLoS One. 2021 Feb 23;16(2):e0246675. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0246675. eCollection 2021.


Academic journals provide a key quality-control mechanism in science. Yet, information asymmetries and conflicts of interests incentivize scientists to deceive journals about the quality of their research. How can honesty be ensured, despite incentives for deception? Here, we address this question by applying the theory of honest signaling to the publication process. Our models demonstrate that several mechanisms can ensure honest journal submission, including differential benefits, differential costs, and costs to resubmitting rejected papers. Without submission costs, scientists benefit from submitting all papers to high-ranking journals, unless papers can only be submitted a limited number of times. Counterintuitively, our analysis implies that inefficiencies in academic publishing (e.g., arbitrary formatting requirements, long review times) can serve a function by disincentivizing scientists from submitting low-quality work to high-ranking journals. Our models provide simple, powerful tools for understanding how to promote honest paper submission in academic publishing.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Ethics, Research*
  • Humans
  • Models, Theoretical
  • Motivation / ethics
  • Organizations
  • Peer Review, Research / ethics*
  • Publishing / ethics
  • Quality Control
  • Research

Grants and funding

LT and DL were supported by the Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research (NWO) VIDI grant 452-17-01. KZ was supported by the National Science Foundation (NSF) grant SES 1254291. The funders had no role in any aspects of this study, the preparation of the manuscript, or the decision to publish.