Well first off, let’s say goodbye to 2010 and welcome in 2011 – I’m sure Time Square will be as crowded as it was in the 1950’s – different but the same!
Now lets look at research funding  – I think this can be equally applied to paper acceptance rates – in the hope of a better funded 2011! Current thought seems to be that 30% is about the right level of acceptance for funding. Below 15-20% it seems that you will miss some good work, and get some bad work – at 30% you’ll get all the good work and some bad work. The bad work doesn’t necessarily rise that much with the 30% threshold either. To quote the article:
Reviewers say that they feel forced into making impossible choices between equally worthy proposals, especially when success rates are less than 20%. “That’s in a range where you have lost discrimination,” says Dick McIntosh, professor emeritus of cell biology at the University of Colorado in Boulder. “That’s a situation where you are grading exam papers by throwing them down the stairs.” The chairman of the ACS panel agrees. “Deciding between the top grants, I don’t want to say it’s arbitrary, but it’s not really based on strong criteria,” he says. “It’s subtle things.”
But of course a 30% funding level costs more than a 20% one. This is the problem as we can see in many sectors (here elaborated in the graph below we can see this represented for the USA’s National Institutes of Health figures for 2000 to 2010) funding levels are falling. Indeed, to quote the article:
At the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Bethesda, Maryland, which funds the majority of biomedical research in the United States, several years of flat federal funding combined with a rise in the number of applications means that 21% of research-project grant applications were funded in 2009, down from 32% ten years earlier (see graph). The situation in many other countries is just as tough.
It seems then that we are setting yourselves up to fail in the future. If the decline in funding continues we will start to loose critical research because it is too edgy, too visionary, too forward thinking – just the kind of work that falls into the 20-30% band. Good progressive work is needed but those that fall into the <15% acceptance band are often safe projects with some little novelty or that propose ideas which do not trouble or challenge the reviewer.
Disclaimer: Now all this could be ‘sour-grapes‘ as most of my work seems to hit at 22-25%!
Addendum – 06th June 2011
Nice piece on paper acceptance rates at 30% – ‘Conference Paper Selectivity and Impact‘