I have to keep going, as there are always people on my track. I have to publish my present work as rapidly as possible in order to keep in the race

The other day I received an email from EMBO Molecular Medicine informing me that they have received a manuscript with me as an author. This paper is one I’ve snuck on from my work in San Diego. So, a few days later, when I saw a talk from an EMBO chief editor I thought that’d be too good to pass up. It was titled ‘Transparent Publishing & Open Science: how to share reproducible data’ but the part I was most interested in is the editorial process.

If you’ve never had the joy(?..) of submitting a paper, here’s how it is supposed to go.

  1. Discover something.
  2. Write a manuscript explaining what you’ve discovered.
  3. Edit the manuscript in-house, with all authors contributing to a final draft. (The authors are basically anyone who has contributed to the work in the manuscript, with the first author being the person who has contributed the most. Other authors are listed to the amount of contribution they have made, with the supervisor/senior member is usually the last author. For example, the paper “Why won’t Arsenal spend any money on players?” would be authored by Wenger, A., Usmanov, A., Moshiri, F and Kroenke S.)
  4. Submit to a journal.
  5. An editor at the journal assesses the merits of the manuscript and if it’s good enough, they then send the manuscript to 2 or 3 referees (also called reviewers).
  6. These referees critique your work, comparing it to previously published work, checking your conclusions are valid and providing feedback and improvements to the paper.
  7. Based on the referees’ comments the editor decided to; accept your manuscript as it is, tentatively accept it on the basis that you make a few changes, suggest a whole bunch of changes and reserve the right to reject it later, or outright reject it.

Here’s how it really goes.

  1. Set out to change the world.
  2. Spend far too long trying to discover something huge.
  3. Get towards the end of your contract and panic about what to publish.
  4. Work long, stressful hours. *
  5. Focus on getting the necessary results to finish your paper.
  6. Scrabble together a manuscript full of hyperbole.
  7. Have said manuscript demolished by your supervisor. *
  8. Re-write manuscript.
  9. Repeat 6 and 7
  10. Have manuscript destroyed by co-authors. *
  11. Repeat 6 and 9
  12. Argue about positioning of authors.
  13. Include any and all collaborators to keep them happy.
  14. Include idiots who may have attempted to contribute at some point.
  15. Ensure all authors have the chance to look through the manuscript, but ignore any changes they suggest.
  16. Submit to a high impact journal.
  17. Get rejected. *
  18. Submit to a journal with a lower impact
  19. Get rejected.
  20. Repeat 17 as necessary, until your manuscript is sent to reviewers.
  21. Get rejected. *
  22. Back to 17.
  23. Receive corrections from referees, outlining complicated experiments which take a lot of money and time to carry out. Most of these will be unnecessary additional experiments. *
  24. Attempt corrections, update manuscript and resubmit.
  25. Get rejected. *
  26. Re-write paper fully to include corrections, and make it seem like these were always part of the plan and not hurriedly added on after referees’ comments.
  27. Submit to terrible journal with a low impact.
  28. Receive corrections from referees, and get manuscript tentatively accepted.
  29. Carry out additional experiments, and make changes to the manuscript.
  30. Eventually get accepted. *
  31. Pay huge fees to publish your work.

* If necessary “cry” can be inserted here.

Also this process may well take longer than I have suggested here. I’ve not gone into how awful referees or editors can be. (Although I’ve talked about referees before.)

However, that’s not what the EMBO journals are all about. They have a high rejection rate at first, which means that they can put a lot of effort into the papers which they do like. The first questions they ask are “Is it publishable?” and “what is the minimum changes to make it publishable?”

Afterwards, they carry out “cross referee commenting”, which means that the referees can see what other reviewers have written. They can comment on each other’s comments, and communicate with each other. This means that the reviewers have a dialogue with each other and can give you more constructive feedback.

Furthermore, they keep track of the comments, and these can be accessed after a paper has been published. Officially this is great as it means you can get up to 4 expert reviews on each paper. Not only is this good because of the expertness, but because you get an insight into the what referees look at, and the types of comments successful manuscripts get. This is crucial to early-career scientists as they are unlikely to see many of them up close and personal. It encourages you to take a more attentive look at your own work to see if you can pass muster.

And unofficially it’s great because it means referee’s are held accountable for any mean things they say. You probably won’t call someone a “dick weasel” if it’s going to be stuck on the internet forever.

Also, they encourage an open dialogue between reviewers and the researchers. This even comes down to allowing the authors to respond to referees’ comments and defend their paper, before an editor makes their decision.

Ah, the paper’s been rejected… erm ignore all of that nice stuff I wrote above

Today’s quote is from Ernest Rutherford.