Thoughts for students on the publishing process

Last year Peter Vitousek asked me to participate in a discussion on the academic publishing process for new graduate students in the E-IPER program at Stanford. To organize my thoughts on the subject I decided to write a few paragraphs based on my experiences as an author, editor & reviewer. While keeping in mind this is just one person’s perspective on publishing, I thoughts I’d post this in case anyone else finds it to be useful. This will also be included as a PDF on our lab “Resources” page (when I get that set up).

Some thoughts on the publication process  (originally written 26-May-2013) 

Your data is analyzed properly, your manuscript has been written & edited. Now you’re ready to publish. What next? 

(1) Pre-submission:

Authorship:  Most important in ecology tend to be the first and last authors. Last (or senior) author is often the person whose lab the work occurred in. If it’s anything other than a two author paper, the middle authors generally get equal credit (i.e. none). Criterion for authorship is generally substantive contribution w/o which paper would not be possible. There are lots of shades of grey though. If it’s my paper I tend to err on the side of being inclusive, since as the primary author you generally do not lose anything. People have different philosophies though & as Tad Fukami has noted some of your co-authors may be unhappy if they’ve contributed substantially and end up sandwiched between a bunch of symbolic contributors. If you can clarify authorship before starting a study or collaboration that is best and the current trend in journals of having a contribution section may help cut down on token authorship.

Friendly reviews: This is often a great way to anticipate problems that will come up in the peer review process. It’s easy to miss things when you’re too close to the material (which includes people in your lab group) so an outside perspective can really help. Along those lines, even feedback from people a bit outside your direct specialty can be useful as reviewers are often not specialists in your field either. Remember though that people are busy so this can take time.

Deciding where to submit: This is a really important part of the publication process as it (1) determines the audience (perhaps less now w/ electronic access & search tools), (2) particularly early on in your career people will define you by what journals you publish in, and (3) it can affect the perceived quality of your work.  I use a couple of ways to determine what journal I should be publishing in, (1) generally have my manuscript reviewed by my lab group and ask for journal suggestions (this works better if you don’t tell them first where you want it should go), (2) check my reference section to see what journals I’m citing. If all of your references are from Evolution then submitting to Ecology might not be a good fit. When choosing a journal also keep in mind their reputation for turnaround time. If you need something to come out quickly there are some journals to avoid.

(2) Submission:

Formatting: Get this right. Check the journal webpage for formatting instructions, use a good reference manager like Endnote, always add line numbers and page numbers. Make sure your figures are legible and properly numbered, that there are no silly grammar mistakes, typos, double citations, etc… Being sloppy about these things is generally a bad sign to reviewers and makes them grumpy. Grumpy reviewers are never a good thing. This is also true for friendly reviews – if you make people waste time correcting your typos they have less mental energy to think about substantive issues that could improve your paper & they generally don’t feel that their time is being valued. This is simple to do, so don’t be lazy. 

Cover letter: Cover letters are generally not particularly important unless you are submitting to a top-tier journal with a serious editorial review stage (Nature, Science, Ecology Letters, etc…). If you are submitting to one of these journals, pay a lot of attention to the cover letter and build a careful case as to why this is really important work. Don’t overblow the novelty factor (e.g. first time this experiment has ever been done while on horseback drinking a cup of tea, see Arnquist 2013 for a nice discussion of this) as I think this annoys editors. Focus instead on how your work represents progress on your field based on previous work & the current state of the field. However, you can build a substantive argument. Treat this like an extra-paragraph in your manuscript that would be scrutinized in peer review and don’t feel shy about including citations.

Suggested reviewers: Believe it or not, editors often take your suggestions so put some thought into this. While the temptation is often to pick the senior people in your field, they are often the busiest and may not accept or will take awhile to review it. Don’t try and pick your friends or recent co-authors as editors will see through this.  Mid- or early-career scientists that are making a name in your field are often the most responsive and give the best feedback.

(3) Peer-review:

Reading your reviews: This is often the most stressful part of the publication process for people. Developing thick skin in getting reviews is really part of the academic maturing process and it’s important not to take them personally (e.g. you’re still a good person even if someone doesn’t like your choice of statistical tests). In my personal experience I would say that the peer review process is generally fair but idiosyncratic. I’m also surprised at how different the reviewer critiques are from what I consider the greatest weaknesses of my manuscripts. Once you get your reviews read through them, then wait a few days. When you go back to reviews a few days later they are often not as bad as you initially thought.

Responding to reviews: Always be civil when responding to reviewers. Being rude or snarky (however satisfying) never pays off. Overall, try to put yourself in the shoes of the editor, who is moderating this debate between you and the reviewer. If one party is particularly rude, spiteful or illogical the editor is not likely to take them seriously. Respond in detail, line-by-line to every comment from reviewers. Include line numbers to indicate specifically what you’ve changed & where the editor can find it. Feel free to write a lot – my responses to reviewers are often many pages long. You can disagree with a reviewer as long as you justify yourself, but pick your battles. If multiple reviewers flag something as problematic, they are probably not all stupid, so consider changing your approach. I also try to keep in mind that when I think the reviewers are missing things that are in the manuscript that’s often a good sign that I was not writing clearly.

Rejection: Not the end of the world. Remember, if you’re not getting your papers rejected you are not aiming high enough. After getting a ‘rejection’ letter, first try and understand what the editor is actually saying –like Eskimoes and ice there are a thousand variations of rejection and in some journals rejection & major revision are basically the same thing. Feel free to contact the editor to clarify their decision if there is any ambiguity. I had one article mistakenly rejected (on contacting the editor they were surprised and quickly changed the decision to accepted). I have not had much experience challenging editorial decisions & I’m not sure it’s generally wise. Because the review process can be highly idiosyncratic, just because it’s rejected doesn’t mean your paper is bad. Try a few lateral submissions first (e.g. to another journal w/ equal impact) before aiming lower. Also – if you keep getting the same bad review back consider changing your list of suggested reviewers.

(5) Other miscellaneous thoughts:

-Try to publish at least one article early in your graduate career (e.g. don’t wait until year 5 when you start writing your thesis). This will make writing your thesis a lot easier and will make people take you more seriously as you start looking for postdocs or fellowships.

-Remember these experiences when it is your turn to review papers. Your goal as a reviewer should be to help the authors make their paper the best paper it can possibly be. You are there to help, not just to reject things.

-Keep in mind that nothing is perfect. Have you ever read a paper in reading group that you had nothing critical to say about? Your paper will not be without flaws, you will make mistakes, but you still need to publish and your paper will represent the incremental progress that science is built upon. Done is better than perfect. 

About mykophile

Assistant professor, microbial ecologist
This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s