The journey of a paper

By Roula Inglesi-Lotz

And here is the paper, finished, klaar, done, finito, ετοιμο… All the sleepless nights from when the idea was conceived to converting it to a concrete research question, to exploring what peers have done in the literature, to finding the most appropriate approach, to collecting data, to making the “model” work,  interpreting the results, writing everything down, editing and reediting, presenting at conferences, defending results to colleagues… All the excitement, and here it is, all dressed up with nowhere to go.

What now?

First stop: choosing a journal and preparing for submission

One of the most-asked questions I get from my students is how I select a journal for my paper. Before even discussing different strategies and approaches, the first thing to consider is the scope of the journal. All journals on their webpages discuss in detail the research they are interested to publish; some of them also specify the methodologies preferred and sometimes, possible geographic criteria (not of the author but the study’s subject). If the paper does not fall within this scope, then rejection is almost certain (and lightning quick). With experience and as years go by, researchers read more literature and get a feeling of what papers they find in what journals.

A common strategy (and my preferred one) is to send your papers to the top international journals of your field. Of course we all understand what a wonderful thing would be if the paper is accepted there; but equally, top journals get to engage with knowledgeable and expert reviewers whose comments and suggestions are excellent to improve the paper. Hence, even a rejection benefits the paper. Oftentimes, when your results are of interest to only a single country, you’d be better off to publish in a local journal, but again experience is crucial (maybe students should listen to their supervisors? Hehe).

Another indication of where the paper belongs to is the list of referenced papers. If, for example, most of the studies cited in my paper are from the Energy Policy journal, then the paper’s topic is of interest in that particular journal. Of course, the editors of a journal might decide a slight change in topics of interest after reaching saturation points – again experience (and lots of reading of the literature) counts.

After choosing the journal, follow the instructions for authors to the tiniest detail – it matters where you put commas and italics! Researchers need to be careful with formatting issues, with referencing techniques, and with the expectation of the journal to suggest or oppose reviewers. If you slack off at this stage, the reviewers think you’re a sloppy scientist and your brain child will not see the light of day.

Second stop: wait until you forget it ever existed

Paper submitted and now the great wait begins. I usually say to my students submit and forget about it for a few months (particularly for journals in high demand). I usually receive a response only when I completely forget about a paper.

While you are busy forgetting about it, the process is hectic. The editor has to find the reviewers with the appropriate expertise that are not only capable but also willing and available to review the paper. After they accept, the editor gives them a few weeks to finalise their review. From a reviewer’s side, I must admit that the responsibility is enormous. Reviewers should be fair and just; if they do not know something, they should be transparent about it; they should forget of any conflict with their own work; they should be objective; and they should justify every comment and suggestion the best possible way. And most reviewers are just human – a review done at the end of a long work week can look very different from a review done after a holiday. Reviewing is an art in itself.

Sometimes the process might take weeks or months – and sometimes my impatience gets the most of me. That is when I send an email to the editor to query about the progress. EVERY SINGLE TIME I sent that email, the response from the editor was, “Your paper is still in the review process, we will let you know as soon as possible.” The question now is, “Why does it take so long?” Reviewing a paper is not high on the priority list of academics. They do reviews because they want to offer to the knowledge and to their field but when teaching and own research comes their way the review is put in the “for later” file. Also, very often, the two initial reviewers might have conflicting views and hence, the editor might decide to send it to a third or fourth one before reaching conclusions.

Third stop: Email and hopefully revise resubmit (with emphasis on re-)

Judgement is sent eventually with these possible scenarios: accept as is, major revisions needed, minor revisions needed, reject as is. The first and the last options are problematic. It’s pretty self-explanatory why a total rejection is painful. A straight acceptance, though? Would not that be the reason for popping the champagne? Personally, it would raise flags for the quality of the review process of the journal. Regardless of how excellent a paper is, surely the reviewers would have had an opinion, a suggestion, or a comment for improvement. Many inexperienced writers fall for this “easy” way and end up publishing in what is known as “predatory” publications. These are “journals” whose sole purpose is to generate money (you have to pay to publish) without actually disseminating rigorous science. Please beware of this – there are lots of such predators out there, but Googling the journal can quickly tell you if they are legit (of have a look at the Beall’s list of predatory journals and publishers). Don’t waste your time and precious reputation on such quick and easy publications.

Therefore, my hope for that first communication after the review is completed is a RR (revise resubmit). It does not matter how big or small the suggested alterations. What matters most of all is that the paper gets another chance not just to the specific journal, but another chance for improvement. You must revise and resubmit – it’s shocking how many people do not actually follow up with revisions, and thus lose out on a publication.

I have discovered through my years as a reviewer that the most important thing when I get back a revised paper is a thorough explanation of the changes made and how my comments and suggestions were addressed. It is the most discouraging thing to have to find where the changes were made (and if!). So the revised versions of a manuscript should be accompanied with a detailed list.

Example of Revision table

Reviewer # Reviewer’s comment Response
1 Comment 1

Positive comment/ Appraisal

Thank you for this comment.
Comment 2
Negative comment/ criticism (without suggestion for change)
Thank you for the comment. That’s where I would explain where the reviewer has maybe misunderstood, or where the reviewer has a point.
Comment 3
Negative comment/ criticism (with suggestion for change)
Thank you for the suggestion. That’s where I would include everything as in Comment 1 but also include ho w I amended the text and where exactly.
Many times authors just mention here the page and paragraph number; I usually suggest that if the author has added some text or made alterations to include the text here too (size permitting).

Here, I must stop and admit that I have developed a more Zen approach to my reviewers’ comments only recently – or maybe I should call it a thicker skin. In the beginning of my writing career, my reactions ranged from inconsolable tears that my work is rubbish to frustration beyond description. With experience now, I know that the RR version of a manuscript opens the door to better clarification of concepts and discussions in the text. Importantly, you can disagree with the reviewers – you can argue why your way is correct. But not for every single revision! It’s very likely that there are legitimate improvements to be made. Remember: both the authors and reviewers work with the same objective à to release quality research in the literature that will promote and enhance further research too. (Big disclaimer and utopic assumption here: no politics/personal biases involved.)

Fourth stop: that email

After one (or two or three…) games of ping pong (authors to reviewers; reviewers to authors; author to reviewers etc.), that email arrives. “We are pleased to inform you that your paper titled Sweat and tears for a publication has been accepted for publication to our journal”. Hooray! It happened. Congratulations. Now what? Where is the paper? Oh but wait. The paper will go through editing and formatting and then it will only appear online, where you and your peers can download it and read it. (The choice between open access and subscription-based journals is part of a long discussion we can talk about later- if you are interested, excellent introduction to the topic here.)

In the first years of my career, I was celebrating each and every paper with a luxurious meal and wine; while now, the celebrations are more subdued. Almost as with first-time parents, that are more relaxed with the second or third child. Nowadays, every publication is a reminder to me of the responsibility for quality work, for evidence-based research, for appropriate conduct of analysis. Publications are proof of the current state of research but also the inquisitive minds of the specific era and we need to remind ourselves that Verba volant, scripta manent (spoken words fly away, written words remain).

Roula Inglesi-Lotz

PS1. Of course, the experiences described here are personal and subjective. So, maybe excuse me for not having included all possible things that might happen in this journey. Or even better, do not excuse me for that, and comment with your thoughts. Soon I can add an update and learn from each other.

PS2. (yes, I like PSs I am an academic and I tend to forget what I want to say). This morning I received THAT email for final acceptance of my 50th paper, ten years since my first one. Now that’s a reason for celebration!

Awareness and Gratitude

My daily commute to the lab is rarely eventful, it is exactly thirty minutes from my house to my lab bench. Thirty minutes spent listening to my daily dose of Freshlyground, scrolling through my Twitter feed, and planning my day. It is a routine I am accustomed to — a routine that brings me serenity and much-needed structure. You see, structure and routine are very important to me. I have every hour of my day planned out and I know what to and when to do it. But, today’s commute was different.

As the métro began its approach to my intended stop a thought popped into my mind, and I as I slowly walked up the stairs I followed this train of thought, spurred by what I had seen on my Twitter feed. My fellow SAYAS blogger Sipokazi Nyeleka wrote an amazing piece on women in science (here). My intended blog post for this month was on the importance of mentorships in graduates school. I began to think about the numerous women whose work has directly or indirectly influenced how I do science. It was at that moment, at that precise moment when I reached the top of the stairs that I realised the hurdles women face in science, and the amount of privilege my sex and gender has awarded me.

It is from this place of understanding that I began to write this blog post. Like most things in life, the more you think, the more you know. I became aware of the damage and hurt that patriarchy has inflicted upon women and the disenfranchised. Like my fellow blogger, I want to express my boundless gratitude to those amazing scientist who inspired and continue to inspire to be a better scientist. As men, we are made to feel that every space was for us to occupy. And it is this sense of entitlement that puts many men in a position where they are unable to understand the obstacles of many women face in academia — how could we possibly understand if have never experienced it? As with other minority groups, women have always had to work harder, speaker louder to simply have their voices heard. I am fortunate enough to be in an environment that fosters mutual respect and acceptance for all — women, LBGTI, physically challenged groups etc… In closing, I wish to see academia be filled with the spirit that our country has; the Rainbow Nation. It is only through welcoming diversity into the workspace that we can truly transform the academic landscape.