A Beginner's Guide to Science Publishing
It’s been several weeks since you hit the “submit” button, and the manuscript-tracking page has remained permanently open in your web browser. At least once a day you refresh the page, but there is no new status update.
Scientific researchers know how to start the publication process and know the end goal, but for many the path from submission to publication is a mystery.
This path can be a winding one, sometimes your manuscript moves forward and sometimes it moves back.
The rules of the game were recently laid out for me at a Peer Review Workshop at the Public Library of Science (PLoS) and and editor meet-and-greet with PLoS Biology Senior Editor Lauren Richardson.
The first checkpoint for a submitted manuscript is a simple one, the submission is logged and checked to ensure it is complete and has been prepared according to the submission instructions.
Next, the manuscript is read by an editor. At this stage of the game, the editor is assessing if the research presented 1) falls within the scope of the journal, 2) adheres to the journals policies and guidelines, and 3) is original.
From here a paper will either be rejected or it will move on to the peer review process, where the game really begins.
Editors research potential reviewers, collecting clues from the manuscripts cover letter and references. They may also use PubMed to search for additional papers that will lead them to the names of prominent researchers in the field.
Once enough information has been gathered, invitations are sent out to potential participants.
If they are playing by the rules, potential reviewers may decline if they don’t have the time to provide a proper review, don’t feel they have a strong enough background in the research area, or can’t offer objective feedback due to competing interests.
In an attempt to improve their chance of success, editors usually contact more than the traditional three reviewers.
When someone accepts the invitation to review, the editor sets a deadline for review submission.
Reviewers, however, are busy people with labs to run, lectures to give, grants to write, and manuscripts of their own that need finishing. As such, this is often the place where manuscripts get stuck.
In many cases, an editor’s job is to help move the paper through the review process as efficiently as possible. Editors are on your team, but it’s important to remember they are also on at least 30 other teams.
When reviews don’t come back in a timely fashion editors keep the ball rolling and remind reviewers it’s their move.
With the reviews back in their court, the editors must now assess their content.
If Reviewer 1 and Reviewer 2 give contradictory comments or Reviewer 3 offers no expert opinion and only complains about the author’s horrendous syntax then the manuscript may require further review and can be sent back to start.
Once all reviews are in and assessed, an editorial decision is made.
If your paper is accepted, then congratulations you won the game! But if your paper is rejected, your battleship is sunk.
A third option is that your paper is accepted pending revisions.
If the edits are minor, you may just have to get past one gatekeeper, an editor. If major revisions are required, however, the manuscript will be sent back out to external reviewers and the waiting game will begin again.
When the reviews for the revised manuscript trickle in, they will once again be assessed by the editors after which further review or further revision may be needed.
Hopefully, the odds will be forever in your favor and your paper will be accepted, go to production, and finally be published.