My Dominant Hemisphere

The Official Weblog of 'The Basilic Insula'

What You Might Not Know About Scientific Journals

with 13 comments

A reviewer at the National Institutes of Health evaluates a grant proposal. (Wikipedia)

A reviewer at the National Institutes of Health evaluates a grant proposal. (Wikipedia)

I managed to read quite a number of interesting books in the last couple of months. Among them, was Scientific Writing: Easy When You Know How by Jennifer Peat et al. Marvelous book and one that I highly recommend. The book has been mainly written for health professionals. It gives you an insider’s view of how the entire peer(expert)-review process in scientific publishing works. There are also interesting nuggets on peer-review outside of medical journals such as conferences, scientific meetings, etc.

The publishing process in a nutshell:

  1. Upon submission to a journal, a paper will first go through preliminary screening by special staff who check for typographical errors. Not scientific merit. Did you stick to the word limit? Are the margins, fonts and spaces in accordance with the journal’s ‘instructions to authors‘ policy? If not, the paper will bounce back like rejected email!
  2. If it does scrape through, it goes to an editorial committee. Editors in turn run an ambiguous check on the paper’s scientific rigor and impact, whether it appeals to their sensibilities and whether it makes business sense to get it out in their journal. It is then forwarded to external reviewers.
  3. Many journals maintain databases of potential external reviewers who are ‘experts’ in their fields, some of whom are on contract for the journal and others who are not. These reviewers have a track record of being active in other journals and meetings. Journals may even rank reviewers based on whether they review papers on time, their general demeanor with authors of papers, etc. Often these chaps are perched in just about every nook and corner of the world. They look at the paper’s strengths and weaknesses in terms of study design, whether the conclusions put forth are in accordance with the reported results, whether the statistics measure up, whether certain areas need clarification, whether some parts should be rephrased or even omitted altogether. Their comments and annotations are then forwarded to the editors and in turn to the authors.
  4. Both editors and reviewers often refer to checklists to standardize this process, even if it be somewhat ambiguous. Because different people have different mental cutoffs for ‘clinical significance’ when it comes to reported results, different people will reach different conclusions even if they look at the same ‘statistically significant’ data. When two reviewers differ in what they think about a paper, editors will often request a third reviewer to look at it.
  5. After a lot of back and forth communication between authors, editors and reviewers the paper is finally published. The editorial committee is the final arbiter that decides whether or not the paper gets published.
  6. This process usually take months, unless there is a good reason.

Here are some interesting facts that you might not know about scientific journals:

  1. Multiple surveys have shown that journals are more likely to publish ‘statistically significant’ findings. This is an important thing to realize. For any scientific study with a Type 1 error rate of 5%, if the null hypothesis was true you would get a statistically significant result 5% of the time. Purely as a result of random chance. But it’s the 5% of studies that report such a ‘statistically significant’ result that are more likely to get published than the remaining 95% of studies that don’t.
  2. Most of the scientific literature is biased in favor of content produced in English. Translated works are an extreme minority.
  3. The most popular articles in a journal are reviews, editorials, letters, etc. and not research papers. Consequently, journals contain more narrative reviews than genuine research. It’s what keeps them in business.
  4. Being published is not necessarily something that is a natural consequence of your scientific caliber or contribution to mankind. It is a very political and arbitrary thing. Maybe the editors or reviewers for the journal are biased against your work. Or it could be that the editors do not think publishing your paper will increase their business, for obscure reasons. Maybe your paper is just too specialized and caters to a minority niche of readers. Editors usually want stuff that sells and increases readership (who by the way, more often care about narrative reviews as mentioned previously), impact factors and profits. Quite similar to newspapers actually. Editors may even decide to publish a paper regardless of what the reviewers think, as long as it makes sense to them to do so!
  5. When you submit a paper to a journal for consideration, you immediately transfer whole and sole copyrights to it. You are not permitted to share that paper outside of the research team without prior permission from the editors. Transfer of copyright to journals is pretty common and there are only a minority of fledgling journals out there that give you the luxury of retaining copyrights.
  6. Many journals have pre-publication ‘embargoes’. If you have discussed your paper in a scientific conference, meeting, on a random website, with the press … and so on, different journals will have different policies on whether or not such a paper constitutes ‘duplicate’ material. That depends on how many beans you spilled out during such conferences, talks, … etc. and under what circumstances. Did you discuss just the abstract, some random figures and tables or the whole thing? Did you submit the paper before or after such disclosure? Does it constitute a copyright violation? If it’s considered duplicate, it will not be published unless there is a good reason.
  7. Transfer of copyright also means that you cannot submit your paper elsewhere or hand out copies of it to colleagues in meetings, conferences, etc. You can’t show off the paper on a website either. As long as the paper is under consideration for publication, you need prior permission from the journal. If the paper is rejected or withdrawn from submission, the copyrights are transferred back to the authors.
  8. Different journals will have different time limits on copyright. Some will allow you to maintain a copy on a website or a repository after a number of years have passed. These can rightly be called post-publication ‘embargoes’2.
  9. Scientific knowledge is thus ultimately controlled by vested interests making it difficult for a free and open society. This has led to calls for reform in peer-reviewed scientific publishing, including the open-access movement. There are two main models in open-access: Open-access journals, that make all peer-reviewed content free to the public. Journals from the Public Library Of Science (PLoS) are a good example. Open-access self-archives are another model. Authors can deposit copies (a.k.a. ‘self-archives’) of pre-prints or post-prints of articles that they have submitted to non-open-access, peer-reviewed journals that agree to such activity. They can then share these self-archives using websites and other tools. However, often self-archives are deposited in repositories which are usually institutional. Such repositories allow free public access not only to peer-reviewed scholarly content, but also non-peer-reviewed content such as theses and other gray literature. OAIster is a good example of a cross-repository search engine1.
  10. In certain cases you may want to submit your research for urgent publishing. Different journals will call these kinds of papers by different names – ‘rapid response’, ‘rapid paper‘ …, etc. Often they do not contain too much detail as to study design or statistical rigor. These papers will be submitted by editors to external reviewers on the condition that they be reviewed within a specified time frame. Once such a paper has been accepted and published, you may not be able to submit an addendum or supplement later as it might be considered ‘duplicate’ material!
  11. Following reporting guidelines such as those mentioned at the Equator Network, will improve your chances of being published.
  12. Submitting your paper to a specialty journal increases your chances of success. Most papers fulfill a niche and so do most specialty journals.
  13. The chances of you being struck by lightning are higher than the chances that your paper will be accepted without modification. Nearly always, editors and reviewers will get back asking you to change your paper in some way.
  14. In highly specialized fields, many journals will use the same set of reviewers. If you disagree with a reviewer and choose to withdraw your submission, it will not do you much good to submit to a different journal.
  15. Reviewers are usually free to remain anonymous to authors. And some journals will let authors be anonymous to reviewers in the interest of fairness. However, anonymity does not always happen.
  16. If you are well known in your field, don’t be surprised if you receive an offer to expert-review a paper from a random journal.
  17. Despite how enticing it sounds, reviewers do not make a lot of money from this business!
  18. Different journals select editors using different criteria. At the end of the day, it is the business team of a journal that usually decides. A candidate who can improve a journal’s appeal, impact factor and business profits ultimately wins.

Have anything else to share that’s not on the list? Send me your feedback and I’ll put it up here!

Your feedback counts:

1. Special thanks to Stevan Harnad of Open Access Archivangelism fame for corrections in the comments. Matt Warren writes in to talk about the NIH’s involvement in open-access. Their Pubmed Central service is worth checking out. [go back]
2. With regards to ‘embargoes’ and copyrights, Christina Pikas writes in to say that most of this stuff is part of the ‘copyright transfer agreement’, which should always be examined carefully. She also says that many institutions can influence how many rights you have and that if your work was done for a corporation, a corporate lawyer will often help you in the process. Just to add a tiny point, the book that I referred to above mentions that many institutions have policies on copyright and intellectual property (IP) for their departments. Some will allow researchers to hold on to IP rights, while others will take over these IP rights from them. It’s always a good idea to check with your institution or department. [go back]

Copyright © Firas MR. All rights reserved.

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13 Responses

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  1. You have misunderstood the two ways to provide Open Access (OA). OA means free online access to peer-reviewed journal articles. One way for authors to provide OA for their articles is to publish them in an OA journal — i.e., one that makes its articles freely accessible online (“Gold OA”). The other way for authors to provide OA for their articles is to publish them in a non-OA and then to self-archive their final, peer-reviewed drafts of that same article in this institution’s OA repository (“Green OA”). Green OA is the surest and fastest way to provide OA to all refereed journal articles, regardless of which journal they were published in. Repositories are definitely not about an *alternative* to publishing in peer-reviewed journals…

    Stevan Harnad

    August 14, 2009 at 8:12 pm

    • Thanks for the feedback Stevan! I’ll make the correction and you’ll get credit for it :-) . You’re the expert :-D !

      Firas MR

      August 14, 2009 at 8:45 pm

      • Whoops: left out a word. That should have been “…publish them in a non-OA JOURNAL and then self-archive them…”

        Stevan Harnad

        August 14, 2009 at 11:06 pm

  2. [...] This post was Twitted by nelas [...]

    Twitted by nelas

    August 15, 2009 at 5:27 pm

  3. probably worth mentioning that all that about what you can and can’t do is in the copyright transfer agreement. Your institution might have an addendum you can attach that will reserve you more rights. In any case you should carefully read the copyright transfer agreement before signing. If you work for a corporation, and you’ve don’t work for hire, your corporate lawyer will probably review and sign the agreement for you.

    Christina Pikas

    August 16, 2009 at 1:17 pm

    • Thanks for the feedback Christina! Your input will go up in the post and you’ll receive credit for it :-) !

      Firas MR

      August 16, 2009 at 4:53 pm

  4. It’s worth noting that not too long ago, the NIH instituted an open access policy of sorts. If any government funds were used to fund the research, the publication is open access after a certain amount of time (I’m sketchy on exactly HOW long).

    While it’s not a truly open access policy, it’s far better than it has been. I think it’s a great step in the right direction, though, as taxpayers pay good money for science research and should have some ability to see what’s produced (even if understanding it is a whole different ball of wax).

    This is a great article!

    Matt Warren

    August 17, 2009 at 10:57 pm

    • Thanks for the feedback Matt :-) . I concur completely on the importance of the NIH’s role in this regard. They have been doing such a great job with Pubmed Central for example. And it’s just awesome that all of their other databases are freely accessible to everyone. Trust me, this kind of thing is especially an incredible boon to people who live, work and study in developing countries, where even many of the best institutions do not have subscriptions to closed-access scientific information.

      Firas MR

      August 17, 2009 at 11:31 pm

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