Dr. Leigh Torres, Geospatial Ecology of Marine Megafauna Lab, Marine Mammal Institute, Oregon State University
Publication of our science in peer-reviewed journals is an extremely important part of our lives as scientists. It’s how we communicate our work, check each other’s work, and improve, develop and grow our scientific fields. So when our manuscript is finally written with great content, we could use some instructions for how to get it through the publication process. Who gets authorship? How do I respond to reviewers? Who pays for publication costs?
There is some good advice online about manuscript preparation and selecting the right journal. But there is no blueprint for manuscript preparation. That’s because it’s a complicated and variable process to navigate, even when you’ve done it many times. Every paper is different. Every journal has different content and format requirements. And every authorship list is different, with different expectations. As an academic supervisor of many graduate students, and as author on many peer-reviewed papers, I have seen or been a part of more than a few publication blunders, hiccups, road-blocks, and challenges.
Recently I’ve had students puzzle over the nuances of the publication process: “I had no idea that was my role as lead author!”, “How do I tell a reviewer he’s wrong?”, “Who should I recommend as reviewers?” So, I have put together some advice about how to navigate through a few of the more common pitfalls and questions of the scientific publication process. I’m not going to focus on manuscript content, structure, or journal choice – that advice is elsewhere and for authors to evaluate. My intent here is to discuss some of the ‘unwritten’ topics and expectations of the publication process. This guidance and musings are based my 20 years of experience as a scientist trying to navigate the peer-review publication maze myself. I encourage others to add their advice and comments below based on their experiences so that we can engage as a community in an open dialog about these topics, and add transparency to an already difficult and grueling, albeit necessary, process.
Authorship: Deciding who should – and shouldn’t be – be a co-author on a paper is often a challenging, sensitive, and angst-filled experience. Broad collaboration is so common and often necessary today that we often see very long author lists on papers. It’s best to be inclusive and recognize contribution where it is deserved, but we also don’t want to be handing out co-authorship as a token of appreciation or just to pad someone’s CV or boost their H-index. Indeed, journals don’t want that, and we don’t want to promote that trend. Sometimes it is more appropriate to recognize someone’s contribution in the acknowledgements section.
The best advice I can give about how to determine authorship is advice that was given to me by my graduate advisor, Dr. Andy Read at Duke University: To deserve authorship the person must have contributed to at least three of these five areas: concept development, acquisition of funding, data collection, data analysis, manuscript writing. Of course, this rule is not hard and fast, and thoughtful judgement and discussions are needed. Often someone has contributed to only one or two of these areas, but in such a significant manner that authorship is warranted.
I have also seen situations where someone has contributed only a small, but important, piece of data. What happens then? My gut feeling is this should be an acknowledgment, especially if it’s been published previously, but sometimes the person is recognized as a co-author to ensure inclusion of the data. Is this right? That’s up to you and your supervisor(s), and is often case-specific. But I do think we need to limit authorship-inflation. Some scientists in this situation will gracefully turn down co-authorship and ask only for acknowledgement, while others will demand co-authorship when it’s not fully deserved. This is the authorship jungle we all must navigate, which does not get easier with time or experience. So, it’s best to just accept the complexity and make the best decisions we can based on the science, not necessarily the scientists.
Next, there is the decision of author order, which can be another challenging decision. A student with the largest role in data collection/analysis and writing, will often be the lead author, especially if the paper is also forming a chapter of his/her thesis. But, if lead authorship is not clear (maybe the student’s work focuses on a small part of a much larger project) then its best to discuss authorship order with co-authors sooner rather than later. The lead author should be the person with the largest role in making the study happen, but often a senior scientist, like an academic supervisor, will have established the project and gained the funding support independent of a student’s involvement. This ‘senior scientist’ role is frequently recognized by being listed last in the authorship list – a trend that has developed in the last ~15 years. Or the senior scientists will be the corresponding author. The order of authors in between the first and last author is often grey, muddled and confusing. To sort this order out, I often think about who else had a major role in the project, and list them near the front end, after the lead author. And then after that, it is usually just based on alphabetical order; you can often see this trend when you look at long author lists.
Responsibility as lead author: The role of a lead author is to ‘herd the cats’. Unless otherwise specified by co-authors/supervisor, this process includes formatting the manuscript as per journal specifications, correspondence with journal editors (letters to editors and response to reviewer comments), correspondence with co-authors, consideration and integration of all co-author comments and edits into the manuscript, manuscript revisions, staying on time with re-submissions to the journal, finding funding for publication costs, and review of final proofs before publication. Phew! Lots to do. To help you through this process, here are some tips:
How to get edits back from co-authors: When you send out the manuscript for edits/comments, give your co-authors a deadline. This deadline should be at least 2 weeks out, but best to give more time if you can. Schedules are so packed these days. And, say in the email something like, ‘If I don’t hear back from you by such and such a date I’ll assume you are happy with the manuscript as is.” This statement often spurs authors to respond.
How to respond to reviewer comments: Always be polite and grateful, even when you completely disagree with the comment or feel the reviewer has not understood your work. Phrases like “we appreciate the feedback”, “we have considered the comment”, and “the reviewers provided thoughtful criticism” are good ways to show appreciation for reviewer comments, even when it’s followed by a ‘but’ statement. When revising a manuscript, you do not need to incorporate all reviewer comments, but you do need to go through each comment one-by-one and say “yes, thanks for this point. We have now done that,” or thoughtfully explain why you have not accepted the reviewer advice.
While receiving negative criticism about your work is hard, I have found that the advice is often right and helpful in the long run. When I first receive reviewer comments back on a manuscript, especially if it is a rejection – yes, this happens, and it sucks – I usually read through it all. Fume a bit. And then put it aside for a week or so. This gives me time to process and think about the feedback. By the time I come back to it, my emotional response has subsided and I can appreciate the critical comments with objectivity.
Journal formatting can be a nightmare: Some editor may read this post and hate me, but my advice is don’t worry too much about formatting a manuscript perfectly to journal specs. During the initial manuscript submission, reviewers will be assessing content, not how well you match the journal’s formatting. So don’t kill yourself at this stage to get everything perfect, although you should be close. Once your paper gets through the first round of reviews, then you should worry about formatting perfectly in the revision.
Who should I recommend as a reviewer? Editors like it when you make their lives easier by recommending appropriate reviewers for your manuscript. Obviously you should not recommend close friends or colleagues. Giving useful, appropriate reviewer suggestions can be challenging. My best advice for this step is to look at the authors you have referenced in the manuscript. Those authors referenced multiple times may have interest in your work, and be related to the subject matter.
Who pays or how to pay for publication? Discuss this issue with your co-authors/supervisor and plan ahead. Most journals have publication fees that often range between $1000 and $2000. Sometimes color figures cost more. And, if you want your paper to be open access, plan on paying > $3000. So, when deciding on a journal, keep these costs in mind if you are on a limited budget. These days I add at least $2000 to almost every project budget to pay for publication costs. Publication is expensive, which is ridiculous considering we as scientists provide the content, review the content for free, and then often have to pay for the papers once published. But that’s the frustrating, unbalanced racket of scientific publication today – a topic for another time, but this article is definitely worth a read, if interested.
So that’s it from me. Please add your advice, feedback, and thoughts below in the comments section.