Personal perspectives on scientific publishing

David J. Pannell

School of Agricultural and Resource Economics, University of Western Australia, David.Pannell@uwa.edu.au

Email responses to the talk on ABC Radio National's Ockham's Razor program (selected/edited)

Thanks to all who emailed - DP

 

David

I'm very glad that I was told about your broadcast. My interest in the Publication Process comes from being an editor of a top-class Springer journal. It started in 1971. I am the only founding editor left. So I come from a different type of science to you and speak only from my experience.

Here is my advice to authors to maximise their chance of acceptance.

  1. Choose an appropriate journal i.e. publishes similar area papers of same standard.
  2. Slavishly follow the journal's instructions.
  3. Beg colleagues, furnished by the author with the journal's instructions, to give hyper-critical advice on everything -punctuation, grammar, prolixity, setting-out, 35mm margins to make referees happy at having space to comment.
  4. Submit with a letter that just says title, authors and journal. Nothing about how good the paper is or what problem it solves or who has read and approved it.
  5. Let a month go by before deciding the editor has either not received it or now needs asking for an acknowledgment.
  6. Let 3 months go by before gently enquiring from the editor as to referee reports.
  7. Treat the referee and editor comments with the utmost seriousness. No curses about the villains don't understand. If they don't, it is the author's fault.
  8. Fall over backwards to accept comments. Get colleagues to be hyper critical of new version. If author really can't accept a comment give the editor substantial reasons.

GH 4/11/03.

 

David
Just read your article about publishing scientific papers which was circulated here by email. I thought I'd give you a quick turn around review. 'I laughed, I cried, and finally agreed with everything - this must be published!'
Regards
BM 31/10/03

 

Hi David
Just wanted to say how much I enjoyed your segment this morning. I was getting ready to come to work (yes, on a Sunday, I'm sure you know all about that...) to work on two research papers, one proving very hard to publish despite heaps of media interest, when I heard some of it, and had to sit down and listen.

It was very amusing, and some of the situations bitterly familiar. However I was also encouraged by your closing comments to persist with the difficult to publish paper (could those negative comments about my paper possibly be right?...no way!). Do you find it somewhat ironic that your Ockhams Razor piece will probably be heard by lots more people (I suppose) than some of your best research?

Oh well, back to research...
regards
SB 26/10/03

 

Dear David

I was most interested to hear your 'publish or perish' verbal presentation on the ABC radio this morning. I found it very interesting, relevant and informative. I well remember an eminent professor in Queensland, very many years ago, expressing his opinion that the transistor had no future.

Kind regards,
JK 26/10/03

 

David,
Thoroughly enjoyed your presentation this morning on Radio National. Very enjoyable, and interesting. Also very pertinent, given that we are trying to get a paper published in the Rangeland Journal at the moment! Where would we be without RN?
regards
DB 26/10/03

 

David: I found your piece heartening as well as revealing. I specially loved the story of Keynes
rejecting a Nobel Prize paper! Cheers, WT 27/10/03

 

Just wanted to say how much I appreciated your contribution. It is very much my (all of our?) experience(s) too. I used to be an electrical engineer but have been trying to make my way in inter- and trans-disciplinarity for nearly 30 years now. I teach a core sequence to all our graduate environmental science students and deal with the social construction of science quite early on - so will refer to your Ockham's razor when I do so next year. 
Best regards, FF 30/10/03

 

Hello David,
Just a short note to congratulate you on your piece on Radio National. Only got to read the transcript but have circulated it widely amongst my colleague. Three of them are editors and many are reviewers! Thanks for outing what can be a soul destroying part of our work.
Kind regards,
PJ 31/10/03

 

Dear David,
Your broadcast will ring true to nearly all researchers but despite your complaints, your publications record looks very respectable, even by UWA standards. I have a few comments which you may wish to explore for your follow up talk in 2013. I have been luckier than you. I never knew what a rejection was until I got to paper 29. My most memorable rejection was on a series on unmet health needs in patients in the suburbs of Lockridge and Claremont. The three world-eminent reviewers got really hung up on whether patients' perceptions of their health needs were their true health needs. The papers were rejected by The Medical Journal of Australia and resubmitted to Australian Family Physician. By unbelievable coincidence, they chose the same three reviewers. Trying to salvage something from what had been a massive piece of work, we took children and their mothers and tried to correlate their perceived unmet health needs with their actual health needs as indicated by their medical records. That took about six months' work. Two papers did get published and got a prize for the best epidemiological papers of the year. Two years later, I presented my data at a meeting in Singapore. The Editor of Australian Family Physician, which had rejected them, came to me and said that they were brilliant and could I submit them to his journal for publication. He had no memory of their having been rejected. Ten years after, someone wrote a similar paper and the idea of asking people what their unmet health needs were, was regarded as a conceptual breakthrough. I have also found that it is quite safe to get respectfully aggressive with editors when you feel that you are on very strong grounds. When reviewers are tardy I suggest that they be removed from the list of reviewers. When they are opinionated about things which are not relevant to the paper, I think that an editor has to make a decision. For instance, I wrote about the effects of fortification of bread and one of the reviewers rejected the paper on the grounds that education was superior to fortification. The editor agreed that such a review was doctrinaire and not acceptable and published the article. Occasionally I too have come across reviewers who fit your descriptive verse. Bullies need checks and balances and I have never been slow in providing them. If you can also show that the reviewer is wrong on several points, not about opinion but by being factually wrong or completely uninformed, you might even be able to get that reviewer removed from the review panel. I managed this once, partly because several other complaints had been received about him, but after five years I note that he is reviewing and editorialising once again. The collective memory of journals is about as long as the longevity of their editor. Anyway, great talk. I just thought that in addition to congratulating you I would add a few points that you can bring up in the future. I don't suppose we will have developed any better system by then.
Yours sincerely,
MK 02/11/03

 

Dear Dr. Pannell,
One of my students brought your on-line paper to my attention. We greatly enjoyed discussing it ... your observations apply perfectly across fields. You mention a paper with 112 authors. I have attached a ISI file with one that has substantially more (573). One wonders if they actually included all the patients in their trials as coauthors. Many thanks for your efforts!
JB March 2004

Walker MD, Marler JR, Goldstein M, Grady PA, Toole JF, Baker WH, Castaldo JE, Chambless LE, Moore WS, Robertson JT, Young B, Howard VJ, Purvis S, Vernon DD, Needham K, Beck P, Dozier M, Lefkowitz DS, Howard G, Crouse JR, Herrington DM, Furberg CD, Essick K, Hicks RM, Nelson JJ, Ball W, Bland E, Condon S, Elliott T, Grizzle JE, Hayes D, Henley S, Johnson J, Locklear J, Misch MS, Paton CC, Schwartz S, Walker C, Williams OD, Easton JD, Goldstone J, Hallenbeck JM, Hoff JT, Karp HR, Kronmal RA, Brott TG, Tomsick TA, Broderick J, Sauerbeck L, Blum C, Dyken M, Brust JCM, Dick AR, Gotshall RA, Heyman A, Swanson PD, Adams HP, Dempsey R, Ernst CB, Rothrock J, Cohen SN, Nicholas G, Longenecker J, Barbour P, Berger A, Celani VJ, Eckert N, Goodreau J, Hutchinson J, Jenny D, Lin ZS, Mcdonald K, Pistone W, Raegrant AD, Redenbaugh J, Rex J, Wohlberg CJ, Karanjia P, Swanson M, Lobner S, Kolts RL, Kuehner ME, Hiner BC, Madden KP, Carlson RD, Davis JS, Gallant T, Warner JJ, Faust A, Fryza N, Hasenauer J, Regner M, Ronkin L, Schaefer S, Strack D, Turner LC, Walgenbach A, Graves J, Michalski S, Schuette L, Mohr JP, Tatemichi TK, Marshall R, Mast H, Ramos O, Correll J, Libman R, Petty G, Cabrere A, Oropeza L, Gonzalez T, Pettigrew C, Sadler R, Endean E, Sherrow J, Hauer M, Lee C, Norton J, Mcquillen M, Mattingly S, Dekosky S, Massey A, Simard D, Turcotte JF, Benguigui C, Cote J, Bouchard JM, Roberge C, Brunet D, Bedard F, Langelier R, Lajeunesse M, Bigaouette JM, Parent J, Lyden P, Hye R, Lewis S, Cali G, Babcock T, Taftalvarez B, Brody M, Zweifler R, Sedwitz M, Stabile B, Freischlag JA, Wolf YG, Sivo J, Forsythe J, Adame M, Gupta S, Burke K, Greisler HP, Littooy FN, Kelly MA, Pulsinelli W, Campbell JA, Crockarell J, Watridge C, Acker J, Erkulwater S, Jacewicz M, Walker G, Osullivan P, Sauer C, Vasu K, Gaines K, Bakhitian B, Bertorini TE, Bennett S, Thomas T, Stahl N, Taylor C, Giampapa MA, Connell J, Riley J, Bradley A, Davis J, Newman K, Manning R, Mccrea M, Hachinski V, Ferguson G, Mayer C, Barnett JM, Peerless SJ, Buchan AM, Reichman H, Kertesz A, Lownie S, White C, Fox A, Rankin R, Spence JD, Barr HWK, Paddockeliasziw L, Assis LJP, Pexman JHW, Dicicco M, Tate B, James C, Raker E, Coatsworth J, Harris S, Beebe H, Birchfield R, Butlerlevy K, Crane R, Fryer D, Maclean J, Patterson L, Quigley T, Ravits J, Taylor L, Pullen S, Boswell S, Kenny K, Brott T, Tomsick T, Roedersheimer LR, Fowl R, Tew J, Kempczinski R, Reed R, Welling R, Schomaker B, Lefkowitz D, Mcwhorter JM, Branch CL, Satterfield J, Cordell R, Dean R, Plonk G, Harpold G, Walker F, Nunn C, Myers L, Tegeler C, Hardin S, Meads D, Loftus CM, Vining LA, Bendixen BH, Biller J, Corson JD, Davis PH, Godersky JC, Gordon DL, Jacoby MR, Kappelle LJ, Kresowik TF, Marsh EE, Love BB, Shamma AR, Grimsman KJ, Karboski DM, Miller EV, Johnson C, Jones C, Stone B, Maguire MP, Earley C, Kaplan P, Cavaluzzi J, Waters G, Chachich B, Auer A, Logan W, Wilcox M, Green B, Hurley J, Pennell R, Woods J, Levine R, Nepute J, Thomasson J, Blackburn C, Foldes M, Klemp K, Nappier B, Rutherford K, Schroer S, Hogan J, Thorpe L, Feinberg WM, Hunter GC, Bruck DC, Bernhard VM, Mcintyre KE, Carter LP, Labadie EL, Johnson DS, Moschonas CG, Hamilton RH, Forrer SC, Seeger JF, Carmody RF, Vold BK, Carlson RL, Laguna JE, Krikawa JP, Devine JJ, Castrillo AM, Kistler SL, Ledbetter B, Dorr K, Smith RR, Haerer AF, Brown RL, Russell W, Rigdon E, Rhodes R, Smith E, Graeber M, Doorenbos D, Subramony SH, Atnip RG, Brennan RW, Friedman D, Neumyer MM, Thiele BL, Smith F, Barr JD, Duckrow RB, Janesky C, Meilstrup JW, Mcnamara KP, Rodichok LD, Stewart L, Sullivan M, Wengrovitz M, Clagett GP, Unwin H, Bryan W, Matkins C, Patterson C, Alway C, Boyd P, Inman M, Albiston C, Scoggins E, Swilling J, Walden KG, Ahn SS, Amos EC, Baker JD, Dobkin BH, Donayre CE, Gelabert HA, Jordan SE, Machleder HI, QuinonesbaldricH WJ, Saver JL, Elsaden SM, Holgate RC, Jabour BA, Jacobs JB, Abraham TM, Vescera CL, Vonrajcs JA, Carter VL, Carter DT, Dixgoss DE, Hernandez EC, Coull B, Loboa L, Moneta G, Porter J, Yeager R, Whittaker L, Brass LM, Gusberg RJ, Lovejoy AM, Fayad PB, Sumpio B, Meier GH, Chang VM, Marzitelli K, Chyatte D, Hammers L, Lepore F, Pavalkis FJ, Mele J, Kisiel D, Barnes RW, Chesser MZ, Archer RL, Thompson BW, Macdonald C, Barone GW, Eidt JF, Harshfield D, Mcfarland D, Nickols JR, Howard C, Nix ML, Overstreet JK, Troillett R, Taylor J, Lee HM, Akins P, Harbison JW, Pridgeon RM, Felton WL, Posner M, Sobel M, Clifton G, Conway C, Cockrell A, Stringer W, Wingo J, Nichols B, Smoker W, Fisher R, Spetzler RF, Frey JL, Zabramski JM, Hunsley SL, Jahnke H, Plenge KL, Holland R, Turner R, Strava D, Stumpff S, Hodak J, Flom RA, Dean BL, Thompson RA, Hughes R, Lepler B, Bowen J, Benoit C, Hollier L, Ochsner J, Strub R, Lang V, Cahanin V, Hobson RW, Weisbrot F, Kamin S, Back T, Jamil Z, Rogers C, Lainson B, Hart L, Caplan L, Odonnell T, Barron L, Pessin M, Dewitt D, Mackey W, Belkin M, Mcglaughlin R, Heggerick P, Welch KMA, Wilczewski J, Robertson W, Daley S, Elliot JP, Reddy DJ, Shephard AD, Smith RF, Levine S, Ramadan N, Tietjen G, Mitsias P, Gorman M, Mcpharlin M, Patel S, Deveshwar R, Lee N, Kokkinos J, Weinstein E, Kunkel J, Kratochvil A, Johnson E, Steel S, Norris J, Rowed D, Bowyer B, Gawel M, Cooper PW, Brodie D, Kirkland JS, Schecter JA, Farrar NW, Capps R, Rhodes EL, Rogers DM, Glass JT, Naguszewski R, Naguszewski W, Maddox B, Dollison B, Moulton L, Cole P, Kinsella P, Ansley A, Britz N, Bivins DH, Williams EL, Davidson JT, Elias W, Atkins D, Turner PB, Burch JG, Nolan DB, Speese R, Foley CD, Millette TJ, Lane KH, Almond C, Mestayer RJ, Calanchini P, Szarnicki R, Radosevich P, Elias L, Mccormick P, Gould C, Norris F, Denys E, Bernstein R, Dubono D, Atkinson K, Peters M, Cohen B, Yao J, Roston S, Blackburn D, Saver J, Chadwick L, Mccarthy W, Pearce W, Frank J, Fernandezbeer E, Patrick J, Green R, Satran R, Ricotta J, Deweese J, Hollander J, Obrien M, Mcnamara J, Rose S, Cohen D, Furlan A, Little J, Bryerton B, Sila C, Awad I, Chimowitz M, Robertson S, Becker C, Paushter D, Oleary DH, Jones AM, Ricotta JJ, Gee W, Shebel N, Fisher MJ, Schenk EA, Furlan AJ, Futrell NN, Kelly M, Millikan CH, Diener HC, Fields WS, Folstein MF, Gautier JC, Harrison MJG, Hass WK, Hennerici MG, Spencer MP, Vonreutern GM, "Endarterectomy For Asymptomatic Carotid-Artery Stenosisjn": JAMA-Journal of The American Medical Association, 1995, Vol.273, No.18, pp.1421-1428.

 

Hi Dave,

I thought of sending you some feedback on your paper. Aspects pertaining to publishing have always been very close to my heart. I do remember seeing a very good article on issues facing reviewers and editors in a leading Marine Biology journal called 'Marine Ecology Progress Series'. They have a section for Eco-ethics and this appeared there.

I thought I would highlight some of the experiences I have had over a period of time.

1. The delay in publishing as the result of issues at the editorial office.

I seem to be constantly unlucky with one of the reputed journals in my area of research. Most of my work centers on plankton. This journal in question is a publication from the Oxford University Press called 'Journal of Plankton Research'. On the first instance when I communicated my paper about 3 years ago, I had to wait for over 1.5 years just to hear the outcome of my paper. I e-mailed them over 30 times. Fortunately, the Editor of the journal was responding to every email I was sending. What he told me shocked me. Apparently the editor-in-chief, to whom we had communicated our manuscript, was quite old and suffered from depression. In this process the editorial office lost track of over 100+ papers. They had absolutely no clue where the papers were. To add to the woes they have over 3 editorial offices in 3 different countries in Europe. Finally they searched the Editor-in-chief’s office in Spain and found these manuscripts stacked away with some other documents. I lost over 1.5 years. I was very unhappy over the whole episode and demanded that I should have the outcome in 2 months time. Fortunately they were quite quick with that and the printing took not more than a month. Altogether this paper took over 2 years!

This did not stop there. Sometime in July last year I communicated another manuscript to this journal. Soon after I had communicated that MS, the editor-in-chief got back stating that the journal was undergoing some major editorial changes for the betterment of the journal. With a not so pleasant experience I had the first time, I had some fears but thought optimistically and hoped for the best. In February this year I started chasing them and my worst fears came true. They asked me to communicate an electronic version of the manuscript again. When I enquired they admitted that they had misplaced over 90+ papers (this they revealed only after several e-mails from my side!) and that mine was one of them. I was really upset. I resent the PDF version of the manuscript again and was told that they now encountering some difficulties getting a reviewer for my paper. In the covering letter I had suggested 5 potential reviewers. I fear the same fate for this paper as my first paper. The wait is still on! I could have easily avoided this journal, but this is the most apt journal in my field. As an author most of us ensure that our papers reach the target audience. I feel really stuck.

2. Issues with reviewers

For some reason, most journals look for very senior researchers as their reviewers. These so called potential reviewers are also the ones who are extremely busy. I fail to understand why the editors do not approach younger scientists/researchers to review papers for them. They are not any less qualified. In my experience papers sent to most of these young researchers have an extremely quick turn over time. Yet, they are never taken into confidence. I had a bad experience last year. One of the crucial papers from my PhD thesis that I sent to a reputed ecotoxicological journal (Aquatic Toxicology, Elsevier Science) took over a year to find suitable reviewers. This manuscript, to my bad luck, was turned down by over 6 reviewers. The excuse they gave was that they simply did not have time to review it. Little did those reviewers think that timely publication of this paper was critical for me. Finally the editorial office got frustrated and picked up a renowned US researcher whom I had acknowledged in my manuscript! Fortunately for me, he had gone through the manuscript beforehand! Initially he did make it very clear to the editorial office that he had seen the manuscript, knew me well and was not in a position to review the manuscript without any bias. They were desperate to have a review and they got it. Fortunately for me it was positive with some amendments eventhough it took an awfully long time of 2 years!

3. It makes a big difference if you are a good friend of the editor

This I thought was something quite interesting. If you are a good friend of the editor you can have it your way. I have seen this happen at big meetings where old pals catch up with their editor friends to ‘work out’ their papers. I cant say whether it goes for a review at all, but it usually come out in print long before most of the other papers come out of the reviewers offices! We have a recently tenured staff member who was giving a presentation at the journal club the other day. He had gone to the US on a 6 month sabbatical. He was attached to one of the renowned ecologists in Harvard. Towards the end of his stay he was asked to come out with a review for a very leading journal. The professor with whom he was attached had given him less than 15 days as it had to make it for the next issue. When he enquired about the review process, his professor as a matter of fact informed him that the editor in chief was a good friend of him. And yes, it turned out to be that way and the paper did come out in the very next issue without a review and any suggested amendments. He was happy as he could have never imagined getting paper on his own in that journal without a review!

4. Picky reviewers

This you covered in great detail in your paper. Most of us at some point in time have encountered some stubborn, picky and unpleasant reviewers. This usually ends up being a nightmarish thought for an author. I remember one of my last papers. It was a technique paper comparing the relative efficiencies of some filter papers for phytoplankton work. The data for this paper was gathered sometime in 1998 in India. I had to wait until 2000 to substantiate my findings with electron micrographs. I did not have this facility with me back then in India. Finally in 2000 I got to use the electron microscopic facilities in Singapore and the paper was written up in 2001. I first communicated it to a journal and it came back with both the reviewers’ reports. One seemed to be a subject specialist and was very positive. The other one just had two lines out rightly rejecting the manuscripts on the grounds that I should have used a more recently manufactured filter. This filter that he was mentioning was introduced in 2002. I really do not understand how he expected me to use this filter (introduced in 2002) when I actually did my field work in 1998? I thought it was unjust and wrote back my comments. The editor-in-chief decided to shoot it down based on the 2nd reviewers comments. Soon after that I communicated the very same paper to another journal. The probability of the paper going back to the very same reviewers are usually very small. The funny part is that the paper went to the very same reviewers who had looked at it the first time. Since I had incorporated the minor editorial suggestions put forward by the first reviewer, he strongly recommended it stating that he had seen this paper before. The second reviewer attached the very same comments he had sent me the first time (with absolutely no changes at all). The editor-in-chief of this journal decided to accept the paper with no alterations.

5. Mysterious changes in the final proofs

This I have seen many a times. When you get your proofs of your paper back you see a lot of changed which was never there in the original paper. I am still at loss why this happens! [I think it is either the editor or copy editors at the publishers. Always check proofs carefully for inappropriate changes. – DP]

These are some of my thoughts after I read your paper.

Cheers

SN March 2004

 

Ockham's Razor, ABC Radio National, 26/10/03: The dramas of scientific publishing, Transcript (16K),
Longer version with more stories:
full paper (66K) - includes references to other papers on related topics.


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Copyright © 2003 David J. Pannell
Last revised: June 16, 2013.