Publications – more effort than you might realise

What exactly do we do as scientists? Well, I know the DinoBase readers are a bit more ‘science aware’ than average (well they seem to be), but I suspect that more than are few are not really aware of the work that goes in to getting a paper published. I’m not here talking about writing a paper – checking up on previous research, collecting the data, doing the analyses, collating the references and writing it in a coherent form is work enough. Getting the damn thing into print is entirely another matter.

My first paper!
Once you have written the paper and you bung it off to a suitable journal the editor will read it. If he thinks it is interesting and is suitable for the journal then it will be sent out for review (and if you are a decent researcher this should happen pretty much every time – the obvious exceptions being Science and Nature). The review process is one of the most import features of scientific study, something often overlooked by the public who assume that we can happily publish any old tosh that gets sent in. It is there to make sure that no one published false or misleading results as well as to check the suitability of the analyses used and the conclusions drawn by the researchers.

The reviews are carried out by at least two experts in the filed that the researchers have written about. The reviewers are also active researchers and so are familiar with the existing work and methods used in this area. They will read the paper very carefully and check everything about it – really. Are the any major mistakes in the introduction about the current state of the subject, has the data been collected properly from the right sources and with appropriate methods, are the statistics correct, is their discussion justified? Reviewers will check all of this in detail and report any mistakes to the journal’s editor – right down to spelling mistakes and missed full stops.

If there are too many mistakes, or some serious problems with the methods and results then the editor will reject the paper and ask the researchers to start again. That is generally not the death of the manuscript, but it is going to take some serious work and lots of time to correct and most often you will have to find a new journal who is interested. However, if the mistakes are not too serious, then he will send the reviewers’ comments back to the researchers and ask them to do some more work to bring it up to scratch. They might need to collect some more data, or look at some other papers on the subject, or just use some extra statistics to back up their arguments. Even this ‘little’ work can take days or weeks. If you missed one critical data point you will have to go and get it, and then redo all the stats, redraw all the graphs and check that it doesn’t affect your conclusions, and if it does start writing again.

Once you have got this extra work has been done the revised paper can go back to the editor. If he and the reviewers are satisfied with the changes then it can be made ready for publication and will eventually appear in the journal. All of this takes time though. Reviews often take several months if the reviewers are busy, and it is not uncommon for a paper to appear in print 2 years after it was first sent to the editor and some can take even longer. One of mine took closer to three and I know of odd one that have taken 3 or 4 years from submission to publication even though there was little wrong with them. Everyone is busy these days, and doing reviews on your own time when you have exams to mark or grant deadlines to meet is rarely anyone’s priority. So, although it might appear easy, it is a mammoth task to get even one paper published. Really. It’s just easier with time and experience on your side, but it is always a challenge to get it right and make it interesting and accurate.

One thing that often annoys me (here he goes again) is often a piece of work is dismissed by others who are unaware of the work that has gone into it (yes I am looking at *you* DML). Yes bad papers get published, and yes, referees and editors make some terrible mistakes, but they are the exception, not the rule. Pretty much by definition anything that gets published has been reviewed by two (and generally more) people in the field of work the paper is about, plus a journal’s handling editor and probably the main editor too. If it is a paper with multiple authors they will have read it (well, you hope so), and generally you will have asked a few friends or colleagues for comments too. To then have someone turn around on the internet the day its published to suggest that your work is wrong and you don’t use the right analysis is pretty galling. Yep we make mistakes. Often. But the idea that about a dozen of us (authors, referees, editors, colleagues) are all completely wrong and failed to spot an enormous flaw is frankly, pretty unlikely. Far more likely is that you have missed the exact nature of the analysis or the reason that it was done, not that so many experts are wrong (and have been checking the work over months if not years) and you are right. Read it again!

Well, apart from a relatively small rant on the side, that’s the process of publication. It is slow, often frustrating, time consuming and apparently unnecessary. But it is also essential, and can’t be ignored so for now we just have to stick with it. Sadly, they won’t just let you publish whatever you want with no justification or data, though I could mention a more than a couple of journals where that does not actually seem to be the case…..

This is a revised Mk.1 post, to see the original with comments etc., go here.

1 Response to “Publications – more effort than you might realise”

  1. 1 sandrar 10/09/2009 at 9:43 pm

    Hi! I was surfing and found your blog post… nice! I love your blog. 🙂 Cheers! Sandra. R.

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