Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Advice from a Scientific Editor

As a Scientific Editor for BBA for the past two years, I have read lots of manuscripts (you can learn more about my job here). This gives me a good sense of what helps a paper make a good first impression. Here are my tips that should help your paper be judged based on the science.**

Write a great abstract

Your abstract is the first thing that an editor or reviewer will see; it serves as your elevator pitch and it is the most important place to make a good first impression. The abstract should clearly say what your paper is about and why that matters. In the simplest terms, your abstract should succinctly state the following: what are the knowns, what are the unknowns, what novel information your paper brings to the topic, and what the significance of the work is. Be sure to get several opinions (e.g., from scientists both inside and outside your field) on your abstract; it doesn't take long to read an abstract, so your colleagues would likely be willing to help.

Learn the proper structure for a scientific paper

When I was a graduate student How to Write and Publish a Scientific Paper was a useful resource. It outlines exactly what each section of the paper should include and what the purpose of the section is.  This information is critical to guide the writing of a manuscript. Most journals include the guidelines for the structure of a manuscript in their guide for authors. The best way to learn the structure of a paper is to read published papers, especially those written by well-established investigators in your field. Organizational issues (e.g., the discussion is simply a re-iteration of the results; the figure legends are too similar to the materials and methods) are a common complaint of reviewers. While this alone might not be a reason to reject a paper, it is best to ensure that the writing and organization of a manuscript does not give editors or reviewers a bad impression.

Find the right journal and know what that journal is looking for

With so many options available, choosing the right journal can be a daunting task. There are two tools that I use to see where similar papers are published: JANE (Journal, Author, Name Estimator) and Journal Finder (this is for Elsevier journals). Both use the title and abstract of your paper to find similar articles and where they were published. Of course, the more standard approach is to check your references. A properly referenced paper should give a clear idea of where the related papers have been published. Alternatively, you can use the related papers feature on Scopus or PubMed; if you look at the results for papers related to your work, you can determine where the majority of papers on the topic have been published. Once you have a list of potential journals, investigate those journals carefully to determine if the scope fits your manuscript. You should also learn what the journal is looking for (e.g., mechanism, animal model). These facts can be found on the journal's website in their description of scope and/or the guide for authors. Please see the additional resources below for other useful links.

Review papers

A great way to know what journals publish is to review papers. Once you go behind the curtain, it becomes clear what a journal is looking for. From my point of view, it's quite simple: something nicely executed that people will be interested in reading. For young investigators, it can be difficult to get experience reviewing, as many of the invitations go to more established scientists. You could consider asking established investigators that you know to mention your name if they decline to review. Once you establish yourself as a competent reviewer, you can also generate a name recognition with a journal. Thus, even if you don't "get credit" publicly for your reviewing, it can help you get to know the journal better and have the journal editors know you.

Talk to editors

If you attend large conferences in your field, it is likely that journal editors (both professional and academic) will also be in attendance. Some journals even list the meetings where you can meet their editors on the journals' web page. Alternatively, many journals and publishers host seminars about submitting your manuscript. These seminars can include the general (e.g., write a good abstract) and the specific (e.g., procedures for a particular journal). The more you can learn about the process, the easier the process will become.

Recommend useful reviewers

Most editors would probably not put this on their list, but this is a personal pet peeve. If you expect me to evaluate your work seriously, the reviewers that you suggest should have the credentials necessary to review your paper. In addition, the reviewers should not have recently co-authored papers with the authors on your paper (different journals have varying standards for this issue). If you know that the journal you will submit to relies on the Editorial Board for reviewing, then suggest useful members. This is another subtle way that you can convince journal editors that you know what you are doing.

Craft an artful response to reviewers

Cartoonist Nick Kim's take on peer review
In your response to reviewers, be sure to include the reviewers' original comments as well as your reply. It is also helpful to the reviewer to include a marked copy of your manuscript or to direct the reviewer to where your reply can be found (the specific requirements for these items vary from journal to journal). Such things will not necessarily ensure that your manuscript will be accepted, but it may engender some good will from reviewers, who are likely busy and will appreciate the ability to judge the revised manuscript quickly. You should also remember that you don't have to do everything the reviewers ask of you. If it is outside the scope of the paper or would not be necessary for the journal to which you are submitting, feel free to make that argument, just remember to keep a courteous tone.

While the peer review process can be daunting and tiring, it is important to remember that the point of peer review is to ensure that the paper is as good as it can be.

Additional Resources: 

Here the Senior Editor for Cell Reports offers advice on publishing your paper

Journal Finders: Journal Selector (in development); Journal finder tool

Tips from publishing pros on choosing the right journal

**Disclaimer: These suggestions are based on my experience and do not guarantee acceptance of your manuscript in any given journal. These opinions are my own and do not necessarily represent the opinions of my journal as a whole.