Tag Archives: editing

Should we boycott journals that use bullying tactics to speed up their review process? The Verdict

In which, Dear Reader, I reveal the results of my recent poll, discuss the dilemmas faced by journal Editors and call most earnestly upon the scientific community to help us in our endeavours.

Three weeks ago, incensed by a request (from a journal that shall remain nameless), to turn round a review within a week, I put fingers to keyboard and asked the world if we should boycott such journals.  I rarely run polls, but I did on this occasion; for two reasons, one I was genuinely interested in how others felt about this, and second, because as an Editor the topic regularly comes up when we meet with our publishers, who are always keen to reduce the time allowed to referees to return their reviews.

My first question was whether we should boycott those journals that ask referees to return their reviews within one week.  As you can see, the response was overwhelmingly in favour of such a boycott.

87% of respondents thought we should boycott journals that ask for a one-week turnaround

My other question was to do with what people felt was a reasonable time to complete a review. As you can see most respondents felt that at least

Respondent’s views on the reasonable time in which to complete a review

three weeks was a reasonable time in which to complete a review, with a hefty (note that, tempted as I was, I did not use the word significant) proportion suggesting a month as the ideal time span in which to complete their review.

I was reasonably happy with the results of the polls as the two journal that I edit both ask for a three-week turnaround, and we have so far, resisted pressure from the publishers to reduce this to two weeks.  As Editors, we rightly feel a responsibility to our authors to make a decision on their manuscript as quickly as possible, although as Steve Heard has pointed out, authors need to be realistic about how long they should expect to wait. Spoiler alert, it is a lot longer than a week.  We also have considerable pressure from our publishers to constantly “improve” our turnaround times as this is one of the metrics they push when ‘selling’ our journals.  They tell us, time after time, that as well as the dreaded Impact Factor, time to publication, which is a function of review turnaround time, is one of the metrics that influences author journal choices.

Journals need good submission rates to allow us, the Editors, to fill our page allocations with high quality manuscripts.  If paper submission rates fall we can panic and fill the pages with poorer quality papers, or stand firm, and either delay publishing an issue (not good from the point of view of the publishers and Web of Science), or produce a timely, but thin issue (not ideal for our subscribers). The pressure from the publishers, even if you are lucky enough to be editing a journal for a learned society, can, on occasion, be quite stressful. Given this, you may well wonder, why people choose to be Editors; this post from some time ago might help you understand our motives. 🙂

Good referees are like gold dust, and as most journals do not pay them, we very much rely on their good will. Now this is where we have a dilemma. Good referees are experts in their fields, which they have proven by having published in journals such as those I and others edit. As an Editor I know how difficult it is to get the minimum two referees needed to maintain, however imperfectly, the academic standards we all hold dear.  My record to date is thirteen refusals, for a paper that was perfectly fine, but for some reason, unclear to me, no one seemed to want to review. It is at times like those that I have some sympathy for the views of those who feel that we should do away with the current peer review system and let papers find their own level (Kovanis et al., 2017).  This is, of course untenable, as although specialists in the field would know to steer clear of the dross, there would be many, and not just the media, but those with either hidden agendas or lack of discernment, who, either knowingly or unwittingly, would report them as fact. In my opinion, which I think is an informed one, a robust and peer review system is still a necessity. Imperfect as the one we currently have, it is the best available.  We need to conserve what we have, whilst acknowledging that we can, and should improve upon it, not wreck it by imposing impossible demands on referees by assuming that authors are selfish self-seeking opportunists*.  So, authors step up to be referees, and journal editors, resist the demands of publishers to impose unrealistic turnaround times on your editorial teams and reviewers.  Editors and referees, are, in the main, also authors, so we should all be on the same page, or am I being incredibly naive? 🙂

 

References

 

Didham, R.K., Leather, S.R. & Basset, Y. (2017) Don’t be a zero-sum reviewer. Insect Conservation & Diversity, 10, 1-4.

Kovanis, M., Trinquart, L., Ravaud, P. & Pörcher, R. (2017) Evaluating alternative systems of peer review: a large-scale agent-based modelling approach to scientific publication. Scientometrics, 113, 651–671.

 

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Typos, typos everywhere – a call for the return of human copy editors and better proof reading

When I first started writing and publishing papers, publishers employed copy editors who checked pre-publication proofs for accuracy, style and grammar.  Authors had limited access to computer spell checkers, using print dictionaries instead and were supposed to check their proofs rigorously.   Nowadays, copy and style editors are mythical beasts, and we all suffer from the tyranny of the dreaded auto-correct.  The advent of automated copy editing and computerised spell checking has had a serious effect on the levels of exasperation in the Leather household. My wife, a former Editorial Assistant and copy editor*, and I find that we are increasingly drawing each other’s attention to glaring grammatical and typographical errors in the novels we read; baited breath when the author (I hope) meant bated, need instead of knead, dependent instead of dependant, principle instead of principal, effect when affect is meant and vice versa, etymology instead of entomology (oh heinous sin) and once to my total disbelief, dough instead of dhow!  And don’t even get me started on the greengrocer’s apostrophe!

It wouldn’t be so bad if this were confined to fiction but every now and increasingly then, I find something in a scientific paper or a grant proposal that makes me cringe and sigh despairingly (and not always quietly).

A high proportion of grant proposals and cvs that I see, use Principle Investigator instead of Principal Investigator.  I am happy that PIs are principled but just wish that they were a little bit more grammatically knowledgeable 🙂 That said, it is not just scientists who have a problem with the difference between principle and principal.

But, back to the reason I was stimulated to write this post.  I recently read a paper in Nature Communications, and was stunned by the appalling state of the references.  How these got past the copy editor (if there was one) and authors I have no idea.  Nature Communications is regarded as a high impact journal, in its own words publishing “high quality research” so one might expect and hope their production values to be equally high.

Author fatigue and Copy Editor failure!

 As a renowned senior scientist of my acquaintance (Professor Helmut van Emden if you wondered) once remarked during a PhD viva, “if you can’t be bothered to check your references for accuracy, how am I supposed to believe you collected your data and analysed it any more carefully?”  What particularly upset/disappointed me about the paper above was that two of the authors are former students of mine and have had the Van Emden adage related to them more than once!

To be fair, I too am not immune to letting the odd typo slip past my eagle eye.  Shortly after an editorial of mine was published (Leather, 2017) I received an email which I reproduce in full below.

Dear Prof. Leather

 I have just come across your recent editorial in Annals of Applied Biology.  Despite a few typographical errors (spelling of my name and a hanging reference to the “former” when the former is not clear), I could not agree more with your message, and I am honored that you chose my work on weed suppression as an example of the gap that needs to be closed.  Your description of the situation with respect to our research was right on target. I was also very impressed by the quotation from Benjamin Walsh, which is just as relevant today as it was back in 1866.

 The problem exists in both directions.  Basic researchers can be snobs who look down on applied research. But applied researchers often react to this by responding negatively to relevant basic research.  J.L. Harper often said that the distinction between basic and applied research is artificial, but there is clearly a cultural “gap”.

 With best wishes from Copenhagen

Jacob Weiner

On being reminded, very politely, that no matter how senior we are we are neither perfect nor infallible 🙂

The misspelled reference duly corrected, albeit after the fact.

Reference

Leather S.R. (2017) Mind the gap: time to make sure that scientists and practitioners are on the same page.  Annals of Applied Biology 170: 1-3

*Those of you whom had papers published in Ecological Entomology between 1996 and 2003 will have experienced her ferocious red pen 🙂

 

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Journal Editing – Why do it? Masochism, machisimo or just plain nosiness?

I have been involved in scientific journal editing since the mid-1980s when I took on the role of Editor of an in-house newsletter run by the UK Forestry Commission’s Forest Research arm, EntoPath News. This basically involved writing short articles about what was going on in Forest Research and persuading colleagues to write about their research, mainly for a lay audience. This was pretty much a home-made effort, typed up and then photocopied by members of the Typing Pool (now those were the days!). Then in 1991 I was asked if I would like to edit Antenna, the in-house journal of the Royal Entomological Society. This was a step-up – we actually had a printer, although this was in the days of cut and paste when cut and paste meant exactly that. I was sent the proofs in what were termed galleys, long sheets of printed pages, together with template pages, marked out with blue lines to indicate margins etc. I then grabbed a pair of scissors and a pot of glue and literally cut the proofs to fit the pages and then glued them on to the templates. These were then returned to the printer who in due course produced a set of page proofs which I had to check and approve and these were then returned to the printer and then finally the finished version would appear.

Antenna 1993

Nowadays of course all this has long departed and Antenna is a much glossier and electronically produced affair.

Antenna 2012

I was next asked if I would like to edit Ecological Entomology a much grander job all together and one that I did from 1996-2003.

Ecological Entomology 2001

 

When I first started editing Ecological Entomology, all manuscripts were submitted as hard copy paper versions (usually three copies) but with an accompanying floppy disc. The review process involved posting out the hard copy to possible reviewers, usually without any preliminary enquiry as to the willingness of the referee to undertake the task, although as time passed we did start to ask referees beforehand by email. The use of paper copies enabled referees to write directly on to manuscripts and also allowed me as an Editor to mark required changes. My Editorial Assistant also imposed stylistic and language change to manuscripts. Accepted manuscripts were always returned with a huge amount of mark-up for authors to attend to and incorporate into their finished version which was returned on disc together with a paper copy. It was quite interesting to see how many authors were so enamoured of their original version that they tried to pull the wool over my editorial eye by returning an appropriately edited paper version but their original manuscript on the disc! These were most severely edited by my Editorial Assistant 😉

I then had a couple of years off as a full editor but remained on the boards of Ecological Entomology, Journal of Animal Ecology and Agricultural & Forest Entomology, all of which I still do despite becoming one of the Senior Editors of the Annals of Applied Biology in 2005 and in a moment of weakness not only agreeing to become the Editor-in-Chief of Insect Conservation & Diversity in 2006, but to launch it from scratch!

One of my conditions for agreeing to edit Insect Conservation & Diversity was that we would be on-line submission from Day One. Interestingly enough we were the only journal of the Royal Entomological Society’s large stable that were. This year the last of the journals finally gave in and became on-line submissions only.

One of the things that I have noticed with most of the journals that were originally paper-based submissions is that the instructions for authors still refer back to the paper submission days – why for example do we need to upload tables and figures separately – why don’t we just incorporate them in the text in the way they would appear in print and submit one file? Old habits die hard I guess.

So why do I edit journals? The simplest answer is because I enjoy it, I find it interesting, albeit sometimes frustrating, especially when authors send you papers that are completely out of the scope of the journal, or formatted in the style of the journal they have just been rejected by! You also find out that some papers come with a referee repellent attached to them. Some papers you get the right number of referees agreeing immediately, others that look perfectly acceptable often take ten or eleven referee requests before you get your two referees.   I have written about the search for referees before so will not dwell on this part of the editing process. On the plus side you get the chance to read things that you might not do normally and, by judicious choice of your editorial board can influence the papers that are submitted to your journal.

How hard is it to be a journal editor? Not as hard as you might think. We certainly don’t do the same job that we used to; the red pen is a thing of the past. To a certain extent we act as filters, deciding which papers we are going to send on to our Associate Editor, so we do have to read everything that is submitted, although some are very easy to ‘instant reject’ and need little more than a cursory skim. The harder ones are those that are perfectly sound but don’t have the right feel for the journal, the ones that you know are going to be rejected but which are perfectly publishable, just not in your journal. In some of these cases you might have to pass it on to an Associate Editor, as with the best will in the world you can’t be an expert in everything.   The Associate Editors choose the referees and make a recommendation to you as the Editor; you then have to read the paper again and see if you agree with his/her recommendation. As an Editor you have to be tougher than your Associate Editors because of space requirements and the fear of a fall in your Impact Factor or submission rate. When I first started editing, Impact Factor was not a consideration; now we are, despite our belief that it is an imperfect metric, all aiming to be the best. We also have pressures from the publishers to increase the speed of our decision-making processes which is why the decision ‘reject and resubmit’ is now becoming increasingly common and ‘major revision’ less common.

Rejections can sometimes result in not only angry emails from rejected authors but also, but not that often, disgruntled Associate Editors. When I first started editing I was more prone to backing down when contacted by an author demanding a recount, especially if it was someone who I knew quite well. I soon learnt though that if you stood your ground firmly it was better for you and the authors, as they were all too often rejected after another round of reviewing. Your friends generally understand this quite soon and as professionals realise that you have to be impartial. That said, I did find it very hard when I found myself rejecting a paper submitted by my old PhD supervisor. He appears to have forgiven me 😉

Do we get paid as editors? It depends on the journal; some pay a fairly generous stipend, but remember most of your editing takes place at home and at weekends, so some compensation is appropriate. The Royal Entomological Society journals don’t pay their editors but do treat them very well and pay for travel to some conferences and meet their registration and accommodation costs at most of their own conferences.

So what qualities are needed to be a journal editor? A thick skin, the ability to make a decision and not to keep asking for yet another opinion; you’re the final arbiter, make that decision and stick with it; the detachment to be impartial and go with the science not with your own personal prejudices or friendships. You also need to be aware of what other journals are doing and be constantly thinking of ways to improve your journal; it is very tempting to think that everything is fine so why change things. Personally I feel that an Editor should step down after about seven years or so as there is a tendency to get very parochial and stuck in a rut. You can definitely get very possessive about ‘your’ journal if you are not careful. [Note to self, I have edited Insect Conservation & Diversity for almost eight years now and I have had an approach from another journal, but I would really miss those Royal Entomological Society Publication Committee meetings ;-)]

Do I regret being an Editor?  Not one little bit. It is actually a great job and one that I can thoroughly recommend to anyone who is offered the chance.

Post script

Apropos of my mention of submitting paper copies to journals, I do feel that authors do not get the same amount of feedback from referees as they used to. Referees who take the time to download a pdf version and annotate and comment directly are definitely in the minority. This means that most referees only comment on the scientific details and all those helpful hints about punctuation and style are omitted. As a referee I do sometimes make suggestions for rewording and overall grammatical suggestions, but line by line editing which I used to do is now a thing of the past.

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Referees – Your Journals Need You!

Editor-in-Chief

I have thought about writing on this subject for a while but it was this Tweet from Britt Koskella http://brittkoskella.wordpress.com/ on the 19th November 2013 that finally stirred me into action.

Britt 1

As an editor (I am for my sins, Editor-in-Chief of Insect Conservation & Diversity  http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/journal/10.1111/(ISSN)1752-4598)  I love people like Britt.  It is such a joy to be able to select their names from the journal data base and assign them a manuscript, knowing that nine times out of ten they will accept my invitation to review a manuscript and that on that tenth occasion they will very kindly suggest an alternative (sometimes two or three) reviewer who will also almost certainly accept my invitation.  Britt Koskella, I love you and those like you 🙂  My reply to Britt was as follows:

Britt 2

You will have noticed that I confessed to doing too many myself; in fact in addition to those manuscripts that I read as an Editor I do on average, forty to fifty reviews for other journals.  Like Britt I have a hard time saying no.  I am getting better though – I actually turned down two this month 😉

There is a lot of debate at the moment about the peer review process in general with a number of journals adopting an open mass review process and other journals opting for the as long as the science is sound it is publishable approach.  We are, however, mainly, despite its many flaws, still operating on the traditional two referees per paper peer review system.

So how many papers should you referee asks Britt?  The general rule of thumb to entitle you to call yourself a good citizen is to agree to referee two papers for every paper that you submit as that is the minimum number of referees that you would expect to look at your own papers.  To be on the safe side and to feel that you are making a real contribution to your community, I would suggest that a 3:1 ratio is very acceptable.  In my experience as an Editor of two journals and as an Associate Editor on three other journals, there are a number of people who referee many more papers than that and a disturbingly large number of prolific authors whom, as far as I can see, never ever agree to referee papers.

As an Editor, what do I want from a referee?  In a nut-shell, someone who reads the paper thoroughly, checks first that the experimental design and statistical analysis are sound; if the experiment is not designed properly then it doesn’t matter how well the paper is written, it is not worth proceeding with; that the appropriate literature is cited (and by this I don’t just mean the referee’s own papers) and that the paper fits the remit of the journal and advances the subject area significantly.  I also do not want the referee to say how good the paper is in the comments to authors section and to tell me in the confidential comments that it is crap.  If you don’t like it then have the guts to tell the author why, don’t leave it up to the poor Editor to try to explain why he/she is rejecting their paper despite the apparently favourable comments they can see in the referee’s reports.  I also expect total impartiality; you might not agree with what you read but unless the methodology is flawed that is not a reason to reject the paper.  Be open-minded and fair above all.  If you are rejecting a paper, be constructive, authors at the start of their career are not as resistant or as resilient as old timers http://dynamicecology.wordpress.com/2013/11/18/are-you-resistant-or-resilient-in-the-face-of-rejection/.  Above all be fair, write your report bearing in mind the sort of review that you as an author would like to receive.  Do unto others as you would have others do unto you and that goes double for those of you who don’t referee as many papers as you should!  I am very tempted sometimes to do an instant reject on authors who have turned down my invitation to review a paper, especially if I have just accepted one of theirs.

Post script

I used to run a course for PhD students about getting published and it always used to amaze them that decisions on whether papers were published or not was dependent on the opinions of two to three people.  My response was that if you think that is bad, decisions about grant funding are often made with just as few opinions and those decisions have even greater implications for career prospects.

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