Tag Archives: journals

How not to respond to reviewers – even if it is Reviewer #3

I have been an Editor for many years, since 1993 to be precise, and am currently Editor –in-Chief of one journal and a Senior Editor of another as well as being on the Editorial Board of two other journals. On top of that, I review about 40 papers a year so have come across quite a lot of response to reviewers letters.  I have also, as the author of over 200 papers, written my own share of reviewer responses.  Yes, there are some reviewers who have caused my blood pressure to rise and engendered a desire to rend them limb from limb, and I have sometimes been tempted to reply to suggested comments with the phrase “up yours”, but sanity and common sense have prevailed.

Based on responses I have seen over the years, here are a few suggestions of what not to do, and what to do, to maximise the chances of your resubmitted paper being accepted.

First, take a deep breath, close the document, go for a walk and don’t read it again for at least 24 hours. A hastily anger-filled response will almost always result in a rejection. Avoid knee-jerk reactions at all costs.

Do not start your response by saying “Do not send our revised paper back to Reviewer 1 as it is clear that he clearly demonstrates a lack of knowledge or understanding of the study/subject area in general” This is likely to annoy the Editor who has gone to great pains to find a suitable reviewer for your paper and will most certainly annoy the reviewer when it is sent back to him/her as it will almost certainly be.   Much better to begin your response by thanking the Editor and reviewers for taking the time to consider your manuscript and making helpful suggestions.  Then respond carefully, comment by comment, as instructed in the letter from the Editor.

Do not respond to comments by baldly stating I/we disagree; politely state with good reasons, why you disagree.

Do not point out to the reviewer that she/he has made a spelling mistake.

Do not respond to the comment “This section is unclear” by saying “It is perfectly clear to us”. Ask yourself, why is it unclear to the reviewer?  One way to address the problem is by asking a colleague from another discipline if it is clear to them and then rewriting it when they say it isn’t.

If the reviewer challenges your description of random sampling as not being random because you did not use a random number generator do not respond by saying that this is how everyone you know describes it.

If challenged on your statistical analysis do not respond by saying “I/we have always done it this way”.  There may actually be a better way to do it, if you are sure there isn’t then explain why.

If challenged on the quality of your figures do not respond by saying this is the standard output from Excel.

Do not respond by saying “this was not raised as an issue by the reviewers of the previous journal we submitted our paper to”

If the Editor asks you to reduce the length of your Introduction or Discussion at least make some effort to do so, do not respond by saying “No, I/we think that the length is totally justified”.

If you really can’t bear to respond to the comments politely, then there are other journals, but do remember, there are only a finite number of willing expert reviewers and there is a very good chance that one of the reviewers of your paper that you have submitted to Journal Y will be the same as one you had for Journal X, so it makes sense to have made some changes to your original submission.

In the main, reviewers try to be constructive and helpful.  Remember they are unpaid, so are doing this for the good of the community and with a genuine desire to maintain the reputation of their discipline.  They are not doing it to annoy you.

 

 

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Keeping up with the literature – an unwinnable battle?

I was going to write about predatory journals* but got distracted by tidying my office 🙂

Pre- and post-annual holiday office tidy

Whilst triaging the many pieces of paper that littered my office floor, table and desks, I realised that my “papers to read pile” had,

One that failed the triage, too fly-blown even for a keen entomologist 🙂

like an aphid, not only multiplied but spread itself across several locations. Once collated and stacked neatly into a single entity I was shocked to see that I was now faced with over 30 cm of interesting and potentially useful literature, to peruse, digest, annotate and add to my filing system.

The paper mountain – an awesome spectacle or should that be awful?

I am, as regular readers will know, no longer in the first flush of youth**.  Forty-five years ago as undergraduates, my generation went to the library to read physical journals, making notes as we went along and, very, very occasionally, spending money for a photocopy.   As a PhD student this was also how we operated, although we had by then learnt the art of reading Current Contents and the appropriate CABI Abstracts and sending a reprint request card to the authors of papers whose titles and abstracts had particularly caught our attention. We also had access to inter-library loans and depending on your supervisor, access to and the budget to enable you to photocopy older papers found while browsing journals in the library.  Once read, the paper was reverentially placed in a filing cabinet, especially if it had been signed by an eminent luminary, and the more organised of

My filing cabinets – all drawers full

D-K; A few of the 33 record card storage boxes that help clutter my office

us, entered the details, including our own keywords, on a record card which were then stored in a record card storage box, or card index system as we called it 🙂

 

Record cards ready for the details to be entered to my EndNote data base and subsequent filing in the appropriate storage box.  I prefer my own keywords as they often differ from those supplied by the authors.

In those days there were far fewer journals, the learned societies that I was, and am still a member of, the Association of Applied Biologists, the Royal Entomological Society, and the British Ecological Society, published one, two, and three journals respectively.  Keeping up with the literature, although in those days without the aid of search engines and email alerts, was fairly easy.  The biggest hindrance being the lack of response from some authors to your laboriously penned postcard reprint request.  Now those three societies publish three, seven and seven journals, all available on-line and two of the British Ecological Society’s journals don’t even have print copies.  On top of that, there are a plethora of commercial publishers producing huge numbers of journals.  You think of a subject and there will be a journal, and then there are the predatory journals to add to the deluge L Things have certainly changed over the last forty years, and the library and Current Contents have been replaced by email alerts, on-line tables of contents with their snazzy graphical abstracts to tempt me to download the full version pdf with every intention of reading it later. Now, as a creature of habit and a great believer in the belts and braces approach to data storage, I keep both physical and electronic versions of all the papers that I download, hence the paper mountain in my office and my guilt complex about being behind with the literature.  I, like many of you, get irritated when I read a paper dealing with stuff I work on and find I have not been cited or as a referee notice that relevant literature has not got a mention.  Now, I’m a great believer in giving credit when it’s due (Leather, 2004, 2014), and have of course blown off steam about it previously on this blog, but even I am starting to have second thoughts about keeping au fait with the literature both past and present, or in the case of some journals, future J

I am sure that like me, when you sit down to write a paper you do a literature search.  In the old days I was pretty confident that I was right up to date and that my trusty card index system computer-based data base would give me all the references I need.   Now though, especially, given the unread paper mountain sitting on my office floor and the pile of record cards still to be input to EndNote™, I know, that I am, sadly, not likely to have all the relevant papers to hand, so like everyone else I hit Google Scholar and Web of Science.

Papers I read to write my last two papers – still to be added to my card index system

This of course generates another pile of papers, albeit ones I have read, but lacking a record card and no presence on my data base L  The latter problem I could solve by using the EndNote™ download function but that goes against my neurotic need to have my own keywords and writing record cards for every paper I read while researching material for the paper in progress would slow the writing process hugely which is already under pressure from my other duties, teaching, student supervision, administration and all the other demands that impinge on the typical academic’s life.

In conclusion, I think and it makes me sad to write this, but the days of putting aside what look like interesting papers to read later, is no longer viable and I have now reached the stage where I can only cope with accessing and reading the literature needed for a work in progress. The battle has been lost L

References

Leather, S.R. (2004) Reinventing the wheel – on the dangers of taxon parochialism and shallow reference trawling! Basic and Applied Ecology, 5, 309-311.

Leather, S.R. (2014) How Stephen Jay Gould wrote Macbeth – not giving credit where it’s due: lazy referencing and ignoring precedence. Ideas in Ecology & Evolution, 7, 30-40.

 

*

I am sure I will eventually get round to writing it 🙂

**

Externally at any rate, internally I am still a youthful 17-year old 🙂

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Sitting in judgment – Calling the shots – Peer review – A personal view

I have just finished refereeing four papers from four different journals with different approaches to the peer review system. As a result I now feel moved to share my thoughts about the way journals ask us to review papers. In earlier posts I have written about my experiences as an editor and also about why and how many papers we should referee as good citizens of the scientific community. The four journals for which I have just acted as a reviewer are Ideas in Ecology & Evolution, Physiological Entomology, and Journal of Insect Behavior and Animal Behaviour. Ideas in Ecology & Evolution operates a completely open review process and allows authors, should they wish, to solicit their own reviews in exchange for a reduced processing charge. As a reviewer you can, as well as submitting your review, submit a response article free of charge. As someone who is usually unable to publish in open access journals as my usual funding sources rarely, if ever, provide funding for page and processing charges, I took the opportunity to do so and am now waiting to see if my offering will get published 😉 Animal Behaviour on the other hand operates a double-blind system where the referee is supposedly as blind as the author(s).

Blind author and referee

This is achieved by removing the names and addresses of the authors. As however, the references and acknowledgements are usually left untouched, it is, in my field, comparatively easy to work out who wrote the paper with some confidence.  The other two journals give you the option of revealing your identity should you so wish.

I have for my sins reviewed a lot of papers over the years; sadly as a data nerd, I have kept a record not only of how many papers I review a year but for which journals (I really should get a life).

Papers refereed

In all those years last week was the first time that I have ever unambiguously revealed my identity. I say unambiguously, because, during the 1990s when Oikos used to give you the opportunity to sign your review, I did use to scrawl my totally illegible signature at the bottom of the page, confident that no-one could actually read it! So why do I opt for anonymity when reviewing papers?

I am confident that I would write exactly the same review if I did it openly and in fact sometimes I am sure that the authors can guess that I was the reviewer. I choose to be anonymous because I feel that a generally open review system would tend to make some, if not most reviewers, pull their punches. How many young post-docs would dare to reject a paper by an established academic knowing that they could be on their next interview panel or reviewing their next grant application or be the editor of the journal they submit their next paper to?  We are all supposed to be dispassionate scientists able to take constructive criticism, but even the most laid-back of us will probably remember the name of the young whippersnapper who dared reject our paper.  I am pretty sure that when I was at the beginning of my career I would never have dared criticize, let alone reject, a Southwood or Lawton paper in an open review system.   As an Editor who occasionally submits papers to my own journal I have to take this ‘fear’ factor into account and have rejected my own papers when for other authors I would have allowed a resubmission.  In my experience as an Editor, I rarely see reviewers using the confidential comments to the editor section to say something very different from the review they have provided for the authors to see. So I think that the traditional system works pretty well.

I also think that by revealing our identities to authors we could end up with a you scratch my back I will scratch yours situation in that if A gives B a favourable review then B will in turn give A one back and the whole system will be subverted.

So in conclusion until someone proves otherwise I will continue to remain anonymous except in exceptional circumstances.

 

Post script

For a less personal and more scientific viewpoint see this article

http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/information-culture/2014/04/19/introduction-to-traditional-peer-review/

and for an alternative viewpoint see this from Dynamic Ecology

https://dynamicecology.wordpress.com/tag/peer-review/

Post-post script

In case you are wondering why I was so lazy in 1991, I was desperately applying for jobs in the university sector.

 

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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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The Three Rs of Science – Reading, Writing and Reviewing

And before anyone jumps in and says there are 4Rs in Science i.e. Reading, Research, Writing and Reviewing, I am including research as part of writing as without research you would have nothing to write about.  This post is mainly about writing for publication as I have written about refereeing and reading in earlier posts.  Almost twenty-five years ago I designed and implemented a scientific paper writing class for the undergraduate course that I used to run at Imperial College; later I re-tooled it as part of our postgraduate training programme and it was later rolled out across the university graduate school as part of the Doctoral Training Programme.

The first question I would ask students was “Why do scientists write papers?”  Undergraduates usually responded that scientists wrote to tell the world and their peers about what research they had done and thus advance science and prevent duplication of effort.  My response to this was that if they really wanted to publicise their research and make it accessible to the world they would publish their work in the popular press which has a lot more reach than a scientific journal.  After a bit of prodding they would then decide that perhaps it was for peer recognition and subsequent scientific validation via the review process.  Postgraduate students reached this stage more quickly and also understood that they needed to publish to make their cvs competitive and also of course to stake a claim to a particular research area to help with obtaining funding.

The first step in this journey is to do some good science!  Before setting out on the publication trail I also think that one should ask yourself if your work is important, although of course this is pretty subjective.  I am sure that all of us if asked, would consider that what we do is important enough to be published.  Next ask yourself if the experimental design or methodology is sound and if the work has been done well.  This will save time and remove some of the pain likely to be met during the review process.  Most importantly, at least in my opinion, is to ask yourself if there is a story.  There needs to be a strong narrative if you want to get people to read and cite your paper.

As a first time author you definitely need to ask advice about who does what, where you will send your paper and it is usually a good idea to get some agreement on authorship order earlier and not later.  Even as an experienced author I think that this sort of discussion can be very useful.  At the very least it will help you decide what particular slant your story will have.

Remember, have a clear story to tell and also remember that complexity is not the same as learning; keep your language simple, concise, precise and incisive and even at this early stage, make sure you follow the journal style!

At this point in the course I would put up this table and ask the students what each column represented.

Paper table

They would quickly guess that the first column represented the traditional layout of a scientific paper.  The other two columns took a bit longer, especially for the undergraduates until I asked them how they read papers when gathering material for their assignments and they were then able to identify the third column as how they, and most of us tend to read papers.  If the title seems interesting then we read the abstract, zip down to the results, see what the authors said about them, then check the introduction and then check the references for follow-up literature.  Methods and materials usually trail in at the end and then only if you have some doubts about what the authors have said or if you want to do something similar.  Then you look at the results again and you might look at the acknowledgements to see where they got their funding and to guess how many times they had to revise the paper (how many anonymous referees they acknowledge).

The middle column represents how most of us now write papers especially in these days of cut and paste. We follow the line of least resistance, start with the title to give us a starting point, our methods should have been written already in our lab books, the results come next and then we get on to the harder bits, the Introduction and the Discussion; acknowledgements flow logically from this and then it is a matter of adding the references and perhaps the hardest bit of all, the abstract or summary.    By the time you have done all this, your initial title almost certainly will no longer appeal to you so you come up with something new and more fitting.

Although this tends to be how we write papers I am not sure that it is actually the best way.  In the days before personal PCs some of us had access to typing pools and even if we didn’t, we either wrote our first drafts in long-hand or at a typewriter.  This meant that we got all our material together, had a long think about what we wanted to say and actually started at the beginning and worked our way through the paper in the same order as it would be printed.  Some people argue that this meant that ‘flow’ of those papers was smoother and more coherent.  I don’t think I know anyone who actually writes like that anymore, but I am happy to be contradicted.

Regardless of the fact that most of us live in a cut and paste world I am going to work through the various bits of a paper in the usual printed order.  Remember you are telling a story and there are a lot of rival authors out there competing for space in the top journals and you have to convince the journal editor and two or three referees that your paper is the one that should see the light of day in their journal.

You need a title; ideally it should be short, snappy and very importantly informative, although perhaps not too informative.  In the course I ran, I presented this to the students as a somewhat tongue in cheek example;

The effect of two lodgepole pine (Pinus contorta Douglas ex Loudon) seed origins (South coastal and Alaskan) on the growth, survival and development of larvae of the pine beauty moth, Panolis flammea (Denis & Schiffermuller) in the presence and absence of predators in a Scottish field site.

This although informative is not necessarily going to gain you readers or publication in a high impact journal.  In fact the external pre-REF (Research Excellence Framework – UK academics will know what this is) consultant employed by my university to help decide which papers should go forward for assessment was very clear that titles beginning with The effect of were very unlikely to receive high scores by the external assessors.

As it happened, the work I had done which is very clearly described by the informative title above was actually published as

Leather & Walsh title page

Not very informative but it certainly got a readership.

The abstract is perhaps the least favourite bit of a paper for authors; I certainly find them difficult and invariably save them to last.  They are however, extremely important and according to Wiley-Blackwell, publishers of the journal that I edit (Insect Conservation & Diversity) they are much more important than we as authors realise – they and the title are the ‘hook’ that gets your paper downloaded and hopefully read and then cited.  You should thus not just rush it off in a couple of minutes.  Think hard about what you want to say and what it is that is likely to get someone to download and read your paper.

Next is the Introduction, here you should put your work in context, remembering that it is not a literature review but make sure that you do cite some of the earlier relevant work as well as the more recent literature.  State the problem clearly and indicate who else has tried and failed and why your work is special and how you have succeeded where others have failed.

Now for the Materials and methods section, which to me is the most important part of the paper.  This is where you as a referee or reviewer should go first.  This is the detail that matters.  If the methodology is flawed then it doesn’t matter how great the writing is or how fancy the statistics, the paper should be rejected.  I think it is deplorable that there are now a number of ‘high impact’ journals that have relegated the methods to a subsidiary position, almost hiding them away and placing the results at the front end of the paper.  This is tantamount to telling reviewers that the methods don’t matter, just look at the results.  I have heard however, that some of these journals are now reconsidering this policy after some embarrassing publicity.

My advice to students is that the methods should contain as much detail as would be required for someone else to repeat your work without having to contact you.  So for example, the species involved, cultivars and phenological stage of the plants used, the sample size; for field work, the site details, the equipment used but not necessarily the supplier, unless of course it is very specialist, and the statistical treatment and assumptions.

The results section is your showcase.  Decide which display method is best for the message you want to get across and then pick out the most important points from your tables and graphs and turn them into a commentary, but DO NOT discuss them.  For the figures and tables do make sure that you follow the journal style.  Make sure that the figure and table titles are informative and comprehensive; in the days before Japanese journals published in English, the only English bit of the papers were the figure and table legends and it was possible to get a very good idea of know what the paper was about from them. Keep symbols simple and check line thickness.

The Discussion section is where you discuss YOUR results, highlight the strengths and weaknesses of your approach, underline your most important results, compare them with similar data and interpret your results in the broader view.  It is always a good idea to show how you addressed your initial hypothesis.  This and the methods section are the two sections where you can try and pre-guess the reviewers and get your retaliation in first.  If you can answer the reviewers before the questions are raised in their reports it increases the chances of getting your paper accepted.

Again, DO NOT use convoluted and obscure language and do AVOID jargon and pretentious statements.  As scientists our job is to communicate, not just to our peers, but to a wider audience. Quite often the reason our results are misinterpreted by the popular press is not because they are doing it on purpose but because we have obscured what we have said by using over-complicated language.  Be clear, use simple everyday words where possible, e.g.  laid rather than oviposited and be concise.

Speaking as an Editor I like acknowledgements to be brief, but do appreciate that there are funding agencies and helpful colleagues to thank.  I would advise against too much flippancy as after all you are advertising yourself and some people do read them.

Finally, the references; are they COMPLETE? Do they follow the journal style?  Editors do check and if you have had the misfortune to be rejected by your first choice journal, it does not go down well with the Editor of your second choice journal if you haven’t made the effort to change the formatting!  Do text citations and bibliography agree?  Check and recheck!

So now are you ready to release your pride and joy into the wild to suffer “the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” more commonly known as editors and referees?  Actually no, that was just the first draft!  DO NOT SUBMIT IT YET.  Pass it around for comments; if you are a PhD student your supervisor definitely needs and wants to see it!  Let colleagues read it too and for communication test, get a non-specialist to read it.  If they can understand what you did and what your central message is then you have cracked the communication barrier.  Do listen to what people say, rewrite it!!  Be brutal in revision!  It is better to revise before submission than to have your paper rejected without the chance to revise.  Pass it around again. Then and only then, log on to the journal site and start the submission process, but do remember to read the guidelines for authors before you press the submit button!

Submit button

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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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