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Do you have what it takes to get your scientific article out there?

Keren Boren 21 January 2007

Crumpled hopes: on the long road to publication

It’s some sort of law of the publishing universe that, no matter how short your paper is, you will find that it is two-thirds too long for the journal in question

We postdoctoral scientists don’t just slave over grant applications and research 24/7 – we have to write papers about our experiments and submit them for publication. And these aren’t just some sort of formality, tying up the loose ends and documenting a discovery – they frequently make or break your scientific career. It truly is publish or perish: papers are grants, papers are blood, papers are life!

Just getting to the point where you can even think about writing is already a big achievement. It means that you left evidence of your struggle scattered in a wake behind you – the preliminary experiments that yielded totally unexpected results, results that you still don’t entirely understand. Along the way there may have been thousands of hypotheses you had to destroy one by one.

Some hypotheses are more compelling than others. All scientists remember the moment they found their first beautiful and consistent hypothesis which, when tested in the lab, miraculously worked the first time. When you find a hypothesis like this, it’s like falling in love.

Until you try to repeat the experiment.

Invariable, the second attempt fails completely, leaving you in despair. You start obsessing incessantly about this perfect hypothesis and its inexplicable failure non-stop to your bored colleagues, parents and friends, until finally you work out what’s gone wrong and the sun shines again. With all your determination, you strive towards glory on many winding paths. To reach a set of publishable results (or as we like to think of them, Results), you work day and night, toiling through the weekends, repeating thousands of times a Western blot which worked perfectly the first time, then failed for a hundred possible reasons out of your control: because the antibody only works once every fourth time or when the moon is full, because a colleague switched off the electricity by mistake, because the shaker stopped when your blot was on it and it dried up into a shriveled square. But one day, all the experiments are done, you have read all the related scientific literature and the paper is written.

You think you’re done? Not at all – in fact, it’s only just begun.

First, there is the eternal discussion with your co-authors about that all-important decision: which journal? At least one co-author will always recommend aiming for the very top: Nature. Yet others, the more pessimistic ones, go to the opposite extreme and advocate the lowest of the low, just to be sure to get it in with as little pain as possible. When you finally agree on a journal, you need to look at their ‘Instructions for Authors’ webpage to put the manuscript into the approved format. It’s some sort of law of the publishing universe that, no matter how short your paper is, you will find that it is two-thirds too long for the journal in question.

After a painful words-reducing session, requiring the deployment of every brevity trick in your arsenal, after checking that the references are in the proper style, after having reduced the figures in the appropriate format, you finally submit the damned thing online. It’s not just a click of a mouse, naturally: six pages await, requesting painstaking information about you and your co-authors, practically down to your pants size. Just when you are deciding that next time you won’t be adding so many co-authors, it is done. All that remains is to upload the manuscript and figures, not forgetting the precious cover letter explaining why the editor would be mad to refuse to consider the work you sweated on for so long. Now you can breath.

Wait a minute. What’s this mail you just received? A problem with the submission? Already? The figures haven’t been uploaded properly? The Acknowledgement section has been placed before the reference list instead of after? A few more hours of furious tweaking, and then everything really is in order – you can forget your article for awhile.

Yeah, right. You start to check compulsively every day (sorry: every hour) on the website, where an automatic tracking systems keeps you abreast of your manuscript’s progress. And then, one day, there it is in your e-mail inbox: the decision letter.

Just to prolong the suspense, some journals make you open the e-mail. Other, more merciful journals deliver the coup de grace in the subject line. And when it’s bad news, the article that meant could be back at square one.

Rejections are as varied as the journals out there. In the most prestigious titles, the decision is taken promptly: two days is very often more than enough time for the editorial team to process your submission, select peer reviewers, send them your work, wait for the reviewers’ responses and forward you the decision. Most of the time, the stated reasons for the rejection are just as brief. A colleague and I once submitted our two separate papers about two different topics to the same journal, and received an identical rejection letter in an identical amount of time. In other journals, they need more time to arrive at the same conclusion.

Not all comments seem to be fair. For example, some peer reviewers raise questions whose answers were actually clearly stated in the manuscript, if only they had read the thing more carefully. Other reviewers might pen a veritable novel about your article, dissecting almost sentence by sentence, and asking you to perform some heinous set of experiments that are only peripherally related to the topic and hand and, if attempted, would consume years and another post-doctoral grant without much enriching the subject. And of course, many of us have experienced a suitable revised article, with all the i’s dotted and t’s crossed, being declined anyway. Best of all is when you find an editor willing to give your article a chance, if only you comply with a few, courteously phrased minor and reasonable comments from a (suddenly quite human) peer reviewer.

What’s surprising to me is that, after having experienced all this unpleasantness, and having sworn each time that the paper in question would be the last, those six magic words – “I am delighted to inform you” – have the power to make me forget everything.

And so I head back to the lab, one paper richer and on the hunt for a new hypothesis to sweep me off my feet.