However…

Have you ever had a manuscript was accepted unconditionally without any revisions? In speaking with many scientists, it turns out that this seems to be a once in a lifetime phenomenon. Indeed, it has happened to me but once.

A long time ago in a galaxy far far away, I was once a graduate student. Actually, this manuscript was submitted in the course of my Masters reserach, and was my very first paper. As the first-author, and as a student with two advisers, I actually took care of the submission process myself. Not knowing any better, I also put myself down as the corresponding author. Little did I know that this is not something that a Masters student normally does.

In the month following the submission, very much against my will, I was serving a bout of the most awful reserve duty in the Palestinian city of Nablus, based in the old British headquarters building (shown 50 years earlier in this video from the Guardian) when the reviews came back. Part of my tour was spent guarding the so-called “Joseph’s Tomb” a flashpoint of contention between Israeli settlers and Palestinians in the midst of a large Palestinian city. But I’ll save this for another rainy (stormy?) day.

Joseph's Tomb: Israeli settlers and Palestinians have all but ablated any meaning for this site

I spoke to my wife on the phone–a pay phone (remember those?)–and she read me the editorials letter and critiques. I was crushed. I thought that was the end of my attempts to publish this manuscript. When I finally returned to the lab and showed the letter to one of my advisers, he glanced at it and said immediately “Oh, it’s in. We should have sent it to a better journal.”

As it turned out, my inexperience in reading and interpreting letters from editors led me to believe that a request for changing a few words in the title was an absolute rejection. Little did I know that I would never have it so easy with future submissions.

Today the standard for publication in most self-respecting journals has become very high. While this is a good thing, overall, it has led to some things which aren’t so good. Inevitably, now, every author quickly scans letters from the editors of journals looking for the “However” word. This is because these letters frequently begin by saying how the manuscript does not meet the standards for the journal and so forth, but often there is a small opening in the form of a “however statement.” This statement often leaves the door open for a series of revisions and additional experiments that if successfully carried out will allow the editor to re-examine the manuscript. And we all know that in today’s scientific environment this usually means months and months of additional work leading to a pile of new figures often taking shape as “supplemental figures.”

Having said that, “however” can also work the other way around. Many a grant review explicitly writes that the proposal is “novel, interesting, and well thought out” and then shoots everything down with a “however statement.”

But back to the issue of supplemental figures and additional data. This has become a consistent theme in modern biomedical research–for better or for worse.

I am currently on the editorial boards of 3 journals, and most recently joined the editorial board of a major and long-standing general biochemistry journal. At a recent meeting, the issue of reviewers requesting more and more data to be deposited in never-ending files of inadequately reviewed supplemental PDFs, underwent serious discussion. Indeed, I am happy to say that this journal has taken a leadership stand and decided that overall supplemental figures should be reserved for Excel files, lists of proteins, arrays and other such data that doesn’t properly fit within the manuscript itself. At the same time, the journal would like to discourage reviewers from requesting that authors who have shown data using cell line A, also show similar results with cell lines B-Z.

Back in 1994, when my first paper was accepted with only a textual revision to the title, there were no supplemental figures. There were no online journals. It seems that the ability to publish online without the necessity of paper has led to a new standard where authors are clearly discouraged from using the phrase “data not shown” or “unpublished observations.”

I think it’s fine and desirable to hold authors to rigorous scientific standards. At the same time, as a reviewer and also as an author I would like to believe that minor points that do not directly relate to the key findings of the manuscript do not all have to be shown and should not slow down the publication and advancement of science. After all, isn’t the goal of publishing to allow other scientists to take advantage of these findings and move science forward?

NOTE: As it turns out I’ve just scooped “The Journal of Cell Biology” editorial with my blog! For more discussion on this very issue (!!!) please see: http://jcb.rupress.org/content/197/3/345.full

Published April 30, 2012 // JCB vol. 197 no. 3 345-346
The Rockefeller University Press, doi: 10.1083/jcb.201203056

    • Editorial

Minimizing the “Re” in Review

  1. Elizabeth H. Williams1,
  2. Pamela A. Carpentier2, and
  3. Tom Misteli3

 

About Steve Caplan

I am a Professor of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at the University of Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha, Nebraska where I mentor a group of about 10 students, postdoctoral fellows and researchers working on endocytic protein trafficking. My first lablit novel, "Matter Over Mind," is about a biomedical researcher seeking tenure and struggling to overcome the consequences of growing up with a parent suffering from bipolar disorder. Lablit novel #2, "Welcome Home, Sir," published by Anaphora Literary Press, deals with a hypochondriac principal investigator whose service in the army and post-traumatic stress disorder actually prepare him well for academic, but not personal success. Novel #3, "A Degree of Betrayal," is an academic murder mystery that is now in press! All views expressed are my own, of course--after all, I hate advertising. http://www.stevecaplan.net
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18 Responses to However…

  1. stephenemoss says:

    Steve – journals always give manuscript reviewers an option box, on the on-line review submission page, to ‘accept without changes’. These days I wonder whether this box has become redundant. Looking back I can recall two of my papers that got accepted with no changes, one in JBC and the other in EJB, and I do remember the instant delight of reading the faxes (this was before email) being slightly tinged with doubt as to whether the referees could have actually read the papers. Coming back to the present day, we are just concluding a set of more than 40 additional requested experiments for a paper due to go back to a journal for re-review by the end of May. Almost all of those experiments will end up in the supplementary information.

  2. cromercrox says:

    Writing as an editor on a well-known glamour mag, who has read possibly tens of thousands of manuscripts, I can safely say that manuscripts that get through without revision and a second round of review can be counted on the fingers of one thumb.

  3. rpg says:

    I’ve had a paper accepted with no revisions, nor any referee comments. I seriously doubt it even got reviewed. Needles to say, I’ve never (a) submitted any subsequent work to that journal, and (b) believed anything I’ve since read in that journal.

    Just Be Careful.

  4. I know someone who claims to have had a Cell paper accepted without revisions. I don’t have any reason to disbelieve him, but I rather suspect that this doesn’t ever happen any more.

    I’ve had a paper rejected without review. Does that count?

    • Steve Caplan says:

      No that doesn’t count! Those are a dime a dozen!

      • Yep, even I’ve got a file drawer full of those.

        BTW, with UK Univs whipping on us to publish in ever-higher ‘impact’ journals for the REF (pace Stephen), at present we regularly go round two or even three places that reject us in no-review triage before we find one to take the work.

        Colossal waste of time? You betcha.

  5. Steve Caplan says:

    NOTE: As it turns out I’ve just scooped “The Journal of Cell Biology” editorial with my blog! For more discussion on this very issue (!!!) please see: http://jcb.rupress.org/content/197/3/345.full

  6. Laurence Cox says:

    It happened once to me too. First paper also and published by Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society. As the sole author (it was part of my PhD thesis) I had no option but to be corresponding author as well. Needless to say the other papers that came out of my PhD and were also published by the same Journal had a much harder time.

  7. Cath@VWXYNot? says:

    A friend of mine is famous for getting her PhD thesis accepted with not one single revision (there were actually a couple of typos, and one examiner suggested adding a figure to the introduction, but it was Christmas Eve and she was moving to the States for her postdoc on January 3rd, so they told her they’d be nice).

    My postdoc supervisor is fond of telling people that my first paper from her lab was accepted without revisions, but that’s not actually true at all – it was accepted without the need for any additional data, but we did have to add some new references to the discussion. But hey, if she wants to tell people how awesome I am, I’m not going to stop her!

  8. Steve Caplan says:

    Nahh, new references don’t count. If it’s in with only minor textual changes, that’s as good as it gets! Sounds like your one-time deal is over too! And that also counts for grants!

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