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Trying to make sense of nonsense
Well, thank you all for reading the first part – I got more visitors than I normally get in a month! Hope you like the second half as much as the first! Any comments/other tips are of course very welcome.
Step 3: Submission and waiting
Before you submit, you should make some final checks, for which most journals supply a handy checklist (sometimes you don’t run in to these until you actually register to their submission system, so have a look around there early on). Are you complying with the relevant reporting guidelines? Do you have all necessary forms, such as conflict of interest statements, and the perfect abstract and cover letter (those are two things an editor is sure to look at) to convince the journal your article is worth reviewing? Right then: hit those buttons and submit.
And now the wait starts. If you don’t hear from the journal within the next couple of days, your paper has probably been sent out for review, which is good, but could take weeks, if not months. Luckily, there are things you can do to slightly speed this process up, such as suggesting potential reviewers in your cover letter (if the journal doesn’t provide that option in their submission system). Even though the journal might have published lots of similar studies, it is always helpful to make some recommendations.
Step 4: Results!
Unless your are submitting to the journal of universal rejection, you can never be sure what the outcome of a submission is going to be. There are three possible outcomes: you’re paper gets rejected, the editor wants you to revise your paper, or your paper is accepted without changes (it’s theoretically possible, I’ve been told). In case of rejection, you can either appeal the decision or move on to the next journal.
Personally, I have never appealed, but it is possible to do so when you feel you’ve been unfairly rejected. Maybe the reviewers didn’t display any knowledge of the topic area (you’d be surprised how many reviewers accept to review paper on topics they have no or little expertise on), or the decision of the editor doesn’t seem to add up with the opinions of the reviewers. It happens. One thing to keep in mind is that an appeal can take a long time: if the editor appears to have made the wrong call, associate editors will have to make a decision, which can be fairly quick. However, if the reviewers were in the wrong, the editor will have to assert their incompetence, and find new reviewers. It might be faster to submit to a different journal (which might be preferable in the case of looming grant application deadlines).
The third option, revision, comes in two flavours: minor and major. Although the first one gives you a better chance of eventual acceptance, it’s still not sure you’re going to get in. The vestiges of published, peer-review science are guarded well, or that is the intended function of peer-review at least. Major revisions will require re-analysis, new tests or experiments, rewrites or explanations of unexplained concepts: the list is endless really.
Step 5: Responding to reviewers’ comments
One thing to take into account when responding to reviewers’ comments is that is not personal, and that reviewers rarely agree. A large meta-analysis  actually found that peer reviewers only agree about 1 in 3 times (or even less if you focus on the larger studies with smaller confidence intervals). However, the editor would like to see your study published (that’s what is paying
his their salary) and the reviewers’ comments are meant to be constructive, so it’s important to stay in character and be polite when you answer.
This might seem like pointing out the obvious, but under the guise of anonymity, some reviewers tend to lose composure. Although you might be tempted to give in and give such reviewers a piece of your mind, it will be the editor who will read your response first, so it’s better to hold your guns. Some reviewers might have a vested interest in whether or not your paper gets published: they work in your field, so they will have an opinion on whether what you’re doing is correct and line with their work. Other peculiar behaviour might happen when someone remarks you only cited one single paper by the distinguished Dr Scientist. Maybe you could also cite these other eight (barely relevant) papers by the honourable Dr Scientist, who you’re not supposed to guess is the actual reviewer?
Working through comments can get very frustrating. Here’s a beautiful pair of comments I got back from some reviewers (both on the same paper):
- Reviewer #1: “The analysis and purpose of the study is confusing. The quality of the data is likely suspect.”
- Reviewer #2: “I found the paper to be well written, the analysis rigorous and well conceived and the conclusions supported by the data and analysis.”
And this was just the start of both reviews, the disagreements between both reviewers got worse with every paragraph they dealt with. As mentioned before, these inconsistencies between reviewers are common, which is why it is an editor making the final decision, rather than the reviewers battling it out amongst themselves. Working through them can be become a bit tedious to say the least.
The final part of responding to reviewers’ comments (and you have to respond to all of them), is writing the rebuttal or revision letter. I like to start by thanking the editor for giving me the opportunity to revise and respond to the comments. That will take up one page, which I structure a bit like my cover letter (department-headed paper and all). Then I start the actual rebuttal:
“We thank the reviewers for their comments on our paper. We have changed our paper accordingly and addressed all the comments as listed below:”
[Short summary of major changes]
[Copy and paste comments from reviewers and write a short response to each of them for instance:]
1. In figure 1, the authors have not included in which units the y-axis is labelled.
We thank the reviewer for noticing this omission. We have now correctly labelled our y-axis in rate per 100 person-years.
(the colour helps to distinguish between reviewer’s and my words)
It might take a few pages to get through all of them, but it makes it easier for the editor to see what I did and why I did it – hopefully shortening my waiting time a bit. Then it’s time to resubmit the whole thing again. If the comments were only minor, it’s usually the editor who will make the final decision. If there were any major comments, the paper is likely to go back to the initial reviewers and you’ll have to wait a bit longer.
Alternative ways to get published
Writing papers isn’t the only way to get your name out there: give blogging a go! Or offer to write a book review (free books!), write science news articles (a good way to keep on top of what is happening in your field, and to practice those abstract writing skills) or enter a science writing competition. (I’m obviously not entirely subjective here). Significance is always on the look out for new bloggers, so why not try them if you’re tempted?
So every journal on your list rejected your paper? Why not try the Journal of Negative Results in Biomedicine, the All Results Journal, the Journal of Pharmaceutical Negative Results or even the Journal of Articles in Support of the Null Hypothesis?
And now go read some author guidelines! They’re likely to be shorter than this post.
Resources & Reference:
1. Bornmann L, Mutz R, Daniel H-D (2010) A Reliability-Generalization Study of Journal Peer Reviews: A Multilevel Meta-Analysis of Inter-Rater Reliability and Its Determinants. PLoS ONE 5(12): e14331. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0014331
Twitter hashtags: #PhDchat / #ECRchat / #acwri <- useful to ask questions and find other good resources. If you don’t use Twitter, no worries: PhD-chat has an off-twitter wiki, and ECR (early career researcher) chat has a blog.