Fight for your papers?

By Kristin Marshall

So, you just finished writing a paper on a really cool project. Finally.  And you’ve gotten your co-authors to sign off on it.  Finally.  And it only took 15 drafts. Amazing. Now what? Where should you send it?  The blogosphere has been humming with discussion on where to submit your papers in the past couple months.  Check out Jeremy Fox’s advice over at Dynamic Ecology, or Ethan White’s at Jabberwocky Ecology, or our very own Nate Hough-Snee’s right here.

Rather than add my general philosophy to that discussion, I am going to give a concrete example of one of my papers and its trajectory from first submission to publication. Specifically, the paper I recently blogged about on Yellowstone willows that appeared in ProcB.

Jeremy’s first piece of advice in his post was: “Aim as high as you reasonably can.” I absolutely agree– but how do you determine what’s reasonable, as an early career scientist?  It’s all too easy to sell yourself short.  At the same time, without a lot of experience publishing your own papers, you could easily shoot too high.  Is one of these a worse misjudgment to make?

My co-authors and I decided to go for it with our paper, and submitted it first to Science.  It was a ten year experimental study in Yellowstone related to the effects of wolf reintroduction.  I think that’s pretty hot.  The thing is, unless you’ve published in Science a bunch of times already (or your co-authors have), it can be really hard to tell why one paper ends up there vs another. So, we aimed high.

Ah, rejection.

The paper was rejected without review.  The fact it lasted 13 days in the ether seemed like a pretty good sign, though.  Maybe, someone actually read it, paused, and thought about sending out for review for 5 minutes.  Or at least that was my wishful thinking.  Optimistic, next we sent it to Nature.  Rejected after 3 days, no review. PNAS, 6 days, no review.  Ecology Letters, one day, no review.  It wasn’t until we went to Proceedings B that we got reviews (it took 3 months, and some very courteous prodding of the editor).  And the paper was still rejected, but invited to resubmit.  That was a lovely rejection letter to receive after all the others. Finally some feedback that I could address!

Here’s a run down of my process in tabular form (yes, I am a scientist):

Journal Impact Factor Submission date Elapsed time to decision Sent out for review?
Science 31.201 Jan 20 2012 13 days No
Nature 36.28 March 23 3 days No
PNAS 9.681 April 19 6 days No
Ecology Letters 17.557 June 27 1 day No
ProcB 5.415 July 20 3 months Yes

When we finally got reviews, they weren’t too bad, we addressed them, and the paper was accepted pretty quickly on second submission. Ultimately, I am really happy with the end product.  It took a little over a year from the first submission to online publication—which isn’t too bad a time line.  Especially for submitting it to 5 different journals.

So, the question is, was it worth it to aim high, and continue to aim high, even after being rejected?  Certainly there are pros and cons.

Reformatting for each journal was a lot more work than I thought it would be.  And it’s not interesting work, so it didn’t end up at the top of the to-do list when I was just starting a new post-doc. Along with reformatting, there was non-trivial editing and second-guessing before each subsequent submission.  What did the previous journal not like? How can I make the story more compelling?  Sell the implications better?  Addressing all of these steps took some time.

Another minus was that during the year I was submitting and resubmitting this first paper, my other papers languished because I spent a lot of active time (not just waiting on reviews time) on this first pub. I’m still learning how to be efficient when it comes to multi-tasking a bunch of projects at once, so this publication strategy may be better for someone who has a bit more experience than I did starting out.

Would I take this approach with every paper?  Absolutely not.  Was it worth the effort in this case?  I think so.  Truthfully, I learned a lot during the reformatting process, and I now have 5 popular journals for which I have formatting templates should I want to submit another piece of work there.  Also, I had a good experience with ProcB. The press we got from Science Online was a direct result of ProcB’s weekly press release, and translating my science for someone from the media was a really good experience.   Also, I’ve had quite a few requests for pdf reprints.  So, it seems that people are reading the paper.  All of this is good for the science, and hopefully good for my career.

I hope I never have to submit another paper five times to get it published.  But, my experience with this one has shown me that I can persevere, and get my work out there.  If I hadn’t tried to submit this paper to Science (and Nature, and PNAS, and Ecology Letters), I think I would have always wondered if I could have gotten it into those journals.  And truthfully, rejection from these places didn’t really hurt, because they reject so many good papers every day. So that’s a consolation prize… sort of.

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16 thoughts on “Fight for your papers?

  1. Hi Kristin, Really interesting and informative story. Its helpful to share these experiences so we can learn from each other. I’m just curious, why did you avoid the ESA journals? -L

    • Thanks, Lindsay. I agree, learning from each other is the way to go. Re: ESA journals, I didn’t really avoid them on purpose. It was more that we started with Science, Nature, and PNAS, because they have a really broad audience. Then, Ecology Letters because it has such a high impact factor– way higher than any of the ESA journals. I guess the decision point to go to ProcB vs one of the ESA journals was based on my idea that ProcB was still pretty broad, and doesn’t have page charges, if you stay within their 6 page limits (which I didn’t, but it still was much more affordable than what I think it would have been at EcoApps, for example). We were also weighing that Danielle (the previous graduate student, who started the project) published the first 5 years of results in EcoApps, so we probably wouldn’t have gone there regardless. Certainly, I don’t have anything against the ESA journals, in fact I’m planning to submit my next paper there soon.

  2. Kristin, thanks for the “behind the music” story on that paper – which I loved BTW! Just to throw another question in the queue, on what grounds was it rejected at each journal?

    • Thanks, Nate, and good question. None of the rejections without review were on scientific grounds, it was just the paper wasn’t of broad enough interest for the journal. Then with ProcB, it was obvious they were interested, but rejected with the invitation to resubmit to give us a chance to address the reviewer comments.

      It’s really hard to glean anything from the pleasant rejection letter. I’m just re-reading them now– the Science one basically says: we like your paper and it’s of appropriate scope, but we like a lot of papers and yours didn’t make the cut at our editorial meeting. Is that their form rejection letter? I don’t know. I think if I received a letter that said, “you are really off base in terms of journal scope and there are some key flaws with the study”, then I wouldn’t have fought so hard for it. Not sure if that’s a good or bad thing?

      Interestingly the Science rejection was subtly different than the rest (again, it may very well be the form response). Nature was clearly not interested in it topically, PNAS and Ecology Letters said it didn’t have broad enough appeal– and all three of these very much appear to be the short form rejection they send most authors at this stage.

  3. I like this story a lot. I think there’s a lot to be learned by knowing the trajectory of a paper before it comes to print. Also, this kind of transparency is good for science because it keeps journals accountable for what they do.

    A few years ago, I decided to do this behind-the-music story with every one of my (first author) papers. I show all of the reviews, and everything, with just the names of the editors redacted. I put them all in a single pdf and put it on my website, right next to the place where you can download the paper itself. It doesn’t take more than 10-15 min to build the file and post it, but I think it’s worthwhile.

    • Thanks, Terry. And I really like your idea of posting all the reviews/letters. As a writer, It’s really helpful to see what reviewers don’t like or completely miss in a paper. And I agree that transparency in publishing is good from all angles. I’m curious if you’ve ever gotten push back from any of the journals on your posting reviews or letters from editors, even with names removed? It makes me a little nervous, but I’m not sure why…

      • I was nervous. Maybe I should continue to be. I haven’t gotten feedback or pushback from anybody. At all. It’s clear that they get downloaded plenty, though, so if not being read, they are being seen. They aren’t downloaded as often as the papers themselves, but it’s not a rarity.

        For all this talk about open science and transparency, I thought that posting reviews would be a huge step in that direction. I think nobody else is doing it (yet, at least, to my knowledge) because they don’t want to burn any bridges with journals. Plenty of reviews have ridiculous things in them, that’s just in their nature, and a journal isn’t judged by having silly reviews, but how the editors handle it. For the most part, I think the editors come off pretty well, even when I get rejected.

        This also helps me in my process as a reviewer and subject editor. I won’t ever write something that I wouldn’t want to be published and affiliated with my name and the journal I represent. I stopped signing most of my reviews a while ago, but I still won’t write something that I’d be ashamed of having my name pinned to.

        I once got what I thought was a totally unwarranted desk rejection from Functional Ecology (which reports a 30% desk reject rate). I followed up with them about it, in a very polite manner, and I got no response at all. I thought it was rather rude – do they think they’re Nature or something? Anyway, that paper eventually came out elsewhere, and I published the review sequence for it. They don’t look good in it.

        Since that time, I’ve had two more desk rejects from the same journal, both of which say that the paper looks perfectly good, but that it’s not a good fit. Looking at the content of the journal, that’s total bull -definitely for one one of them, which is a perfect fit. Maybe I just suck, in their view, and they just want to say ‘not appropriate’ instead of calling a space a spade. I doubt they’re keeping close tabs enough to hold a grudge against a small fish like me. But who knows, maybe they really didn’t like that I posted their non-review and non-response. I’ll never know.

        Will I take the hint and never submit to them, asking for a 4th desk reject? I don’t know, I guess it depends on the coauthors. I get this feeling that there’s bias behind it, but I can’t really imagine what it is. Because, really, that last one really should have gone out for review.

  4. Oh, man. I’m diving into this realm as well. We went with the ‘aim high’ school of thought, but I do have a list of journals as back ups. Honestly, though, I’m wishing I could just: 1) do what I love and 2) publish it in a journal that other tree-lovers will read. Sigh.

    Incredible post, KM. I love reading your writing!

    Sarah B.

  5. As a follow-up to Terry’s experience with questioning a rejection without review, I wanted to also mention I did this with Ecology Letters. I wrote a polite, and very carefully worded appeal to the editor to request the paper be sent out for review. In contrast to Terry’s experience at a different journal, I got a polite and prompt response from the editor. He reinforced the original decision, but worded the letter in a way that suggested he did at least take another look at the paper and consider my request. I was disappointed with the outcome, but satisfied with the response. Cheers to that editor and to Ecology Letters for handling the situation well.

    • Interesting– I wonder if the original study differentiated between rejections with reviews and without? I would be curious to know if papers improved more because of self-reflection of the authors, or because of the external feedback. Hopefully, both!

  6. Really nice to see your openness in this post, I would not be surprised if this is a very common trajectory, even though few people may like to admit (although, as you say, it really has nothing to do with the quality of your work!). I recently heard a friend of mine take pride in never having had a single rejection, which is weird to be proud of because it involves a lot of luck.

    About the reject with possibilty to resubmit at ProcB: if they had decided major revisions this would have killed their handling time figures 🙂 I think they would have done this even if each reviewer had adviced minor revisions 🙂

    • Thanks! I definitely agree with your interpretation on the ProcB rejection– many journals play that numbers game to get those average turnaround times down. I don’t actually mind that, though. I’m just glad when journals post the handling time statistic. It’s about as important to me as impact factors these days, especially being on the job market.

      • Most journals, at all kinds of tiers, have stopped using the “accept with major revisions” category anymore, because of turnaround time statistics. Unless it’s truly minor changes, it’s a reject-and-resubmit nowadays. The way the editor’s reply is phrased will let you know if you should be golden with the revisions or not.

  7. I accidentily found this blog on my scrolling through the blogosphere and I really liked it. I’m only one month in my Ph.D and my first paper is almost ready for publication, but this whole journal-world out there is a huge mystery-cloud to me. Very useful to get some behind-the-scene-stories from people who already succeeded, at least once. So, thanks!

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