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.
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.