The rapidly changing context of scientific publishing 1: Quickly resubmitting rejected papers

I teach science writing workshops around the world. I am currently doing face-to-face, but very shortly (probably as you’re reading this) I am going to add web-based courses. One of the themes of these workshops is that the context of getting a paper published is rapidly changing. To meet the challenges and take advantage of the opportunities, it takes some investment of time to keep up.

I think it’s important to regularly check publishers’ websites while planning and writing a paper. Especially when you were coming down the final process of getting it ready for submission. Checking publishers’ websites can become part of structured procrastination

When you are writing a paper, you are sometimes inclined to become avoidant or distracted by other activities. It is often better to indulge yourself, but then back to writing, than to get up and leave it altogether. Periodic checks of publishers’ websites for authors can be a useful way of doing that.

A couple of weeks ago I was giving science writing workshops to mostly oncology and cell biology PhD students at  Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam.

I’ve accepted that a lot of my content will quickly need updating or soon become outright obsolete. I am constantly checking the web for new developments. Sessions at the VU were two weeks apart and here is a development that I discovered between sessions.

I came across a journal announcing it was joining an already existing consortium of neuroscience journals. The consortium was providing a publishing networks to rapidly transmitting and resubmitting a manuscript that has been rejected at one journal in the network.

nprc logo

info for authors

Actually, when I explored this further, I discovered that this consortium had existed for a while, but the network was not being used as much as expected.

I found an earlier (2013) discussion of this network at Scholarly Kitchen. A posting announced formation of a similar network of by eLife, BMC, PLoS and EMBO journals.

Amazing, I thought. I’m an academic editor for PLOS One. I have published number of papers in BMC journals. I was never aware of this option. I wonder who else is.

I generally find Scholarly Kitchen  a cranky, but well-informed source. This time was no exception.

“How the referee reports are used is up to the receiving journal,” noted Margaret Winker, Senior Research Editor at PLoS Medicine. “Editors may choose to use them or not. Anonymous reviews may be of interest to the editor but would not be as useful since the editor needs to know the identify of the reviewers to ascertain his or her area of expertise.”

Cascading peer review systems, of which this is a variant, have been in use for some time. Publishers with numerous journals in the same field often provide authors with the opportunity to resubmit a paper to other journals managed by the publisher without needing to go through the entire submission and review process all over again. This saves time for the author who does not need to resubmit from scratch to a new journal. It also saves time for reviewers, at least in aggregate, as there will be fewer total reviews requested in the universe.

In addition to saving time for everyone involved, cascading peer review systems can provide a competitive advantage to publishers that employ them effectively. Top-tier journals can attract more high-caliber papers by offering authors the reassurance of the possibility of a back-up plan via publishing in a second choice journal by the same publisher. Publishers including Nature Publishing Group, PLoS, BMC, EMBO, the American Medical Association, and others have used cascading peer review successfully for years.

Second- and third-tier journals benefit as well as they can receive papers, cascaded from their top-tier siblings, they would not be likely to receive as direct submissions. The authors, in this later scenario, may prefer to get a decision letter quickly with a second tier journal as opposed to starting the process all over again with a top tier journal, risking finding themselves in the same predicament several months down the road.

As I often find, this Scholarly Kitchen post drew some very useful comments.

Networks like this often work better when there is a clear hierarchy in place. Journal A sits at the top, and its rejected papers can then be passed down the ladder to Journal B, C, etc. I worry that in the case of this network, there’s a cluster of roughly equivalent journals at the top, then a large gap, then a cluster of roughly equivalent journals further down the ladder.

If I’m an editor at eLife, how willing am I going to be to accept papers that were judged not good enough for EMBO J? Is PLOS Medicine really going to consider papers rejected from a lower tier BMC journal? What seems most likely here is that papers rejected from the top tier journals in the set will be offered quick acceptance in the journals with a much lower ranking. For some authors, that speed will matter enough to go for it, but I suspect that for most, attempts will instead be made to get the rejected paper into a journal somewhere in between the two tiers.

The question of articles being out of scope is something of a red herring here. In my experience, those sorts of decisions are generally made at the editorial level, not after a round of peer review. For most authors who have submitted their papers to an inappropriate journal, there will be no reviews to pass along. And as an author, I probably don’t want the editor of Journal X sending my paper to Journal Y with a clear indication that I don’t really have an understanding of the content of the journals in my own field. I’d probably rather send it along myself and start fresh.

But on the positive side, one thing that’s really great about this coalition is its diversity in terms of the participants. You have a funding agency with an OA journal, a private not-for-profit OA publisher, an academic/society not-for-profit publisher that employs the subscription model and a wing of a large for-profit corporation that employs a mix of OA and subscription products. These groups working together shows a willingness to embrace diversity in the market in terms of players and business models, a recognition that there’s no single methodology that must be followed in order for the research community to benefit.

In the biomedical sciences, researchers understand tier much better than they do scope, and even when they think their article might not be in scope for a journal, they’ll send it anyways, if they see the journal as being higher tier.

I think this actually a nice move to help researchers focus less on journal tier and more on scope.


One of the comments to me to useful and very readable history of these consortiums.

Two structure papers, a call from Frankfurt airport, and how to escape from reviewer delays: An interview with Peter Walter

I got drawn in with the opening:

MR: Peter – The seed of our re-review opt-out policy was first sown when you called me from Frankfurt airport with a rather surprising proposition: would you like to remind me what that was?

PW: Well, if I remember correctly I asked you if BMC Biology would publish a paper that had been submitted to and reviewed by another journal.

MR: Oh it was worse than that – you wanted our undertaking that we would publish the paper on the basis of the existing referees’ reports and without further review, because you needed that assurance before you withdrew the paper from the journal where it was still under consideration

PW: Yes.

MR: What drove you to make that suggestion?

PW: Well I probably was completely jetlagged having arrived from the West Coast in Frankfurt and had many hours sitting there uncomfortably contemplating our frustration with this submission. The paper had been submitted, we got reviews back, we had responded to the reviewers’ comments, and then we were put in limbo, it seems now for months. The paper was in re-review and the reviewer just never responded.

Hmm, I can certainly relate to that predicament.

But I will stop there. Writing this blog post was part of my structured procrastination of writing another script for the Web-based courses. And it became a useful demonstration of the limits of structured procrastination: you can get into something so fascinating, that you have to remind yourself to get back on the other writing task. I’m getting back on track.

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