Monday, January 10, 2022

When and where to submit: guidelines for the 21st century


Evan and Marilyn: New son and new mass spec, 1991

Seth Newsome and I use the term “money figure” to describe that perfect graph that clearly sums up everything you had hoped for when you designed and carried out your experiment. A “money figure” is often the cornerstone of your manuscript, which is then written to flesh out the message in that key graphic. If you are really lucky, your ideas and hard work might have resulted in more than one money figure in the unfolding manuscript.


It’s not unusual, however, to do a lot of work, and then come up with results that fall flat. Your job, then, is to make the best of the situation, graph up and summarize what you can, and write it up. Often, this type of work ends up unpublished. And that won’t help anyone get to the next level of innovation or thought. But, the feeling that your work isn’t good enough can be powerful.


Writing either type of paper requires slightly different skills. The money figure paper can be fun to assemble, easy to engage your colleagues to help out, and make you feel triumphant. I’d say that about 10% of the papers I’ve published recently have that money figure quality to them. Perhaps out of my lifetime of work, I would say about 20% of my publications have that “special something” that made the work hold its value over time. Based on citations, it’s now easy to get a better sense of how the community has viewed your work. 


Money Figure, PNAS 2016



The opinion of your scientific community is indeed important.


For those works that don’t have the zing you’d hoped for, you need discipline. You’ve got to make sure you’ve mined all of your data, made tens of graphs and figures, discussed the work with your colleagues as you begin to assemble the manuscript. Take heed—you may drift from getting the words down on paper (or in your computer.) Chasing after the “better” idea makes some sense, but when you think about it, not publishing 75% of your work because it’s not easy, is a waste.


If you are a graduate student, you’ll need to power through these challenges or risk slowing down the progress in getting your degree. The dissertation, in my experience, often includes a chapter that may never see the light of day other than in the longer, university-required format. If you are a postdoc, your “job” is to get a “real” job, so you’ll want to publish your most exciting work as soon as you can. Saving the less thrilling data to complete when you are first starting the “real” job can be critical for keeping you in the community’s eyes until you get new work completed.


If you are pre-tenure, all too often your department will merely count your papers—and not actually read them. Having a goal of one first authored paper per year is a modest, but often attainable goal. Sticking with this for 5-7 years will help with your tenure review.


But when to submit?


Will the work be good enough?


Is it the best you can do with what you have?


Sometimes, we choke at the last minute. What if it’s not perfect? Rarely, if ever, are manuscripts perfect when submitted, but if you’ve done your best, it’s time to push the submit button and let the review process begin. Let the reviewers, as nerve-wracking as that may be, do their job.


Frolleague Kate Freeman says, “Isn’t that what the review process is for?” We all hope for polite, constructive reviews, comments that make our work more readable and understandable.


Times have changed. Even with an explosion of new journals, getting a swift rejection based solely on a “desk review” by an editor, who makes an executive decision, is very common these days. A recent paper Seth and I wrote was desk-rejected 4 or 5 times before finding its journal home—and this was a paper with a money figure!


Go figure. Our problem was not the data or the writing. It was the fit.


Perhaps because of the plethora of journals these days, specialized journals really look for studies that fit their publication’s mission. Finding that perfect fit takes thought. And strategy. Sure PLOS One will publish anything, but will it reach the audience you’d like it to?


PLOS paper showing variation no one wanted to know about...really


The answer is maybe. With everything available online these days, people can find your work on Google Scholar or Research Gate. Keep in mind, however, if you’re just starting out in your career, very few people may be “following” you yet. Thus, it is best to publish your work in a journal where people are most interested in the questions you’ve asked and the results you found.


My goal in publishing is to join the community conversation—get my ideas out there for others to consider, enjoy, or criticize.


Back to that paper you’re writing with the flashy money figure, where to submit it? Should you go for Science, Nature, or PNAS? Your odds are tough: even really good papers get bumped without any review. As a guest editor for PNAS, I’m pretty liberal and send out about half for review. The review process is thorough, and it’s not unusual for a paper to be reviewed three or four times before it’s accepted. That said, when the work finally comes out in one of these journals, it’s seen as a Scientific Homerun.


Money figure from Science, 2005

Using the baseball analogy, how often do we need to hit homeruns to have a successful career? What about hitting some triples or doubles? Heck, even singles can result in runs.


I’d guess that about 25-30% of my publications are doubles, maybe triples, leaving about 50% or more as singles—good but not paradigm changers.  Yes, the Science, Nature, and PNAS papers have that Home Run touch to them, but other work published in seemingly obscure journals to outsiders (Geochimica et Cosmochimica Acta, for example) are also very well cited and remain pertinent to current scientific conversations.


Although perfection isn’t needed before submission, I strongly advise against the idea that it’s OK to submit a paper that you know isn’t your best effort because “reviewers will fix it.” You don’t want to piss off your reviewers, folks taking their precious time to help you out. We all know that while money is precious, time is even more so.


Your kids will get old before you know it. 2000


Balancing your efforts with writing, submitting, and revising, with a perceived need for perfection, is important to keep in mind. About half of my papers having 100 citations (about 66 total) or more were published more than twenty years ago, and half since 2000. I think that's a decent measure of a successful career—a good early start and then some highlights peppered throughout. Sprinkle in those “conversation starters” and you’ve done your job.


Choose your target journal carefully, get the paper completed and finished. Submit. Grow in your prowess to write effectively and interestingly. Then, you’ve joined the rich conversation in science!


"I am careful not to confuse excellence with perfection. Excellence, I can reach for; perfection is God`s business." - Michael J. Fox




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