Tracey Koehlmoos: The ups and downs of the publishing process

Tracey KoehlmoosPublishing is at times a joy and also a curse. The process can be taxing both emotionally and in terms of time commitment, but I know that it is the system to which we as researchers subscribe, and in which we participate as volunteers. I will admit that the some of the best moments on the job are the few and far between days when a message arrives informing me that a manuscript has been accepted for publication. Normally my response is a cross between, “Pop the champagne, we are in press!” and, because I do not actually drink champagne and work in Bangladesh, “Send out for mishti, we are in press!”

The process begins with the online submission. Perhaps I am unusually slow at entering data into online forms, but for me this part can take half a day. I try to carve out a period where I will not be disturbed, and have made a ritual of always doing this at home in the quiet, early morning after making a large pot of coffee. Normally I can plan to spend the entire morning sitting in front of the computer diligently entering the details for each of my co-authors: name, degrees, department, address, e-mail, fax number, phone number, etc. Recommendations for peer reviewers, their names, departments, and e-mails, and it goes on and on. There is the sticky issue of the cover letter where I try not to sound snarky or desperate when I write, “This is ground breaking research” and “You are our first choice.” I upload files and approve PDFs and sometimes the power goes out and I have to do everything twice. Just finishing always feels like a big accomplishment; however I am always so hopeful when I hit the “submit” button.

There is one very high impact journal in my field to which you simply submit the paper—as in send it as an attachment to an e-mail. I have submitted there once. It was so quick and easy. I wonder if that journal is flooded with submissions from people who just want an easy submission process.

Because each manuscript is not a great match for every journal, or in the worst case scenario, not a great match for ANY journal, I have had the too frequent glory of the quick rejection. There is little sting with a quick rejection because I have only invested half of a day in the submission and waited maybe a day or two for the turndown. My co-authors and I will normally come up with a multi-tiered submission plan. I suppose that most researchers start with, “First we will submit to Nature and then to the BMJ…” before coming down from the stratosphere. I tend to think about and push for open access journals first because I want to be able to read my own publications, and I would like others to be able to do the same.

But what of the entire peer review process? Robbie Fox, the great 20th century editor of the Lancet, said that his method of peer review was to stand at the top of a flight of stairs with a pile of papers, throw them down the stairs, and publish the ones that got to the bottom. My friend George Davey Smith dared Richard Smith when he was the editor of the BMJ to publish an issue of the journal comprised only of rejected papers and see if anybody noticed. “How do you know we haven’t done that already?” replied Smith.

If the manuscript makes it beyond the quick rejection and is sent out for peer review, sometimes I can tell that it has been lost or forgotten. I submit it in good faith thinking that the electronic system will work and then wait politely for three months for it to come back from peer review.

However—and again perhaps this could be me being too polite—after four or five months I work up the courage to write to the editor who is very busy and ask, “By the way, do you have any feedback on the manuscript I submitted in January?” Only to be informed that, “We are waiting for one more peer reviewer to make comments,” which seems like code for something. I always offer, “Would you like me to send you a few names of qualified peer reviewers for this manuscript?” The editors always say, “Yes”—such is the pressure on them to magic up three qualified people in every possible topic area. However, I interpret this to mean, “We’ve done nothing with your manuscript and wasted six months of your life.”

With one paper that was submitted to a very high impact journal, my co-authors and I waited four months for the opinions of three reviewers: one said we had not quoted his work enough, a second thought we had ignored his specialty, and a third was incomprehensible. This paper has now spent a year in the peer review system. Are we crazy to keep waiting or just determined to share our work where others are likely to see it?

Then there is always the back and forth. I think it is important to be very polite when responding to peer reviews. I generally start each response with “Thank you…” even if that is followed by “Thank you for taking the time to review our article, I am sorry that you do not think we are qualified to work in this field and do not know anything about the topic. Please see comments on page 4 paragraph 2.” Through the magic of the internet and via enhancements made possible by open access publishing you can actually read my polite responses to reviewers, or worse yet, my encouraging comments to authors when I serve as a reviewer.

Once in a while, there is that joyous e-mail announcing that the article has been accepted for publication, pending copy editing. That is a great phase. I always feel like, “Wow, we are in the home stretch. Let us rejoice!” However, when the manuscript gets to the copy editing part—which should be easy—it can become a nightmare of endless questions, providing answers, and then being ignored and asked the same question. Frankly, if you are the copy editor, I am willing to bow to your suggestions as to where the commas and other punctuation should go, no need to ask!

I recently had a paper published in one of my favourite open access journals. Sadly one of my co-author’s names was misspelt. It was something we addressed twice during the copy editing process. My colleague is new to the world of health research, this is his first publication—so a very big deal—and he worked very hard to bring this paper to light. I can empathise with his disappointment. I suspect he is waiting for it to be corrected so that he can send it to his parents, or post it on Facebook, and Twitter.

For three weeks I’ve been trying to get the spelling of his name corrected, but have heard nothing from the copy editing team. I am sure they are very busy making the dreams of other scientists come true. I am tempted to write to the journal editor—who is my friend—but it does not seem that he would have the power to change the spelling of a co-author’s name in the journal, which is centrally managed by a large open access, online publishing group.

Don’t get me wrong, I love sharing my findings via publication. As an academic, I know that this an essential part of remaining employed. Flawed as it is, this is the system to which we aspire and the best way to fix it is to try to work within it. To that end, I work as a peer reviewer and try to meet prompt turnaround times. Because I have been on the receiving end of mean spirited anonymous reviews I try to be encouraging to the authors, but also honest with them and with the editors. I also do my part by serving as an associate editor and advisory board member, and although these positions are unfunded, I take the responsibility seriously and again, try to delivery promptly so as not to delay the process. I will forever feel that there should be a day long seminar in every doctoral programme on approaching and managing this process as it is so essential to engaging in research. Lastly everyone loves the day when the article gets published and we can finally share our results with the world.

Tracey Koehlmoos is programme head for health and family planning systems at ICDDR,B and adjunct professor at the James P Grant School of Public Health, BRAC University, Dhaka, Bangladesh.