Wednesday, 14 February 2018

Publish, Perish and Be Damned!

Academic publication has its elephant traps.

Publication is the end product of our research and one of the core activities of scholars and scientists everywhere. As the editor of major journals, I have been on the receiving end of the publication process for 32 years. During that period it has been abundantly clear that academic publication is a much misunderstood process. It has changed dramatically since I started editing in 1985, but, despite the constant metamorphosis, it is as misunderstood now as it was then.

When we write up our research we are endeavouring to communicate it. The first stage is to communicate with ourselves as we put our thoughts down on paper–or more likely the electronic equivalent. In this internal conversation, have we said what we meant and are we happy with our own expression? The second and more important stage is to communicate with readers, starting with the editor of the journal and the referees that he or she selects. Do they understand what is written? The third and final stage is to communicate with the research community at large. On this, one's reputation depends more than on many other activities and accomplishments.

Editors vary in their approach to a manuscript. Some are, in effect, referees, while others delegate much of the evaluation process to scholars or scientists that they have contacted, who are intended to be independent, impartial judges of the 'publishability' of the work. Referees vary from the meticulous to the sloppy, the appreciative to the scornful, helpful to obstructive. By and large, if there is a flaw in the paper, they will probably see it and take note.

In 1980 I sent an article to Environmental Management, a journal published by Springer in New York. It was one of my first writings and I was casting around for a suitable home. Environmental Management was the most attractive, professional looking journal on the shelf (bear in mind that we did not have digital resources then). Springer published it with clockwork efficiency and meticulous attention to detail, as I was to find when, five years later, I began a 17-year stint as its Editor-in-Chief. I mention this little episode, almost four decades ago, to illustrate the importance of appearance, professionalism and rigour. We all may feel that substance is more important that style, but in reality how things look has a very significant influence on how they are judged.

Last year, I received 1,061 manuscripts to edit. It is amazing how many of them were sloppily prepared. It was not altogether uncommon to find errors of English grammar or usage in the title of the work, the first thing that an editor or referee sees. It is even more common to find them in the abstract, along with that most elementary of mistakes: an abstract that is an introduction to the work rather than a precis of it. Most of the time, referees do their work reluctantly. It is another chore that we take on for love of the academic life and a sense of responsibility towards science, scholarship and the academic community. Rarely, we may actually want to read the manuscript and see what the author has to say. But referees do not want to review bad manuscripts. A poor quality title, a sloppy abstract, and the referee makes the decision not to bother. The editor has perhaps sent out a request for reviews under the premise that although the paper starts badly, there is probably a useful research message concealed in it somewhere. How few reviewers are willing to search for it! And yet the author needs to get the message, loud and clear, that the paper is not up to scratch.

Some authors vaunt their command of word-processing software by sending in a manuscript that is designed to look as if it is already published in the journal, even down to having the right masthead. Presumably they think that this will increase the paper's chances of being accepted. In reality it merely creates problems. It is very difficult to comment in detail on a double-column manuscript, and usually the smallness of the type font makes the paper difficult to read. Even if the paper is deemed acceptable, the copy-editor and typesetter would have to unpick the elaborate formatting, as they use a different form of software, thus adding to their workload.

Although it is strictly against the rules to submit a paper to more than one journal at once, authors routinely hawk their papers around from one serial title to another. Rejection by one provokes submission to another. This is apparent to the editor when it is clear that the formatting used is that of another journal - or another discipline. One could argue that on first review it does not matter very much, as nowadays almost all papers have to be revised before they are published, and this is an opportunity to put the formatting right. That is true up to a point, but when the format of the paper is widely divergent from that of the journal it does tend to imply that the author is not particularly committed to publishing in that particular venue. And why should the editor and reviewers be committed to giving the paper the green light?

The US Geological Survey have a strict policy that articles by their employees cannot be submitted for publication until they have been signed off by the USGS editorial office. As a result, the papers invariably demonstrate a level of professionalism in both the appearance and the content that others would do well to emulate. When you ready your article to go to a journal, double-space all of it, make sure there are page numbers and add line numbers (I prefer consecutive numbering of every fifth line - unobtrusive but effective). Failure to add the numbers is so common that I, as an editor, have a stock phrase ready: "Commenting in detail on this paper is hampered by the absence of page and line numbers." I also have stock phrases for the common errors of English, and I very often have to use them. Make sure that headings, sub-headings and referencing are consistent. It is a small matter but it makes a great deal of difference to the reader. Irritating a reviewer is not likely to get you a sympathetic review!

Obviously, the most important issue for submitting a manuscript is the quality of the science and scholarship that it embodies. The sections should be well-thought-out and should follow on in a logical stream. The arguments should be watertight. The literature should be competently reviewed. The paper should be well-focussed, without digressions, extraneous material or superfluous argument. For instance, when submitting to a journal based in a particular field, there is no need to write a general introduction to the field, as readers are bound to know the basics. Finally, the paper should have breadth of appeal. Most field or laboratory work is pretty small-scale, but the value lies in connecting it to a wider reality, for that is how science advances.

Most of what I have written in this short essay is self-evident and should be obvious. However, it is constantly surprising how few academic authors follow these strictures. The process of transforming thoughts into readable prose and scientific argumentation that can be shared is evidently a very imprecise one. Yet I am convinced that a little more care and attention can mean the difference between an article that is sympathetically reviewed, and an author who is respected, and an article that is summarily rejected.