The Manuscript Submission Process at Science (Magazine)

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Today Peter Stern, the Senior Editor of Science Magazine was here at the Genome Campus to give a talk about the manuscript submission process at Science. No matter where you are wr.t. scientific publication and the future of scholarly communication, the talk was very engaging, throughtfully delivered and mercifully done without any audivisual aids. I have made a few notes during the talk and here they are. They are unedited “live typing” and as such not pretty – but hopefully useful when trying to understand the publication process for Science. I have (mostly) refrained from commenting on what he said – though there could be a lot that could be said about this – but maybe at a later date. For now, just the raw unadulterated notes:

Peter Stern: The Manuscript Submission Process at Science
Three points to address:

1. Presubmission Enquiries
2. Board Members
3. Review Process

Ad One
Scientists sometimes forget the bigger picture as they work and get their results. Presubmission enquiries can be useful to get some feedback and help place work in some bigger picture. Insists on confidentiality of info provided pre sub enquiries.

Ad Two
Science has about 28 individuals trying to cover all of science….all editors have science profiles…multiple ones…many have run research groups.

Ad Three
Paper is submitted…Stern makes high play of safety and confidentiality. Paper gets assigned to editor. Editors try to read in full and form an informal opinion, but admits that this is getting harder due to volume of submissions. Now talks at great length about the “wackos” (creationists, people inventing perpetuum mobile). Editors work with advisors – “board members”….again about 10-12 advisors…..but they don’t do a review but rather try to place manuscript in the bigger picture of science. They come back with a short evaluation and a confidence score. Board members are active scientists with labs…..looks for gentleman factor in board members (wants to be sure that they are fair to papers even if paper disagrees scientifically with board member).

Once feedback from board members has been received editor opens another round of discussion with fellow editors. If there is a positive decision at this stage paper will be sent for full review. Most papers fail of this stage. Also little room for discussion – decision is essentially binary.

Finding referees: authors can prepare a “negative” list and a positive list of referees. Lists are usually respected…certainly the “negative” list. Editors often scan websites of grant giving bodies…to avoid friends/collaborators refereeing each other. Recommends “Guardians of Science” – a sociological study of the peer review process. Default options of two referees, sometimes more if necessary. Default review time of two weeks: seen as the right balance between speed an ensuring that authors din’t get scooped and allowing enough time for in depth review.

When referee comments come back, there is room for negotiation depending on comments. What happens next depends on what referees ask for. If it is reasonably further work, paper could go back to authors, if too much further work si requested editor has to make a decision. “Peer review is not a democratic process.” If referee reviews are all over the shop could use an arbitrator – which could be a board member.

If positive decision is made, editor will do a “pre-edit” to make it fit Science style. If author is native English speaker, editor will focus on logical argument and flow of paper, if non-native speaker, more linguistic help is needed. After pre-edit is done, paper is returned to authors and a revised version is expected back within 4 weeks unless experimental work needs to be done which takes longer. Most of the time revised paper goes back to referees and gets green light if referee comments have been addressed.

Once accepted papers can go onto science express for rapid publication and to allow the scientists to claim precedence of publication. This is followed by harsh copy-editing. Calls orthographic mistakes an “affront to science”. Now talks about how good they are at disseminating science and making their authors famous. Here’s the gatekeeper justification again.

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