My year in peer review 2016

It’s been another year of trying to be a useful member of the scientific community.

For the most part of this year, I handled less manuscripts than I did last year. Part of the reason could be that the editorial board of Biodiversity & Conservation underwent a little bit of restructuring. Dirk Schmeller used to be the only Managing Editor helping out Editor-in-Chief David Hawksworth, but now there are six “Senior Editors” including Dirk. All the Senior Editors will sift through received manuscripts according to their areas of expertise before rejecting them directly, handling them on their own or distributing them to the Associate Editors.

Or it could be just that there are periodic lulls in the submission volume. It certainly seems like it now, with increasing frequency of manuscripts coming my way and multiple requests for reviews from other journals.

So far I have completed the handling of four, two of which were rejected before and two after review, so there is no midwifery to crow about yet. It was particularly hard to find reviewers for one of them: on and off the record I approached at least 11 people, probably 13. I can’t remember exactly how many, but it included some contacts with the relevant expertise that I texted or emailed but were too busy (or humble!) to take it up. Finally and suddenly two kind souls agreed and I had three reviewers for the manuscript.

I also signed up for a webinar by the British Ecological Society (BES) on “Becoming an Associate Editor”, not because I was hungry for another role, but because I was curious about the experiences that would be shared by the panel of speakers, who are Associate Editors of BES journals: Luca Borger from Journal of Animal Ecology, Jane Catford of Journal of Ecology, and Stephanie, whose last name I didn’t catch but I am guessing is Januchowski-Hartley because she mentioned she recently wrote an Editor’s Choice and I searched for it, of Journal of Applied Ecology. I am, relatively speaking, a noob and there’s not much opportunity for training, so hearing from others would be as good as it gets.

It was comforting to hear that my 11+ reviewer declines is not that extreme: Jane said that (I think it was) just the week before that she had been turned down some 17 times before getting her second reviewer for a manuscript. Well, not really comforting, because it really tells us how much strain the peer review community is under to process the ever-increasing volumes of manuscripts submitted.

Another interesting takeaway was that manuscript submissions peak twice a year, once just before the northern hemisphere summer, and one just before the year-end festive season. This arises from authors in Europe and North America trying to clear their desk before going away for their holidays. It’s also the most difficult time for editors to get reviewers because the reviewers disappear for holidays too! Sure explains the uptick I’m experiencing now. So if you want your manuscript to be reviewed quicker, try to avoid submitting them during these times.

During the webinar, I asked the panel a question of my own through the chatbox: “One of the functions of peer review is also to provide feedback to authors. In cases of rejecting without going out to review, would you [provide] authors provide some in-depth comments beyond misfit with scope or novelty, etc.?”

I asked this question because I do so myself. If I am disposed to reject a manuscript without review, I provide my own comments from my reading of the manuscript. That way, the authors sort-of get at least one review, without which how else would they know what concrete steps can they take next to get it published elsewhere? Luca replied that he, too, tries to give some comments when he decides a manuscript can’t go out for review. It’s good to know.

It was my first webinar. I set an alarm to wake up at midnight for it, and it was worthwhile.

I still have two manuscripts on hand being processed, but the final decision will almost certainly be in 2017. An interesting thing happened with one of them. As usual, I searched for possible reviewers, found some, did some checks to make sure they didn’t co-author anything within 5 years (my personal guideline), edited the template invitation letter, and sent them out. One declined almost immediately with the following message:

“The last time I submitted something to you, it wasn’t even sent out for review, so I am not inclined to help you out.”

Oooh. That was harsh.

Some snooping around in the editorial system revealed that, indeed, two manuscripts submitted by this person in the past were rejected without review. We’ve all been on the receiving end of such editorial decisions, so I can sympathise, but there was obvious lack of grace on this persons’ part here.

It’s tough. The strain caused by multiple rounds of reviews in different journals is the key reason for rejections without review. If an editor finds that a manuscript probably wouldn’t survive peer reviewer comments, i.e., it would most probably get rejected, then there’s no reason to burden reviewers with it, is there? Like the one that I had problem finding reviewers for: when the reviews came back and I read the manuscript in detail, I kinda regretted sending it out for review and “wasting” the time of three reviewers–if I had examined its Tables in detail before sending it out, I would have realized the fatal flaws immediately. Although again, part of the service of peer-review is to provide feedback and in this sense all reviewer comments were delivered to authors with my own so there is no waste to speak of.

As an author myself, it’s been almost a full year of rejections as well, right until the last one month when finally two manuscripts came through with good news. (More on them next time.)

The idea was to take advantage of this Fellowship to write papers like a madman, and for the first few months it almost worked like that.

Then the rejections started coming in, and every rejection set you back at least a few weeks to deal with reformatting. If there were reviews, you had to deal with the comments the best you could before resubmitting. Every round of reformatting consumed precious pockets of your best productivity time-slots and knocks your next manuscript back.

It’s not just my own first-authored manuscripts, but also all those that I was co-author of. I’ve had to console/encourage a graduate student from the old lab who led two manuscripts with multiple rejections, with and without review.

I’ve been rejected twice by PLoS ONE without review! Whoever gets rejected by PLoS ONE without review??

That said, I’m now glad I’ve broken my two year drought of having no ISI-listed first-author papers. The ones just accepted won’t make it to a print issue until next year, so 2015 and 2016 are the drought.

But I’m optimistic for 2017. A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush; an accepted paper is worth ten that’s “in review”, but a manuscript in review is worth ten that’s “in prep”, and a draft in prep is worth ten that’s not. As long as there’s a draft, there’s hope; eventually it will get published somewhere.

So here’s to more drafts in prep!

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