Dear Royal Society, please stop lying to us about publication times
October 3, 2012
I’ve recently written about my increasing disillusionment with the traditional pre-publication peer-review process [post 1, post 2, post 3]. By coincidence, it was in between writing the second and third in that series of posts that I had another negative peer-review experience — this time from the other side of the fence — which has left me even more ambivalent about the way we do things.
On 17 July I was asked to review a paper for Biology Letters. Having established that it was to be published as open access, I agreed, was sent the manuscript, and two days later sent a response that recommended acceptance after only minor revision. Eleven days later, I was sent a copy of the editor’s decision — a message that included all three reviewers’ comments. I can summarise those reviewers’ comments by directly quoting as follows:
Revewer 1: “It is good to have this data published with good histological images. I have only minor comments – I think the ms should generally be accepted as it is.”
Reviewer 2 (that’s me): “This is a strong paper that brings an important new insight into a long-running palaeobiological issue [...] and should be published in essentially its current form.”
Reviewer 3: “This manuscript reports exciting results regarding sauropod biomechanics [...] The only significant addition I feel necessary is to the concluding paragraph.”
So imagine my surprise when the decision letter said:
I am writing to inform you that your manuscript [...] has been rejected for publication in Biology Letters.
This action has been taken on the advice of referees, who have recommended that substantial revisions are necessary. With this in mind we would like to invite a resubmission, provided the comments of the referees are taken into account. This is not a provisional acceptance.
The resubmission will be treated as a new manuscript.
I can’t begin to imagine how they turned three “accept with very minor revisions” reviews into “your manuscript has been rejected … on the advice of referees, who have recommended that substantial revisions are necessary”.
In fact, let’s dump the “I can’t imagine how” euphemism and say it how it is: “reviewers recommended substantial revisions” is an outright lie. The reviewers recommended no such thing. The rejection can only be because it’s what the editor wanted to do in spite of the reviewers’ comments not because of them. It left me wondering why I bothered to waste my time offering them an opinion that they were only ever going to ignore.
Then six says ago I heard from the lead author, who had just had a revised version of the same manuscript accepted. (It had not come back to me for review, as the editor had said would happen with any resubmission).
The author wrote to me:
The paper will be published (open access) at the 3rd of Octobre. When I had submitted the corrected version of the ms acceptance was only a formality. So [name] was right, they just want to keep time between submission and publishing date short.
Well. We have a word for this. We call it “lying”. When the editor wrote “your manuscript [...] has been rejected for publication in Biology Letters … With this in mind we would like to invite a resubmission … This is not a provisional acceptance. The resubmission will be treated as a new manuscript”, what she really meant was “your manuscript [...] has been provisionally accepted, please sent a revision. The resubmission will not be treated as a new manuscript”.
I find this lack of honesty disturbing.
Because we’re not talking here about some shady, obscure little third-world publisher that no-one’s ever heard of with fictional people on the editorial board. We’re talking about the Royal Freaking Society of London. We’re talking about a journal (Biology Letters) that was calved off a journal (Proceedings B) that emerged from the oldest continuously published academic journal in the world (Philosophical Transactions). We’re talking about nearly three and a half centuries of academic heritage.
And they’re lying to us about their publication process.
When did they get the idea that this was acceptable?
And what else are they lying to us about? Can we trust (for example) that when editors or members submit papers, they are subjected to the same degree of rigorous filtering as every other submission? I would have assumed that, yes, of course they do. But I just don’t know any more.
The paper in question is Klein et al.’s (2012) histological study confirming that the bony cervical ribs of sauropods are, as we suspected, ossified tendons — as we assumed in our recently arXiv’d sauropod-neck paper. I am delighted to be able to say that it is freely available. At the bottom of the first page, it says “Received 21 August 2012; Accepted 13 September 2012″, for a submission-to-acceptance time of 23 days. But I know that the initial submission — and remember, the final published version is essentially identical to that initial submission — was made before 17 July, because that’s when I was asked to provide a peer-review. Honest reporting would give a submission-to-acceptance time of 58 days, which is two and a half times as long as the claimed figure.
Now the only reason for a journal to report dates of submission and acceptance at all is to convey the speed of turnaround, and lying about that turnaround time completely removes any utility those numbers might have. It would be better to not report them at all than to fudge the data.
This is another way that the high-impact fast-turnaround publishing system is so ridiculously gamed that it actually hurts science. We have the journal lying to authors about the status of their manuscripts so that it can then lie to the readers about its turnaround times. That’s deeply screwed up. And it’s hard for authors to blow the whistle — they don’t want to alienate the journals and the editors who have some veto power over their tenure beans, and reviewers don’t usually have all the information. The obvious solution is to make the peer-review process more open, and to make editorial decisions more transparent.
That, really, is only what we’d respect from the Royal Society. Isn’t it?
Note. Nicole Klein did not know I was going to post about this. I want to make that clear so that no-one at the Royal Society thinks that she or any of her co-authors is making trouble. All the trouble is of my making (and, more to the point, the Royal Society’s). Someone really has to shine a light on this misbehaviour.
Update (12 March 2014)
I should have noted this before, but on 10 May 2013, the Royal Society sent me an update, explaining some improvements in their process. But as noted in my write-up, it doesn’t actually solve the problem. Doing so would simply require giving three dates: Received, Revised and Accepted. But as I write this, new Proc. B articles still only show Received and Accepted dates.
- Klein, Nicole, Andreas Christian, and P. Martin Sander. 2012. Histology shows that elongated neck ribs in sauropod dinosaurs are ossiﬁed tendons. Biology Letters, online first. doi:10.1098/rsbl.2012.0778
Subsequent posts discuss how this issue is developing: