We will no longer provide peer reviews for Royal Society journals until they adopt honest editorial policies
October 5, 2012
I’ve discussed all of what follows with Mike and in this post I speak for both of us.
To briefly recap: like many (but not all) journals, Biology Letters and at least some other Royal Society journals publish dates of manuscript submission and acceptance with each published paper (see an example at the bottom of the first page of this recent paper). Submission-to-publication dates are ostensibly useful for establishing priority in the case of research groups knowingly or unknowingly competing, and for potential authors and others who want to compare the turnaround times at various journals, especially journals like Biology Letters that pride themselves on rapid turnaround. In both cases, the date of interest is the date of initial submission of a manuscript. And since the submission dates quoted by Biology Letters are identified only as “Received [date]“, one would normally assume that that represents the date of initial submission.
But it does not.
At a typical journal a paper deemed worthy of publication by the reviewers would be sent back to the authors for revision, and if the revised manuscript is approved by the editor it may be accepted for publication in the journal. The sequence of events is the same at Biology Letters, but the labels are changed. In the case currently under discussion, a paper that three reviewers recommended for publication (“as it is”, “in essentially its current form”, and with a recommended change to a single paragraph) was rejected, and the rejection letter to the authors made the blatantly false claim that the rejection “has been taken on the advice of referees, who have recommended that substantial revisions are necessary.” That’s a lie, plain and simple.
The authors did “resubmit”–meaning that they performed the minimal revisions and sent the manuscript back, which at any typical journal would not be considered a new submission, and the paper was published by the journal, but with the “Received” date being that of the return of the revised manuscript, not the initial submission. This fudging of the numbers massively shortens the perceived turnaround time of the journal–in the current case, by 60%. As Mike succinctly put it in the last post, “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.”
The editorial office of Biology Letters has now responded to explain their policy. Here’s the relevant section in full:
We receive a huge number of submissions to Biology Letters and competition is intense, with the vast majority of papers being rejected. Therefore, we provide the option of ‘reject and invite resubmission’ to provide editors with the facility to invite resubmission of papers which show great promise but are not publishable in their present form. We believe that authors value this option – it is better than outright rejection and having to start the process again with another journal. The paper is technically a new submission so the time starts again.
So, two problems here. First, they’re taking something that’s clearly negative–lying to authors about their manuscript status so they can fudge their turnaround times–and presenting it as if it is a positive thing. As if the only alternative is to reject any paper that isn’t completely perfect the first time with no possibility of resubmission. As if almost all journals don’t allow authors to revise their work and send it back in without the revised manuscript being considered a new submission. As if they’re not doing the exact same thing that all other journals do in practice, but changing the meaning of the words to make themselves look better–and more to the point, faster. So in the case of the Klein et al. paper, “reject” actually means “accept essentially as-is”, “on the advice of referees” means “in direct contradiction of the advice of the referees”, “received” means “whenever we got the revised version back that we intended to publish”, and “a new submission” means “a resubmission of revised manuscript that changed very little from the initial submission”.
And this from the Royal Society, part of the same nation that produced Orwell.
Second problem is the last line of the section quoted above: “The paper is technically a new submission so the time starts again.” Well, let’s unpack that. In this case “technically” means using the new, counter-intuitive and indeed counter-factual definitions of the terms given above–or what in common parlance we would again call lying. And “so the time starts again” is incomplete; what they obviously mean but do not go on to say is “so the time starts again so that our perceived turnaround time can be as short as 40% of the actual turnaround time at a journal that didn’t fudge its numbers.”
Or, if we accept the obvious fiction that the revised manuscript is “a new submission”, then it would seem that this newly submitted manuscript gets accepted without peer review. As Mickey Mortimer explained in a comment on the previous post:
If the resubmitted paper “is technically a new submission” so that it deserves a new ‘submitted on’ date, shouldn’t it also be peer reviewed again by experts? If the peer reviewers’ original comments are really all that is needed, then surely the new paper can’t be that different from the old one, and should thus have the old submission date attached. If the new paper was actually substantially different, I’d say it hasn’t been properly peer reviewed.
So, either Biology Letters is publishing newly submitted manuscripts without having put them through peer review (what they rather bizarrely claim to have done), or they’re just lying by referring to revised manuscripts as “new submissions” (what they’ve actually done). They can’t have it both ways.
All in all, this response from the Biology Letters editorial office is about the most empty piece of writing I have seen outside of politics or postmodernism. If you dig through the banal reassuring verbiage, you find that they just restate their crimes in terms that sound positive, like when the US Department of Defense used to describe radiation exposure in “sunshine units“. I am disappointed–by the specific treatment of Klein et al. in the case of the current paper, in the discovery that this is not an isolated incident but is in fact journal policy, and in the pathetically transparent non-response of the editorial office.
What to do, what to do.
In looking back over my notes, I see that 12 of the 64 peer reviews I have performed to date in my career have been for Royal Society journals, either Proceedings B or Biology Letters. In fact, in 2009 I was named one of their “Top Reviewers” because of the number of reviews I performed that year. They sent me a certificate and everything. Of Mike’s 16 peer reviews, 4 have been for Royal Society journals. So we are stakeholders in this process. We invest considerable time and mental energy in reading manuscripts and providing the most thoughtful and constructive reviews that we can. The Royal Society benefits from this unpaid effort, in that editors get our expert opinions on which manuscript are acceptable for publication, and authors–the actual lifeblood of any journal–get feedback that hopefully makes their work better.
We’re not going to continue to invest that effort in an organization that has a deliberate policy of lying to authors about reviews and lying to everyone about the speed of manuscript turnaround. Until the Royal Society adopts more honest editorial policies, we will no longer perform peer reviews for papers submitted to Royal Society journals. We encourage anyone who currently reviews for Royal Society journals to join us. If you’re an author considering sending your work to a Royal Society journal, ask yourself whether you want to have your paper spuriously and dishonestly rejected just so the journal can fudge its numbers. If you’re a reviewer, ask yourself whether you want your laboriously constructed report to be ignored by the editor, even when it agrees with those of the other reviewers.
Members of the Biology Letters editorial office, and members of the Royal Society at large, we welcome your comments.