Discussing Biology Letters with the Royal Society

October 12, 2012

Last Friday I got an email from Dr Stuart Taylor, Commercial Director of the Royal Society, wanting to set up a phone-call to talk about the issue I raised about the editorial procedure on Biology Letters. I got back to him with my Skype handle, but without fixing a date or time.

Then on Monday this week I was approached by Lucas Brouwers, a journalist for the Dutch daily newspaper NRC Handelsblad. He was writing a story about Biology Letters‘s misrepresentation of reviewer judgements and submission-to-acceptance times, and wanted me to answer some questions.

I thought it would be best to talk to Stuart Taylor before sending my answers to the questions, so my responses could take into account whatever he had to say, so I got back in touch with him and brought our phone-call forward. As it happened, he called me just as I was about to hit Send on my half-composed reply to Brouwers, so that was good timing.

I asked him if it would be OK to recount the main points of our conversations; he assented, so here there are:

  • First, he was very polite and friendly — graciously so, really, in light of the things I’ve said about the Royal Society, and the boycott that Matt and I have initiated.
  • Second, he was insistent that the use of the revised manuscript’s submission date in the the published PDFs is not intended to game statistics. I accept that most individuals at the Royal Society and its journals don’t have that motivation in mind.
  • Third, I pointed out, and he conceded, that it nevertheless does have the effect of apparently reducing the submission-to-acceptance time and apparently increasing the rejection rate. I still find it hard to imagine how this convention got started if not from someone‘s desire to game the statistics.
  • Fourth, Stuart Taylor made the point that many other “high-prestige” journals do what Biology Letters is doing. I have no patience with this defence, and told him so: “all the other kids are doing it” cut no ice with my mother when I was growing up, and nor should it with us. Even if it’s true, I return to the point that we’d hope and expect the Royal Society to set a higher standard of integrity, not to sink to the less honest level of other publishers.
  • Fifth, there is a meeting of the editorial board at the end of the month, and Stuart Taylor intends to raise this issue at that meeting.
  • Sixth, I made the point that it won’t take much to fix this: instead of just stating Received and Accepted dates on the first page of published papers, the journal could give three dates: Received, Revised and Accepted. I got the impression, though I don’t remember any clear statement, that Stuart Taylor thought that was a reasonable thing to do.

Overall, I am pretty happy that the society seems to be taking this fairly seriously. It is serious, but it’s also very easy to fix. I hope they’ll just do it, and we can move on.

Meanwhile, the Dutch newspaper article was published, with quotes from both me and Stuart Taylor. It’s in Dutch, so I am not sure what it says exactly. Here is the text of the article. If anyone wants to provide a translation I’d be grateful. (I mean a proper translation, not just shoving it into Google Translate.) [Update: Lucas Brouwers has himself provided a translation now.]

Blad ‘sjoemelt’ met datering

Door onze redacteur

ROTTERDAM. Volgens twee onderzoekers sjoemelt het veel gelezen wetenschappelijke tijdschrift Biology Letters met de datering van de artikelen die het publiceert.

Vaak wordt een ingediend artikel in eerste instantie afgewezen. Dan herschrijven de auteurs het, zij dienen het opnieuw in, waarna het artikel alsnog wordt geaccepteerd. In dat geval vermeldt Biology Letters alleen de datum van de tweede indiening. Daardoor lijkt de omlooptijd van artikelen kleiner dan hij daadwerkelijk is. Het tijdschrift wordt zo aantrekkelijker voor wetenschappers die snel willen publiceren.

Aanleiding voor de aantijging vormt de publicatie van een artikel over langnek-dinosauriërs, vorige week woensdag. Paleontoloog Mike Taylor van de Universiteit van Bristol ontving het manuscript op 17 juli ter beoordeling als peer reviewer. Taylor was positief, maar Biology Letters wees het artikel toch af en vroeg de auteurs het te herschrijven en opnieuw in te sturen. Dat gebeurde op 21 augustus. Deze datum werd vervolgens op het gepubliceerde artikel als datum van indiening vermeld.

Taylor en een collega kondigden daarom afgelopen vrijdag een boycot af. De twee zullen geen artikelen meer beoordelen voor de Britse Royal Society, waar Biology Letters deel van uitmaakt, totdat het genootschap zijn beleid verandert. Volgens Taylor is de oplossing simpel. “Vermeld de ware indieningsdatum, en het probleem is verholpen.”

Stuart Taylor (geen familie), commercieel directeur van de Royal Society, is het niet met de lezing van de twee onderzoekers eens. “Mike Taylor impliceert dat wij dit doen om onze omloopcijfers beter te doen lijken”, zegt hij aan de telefoon. “Dat bestrijd ik, alhoewel ons beleid inderdaad dat gevolg heeft.”

Op een redactievergadering zal Stuart Taylor de kwestie bespreken. Hij acht het niet ondenkbaar dat de tijdschriften van de Royal Society in de toekomst inderdaad de oorspronkelijke indieningsdatum zullen vermelden. “Wij hebben niets te verbergen.” Volgens Stuart Taylor is het afwijzen van artikelen, om vervolgens een aangepaste versie te accepteren gemeengoed onder wetenschappelijke tijdschriften.

Auteur Nicole Klein (universiteit van Bonn) betreurt het dat haar artikel onderwerp van discussie is geworden. “In onze ervaring verloopt het publicatieproces bij Biology Letters snel en professioneel.”

Finally, anyone who’s been following this issue should read this lengthy comment from Paul Barrett, who among his other roles is on the Editorial Board of Biology Letters.

Further bulletins as events warrant.

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8 Responses to “Discussing Biology Letters with the Royal Society”

  1. This is good news: the way you describe the conversation makes it sound as if you were NOT given lengthy sales talk of how “high standards” BL is, or how “rejected” really means something entirely different.

    My hope’s on the board meeting :)

  2. Hi Mike, thanks for posting this.

    I can confirm your sixth point. Stuart Taylor said to me it was ‘conceivable’ to list the original submission date on papers in the future. I asked him if he saw other possibilities to resolve the issue, and he mentioned the Royal Society could end the ‘reject-resubmit’-policy altogether, but he thought this was far less likely to happen. As you said, he mentioned the policy was more or less a standard in scientific publishing.

    Also, here is a ‘polished-up’ Google translation. During the weekdays it’s hard to find the times for these chores….

    Journal ‘fudges’ with dating

    ROTTERDAM. According to two researchers , the widely read scientific journal Biology Letters fudges with the dating of the articles it publishes.
    Often a submitted article is initially rejected. The article is rewritten by the authors, and submitted again before it is accepted. In such case, Biology Letters only lists the date of the second submission. This makes the circulation time of paper seem smaller than it really is. This way, the magazine appears more attractive to scientists who want to publish quickly.
    Reason for the accusation is the publication of an article about sauropods, last Wednesday. Paleontologist Mike Taylor of the University of Bristol received the manuscript for review as a peer reviewer on 17 July. Taylor was positive, Biology Letters rejected the article anyway and asked the authors to rewrite and resubmit the paper. That happened on 21 August. It was this date that was subsequently published in the article as the submission date of the article.
    Taylor and colleagues therefore announced a boycott last Friday. The two items will no longer review articles for the British Royal Society, of which Biology Letters is part, until the society changes its policy. According to Taylor, the solution is simple. “Mention the true submission date, and the problem is solved.”
    Stuart Taylor (no relation), commercial director of the Royal Society, does not agree with the reading of events by the two researchers. “Mike Taylor implies that we do this to make our circulation figures look better,” he says on the phone. “I dispute that, although our policy indeed has that effect.”
    At an editorial meeting, Stuart Taylor will discuss the issue. He considers it conceivable that articles in the journals of the Royal Society will list the original submission date the future. “We have nothing to hide.” According to Stuart Taylor, an initial rejection of articles, followed by an invitation to resubmit is common among scientific journals.
    Author Nicole Klein (University of Bonn) regrets that her publication has become the subject of debate. “In our experience the Biology Letters has a quick and professional publication process.”

  3. Mike Taylor Says:

    Many thanks for this translation, Lucas, and indeed for writing the article in the first place. (I’m not sure how I feel about Matt and me being described as “The two items”, though!)

    [Stuart Taylor] mentioned the Royal Society could end the ‘reject-resubmit’-policy altogether, but he thought this was far less likely to happen. As you said, he mentioned the policy was more or less a standard in scientific publishing.

    Changing this would be a much better and more complete version than merely including all three dates. I didn’t realise it was on the table, and would welcome it with delight.

    But I have to object to the reject-resubmit approach being described as “a standard in scientific publishing”. I accept that Biology Letters is not the only journal that does it, but it’s very far from being standard.

  4. Matt Wedel Says:

    [Stuart Taylor] mentioned the Royal Society could end the ‘reject-resubmit’-policy altogether, but he thought this was far less likely to happen.

    Well, at the risk of prejudicing the proceedings, that’s just stupid. If they’re going to start being honest about the submission dates, then there’s no more need to camouflage “accept with moderate revisions” as “reject and resubmit”; the latter corrupt policy is propped up by the former.

    Unless they want to retain the ‘reject-resubmit’ policy just so they can trumpet their rejection rate. Which is also stupid. If anything, they should be bragging about how much quality science they do publish, not about how much they’re turning away. That authors actively seek out journals that are more likely to reject their work is an absurd form of Stockholm Syndrome, and a sign of just how perverse the current career incentives are.

    As Mike said in the post, “but everyone else is doing it” is abjectly lame. It’s even more cowardly than “I was only following orders”, since that one at least implies the threat of disciplinary action. “Everyone else is doing it” can only be read as, “I saw some other people doing something dishonest and I decided that the mere fact that they were doing it made it okay for me to do it as well.” Pathetic.

  5. posted this in the other thread, but it also belongs here:

    I do see a clear place for ‘reject and resubmit’. That’s appropriate if, e.g., the science is good, but the writing horrible and beyond rescue. In such a case it is entirely OK to say “scrap the paper, we do not want it. But we do want you to try again, because there is good substance, which may well be turned into a good paper”.

  6. [...] Discussing Biology Letters with the Royal Society Share this:FacebookRedditTwitterLike this:LikeBe the first to like this. Posted by Mike Taylor Filed in cervical, heresy, paleontologists behaving badly, Peer review, ribs 62 Comments » [...]

  7. Mike Taylor Says:

    Ilja Nieuwland has kindle contributed a more idiomatic translation of the Dutch article, as follows:

    Journal ‘fiddles’ dates

    by our reporter

    ROTTERDAM. According to two researchers, the much-read scientific journal Biology Letters is tampering with the date of articles it publishes.

    Often, a submitted article is rejected in first instance. Then, its authors will rewrite it, re-submit it to the journal, whereupon it will be accepted. In such a case, Biology Letters will only mention the date of the second submission. This makes it the turnaround time of articles seem shorter than it actually is. This way, the journal will seem more attractive to scientists looking to publish quickly.

    The cause of the allegation is the publication of an article about long-necked dinosaurs on Wednesday last week. Paleontologist Mike Taylor of Bristol University received the manuscript on July 17 in order to review it as a peer reviewer. Taylor’s asssessment was positive, yet Biology Letters rejected it, asking the authors for a re-write and re-submission. That took place on August 21. It was this last date that was subsequently mentioned in the published article as the submission date.

    This brought Taylor, along with a colleague, to initiate a boycott last Friday. The two will no longer judge articles for the British Royal Society, under whose wings Biology Letters is published, until the society changes its policy. According to Tayler, the solution is simple. “Mention the true date of submission, and the problem is solved.”

    Stuart Taylor (not related), commercial director of the Royal Society, does not agree with the reading of the two researchers. “Mike Taylor implies that we are doing to this to make our turnaround figures seem better”, he replies by telephone. “I contest that, even though that is the effect of our policy.”

    Stuart Taylor will discuss the matter at an editorial meeting. He does not rule out that in future, the Royal Society’s journals will mention the original date of submission. “We have nothing to hide.” According to Stuart Taylor, the rejection of articles and the subsequent acceptance of a revised version, is common practice among scientific journals.

  8. […] does trumpet its submission-to-acceptance time; Lying about submission times at other journals?; Discussing Biology Letters with the Royal Society). As noted in the last of these posts, the outcome was that I had what seemed to be a fruitful […]

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