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 days 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.

Sampled specimens, sampling locations and cross sections of sauropod cervical ribs. (a) Anterior neck of Brachiosaurus brancai (Museum für Naturkunde, Berlin) with hyperelongated and overlapping cervical ribs. (b) Three cross sections were taken along the proximal part of the posterior process of a left mid-neck cervical rib of Mamenchisaurus sp. (SIPB 597) in ventral view. Note the medially pointed ventral part of the cervical rib. (c) Seven cross sections were taken along the left ninth cervical rib of B. brancai (MB.R.2181.90), which is figured in lateral view. (d) Neck of Diplodocus carnegi (cast in the Museum für Naturkunde, Berlin) with short cervical ribs. (e) Six cross sections were taken along the right mid-neck cervical rib of cf. Diplodocus sp. (Sauriermuseum Aathal, Aathal HQ2), which is figured in ventral view. Note the morphological differences of this cervical rib when compared with the hyperelongated cervical rib of B. brancai. (Klein et al. 2012:figure 1)

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.


Subsequent posts discuss how this issue is developing:

74 Responses to “Dear Royal Society, please stop lying to us about publication times”

  1. I hope in one of those reviews Cerda’s 2009 paper was mentioned, at least tangentially — especially as it was published over three years before the newer work was submitted.

    Cerda, I. A. 2009. Consideraciones sobre la histogénesis de las costillas cervicales en los dinosaurios saurópodos [Considerations on the histology of the cervical ribs in sauropod dinosaurs]. Ameghiniana 46(1):193–198.

  2. hm, interesting parallels: my post
    was published more than six months earlier, but completely ignored ;)

    just kidding – I very much suspect that “[name]” above refers to me :p

  3. Mike Taylor Says:

    Jaime, I had not heard of the Cerda paper. That’s a shame, as it’s obviously very relevant and I agree should have been cited.

    Heinrich, actually no, “[name]” is not you. But it easily could have been! Sorry to have missed your post on this same subject: I got very behind on my blog-reading. You made another important point which I completely missed: by enagaging in this fraud, journals artificially increase their rejection rate as well as reducing their acceptance time.

    Very interesting, too, reading Anna Sharman’s comment on your post: “I can’t see any journal getting away with this and keeping any kind of reputation … If you have definite proof that a journal has been engaging in false rejection for these reasons, I think a letter of complaint to the publisher or someone higher up the chain would be in order. Perhaps the journal should also be named and shamed publicly.”

  4. Mike, no worries :) I was only kidding in my reply above (as I am sure you know).

  5. Mike, I hope you are pursuing this yourself in a more direct, and even more public a manner? Do you not have some regular contact with the Guardian?

  6. Mike Taylor Says:

    I was thinking that writing to the Biology Letters editorial board would be the proper next step. I’m sure it could go in the Guardian, but I’m not convinced it’s something the general public needs to know about as they do with open access (the subject of previous Guardian articles).

  7. So you’ve accused a journal of lying, i.e. knowingly saying something false, without asking them to respond to the accusation first?

    Without seeing the full reviews and the original manuscript, it’s impossible to judge what happened, but I can see a couple of reasons for turning “minor revision” into “reject and resubmit”. One possibility is that the reviewers were more sceptical in their confidential comments to the editor. The other is that the editor was unsure about some aspect of the proposed revisions and wanted to have a get-out if the response wasn’t sufficient.

    BTW, you are aware that reviews are meant to be confidential, aren’t you?

  8. I should also say that I agree with you that the “reject and resubmit” option is horrible: back when I was a student, it was “major revision”, and the change was clearly to reduce the time to acceptance statistics. A better statistic would be submission to first decision.

  9. Mike Taylor Says:

    Hi, Bob. Yes, I am aware that a cloak of secrecy surrounds many aspects of the peer-review process. Unfortunately, while the intent of that secrecy is surely good — preservation of anonymity, avoidance of bias — its actual effect is to conceal unacceptable practices such as the ones documented here. You spell out the problem yourself with admirable concision:

    Without seeing the full reviews and the original manuscript, it’s impossible to judge what happened […] BTW, you are aware that reviews are meant to be confidential, aren’t you?

    Given that this is the status quo, the alternatives are either to accept this pervasive fraud or for someone to break the status quo. I chose the latter — albeit in a very mild form that quotes only a few words from each of the reviewers and a small portion of what I suspect is a form letter from the editor. (I would have preferred to post all the evidence online, but I withheld because of these confidentiality concerns.)

    Since I posted this, BTW, it’s become apparent that I am not the only person to have seen this in action, and a fellow palaeontologist has claimed that “as far as I can tell this is pretty much standard practise for high impact journals”.

    So, yes, this needs to be called out.

  10. Bob O’Hara,
    “minor revs” going “reject” is ridiculous. I can see “major revs w repeat review” as the extreme option, but rejection makes a farce of the review process. Thus, either BL fudges their statistics for turn around time and rejection rate, or they simply do not have a proper peer review process in action.

    Which would be worse?

    Be glad it is likely ONLY the statistics.

    As for the option that the reviewers lied to the authors – why would they? Look for who gains from the process, and you find the guilty party. <– usually works

  11. Mike Taylor Says:

    BTW., on “confidential comments to the editor”. I don’t do these. For example, in the “confidential comments” section of a review form that I recently filled in, I just put “I am perfectly happy for the authors to see all my comments – I have no secrets”, and I signed off my review’s covering note with “I am happy for the authors to know who I am, and they are welcome to contact me for any clarification they may want, or for copies of any of the papers I mentioned in my comments.”

    In a field as small as palaeo, doing things in the open is always a much better remedy to abuses than doing them behind closed doors. In big fields, maybe anonymity and confidentiality can work, but in palaeo it’s a bit of a myth anyway. You usually have a pretty good idea who a given reviewer is.

    (Actually, I think that “doing things in the open is always a much better remedy to abuses than doing them behind closed doors” is a good recipe in all fields, but since my experience is limited to palaeo, I won’t push the broader point.)

  12. Mike – I assume that you haven’t asked BL for their response, but are still accusing them of “pervasive fraud”. Do you have evidence that this actually is this fraud, rather than having some less malign explanation?

    On confidentiality, I think you could easily have got away without quoting anyone, or even mentioning the paper. The probnlem is that now you’ve shown you’re happy to break confidentiality (whilst accusing others of ethical slips), it’s more difficult to be sure that you won’t do it again.

    Heinrich – don’t confuse “reject and resubmit” with “reject”. I’ve used “reject and resubmit” on papers that I’m pretty certain will be accepted, because there have been issues that have to be sorted, and whilst I think that they will be, this still has to be done.

  13. Mike Taylor Says:

    Bob, you’re right that I have not yet asked BL for a response, but I will do so. I want to have this in the open before I do so, because it would be harder to make it so once I am in dialogue with them.

    Could I have done this without quoting anyone or naming the paper (and journal)? Not really — then it would have just been vague whining. It’s only specifics that make something real. A particular thing happened to particular authors at a particular journal.

  14. Anne Weil Says:

    Maybe I’m just not cynical enough, but my immediate reaction on reading the beginning of this post was, “Oh, the editor just clicked on the wrong letter.” At least at other journals, they are all just form letters. You click on “major revisions,” and that’s the letter that pops out. About a millimeter away on your laptop screen is another box for “minor revisions,” which might be what was intended.

    As for date of submission and date of publication, that is done so that, in case of n >1 scientists racing to publication with the same finding (or two sides of the same new animal) there is some documentation of who was submitting first.

    I have no idea of procedure at the journal you mention. However at JVP, where I have been the technical editor, the AUTHOR puts in the “date submitted” and the editor puts in the other dates. As tech editor I had many authors who were resubmitting a paper with revisions ask me, “Do I use the date of my first submission or the date of my second submission?”

    If you are curious, definitely do ask the journal about its procedures.

    Anyway, this looks like a cool paper and I’m glad that it was published.

  15. Bob O’Hara,
    there is a distinct difference between telling someone “the paper is not good enough, but you can easily / with some effort make it good enough” (minor / major revisions) and “the paper is not and will not easily be made good enough” (rejection).
    “Rejection with invitation to re-submit” makes no sense at all, unless a total re-writing of a bad paper with good science is the needed.

    As you can see from the reviews and the minimal changes, that’s not the case here.

    So please quit defending someone intentionally misusing the English language to get his or her journal a minor bonus. It’s bullshit, and no whining about what in some other cases might also be possible will change that.

    oh, and if I ever found out that there are palaeo journals you have a say in, I would blacklist them. An editor who is so willing to reject a good paper instead of asking for major revisions clearly doesn’t know what he’s doing. After all, the paper you so high-handedly dismiss may be a pivotal issue in a grants application, and thus you may in fact end up ruining a grant for a scientist who did good science and near-perfect writing it up.

  16. Mike Taylor Says:

    Anne, I like your charitable interpretation that the editor just clicked the wrong button (although that would raise a worrying competence issue). But in fact other aspects of the rejection letter (“Should the authors choose to revise and resubmit, they should …”) make it clear that this isn’t the explanation.

    The idea that stating the submission date is done so that rival groups have a stake in the ground to prevent claim-jumping is also appealing, and may indeed by where the idea got started. But you will readily recognise that Biology Letters‘ use of the RE-submission date completely defeats such a purpose. If I submit in June, someone else submits elsewhere in July, my paper is “rejected with invitation to resubmit” and I send the revisions in August, then the record will show that my rivals submitted first. Another reason why the Biology Letters behaviour is unacceptable.

    As tech editor I had many authors who were resubmitting a paper with revisions ask me, “Do I use the date of my first submission or the date of my second submission?”

    And what do you tell them?

    (In any case, I am confident that JVP does not tell its authors “reject” when the paper is really accepted with minor revisions.)

  17. Anne Says:

    What I’m trying to describe is not so much a competance issue as a Web form design issue, compounded by the fact that editors are usually scientists and professors just like everyone else. So you may imagine your average editor having lectured in the morning, gone to a committee meeting over the lunch hour, taught 4 hours of lab all afternoon, tried to get in an hour or two of research, and sat down to editing at 10 pm. on a laptop with a sensitive trackpad set up on the kitchen table. (This is my life, anyway. I am no longer tech editing JVP because I was falling asleep with my face in the keyboard.) And then Our Heroic Editor finds him- or herself facing tiny “radio buttons” that might be:

    “accept with minor revisions”
    “major revisions” — which is the same as “revise and resubmit” in that it will go out to review a second time.

    At least on JVP’s Web interface, these are pretty close together. Late at night, while Our Heroic Editor’s corneas are as dry as a cracked lake bed and the trackpad is responding jumpily to dry fingers… …I’m surprised these errors don’t happen more often.

    If I were an author and got three glowing positive reviews and the “revise and resubmit” form letter, I would e-mail the editor and politely ask whether I understood what was wanted. But not everyone has time or is curious.

    Anyway, my next point is that the editor didn’t write the letter you describe. The letter was probably written 10 years ago and the computer generates a version with the title of the submission in the appropriate field and the name of the editor in another appropriate field and automatically e-mails it to the address in the corresponding author field.

    (If you ever got a letter from me as tech editor for an unsubmitted ms that needed format-fixing, I went into the form letter and modified it quite a bit to customize it for each author, but this is a fair amount of extra work and people who don’t want to fall behind on their workload don’t do it as much. I used to hear complaints about how “rude” one of the other editors was. He’s not. He’s just using the form letter, which is very cold. And he’s much more efficient as a result.)

    So, what I’m thinking is that the editor might have meant “accept with minor revisions,” but clicked “revise and resubmit.” The form letter was e-mailed; Our Heroic Editor stretched and went off to sleep without realizing the error, happy to have handled a good paper.

    Our Brilliant Author, apparently without asking questions (or at least not reported here) made the revisions asked for and resubmitted. At this point Our Heroic Editor probably realized that the wrong letter had gone out, but thought no harm done — Our Heroic Editor could just click the “in press” button instead of sending it back to reviewers, and apparently did so without a personal “oops” e-mail to Our Brilliant Author.

    So, as you correctly point out, the end result of the initial error is that a good paper was published with the incorrect submission date.

    In the case of minor revisions, the first submission date is the submission date. In the case of major revisions/revise and resubmit, you should ask the specific journal for its policy, but it may well be that the submission date of the second substantially revised manuscript is what is used. This would serve to prevent “claim jumping” by preventing people from submitting a shoddy manuscript on their amazing feathered mammal just to get in before someone else.

    Maybe I’m all wrong here. It may be that you are right and the journal is a den of iniquity. But this story as presented reads more like a tale of automation, accident and poor communication. Authors, please remember to ask questions. The editor on the other end is only a regular person, filtered through a computer system.

  18. Mike Taylor Says:

    Anne, your relentlessly charitable reading of the sitation remains a shining example to us all. (I am serious, by the way, that wasn’t sarcastic — I would much rather err on the side of generosity.) But I’m afraid in this case it really won’t do: the editor’s comments, in the letter that I quoted part of, are specific to this particular manuscript. In particular:

    Should the authors choose to revise and resubmit, they should strive to make their work accessible the our general audience […] As an entomologist, I do not know what a cervical rib is, not even whether it is in the animal’s neck.

    So whatever the explanation, “clicking the wrong button” isn’t it.

  19. Anne Says:

    LOL, ya got me there. I did not know that insects had ribs in their uteri — learn something new every day.

  20. Anne Says:

    I still would wonder whether this episode was the result of an editorial policy, as you suspect, or the result of (I admit in this case truly incompetant) really bad editing on the part of one individual.

    The American adage is, “Never attribute to malice what can be explained by incompetance.” The older I get, the better I understand the profound and depressing truth behind this saying.

  21. Renée Says:

    I apologize that I do not have anything constructive to add to the main issue at the moment, if ever.  However, the idea that the paper should be dumbed down for the journal’s audience is ridiculous.  I am a lay-person in these realms, but the idea that anyone–much less the audience of a scientific journal–can not figure out what a “cervical rib” is appalls me.  I have known what “cervical” means since I was a child.  There is this handy item called a dictionary, which search engines will pull up if one cannot figure out where to look for themselves.  XP That rant aside, I thank you for your dedication to ethics!

  22. Heinrich – you clearly haven’t submitted many papers. The modern way in a lot of journals is to treat “major revisions” as “reject and resubmit”. I’m not a big fan of it either, but it’s the way things are done. TBH, as long as everyone knows what it means I don’t think it’s that important. Paper will still ultimately get accepted or rejected.

  23. Matt Wedel Says:

    Anne, I appreciate your attempt to see only the good side here, but at this point I think you’ve gone beyond special pleading and out the other side. And IMHO “I clicked the wrong button” is Pyrrhic exculpation. I try not to send off anything remotely important without double- and sometimes triple-checking it. If Biology Letters editors are so harried that they can’t click the right button, or can’t redress any mis-clicks after the fact, then they’re too busy to do a good job, and people should take their work elsewhere.

    But now we’re playing an elaborate fantasy game, deliberately ignoring the facts of the case and the plain meaning of the words involved to try to rescue the editor (ironically, by blaming the editor for the lesser crime of…oh yeah, incompetence), instead of just acknowledging that the journal has a policy of lying to authors about review decisions and lying to readers about article turnaround times. Surely our time would be better spent pressuring the journal to enact honest, transparent editorial policies, than playing make-believe.

  24. Biology Letters editorial office Says:

    To give some context to this exchange we have provided some details regarding the peer review process for this particular paper. Please note that the referee comments, though positive, did include some changes to be made to the manuscript.

    After positive peer review by 3 referees within the area of Palaeontology, the Handling Editor (not a palaeontologist) felt that the paper would be of great interest to our readers, but that it needed substantial revision to be made more accessible to non-specialists. The Handling Editor accordingly chose the decision ‘reject and invite resubmission’. It should be noted that referees make a recommendation to the Handling Editor but ultimately the Handling Editor makes the final decision on the paper. An oversight by the editorial office meant that the email which went out to the authors and referees stated that the resubmission would go back to the previous referees, though this was not the case. This should have been changed to state that only the Handling Editor would assess the resubmission. After further revision, the Handling Editor decided that the authors had made the paper understandable to the wider community and the paper was published.

    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.

    We would like to assure the community that all submissions, from new authors, previous authors, editors or board members are subject to the same level of peer review.

  25. Anne Says:

    Hi Matt!

    I would be happy to know what the journal policy is here. It would be good for the author to contact the journal and find out. Unless you are finding a statement of policy from them online that I’m not aware of?

    From the point of view of someone with no special information on this paper, Mike’s initial presentation of it was consistent with a mistake that is easy to make in all the (four) editorial Web interfaces I have seen. He later provided additional information showing that the letter was inconsistent with that mistake.

    I think that most of us try our very best as editors, reviewers, and authors, but to err is human. I have sent a couple of “oops” e-mails (although not about rejections or even unsubmissions) before.

    I agree with you that if an editor errs, he or she should follow up with e-mails both to the author and up the editorial chain. To not do so is irresponsible. There are a few irresponsible people out there. I don’t think this is “the good side,” or good at all; it’s more like the simplest explanation.

    But yes, Mike’s 2:44 post shows this wasn’t an unintentional error. Changing that form letter requires extra effort.

    As you know, some people are ignorant, and other people are jerks. It seems to me that what we know is that the editor violated standard academic practice: he or she indicated to the author that a re-review would be necessary for acceptance, and then accepted the paper without sending it out for a second review. What we don’t know is whether he or she is:

    a) ignorant of standard practice (unlikely)
    b) a jerk (possible)
    c) carrying out an editorial policy that unethically advantages the journal (possible)
    d) some combination of the above

    I don’t think that’s an “elaborate fantasy game,” I think it’s “multiple working hypotheses.” You know, like, science, dude.

    It’s certainly worth asking the journal about — if they have an ignorant and/or jerkish editor they will want to replace or educate that person. And if it’s objectionable editorial policy, they’ll know people are on to them.

  26. Matt Wedel Says:

    Sure, I’m willing to entertain the hypothesis that an incompetent or rogue editor just happened to screw up/act jerkish in a way that just happened to be extremely advantageous to the journal, which happens to pride itself on fast turn-around times. I’m also willing to entertain the hypotheses that the shoplifter “just forgot” to pay for the small but expensive item in his pocket, that the vagrant who reeks of alcohol will actually spend the money on a bus ticket, and that the student was only accidentally looking right at another student’s exam while he was woolgathering. I entertain these hypotheses, but I don’t accept them as null, and in every case I put the burden of proof on the person who appears to be lying.

    It’s certainly worth asking the journal about

    We intend to.

  27. Matt Butler Says:

    I have a question about data on turn around times. For a journal to trumpet submission to acceptance time makes no sense, because this includes the time the authors spend doing revisions. I just looked on the BL website, and the only infromation I could find was “Articles submitted to Biology Letters benefit from its broad scope and readership, dedicated media promotion and we aim for a turnaround time of within 4 weeks to first decision.” This sounds like a much more reasonable claim to make and one that would be harder to fudge. Don’t get me wrong, I think publishers like to jimmy the numbers with abandon: for a good example, look at how Chronobiology International has addressed its low impact factor. Too bad I can’t copy in a graph here, but they jumped from an average of ~10% self citations (typical for a specialty journal) to >50% self citations over 2009, 2010. So far, looks like about 80% self cites in 2011.

  28. Matt Wedel Says:

    I have a question about data on turn around times. For a journal to trumpet submission to acceptance time makes no sense, because this includes the time the authors spend doing revisions.

    Agreed. And I strongly suspect that this is why Biology Letters has the policy that it does–so they don’t get dinged if authors take a long time turning a manuscript around, which does happen from time to time. But it’s easy enough to work around that, by providing alongside or instead of submission to whatever (first decision, publication, whatever) a count of the number of days the paper spent “in the system”, i.e., out of the authors’ control.

    “we aim for a turnaround time of within 4 weeks to first decision.” This sounds like a much more reasonable claim to make and one that would be harder to fudge.

    Agreed! But, as Mike documented in the post, that’s not what they actually report with papers. What they report–and presumably what they’re graded on by anyone comparing fast-turnaround journals–is (falsified second) submission to publication. Which is legitimately useful information, if one knows what it represents. Unfortunately, they’re being deceptive about the submission date; nothing in what is commonly reported would lead one to expect that the quoted submission date was the submission of the revised manuscript rather than the initial submission. So they’re eliding crucial information to artificially shorten their perceived initial-submission-to-publication dates. Or, more concisely, they are lying. And now that we’ve heard from the editorial board about this, we can be certain that it is journal policy, not the action of single rogue (or incompetent) editor.

  29. Matt Wedel Says:

    Dear Biology Letters editorial office,

    Many thanks for your comments. Mike and I will post a joint response shortly, as a followup post.

  30. Bob O’Hara, I have submitted enough papers, thankyouverymuchindeed. However, I have not submitted to journals for mass-producing subjects like genetics, but rather to palaeo journals. Additionally, I like to keep my work OA, which means I am not prone to submit to big for-profit journals.

    the big issue here is that this is a repeat performance for BL. I couldn’t prove it as well as Mike can, but I had the same thing (and I am sure you remember), and that makes it two strikes.
    Thus, I now see journal policy as the most likely cause, not an individual’s repeat errors.

  31. I have to agree with Renee that having to make a paper on the histology of sauropod cervical ribs accessable to entomologists is a waste of time. These are technical journals, not Science News.

    I’m also curious about an aspect of the editorial office’s reply. 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.

  32. Mike Taylor Says:

    If the new paper was actually substantially different, I’d say it hasn’t been properly peer reviewed.

    Bang on target, Mickey. They can’t have it both ways.

  33. Anne Says:

    Oooh, I see they replied!

    Good job, guys.

  34. […] you haven’t already read the last post, please go do so before reading this one. Please also see this response from the editorial office […]

  35. ” I just looked on the BL website, and the only infromation I could find was “Articles submitted to Biology Letters benefit from its broad scope and readership, dedicated media promotion and we aim for a turnaround time of within 4 weeks to first decision.””

    This would not be affected by the difference between the “minor revisions” and “reject and resubmit” options, then. So Mike’s accusation that the Royal Society is lying, and is a “pervasive fraud” doesn’t seem to have any foundation.


  36. Mike Taylor Says:


    The lie is “Received 21 August 2012; Accepted 13 September 2012”. The truth would be “Received 17 July 2012; Accepted 13 September 2012”, which is two and half times as long.

    By the way, my guess at 17 July is a generous one. That’s when I was solicited to provide a review, so guessing that was the submission date assumes that the editor got it sent out for review on the very day it was submitted. It gives us a lower bound on true turnaround time, but the actual time may have been much longer.

  37. Mike Taylor Says:

    Over on Twitter, John Hutchinson makes two points:

    “Editor does have option to “accept with minor revisions”. So evidently they chose the “reject” (major rev) option.”


    “Also, perhaps there were confidential comments to the editor that made them lean toward “rejection.” Less likely.”

  38. Mike Taylor Says:

    I know that I didn’t make any confidential comments to the editor that made them lean towards rejection. Since posting the original article, I have been contacted by one of the other two reviews, who also didn’t make any such confidential comments. That leaves one other reviewer who theoretically could have: but, re-reading that reviewer’s public comments I am confident that he/she did not.

  39. furthermore, we have the statement they made in comments on the other thread that contradicts the decision letter – I guess Bob O’Hara couldn’t recognize a lie if it was announced to be one by the liar himself.

  40. Mike Taylor Says:

    I am pleased to say that I have been contacted privately by a senior person within the Royal Society who wants to discuss these issues. I will report back when we’ve talked.

  41. Mike, that is excellent news! I hope these ladies and gentlemen who are so versed in English will come to realize that their use of the language is “confusing”, to say the least.

  42. Mike Taylor Says:

    I hope so, too. Of all publishers, we’d hope that The Royal Society would be one we could trust. Fingers crossed that, having had this drawn to their attention, they will quickly fix it. All it would take would be to show three dates instead of two at the bottom of the first page: initial submission, final submission, acceptance. (And why not bung in publication date, too, while they’re at it?)

  43. Alternatively why not show
    Date of 1st submission
    Total journal handling time
    Review time
    Date of publication

  44. “The lie is “Received 21 August 2012; Accepted 13 September 2012″. The truth would be “Received 17 July 2012; Accepted 13 September 2012″, which is two and half times as long.”

    Ah, do I hear the sound of shifted goalposts? First note, these are dates, not times. Second, you are only disputing one of the dates, so the plural is inaccurate anyway. Either you’re extrapolating from n=1, in which case you’re either incompetent at grammar and language or you’re deliberately making misleading accusations in the title of your post.

    You’ve now got an explanation for what happened, which has nothing to do with fiddling publication times. Do you dispute this explanation?

  45. But Bob, whatever the explanation for how it happened, surely you agree that Received 17th July is more accurate than Received 21st August?

  46. Mike Taylor Says:

    Bob tiresomely asks:

    Ah, do I hear the sound of shifted goalposts?

    No, Bob, you hear the sound of us saying precisely what we’ve been saying since the start. One lie, as stated in the post, is “your manuscript has been rejected on the advice of referees, who have recommended that substantial revisions are necessary”. The other, also as stated in the post, us ““Received 21 August 2012; Accepted 13 September 2012″, for a submission-to-acceptance time of 23 days”.

    First note, these are dates, not times.

    Oh! Ow! You got me! You super-awesome powers are too awesomely powerful for me. Yes, you’re right, these are dates. So everything we said about Biology Letters is immediately wrong, and the editorial office was also wrong when they left a comment here admitting to precisely what we said. Everyone is wrong except you.

    You’re extrapolating from n=1.

    This is not an isolated incident. Others have seen the same thing happening, and in case you weren’t paying attention (which you evidently are not), the editorial office has explicitly stated that “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 … The paper is technically a new submission so the time starts again.”

  47. Jonathan Says:

    Have you considered that there are other reasons why an editor might ignore the reviewers comments? The most obvious are an accusation of potential plagiarism (including self-plagiarism) or a copyright issue with images or text.

    My experience is on the other end as editor (for a reviews journal, not primary) and there are multiple reasons why you might elect for a major revision or rejection despite glowing reviews for the article. In addition to the two above – which are the most problematic – unintelligible or bad writing is another (and an article does need to be understandable to people from other fields, even if they are entomologists – it is breathtaking arrogance to state otherwise), lack of originality another, discovering your authors have submitted the same article to more than one journal at the same time, and so on and so forth. You also don’t know what other people who were invited to review, but declined, have said about the manuscript (e.g. “I’m not reviewing this as I’ve just rejected it for a different journal”).

    Reviewers tend to put accusations of potential plagiarism outside their submitted review due to its seriousness and the potential to sully either the authors’ OR their own name with a mistaken accusation. Often reviewers aren’t 100% certain but think they have seen it elsewhere and that can take time to investigate. A reject and resubmit, or major revision with second review letter can be used in this instance if you are highly suspicious but not able to confirm your suspicions. Fwiw, self-plagiarism is an issue that many authors are not sufficiently aware of (e.g. copy-pasted introductory text from articles for which they no longer have the copyright – due to it having passed to the publisher at the point of acceptance – being the easiest mistake to make).

    I can’t speak for what has happened here or if any of the above is even relevant to the case, but please don’t assume that editors shouldn’t have the right to ignore the reviewers if there are genuine reasons to do so.

  48. Mike Taylor Says:

    Thanks for that, Jonathan. You are right, of course, as a matter of general principles. But knowing more of the details in this case, I can confidently assure you that issue here was not plagiarism, image copyright, unintelligible writing, etc. If I were to post the submitted manuscript, the full rejection letter and the three reviews (which would be the best thing) I think you’d recognise that; but some people are already uneasy with the extent to which we have violated confidentiality by posting about this issue at all, and I thought it best to err on the side of caution.

  49. Mike Taylor Says:

    And on another note …

    Fwiw, self-plagiarism is an issue that many authors are not sufficiently aware of (e.g. copy-pasted introductory text from articles for which they no longer have the copyright – due to it having passed to the publisher at the point of acceptance – being the easiest mistake to make).

    I almost don’t want to reply to this at all, for fear of directing attention away from the real issue here, but … I have two points to make: one a point of information, and the other rather broader.

    First, if I were to re-use a given block of text, then whether that was or was not plagiarism would be wholly independent of who holds the copyright. In fact, in our papers we frequently do quote blocks of text written by others and whose copyright we do not hold: that isn’t plagiarism, and the reason is because we acknowledge the source. Copyright issues are quite separate.

    Second, the whole notion of self-plagiarism seems stupid to me. Of course if we’re talking about copying one of your own entire papers and submitting it a second time as a new work, that’s not right. But when we’re talking about “copy-pasted introductory text”, then it’s an eminently reasonable thing to go. Really, the world does not benefit from an author redoing the same work a second time. I suspect the only reason this has ever become frowned upon is because of the copyright angle: publishers want to stop people from doing it for fear that they’re somehow missing out on exploitation of text that they own; and they are probably quite happy to invoke the (misplaced) fear of plagiarism as a mechanism for preventing it.

    In short: over-extensive quoting of text that someone else holds the rights to is copyright violation; quoting anyone, whoever owns the text, is plagiarism if and only if the source is not acknowledged. And while the two may overlap, they are not connected.

  50. Mike Taylor Says:

    BTW., it’s worth reading Heather Piwowar’s post on “self-plagiarism”. Her key point that “Rewriting text for the sake of variation is a poor use of resources” is right on target, but even she has fallen into the pervasive confusion regarding the difference between plagiarism and copyright violation.

    Consider this. Darren wrote an article that was published by Elsevier (he was young and foolish then). Suppose I quote a large section of it in my next article without attribution. That will be plagiarism; but the plagiarised party will be Darren, not Elsevier. And he would have been plagiarised had his paper been in PLOS ONE instead.

  51. I see you ignored my queszio about whether you were doubting the veracity of the response of Biology Letters. So you continue…

    “One lie, as stated in the post, is “your manuscript has been rejected on the advice of referees, who have recommended that substantial revisions are necessary”. ”

    Biology letter have acknowledged that this was a mistake, i.e. htey did not inteniotnally mislead. Do you have any evidence to the contrary? If not, why are you continuing to make this claim?

    “The other, also as stated in the post, us ““Received 21 August 2012; Accepted 13 September 2012″, for a submission-to-acceptance time of 23 days”.”

    Which is correct: that’s how it’s recorded in the system. I agree that time from firt submission would be better, and as noted above, it’s time to first decision that BL reports. So, to the extent that it’s misleading, it seems pretty minor.

  52. Mike Taylor Says:

    Bob writes: “I see you ignored my queszio …”

    Bob, I’m not going to keep addressing the same points. If you actually care about answers, you’ll find them all in the article and the earlier comments. Otherwise, if you have nothing new to suggest, I’ll be ignoring future comments.

  53. David Marjanović Says:

    Self-plagiarism is a real issue, but in a very different way: if you present your old findings as new, you fraudulently increase the newsworthiness of your paper. That’s not as bad as plagiarizing other people, but it’s still an attempt to make yourself look better – more of an instant genius – than you are. Properly cite your own findings.

    Introductory text doesn’t usually contain findings, though.

    I’ve never made confidential comments to an editor. I suppose that field is meant for cases like “I know the authors, they’re a bunch of well-known nutcases/plagiators/whatever; look out”; and I haven’t been in that situation.

    Please note that the referee comments, though positive, did include some changes to be made to the manuscript.

    Well, duh. How many cases have you ever seen where any referee, let alone all of them, said “publish as is”? All three reviewers required only minor changes, but the editor decided on “reject and resubmit” and explicitly based that decision on the reviewers’ comments, even though those comments, included in the same e-mail, said something else!

    Which is correct: that’s how it’s recorded in the system. I agree that time from firt submission would be better, and as noted above, it’s time to first decision that BL reports. So, to the extent that it’s misleading, it seems pretty minor.

    It’s major. BL prides itself on short handling times, and then it artificially cuts them short by rejecting manuscripts and then readmitting them after they’ve already been revised! That’s completely dishonest advertising.

    It’s stupid for a journal to pride itself on short times from submission to acceptance anyway. The only factor that can really drag that out are the reviewers. Where large differences between journals exist is the time from acceptance to publication. That can get crazily long. I had a manuscript accepted this spring (at a journal unconnected to the Royal Society, I hasten to add); I’ve recently been told that I can expect the page proofs in January and publication around March. *headdesk* I don’t think I’ll submit to that journal again if I can avoid it. I don’t write papers for them to disappear for a year or more.

  54. Bob, the reply by BL was a lie, or the editor’s letter to the authors was. Your decision which to believe, but as they contradict each other they can’t be both true.

    This has been pointed out several times before, and your stubborn ignoring that means I now wonder who pays you for trolling and insulting people.

  55. […] a quick one for Matt Butler, who in a comment on the orignal postwrote: I just looked on the BL website, and the only infromation I could find […]

  56. Mike Taylor Says:

    Just for the record: Susie Maidment’s tweet

    “@H_Mallison as far as I can tell this is pretty much standard practise for high impact journals. Doesn’t make it ok though”

  57. […] response to our recent post about reject-when-you-mean-revise and submission-date massaging at Royal Society journals, Susie […]

  58. Matt Butler Says:

    Oops. I’m not sure how I missed the receipt to acceptance time right on the front page. I think I must have immediately clicked on the “About Biology Letters.” But this is good. If we can convince them to be truthful, then the combination of “within 4 weeks to first decision” and “Average receipt to acceptance time: 28 days” should mean that the first decision should be acceptance!

  59. Jonathan Says:

    Just a follow-up re: self-plagiarism/copyright. Plagiarism is a sub-set of copyright abuse, so self-plagiarism *is* already a copyright issue (and authors tend not to not cite the article from which they have self-plagiarised, so referencing is not typically applicable in these cases). That self-plagiarism is a copyright issue is a given and that is why it isn’t a trivial matter for the publisher – if an author reproduces a significant amount of an e.g. introduction that they no longer own the copyright to then it becomes a big issue for the publisher of the ‘new’ article as it leaves them legally liable to the copyright owner. It isn’t something the publisher can sweep under the carpet and forget about if it is brought to their attention, and doubly so if it happens in advance. It might seem trivial to the author or to a reviewer but it definitely is not to the legal department of the publisher. Also, having dealt with far too many accusations of plagiarism, they are the biggest time sinks you can possibly imagine for absolutely no gain on anyone’s behalf, even when they are wrong. They take huge amounts of time and effort to resolve.

    Frankly, from a personal perspective, reproducing large swathes of your previous articles in new ones is also an offence against your readers. I am not suggesting that every single word or sentence needs to be different, but when entire paragraphs or sections of text are effectively repeated between your articles it makes them intensely tedious to read (and primary papers are bad enough in that regard already without the issue being further compounded by an author’s laziness). It might not be an effective use of an author’s time but it certainly is of the reader’s (and Editor’s)!

    [P.S. Sorry for the hijack but as comments have died off, I hope you’ll forgive me. Also sorry for a very long delay in replying.]

  60. Mike Taylor Says:

    Jonathan writes:

    Plagiarism is a sub-set of copyright abuse, so …

    Sorry, let me stop you there. No. Plagiarism is nothing to do with copyright. It’s about misrepresenting the originality of ideas. I could violate your copyright by distributing copies of a work that you have not licenced for distribution, and that would not be plagiarism so long as the authorship was clear. And I could plagiarise you by stating your ideas in my own words, and it would not be copyright violation. They are two wholly separate things.

    For more, see the Wikipedia article.

  61. Mike Taylor Says:

    Of course, a given passage may be guilty of both plagiarism and copyright violation, but that doesn’t make the two offences the same thing, any more than a car parked on a double-yellow line by a man with a gun in his pockets makes a parking violation the same thing as carring a concealed weapon.

  62. […] 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 […]

  63. Ellie Says:

    I’ve twice had “reject, resubmit” at (dare I name it?) Mol. Ecol. In my naivety, I first thought that meant what it said and we’d be better off trying another journal. So for one paper I sent it off to another journal, where it was accepted pretty much straight away. I was then very puzzled to get a plaintive letter from Mol Ecol asking where my resubmission was, and was left thinkiing “but you bloody rejected it!”. (It would be nice poetic justice if the paper turned out to be a high flying paper which was widely citied and seminal in its field – I can assure you it’s not).

    For the other paper which got the same “reject, resubmit”, my then supervisor said it was just their way of saying major revisons, so we duely addressed the comments and it duely got published with a seemingly nice short gap between submission and publication. And no second round of peer review, which you might have expected if it was genuinely bad enough to be rejected and resubmitted.

    Maybe the solution is to take journals at their word when they say the paper is rejected (ignoring the suggestion to resubmit) and to take the paper elsewhere. Of course, it wastes the author’s time, the reviewers’ time and the editor’s time, but I don’t think it would take long for editors to twig and stop doing it.

  64. Mike Taylor Says:

    I was then very puzzled to get a plaintive letter from Mol Ecol asking where my resubmission was, and was left thinkiing “but you bloody rejected it!”.

    Well, quite. Evidently some journals have got so used to routinely lying that it takes them by surprise when they find someone who’s not participating in their delusion. I’m sorry for the extra work it caused you, but I’m glad you did the right thing, even if inadvertently.

    Your policy of taking rejections at face value is good one. But I’ll go one further: I will save such journals the pointless work of rejecting papers that they actually want, by not submitting to them in the first place.

  65. […] This process is actually very simple. In fact, it is so simple that I achieve most parts of it with standard technology such as the WordPress installation producing this page. Peer-review can be easily layered on top of this as we have with KnowledgeBlog ( I am still in two minds about whether I value peer-review. It can be valuable scientifically, but in many cases it boils down to comments about how the reviewer would have written the paper; like most scientists, I am careful about my work, and get others to check much of it before I publish. And even when it does add value, it can slow down publication enormously, sometimes to the extent that publishers appear to wish to finesse the issue ( […]

  66. […] to be critical of them, I’ve also been critical of Palaeontologia Electronica, PLOS and Royal Society publishing, among others; and I have praised Elsevier when they’ve done good […]

  67. […] and fairly, but there are cases when this isn’t the case — as for example when I was one of three reviewers who wholeheartedly recommended acceptance but the editor rejected the p…. Even discussing that situation was difficult, because the reviews in question were not available […]

  68. […] at SV-POW!, we are an equal-opportunity criticiser of publishers: Springer, PLOS, Elsevier, the Royal Society, Nature, we don’t care. We call problems as we see them, where we see them. Here is one that […]

  69. […] a sequence of posts about misleading review/reject/resubmit practices by Royal Society journals (Dear Royal Society, please stop lying to us about publication times; We will no longer provide peer reviews for Royal Society journals until they adopt honest […]

  70. AJ Says:

    I realise that it has been a while since the last comment, but I have a paper in review at the Royal Soc B. We submitted in March and we too got the infamous rejection letter after 3 months of review. We resubmitted in July and are yet to hear back. This is likely to be another rejection to clear their slate – don’t believe the 30 day average turnaround figures!

  71. […] Think about the last review you received or wrote.  Were there any positive comments?  Was it encouraging?  Or did you need to ‘read between the lines’ to know that when they said “your paper’s been rejected”, that it had actually been accepted? […]

  72. […] just depend on its content.  Some journals published by the Royal Society appear to be gaming the system to drastically reduce (or rather, present the appearance of reducing) their submission-to-decision […]

  73. […] as I recall the same issue cropping up in journals published by The Royal Society, as covered on Sauropod Vertebra Picture of the Week in […]

  74. […] will remember that nearly two years ago, I reviewed a paper for the Royal Society’s journal Biology Letters, recommended acceptance […]

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