The Researcher's Dilemma

Dr Elie E Daou
Dr Elie E Daou
Doctorate
Lebanese University
Beirut, Lebanon
Specialties: Prosthodontics

In this era of instant information dissemination, our scientific publishing system is moving slower than ever. The time needed nowadays to get a paper published can make a scientist frustrated. Is it getting worse?

When an author submits a paper for publication, he has little idea of the painful saga coming ahead. Submission to some journals will sometimes be rejected even without being peer-reviewed. And when a journal with high-impact sends the paper for review, it is still the first step on a long difficult process before publication. Sometimes it takes several submissions, rejections, major revisions and many drafts before getting published. But the blame for delays in scientific publishing should be shared by all participating parties (1). Editors are sometimes blamed for being indecisive, reviewers for over-tasking, and authors for over-extrapolating. The time it takes to publish a work is now tackling the researchers - they consider themselves trapped in a cycle of submission, rejection, review, re-review and re-review. Peer review is simply as fast as the slowest reviewer. The procedure can eat up months of their lives, and it sometimes interferes with job, grant and tenure applications. This can also slow down the dissemination of results. Repercussions will follow on scientific conferences where participants omit to talk about unpublished data. For academic scientists, publication is mandatory for career advancement. Manuscripts retained under review may have major effects on academic careers, especially for young investigators.

Is the publication’s process getting longer? And if so, why?

Open-access journals and some of the most sought-after titles have increased the wait time. According to Himmelstein’s analysis, the median review time at Nature, has risen from 85 days to just above 150 days over the past decade. At PLoS ONE it has grown from 37 to 125 days over roughly the same period.(2)

For scientists, this delay doesn't seem logical. Advances in digital publishing and the proliferation of journals should be speeding things up. However, journals are taking too long to review papers, and reviewers are now requesting more data, revisions and new experiments. Journals argue that science itself has become more data-rich. Editors work to maintain high editorial and peer-review standards, while they are dealing with increasing numbers of papers. They counter that they are taking steps to accelerate the process.

These waiting times and publication practices may also vary widely by discipline. Competition is somehow fierce and publishing in prestigious journals is tremendous for career advancement. The multiple rejections can be demoralizing for the applicant, who had completed the experiments; The paper is mandatory to graduate (3).

Researchers follow the well-known submission practice. They apply first to the most prestigious journals in their field (usually with the highest impact factor). Then they work their way down the hierarchy. Journal reputation and impact factor are generally used by scientists and grant-review and hiring committees to evaluate a paper(1).

On the flip side, editors may seek out the resounding papers to boost their publication’s impact factor. This would increase rejection rates and add to the wait time. It appears that journals with the lowest and highest impact factors had review times longer than those in the middle. The review times of those in the middle stood at around 100 days. Journals with very highest impact factors (30–50) had a review time of 150 days. Submitting a paper to a series of top journals may result in significant delays in publication. Authors need to objectively choose the most appropriate journal. Not every paper is supposed to be published in the big three journals. But each paper will fit in a specific journal(1).

However, in many cases, the question is whether to submit, instead of where to submit. Data needs to be completed in order to say something substantial.

Peer Review Process

As the number of scientists and papers increased, the material for publication began to accumulate, together with specialization, something more like the “peer review of today” has been set up. Nature introduced a version of it in 1953 and implemented the seeds of what we have today in 1967. But the Lancet only introduced it in 1976! From this initiative to create a fair structure to control the quality of what is published, a complex system is now well anchored. Today, this complicated production can keep your paper in the backstage for up to two years in the high end of the market(3).

The process of peer review has been intensely scrutinized in the recent years(4, 5). The long peer-review and revision process can sometimes improve the paper. But this rarely fundamentally changes the content. The main headlines or conclusion remain globally unchanged. The chief role of the reviewers is to give advice to the authors, helping them to avoid publishing incomplete, flawed or wrong work.

Depending on the journal, the mean review time almost doubled in the past decade, from an average of 50–130 days to 150–250 days (6). The argument is that peer reviewers now ask for more. The amount of data required for a publication had gone up. Authors try to meet reviewers’ demands by adding data (7) . Scientists complain about overzealous reviewers who always seem to want more, or different, experiments. However, Authors remain the ultimate responsible of the paper. They endorse the responsibility of the content. (1)

When reviews are mixed, journal editors lack sometimes to provide clear guidance and decisions to authors— unnecessarily protracting the review and revision process. Journal heads argue that their editors are skillful in handling mixed reviews. Journals undertake the publication decisions and thereafter, help authors to set out revisions plan. Editors add that technological advances mean more and more data process, with a strong will to make that information available to the community.

While it is known that it is not ideal to have research evaluated by a single person, editors recognize that publication time has risen. Volume of papers submitted has grown too. This needs time to find and assign appropriate editors and reviewers. The list of essential checkpoints has increased the last years (conflict of interest, plagiarism, ethics...). The number of papers published in PubMed has more than doubled between 2000 and 2015, with about 1 million articles. It is to be known that, for a specified field, the number of appropriate reviewers is limited. To avoid to be corrected by less suitable expert, submitting to the correct journal would be a solution. (1)

Digital technology Advances

The technology is accelerating the pace of science in a truly breathtaking speed. Conversely, the scientific publishing is going on a reverse trend, by decelerating the handling speed of the papers. Whereas, in the late nineties, manuscripts had to be submitted and reviewed by multiple hard copies, the truth is that publishing was quite rapid. The shift to electronic web-based submission did not speed up all aspects of peer-review. (8)

The time from acceptance to publication may be shortened by Digital publishing. This can reduce ‘production’ time, rather than the time in review. Time needed in production has been reduced by half since the early 2000s. It is now in a mean of 25 days (2).

To enhance transparency, some journals now encourage open peer review. Reviewers’ names, as well as their comments are posted alongside articles. This is an attempt to prevent unnecessary delays or arduous revision requests from reviewers. Several new journals and online publishing platforms took the challenge to speed up the process even more. Comparison between journals remains difficult. Received, revised and accepted days are defined differently between the publications. In fact, it is frequent practice at many journals to remove the date of initial submission. The submission counter is reset to the final submission preceding a positive decision. Noting that many manuscripts are subjected to many submissions and rejections, months can elapse between the initial submission and the ultimate publication.

Preprints Repositories

One way to accelerate publication is to embrace preprints. Work can quickly receive credit and critique. BioRxiv is a preprint repository for biological sciences (9). It is hosted by Cold Spring Harbor Labortory in New York . As preprints, papers hosted on bioRxiv are not peer-reviewed, but undergo basic screening and checked against plagiarism. Readers may offer comments on the preprint. Successive revisions are time-stamped. A preprint submitted to bioRxiv is published online within 24 hours. It is also given a DOI (Digital Object Identifier). The moment it gets into the public domain”, the research story may benefit from the collective power of different brains looking at a problem (7). Supporters say that preprint publishing can simply be added onto the conventional publication process. F1000Research, is another open access, open peer-review scientific publishing platform covering the life sciences. Articles are published first and per-reviewed after publication by invited referees. The peer-reviewer’s names and comments are visible on the site. As part of its open science model, the data behind each article is also published and is downloadable. F1000Research publishes multiple article types including traditional research articles, single findings, case reports, protocols, replications and null or negative results (10).

Figshare, Zenodo or Github are new online digital research data repositories. Through these sites, researchers can preserve and share their research outputs, including figures, datasets, images... in adherence to the principle of open data (11). Some scientists publish each hypothesis, data collection or figure as they go along. Each file is citable and traceable by a given DOI.

Is it gaining by publishing in a conventional journal? Or is it more efficient to get the research out there by the fastest platform? The risk is still there to be scooped by competitors. Researchers may also lose credit and intellectual-property for their ideas. Scientists still need to run after high-impact journal and pass through peer-review process for academic upgrading and or CV enrichment. Scientific community still relies on conventional journals as a ‘prestige filter’ where important papers can be brought to the attention of the right readers.

References

1. Vosshall LB. The glacial Pace of Scientific Publishing : Why it hurts everyone and what we can do to fix it. FASEB J. (2012).26:3589-93.

2. Himmelstein DS, Powell K. . Analysis for 'the history of publishing delays '. Zenodo Repository http://doiorg/bb95 (2016).

3. https://quantixed.wordpress.com/2014/04/15/some-things-last-a-long-time/.

4. Goldbeck-Wood S. Evidence on peer review-scientific quality control or smokescreen? BMJ 1999;318:44-5.

5. Rennie D. Fourth International Congress on Peer Review in Biomedical Publication. JAMA. 2002;287:2759-60.

6. Hartgerink C. https://www.authorea.com/users/2013/articles/36067/_show_article.

7. Vale RD. Accelerating scientific publication in biology. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA 112, 13439-13446 (2015)

8. Ploegh H. End the wasteful tyranny of reviewer experiments. Nature. 2011;472,:391.

9. Callaway E. Preprints come to life. Nature. 2013 (Nov 12);503(7475):180. doi:10.1038/503180a. .

10. "About". F1000Research. Retrieved 2014-02-28.

11. Fener M. "Figshare: Interview with Mark Hahnel". Plos Blogs. 19 June 2013


About the Author

Elie E. Daou

Department of Prosthodontics, School of Dentistry, Lebanese University, Beirut, Lebanon