How does scientific publishing work?

So we talk a lot about the studies we do, and we’ve had a lot of summaries on here of the published papers detailing the results of the research studies.  What might be a bit of a mystery though is how the process between those two points works…  So here’s an overview.

Once we’ve gone through all the hard slog of acquiring research data and analysing the results, we write up a report, that we generally call a manuscript.  This is normally something around 3,000 words long, and contains:

– An introduction to the area of study, why we decided to do the research, and what we expected to find (our hypothesis).

– The ‘methods’ section, which is a detailed description of what we did and how (what equipment we used, how long we measured things for, where we identified participants from, in what order our measurements were made, etc.).

– Results:  this is where we put all the numbers, in the form of tables and graphs and some explanatory text.

– The discussion, which is where we talk about what we think the results mean.  It might be that we found what we expected (i.e. supported our hypothesis), or that we got completely different results to what we hypothesised.  Either way, we discuss aspects of the study that we think were particularly strong, highlight any weaknesses, and then refer to our results within the context of other research in the same (and related) fields.  This section often contains suggestions of what future studies could do to build on the results we’re presenting.

So once we’ve written the manuscript and all authors are happy with it (everyone who has contributed significantly to the research is listed as an author, with the first person in the list being the person who did the majority of the work, and the last person being the senior academic responsible for overseeing the project), we decide on a journal to send it to.  This decision is based on the type of research study we’ve done (there are some journals more suited to studies with a pure physiology focus, and some better for more clinically-orientated work) and how significant we think the work is.  A larger study, or one with more exciting findings (perhaps that would really change the way people think about that area of study), would be sent to a more prestigious journal.

Once the journal receives the manuscript via their online submission system, it is evaluated by a member of the journal’s editorial team.  They judge whether the manuscript is the sort of thing they’re looking for, and at that point either reject it straight away (disappointing) or decide to send it out to review.  If the latter, the manuscript will be sent to usually two or three expert researchers who work in the same field to ask them to give their opinion.  These reviewers will write a report of the manuscript and suggest how suitable they think the manuscript is for publication in the journal.  The editors of the journal will take into account the opinions of all the reviewers (and these opinions won’t always agree…) and make their decision.   They will send us an email informing us of the outcome, which will be one of three things:  that the manuscript has been rejected, that it will be reconsidered after some changes are made, or that it is accepted as it stands (a relatively unusual outcome, but one that we would celebrate with some vigour!).

If the manuscript is rejected, we will look carefully at the reviewers’ comments and make any appropriate changes to the manuscript before choosing a new journal to send it to (and the process starts again).

If changes are requested, these could be relatively simple (such as adding in some more details about the participants, including some different graphs to represent the data more clearly, or referring to some other research within the discussion section), or could be complex (for example requiring some major data reanalysis or lengthy explanations of why a certain approach was chosen).  We would work on these changes and send back a revised manuscript with a detailed letter describing what changes we have (or sometimes haven’t) made and why.  These documents then are sent back to the reviewers and they write another report.  Based on this, the editors decide whether we’ve done a good enough job for the manuscript to be accepted.  Sometimes the changes and corrections process is repeated once (or more), but generally the manuscript will be accepted in response to the first or second set of changes.

Once the manuscript has been accepted by a journal (whether that’s the first, second or fifth journal to which it was sent), the journal’s editorial assistants prepare the written document in their own specific format and send ‘proofs’ to the authors to approve (making sure that everything looks correct, there are no spelling errors, and that the layout for the journal hasn’t led any data to be presented in a misleading manner).  The paper (no longer just a manuscript) is then first published online, and a few months later appears in print (though actually very few people read journals in paper form any longer).  And importantly, we add it to our CVs!