Nature Journal Editors are Well-Meaning and Insightful

Or maybe, in light of today’s editorial, Nature’s Choices, inciteful. The editors:

offer an explanation of how we pick research papers for publication in Nature, focusing on a number of false impressions that we have become aware of in and beyond the research community.

Myths addressed include gaming impact factor, kowtowing to big names, using only a small clique of reviewers per discipline, and allowing a single spiteful reviewer to derail a submission. And, indeed, they do not at all mind admitting outright that:

… there were several occasions last year when all the referees were underwhelmed by a paper, yet we published it on the basis of our own estimation of its worth.

Hmm. Refreshing honesty, but one wonders the long-term outcome of these papers and whether reveiwers whose recommendations were ignored (particularly if there was consensus, unbeknownst to them, among the reviewers against publication) were inclined to accept more Nature manuscripts for review, having had their time, effort, and expertise discounted by an editor’s prerogative. The editorial explains that decisions on which papers to publish are made

on the basis of criteria such as the paper’s depth of mechanistic insight, or its value as a data resource or in enabling applications of an innovative technique.

Well, at least no tarot cards seem to be involved. In the end, they conclude:

Myths about journals will continue to proliferate. We can only attempt to ensure that the processes characterized above remain as robust and objective as possible, in our perpetual quest to deliver to our readers the best science that we can muster.

Perhaps continue with the transparency as part of your “attempt to ensure … as possible”? Perhaps remind readers of how you “become aware of” false impressions and channels through which concerns can be raised, such as your thoughtful but undersubscribed Peer-to-Peer blog?

22 Comments »

  1. bikemonkey said

    heavy on protestation. heavy on irrelevant proof like “we rejected one big wig’s paper” and “we have a lot of reviewers”.

    weak on admitting whose opinions are most influential. weak on explaining why schmoozing in “scientific meetings and labs” does not lead to bias. weak on explaining how they prevent location/reputation bias from actually affecting editorial decision making (especially when overruling reviews).

    weakest of all in not addressing the personal interactions / communications editors have with BigCheez investigators who argue their position…

  2. The biggest problem of all is that most papers submitted to Nature are never even seen by an actual working scientist, because they are not sent out for review. This is where the bigwigs and their hobnobbing/lobbying efforts introduce by far the biggest bias: they can more readily get their papers into the hands of scientific referees, and out of the hands of the “professional” Editors. It is notable that the linked piece – and I use that word advisedly – hardly even touches on this most salient of points.

  3. whimple said

    Spiny, you’re totally wrong. Nature is a great journal *because* most papers are never seen by an “actual working scientist”. The very first step in review is an “is this actually important?” reality check. Without exception, ALL of the very top journals (in biomedical sciences) operate this way.

  4. bikemonkey said

    Really whimple? And how much of that artificial faked up mechanism co binatorial madeup garbaggio ends up being replicated, never mind useful for anything?

  5. BB said

    Nature: the journal that published water has memory, that Nature?

    Nature. 1988 Jun 30;333(6176):816-8.
    Human basophil degranulation triggered by very dilute antiserum against IgE.
    Davenas E, Beauvais F, Amara J, Oberbaum M, Robinzon B, Miadonna A, Tedeschi A, Pomeranz B, Fortner P, Belon P, et al.

  6. whimple said

    Yeah, you’re right. Nature sucks. Better just keep submitting those manuscripts to PLoS ONE.

  7. bikemonkey said

    http://damngoodtechnician.blogspot.com/2010/02/journal-accountability.html

    sure sounds like chasing high-citation pubs to me…

  8. I’ve published in Nature, Whimple. Have you?

  9. whimple said

    No Spiny, I haven’t.

  10. iGrrrl said

    Just to put another perspective on this: I’ve been told by people in fields outside biomedicine, like astrophysics and geology, that they do not consider Nature publications to have any particular import. In fact, one astronomer thought it was more of a popular magazine (“like Scientific American, but for scientists”) than a high-impact journal.

    Also, I write, edit, and teach grant writing for a living, and if there’s one thing I’ve seen scientists fail to do, it’s bother to tell the reader/editor why the work is significant. It doesn’t just emerge from the text, surprisingly…

  11. Part of the problem with “significance” is that it is often not clear until years later what is significant, and why.

    • iGrrrl said

      While that’s true that impact can’t be known until later, I will still contend that I’ve read a lot of deathly dull, boring, and “so what?” descriptions of what is fascinating and groundbreaking work. You don’t have to write like USA today, but in my experience, it never helps a grant application to start with a user-generated acronym.

      The biggest issue seems to be writers expecting the significance to “emerge from the text,” something I used to hear a lot in response to my criticisms of NSF Summary pages. The NSF GPG used to simply state that the Summary must address the review criteria of Intellectual Merit and Broader Impacts, but those words were very rarely seen in Summary pages to guide the reviewer toward where the information would be found. NSF changed the GPG to add, “Proposals that do not separately address both merit review criteria within the one-page Project Summary will be returned without review.” In other words, it helps to plant a flag on it.

  12. “Just to put another perspective on this: I’ve been told by people in fields outside biomedicine, like astrophysics and geology, that they do not consider Nature publications to have any particular import. ”

    That’s because at this point, publication in physics and mathematics journals is essentially archival. The real action is at http://arxiv.org/ . Smart bastards, those physicists and mathematicians.

    • It seems to me that people are happy to criticise Nature and other journals but at the same time they aren’t prepared to put their paper where there mouth is. The pre-print archive Nature Precedings http://precedings.nature.com/ is free to publish on and free to read – and yet it has no where near the number of articles that PLoS One has. I have no idea of the readership figures, but I’d bet my house that Nature journal gets more readers.

      And I’m delighted to hear from iGrrrl that some scientists consider Nature to be a like a pop-sci magazine. As a former subeditor for Nature, I know exactly how much effort goes into making the articles readable. Scientists do like to bury good news.

      • “is free to publish on and free to read – and yet it has no where near the number of articles that PLoS One has.”

        Unlike PLoS One, Nature Precedings is not peer-reviewed, not a journal, not indexed by Medline, and is run by a private for-profit publisher.

        It’s rather hard to see the upside.

  13. parkweg35 said

    MS: 2010-02-1538
    Message for Senior editor Nature Biological Sciences dr. Henry Gee.

    Dear dr. Gee,

    It is not my habit to react to a negative decision if a paper of mine has not been accepted for publication. It has happened before in my long life as a scientist. It is the editor’s prerogative to accept or to refuse a paper for publication. But this time I was upset and not so much because the paper was not accepted, but by the speed (almost by returning mail) by which this has occurred, indeed without expert review. Your decisions seem to be rather a matter of taste than of expertise. We sent our paper on Saturday 6 February, so it could not have been on your desk before Monday 8 February and it was returned the next day, February 9. This is almost faster than light. I would not have reacted to your decision if professor Jutta Schaper of the Max Planck Institute in Bad Nauheim, in Germany had not forwarded the message, here below. I indeed felt and feel that your handling of my paper was unfair and unprofessional. This is not an attempt to ask for a revision; I may not even get an answer. That is undoubtedly not your policy, but in the long run arrogance never pays of. Nature has been too valuable a journal to have it compromised by this treatment of honest attempts of making a contribution to the progress of science. A friend of mine the leading American cardiologist Charles Fisch of the second half of last century always said: “People you meet on your way up, you meet again on your way down”.

    Sincerely yours, FLM

    Dr. Frits L. Meijler
    29 Ign. Bispincklaan
    NL-2061 EM Bloemendaal
    tel: +31-(0)23-5266515
    mob: +31-(0)6-51362214
    e-mail: denham@euronet.nl
    http://www.euronet.nl/~denham/

    • Eskimo said

      What does the message forwarded by the Max Planck researcher say?

      • writedit said

        Dr. Meijler writes (I include his summary rather than the actual communication, which is not in English):

        “This is the message professor Jutta Schaper sent me. The first lines are in Dutch (prof. Schaper is fluent in Dutch). She was one of the peers who reviewed my paper before I sent it to Nature. She said that she regretted that Nature had thrown my paper away. At the same time she sent me “Nature Journal Editors etc.” [this blog post].”

  14. writedit said

    In The Scientist, Brendan Borrell calls our attention to Nature’s rejection in 1937 of a manuscript by Hans Krebs (yes, the Krebs cycle Krebs).

  15. Ramachandra said

    Nature is a journal that tries to see submissions as objectively as possible. Many times, peer review process can only bring incremental increase in knowledge. None of the evolutionary thinking or discoveries will ever get approved by the peer groups as it might frighten the peers with the fear that it will cause collapse of the reseach that has been done for generations.

    For leaping progress in science, we need novel ideas. Only Nature can see them. That is what Nature should do and is doing. Nature looks for work that challenges existing concepts especially in fields where progress was not made for the last many years. For example fileds like aging, memory storage, consciousness, particles responsible for mass of an atom etc.

    Nature is the only journal that is doing this approach. If these great papers are rejected by Nature, they will never get accepted anywhere else. Then, even if the authors shout, no one will listen. It will be a chance that the whole human race will be losing. We should never allow that to happen. Nature should never allow that to happen.

    This is an objective thought.

  16. jubakala said

    Hmm… I found this blog-post from Google when I was searching some posts of the rock band Editors… But, I guess it’s about some different kind of editors… So I keep searching, bye!😀

    Regards,

    The Editors Discography Guy

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