One of the most important aspects of any piece of research is the publication of the results. This is the point where you submit your work for scrutiny by your peers. That in itself is always a heart-in-mouth moment when you discover what they really think about your research!
But if you think that’s difficult, just went to try one of the electronic manuscript submission programs so popular among the journals these days.
When I were a lad it were simple (last sentence to be said in a kind of maudling Yorkshire accent).
You simply bundled three copies of the manuscript into a big envelope and winged it on its way to Brain Research, Journal of Neuroscience or wherever. Something like three months would elapse and then you would receive either a thin or a thick envelope. The thick envelope usually signified that the reviewers wanted massive revision to your work before they would even entertain the idea of looking at it again. A thin envelope could mean one of two things. Either your manuscript was so awful that the reviewers could not bring themselves even to look at it. Or the manuscript had so completely dazzled the reviewers that they were literally speechless.
Over the years that I was an active researcher, I saw pretty much all of these types of envelope. On one occasion, in a scene reminiscent of the recent Oscars debacle, I received two envelopes on the same day – one rejecting the manuscript and the other accepting it. A couple of days later the third envelope arrived to tell me which of the first two was the correct assessment of my work. Fortunately it turned out to be the more favourable although I’ve always suspected the decision was made by their legal department, fearing litigation from a thwarted author.
Nowadays the process is much more streamlined. At least from the point of view of the editorial offices. No longer do they receive acres of rainforest each day. No longer does their shredder burn red at night. Instead, the editorial office is a buzz of electrons tripping their way to and fro. In the modern digital age you can reject an author’s work in milliseconds. No longer must those manuscripts return to the sender, like Phileas Fogg, by rail, steam and road. The press of a button and a clatter of electrons commits the author’s life work to an electronic dustbin.
But I’m jumping ahead. Already we are talking about assessment and rejection of the paper. Let’s go back to the beginning and the simple process of submitting a manuscript.
Digital manuscript submission is massively time-saving for the editorial office. It achieves this by being massively labour-intensive for the authors submitting the paper. In days of yore, a covering letter went with the manuscript (so they would know where to send the rejection letter) asking them to consider it for publication. That was it. No email addresses (not that there were any when I started submitting papers), Twitter handles or web addresses. All the spade work was done by the editorial office who had to allocate reviewers, despatch the article to them, wait for the reviews, collate them and distil the thoughts for the hapless author.
Now it’s different. Writing the manuscript is a doddle compared with the process of submission. Usually this is a sequence of maybe a half-dozen sequential screens. Each screen must be completed in sequence and may contain up to 20 different elements. Nearly all will have that tell-tale asterisk, indicating that this is a “mandatory field”. One which must be completed – and I mean completed – before progression to the next level. Prince of Persia was a walk in the park compared with submission of a scientific manuscript.
The first screen usually has the basics – your name, address, email, office telephone number, mobile telephone number, inside leg measurement, names of children, bank account details, political leanings, credit card numbers, blood group, sexual preference, and keys to your car. Assuming you fill that out correctly, you may move onto the next level. Of course this won’t happen the first time. No, on the first time you will receive a message telling you that you have inappropriately capitalised one of the words. Needless to say, it won’t tell you which word. That’s the first part of your initiative test. So you spend 20 minutes, changing each response, one by one. If you’re lucky, it will retain your existing answers. If you’re unlucky, each will have to be re-entered from scratch. And if you’re really unlucky, you will simply get a message saying something like “syntax error in line 28”. You almost certainly don’t know which is line 28. In any case it doesn’t matter. All the program is really saying is “you are an idiot who cannot fill out a form correctly. I blow my nose at you.”
By the end of the first hour you have completed perhaps two of six screens, sworn at your co-workers and downed your third espresso of the morning. By the end of screen four, the journal knows more about you than the CIA and on every street corner there seem to be men in dark glasses with walkie-talkies. But often, it never gets that far. By the end of the entire process, the screen asking who should pay for the wall across the Mexican border, you have lost the will to live and are weighing up different exit options. Or at the very least burying your keyboard in the computer screen. Or deciding that you didn’t want to be a scientist anyway.
You click submit and immediately an email pops up in your inbox telling you that there will be a processing fee for your manuscript. You pay $1000 or something like that for the privilege of having your work assessed. Unbelievable. Even more unbelievable is the fact that many authors accede to this. It’s rather like having to buy your own Christmas presents. But nonetheless, you agree. Then another email arrives saying there will be page fees and additional costs for the reproduction of colour figures. And that’s in an online journal.
I can’t help feeling, and I say this as both an author and a member of several journal editorial boards – a sort of poacher turned gamekeeper, that the process really doesn’t need to be this difficult. I would be very interested to know which journals receive the most manuscripts. I can’t help feeling that it will be those who submission process is easiest. The ones which don’t need the complete addresses and emails of every single one of the 25 authors on the paper. The ones which don’t require electronic signatures. The ones which don’t charge for every bell and whistle that your paper doesn’t need anyway.
Everything we do that makes the job of the editorial board simpler makes the job of the scientists more difficult. Aren’t we getting this the wrong way round?