Your First "First-Author" Paper, Part 2--The Act of Submission and Peering at the Review Process

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From first draft to final acceptance, getting a scientific paper published can take months, if not longer. Having just been through the paper-writing mill, I'd like to offer a few reflections on how my new bit of human knowledge reached the printed page. (OK, OK, I should have said 'our' bit of knowledge. I am first author, not that rarest of beasts, the sole author. But, you'll have to bear with me and my relentless use of the phrase 'my paper' hereafter--my personality has become spot-welded to this particular piece of work.)

I thought my paper was written, approved by all authors, and ready to submit. I'd written it with a specific journal in mind. (Naturally, my boss had a much better feel for where to submit than I did. In truth, choosing where to submit is still somewhat of a mystery to me.)

The trouble was, I'd not yet read the 'information for authors' for my chosen publication. This stuff is usually available online and it turned out to be a formidable list of very specific requirements, almost 'picky' in its exactness. I soon appreciated that failure to comply precisely with any one of these points could lead to rapid rejection of my paper.

First I ensured that my manuscript (ms) fitted the requirements of the journal. For instance, my abstract was longer than the specified 200 words and I didn't have a short running title prepared. To check that I'd got it all hunky-dory I carefully perused several recent papers from this journal. As poorly written papers are often returned without even being reviewed I paid a great deal of attention to whether my English made sense. I take my hat off to all the non-native speakers out there who manage to write their science in clear, concise, and unambiguous English. It's not easy!

Next I turned my attention to my figures. I'd never even printed them out until this point and soon got a shock when I did. They looked, well, totally black. Not at all what I could see on the screen, and not what I'd expected. Never waste time optimising your figures on screen until you've seen what the end product looks like. Even if you are submitting your paper online, you should check your printed figures first. Remember--the journal's editors and typesetters decide on the final size of your figures, not you. Lest some unseen hand shrank my figures, I tried to make them as plain and simple as I could.

Once I was happy with my final, no I mean really final, final draft, I composed a covering letter to the editor on behalf of my boss, who was the 'corresponding author'. In practice, this meant he received the editor's correspondence and then passed it to me to deal with. It's quite legitimate to use the covering letter as an opportunity to stake a claim for the importance of your work, and suggest your preferred reviewers. You can also mention anyone you'd like not to review your work, a scientist working in a competing group, for instance. I tried to sell my paper to the editor in glowingly understated terms.

Electronic online submission is now a reality for most, if not all, top journals. This saves you the hassle of printing out several copies and then relying on snail-mail. What's more there's often a facility for you to track the seamless progress of your paper as it cruises unhindered through the peer-review process. You wish! To submit electronically, you'll need to register yourself on the journal's Web page. They usually send you a page proof of your ms converted to PDF format. If you are not an e-freak, consider this: Why submit manually when the first thing the journal staff will do is enter your files into the same electronic submission system?

After an interminable few weeks of waiting, the referees' reports finally arrived. I found it fascinating to read the opening paragraphs, where each referee summarised what he or she thought my paper said. Thank goodness that, on the whole, they reached the same conclusion as me!

The covering letter from the editor said that all three reviewers agreed the paper made a novel and important contribution that was of interest to the journal's readership and should be published. 'Great news', I thought. Then I read on a bit more. 'Oh, I see, they want some changes to the figures, and some more experiments, and there are a few typos to correct, and they don't like the interpretation of some of the results.' Whilst my boss reassured me that this really was a most excellent response I felt weighed down with pressure. After all, we'd only been given a few weeks to respond with our amended ms. If we missed the window, we'd have to start the submission process all over again.

The editor had drawn particular attention to some of the referees' comments. It was clear that we must respond to these points to have any chance of 'getting in'. Though this implied to me that responding to the other comments was not as crucial, on reflection I didn't want to risk it, so I tried to take account of most of them. I soon learned that the best type of referee writes orderly numbered comments. These are easy to deal with one at a time. It's hard work deciphering long pieces of prose to pick out specific points.

To get through this pressurised process my boss and I drew up a hit list of points, merged from all the referees' and the editor's comments. First I dealt with the typos and any easily changed sentences. These amendments only took an hour and greatly encouraged me that we could meet the deadline. The additional experiments were completed within a couple of weeks and, with a few days to spare, we'd made what other amendments we saw fit. I didn't realise that we had such licence to argue against other suggested changes. Indeed, I recently met a scientist who didn't make any of the substantive changes asked for by a key referee. He just argued his case, explained where the referee had misunderstood what he'd meant or done, and eventually got his paper accepted. It was virtually unaltered from the original ms. To be on the safe side I made sure we had responded in some way to each point, if only to make it clear why we did not think the criticism was valid.

Even though I heaved a sigh of relief once my boss got the final letter of acceptance, it still wasn't over. A few weeks later we had to check and correct a final proof of the paper. The turnaround at this stage is rapid. We were only given 24 hours to provide our corrections. Bizarrely enough, after all those changes it was a little unnerving to wave bye-bye to the last chance to tinker with the odd word.

I guess, with hindsight, I was lucky and my first, first-author experience was pretty painless. I stand in awe of those diligent scribes who go through this entire process three or more times before finally getting their work accepted.

Meanwhile, back at the bench ...

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