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Robert Neubecker

Responding to peer reviews is never fun. It’s harder when COVID-19 shuts down your lab

On 18 March, I woke up and checked my email. A decision letter from a journal editor caught my eye. “We are not able at this stage to accept your manuscript for publication. I invite you to address the reviewer comments and make the necessary changes and improvements in a major revision of your manuscript,” it read. All three reviewers requested additional experiments, and the editor gave us 3 weeks to submit a revised manuscript. Under normal circumstances, such a decision would be disappointing but the experiments doable. Not in these days of COVID-19—and certainly not by the deadline we had been given.

I am a research group leader at a university in Shenzhen, China. I last saw my group members in January, when we took off for 2 weeks of vacation for the Chinese New Year. We planned to return to the university in early February. However, the unexpected spread of the new coronavirus disrupted our lives and work arrangements. Our university and lab are closed, and we have no idea when they will reopen.

During the holiday, I went to my hometown—a city roughly 600 kilometers from Wuhan, where the virus first emerged. As more and more cities were blocked to travel I flew to my current home in Hong Kong, a short commute from the campus in Shenzhen. The Hong Kong authorities then issued quarantine orders to all people entering the city from mainland China, making it impossible for me to travel to Shenzhen. My students and postdocs have faced similar problems, with some of them unable to leave their hometowns. Others are in Shenzhen, but they are not allowed to enter our lab.

The outbreak has led us to reassess what we can reasonably accomplish. I’d already planned to spend time this year editing two books. Now, I have time to write my own chapters and track the progress of other contributors. Before COVID-19 disrupted our lives, my students and postdocs were busy with lab work. With their activities now restricted to home, I’ve asked them to organize their experimental data, read some literature in depth, and write a review article that we’re collaboratively piecing together through video calls, messages, and emails. We’ve also been working to submit research manuscripts.

We can make good use of the time. But the decision letter I received on 18 March was a reminder of what we can’t do—and the consequences for our progress as researchers. Some of the comments on our manuscript, which we submitted in early February, are reasonable and can help us improve it. However, several ask us to add more data that are not important for the main conclusion. I feel the work is publishable without the additional experiments.

I can ask the editor for an extension. But I’m also left wondering something: As labs shut down in many countries for an indefinite period of time, should editors be more accommodating when authors can’t access their lab space? The first author of our manuscript is a postdoc who would benefit from the publication of his work. Is it fair to ask him to wait for months to resubmit and risk the chance that he’ll be scooped by other researchers?

Should we rethink our standard peer-review procedures?

I also see the other side of the coin. I serve as an associate editor for several scientific journals, and I’ve received more requests for deadline extensions recently. I have also been considering how to balance the reviewer comments with the difficulties authors face during the pandemic. For each manuscript I’m shepherding through the peer-review process, I find myself asking a few questions: Are additional experiments truly necessary? Can I ask reviewers to reconsider their requests for more data if the authors have already presented a compelling body of work?

I don’t have all of the answers. But I think these are important questions for the scientific community to grapple with during the weeks and months to come. As we deal with massive disruptions to daily life because of a pandemic, should we rethink our standard peer-review procedures? Can we accept that not every additional experiment is needed for a manuscript to be publishable?

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