5 Things authors must do to deliver peer-review-ready manuscripts

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5 Things authors must do to deliver peer-review-ready manuscripts

The refrain of “peer review is broken” or “science is broken” is slowly reaching a crescendo. Concomitant with the COVID-19 pandemic, there has been an “infodemic,” replete with unfortunate accounts of retractions in journals of high repute. Researchers might wonder, “If papers with such big flaws could pass peer review, what source of information can I trust?” and “If such papers can pass peer review, why am I struggling to get published?”

To answer the first question, high-impact journals should certainly continue to be trusted. You see, rates of retraction might actually be higher in more reputable journals because of the closer post-publication scrutiny of their articles. This might be attributed to the higher attention such journals receive, their wider readership, and hence, the higher chances of catching serious flaws that happened to slip through the cracks despite rigorous peer review.

As for the second question: peer review takes time. We all have been in that “waiting room” for months, swinging from anxiety to hope back to hopelessness. Unfortunately, the peer review system lends itself to an unavoidable long wait. From the point of submission onwards, there are so many players, starting with the Editor-in-Chief and associate editors, and finally, the peer reviewers (busy researchers, who need to be identified and contacted). Even after the months peer reviewers might take, the editorial office will need some time to process the reviews and finalize their decision before getting back to the authors. In a nutshell, delays need not always be ascribed to the peer reviewers; there are many administrative steps in the entire workflow.

In desperation, authors might resort to ever-beckoning predatory journals, which promise expedited peer review (or none at all) and flaunt flashy but fake scientometric indices. Some impatient authors will go to the extent of withdrawing a manuscript that is under review and succumb to dubious journals. Unfortunately, predatory publications harm science and your career.

What can be done to ensure swifter publication in high-quality journals? What if an expert can give constructive criticism even before your manuscript enters peer review, helping you to identify major gaps or flaws before submission to a target journal?

Cactus Communications provides a solution-oriented pre-peer review service that helps improve the quality of research papers before they land on a journal editor’s desk. In my association with CACTUS on this Scientific Editing service, I have been trying to do my bit to help authors avoid common mistakes that could lead to prompt desk rejection and/or a prolonged peer review process. This preliminary pre-peer review eases downstream processes and irons out issues that would have cropped up during peer review. The more the pairs of eyes a manuscript is scanned by, the more extensive and diverse the feedback. Feedback from a subject-matter expert might guide the author toward different perspectives of looking at the study or interpreting their results, especially aspects like study implications and future scope. In my experience, these different viewpoints have often helped authors streamline their manuscripts a little differently and much more effectively. As a scientific reviewer, I try to provide specific and actionable suggestions, with clear examples where additional details are needed to clarify the rationale and significance of the study. Overall, I try to assess the originality of the study, the appropriateness of the approach and methodology, the quality of the data, and the reliability and significance of the conclusions. Accordingly, I draw up an assessment of the strengths and weaknesses of the work and the manuscript, and where needed, I point out references to studies that might have been missed by the authors.

Concordant with the dramatic increase in scholarly submissions, the number of desk rejections is rising every year. According to one estimate, nearly 20% of submitted manuscripts are rejected before peer review, while another 30% are rejected after review. Following the tips listed below can help your paper stand out and heighten its chances of being in the category of the other 50% of submissions.

Tip no. 1: Select your journal wisely. Scan relevant scholarly databases and shortlist candidate journals. Ask yourself: does your paper fit the standards and scope of the journals you have selected? Next, for the journal you choose, scrutinize the aims and scope and scan latest issues. Ask yourself: does the journal accept the article type that you intend to submit? Selecting a journal with a good match with your research is a vital key to avoid prompt desk rejection. A word of caution: beware of predatory journals; ensure that the publisher is well-established. During Scientific Editing's reviews, I have had the opportunity to point out journal mismatches to researchers and provide them with better suggestions.

Tip no. 2: Be patient. Getting back a decision after peer review can take months, but have faith in science and peer review! Very often, exasperated early-career researchers ask if they should resort to multiple submission. Some authors withdraw their manuscript from other journals as soon as it is accepted by one journal. I would like to emphasize that simultaneously submitting a manuscript to two or more journals is unethical, and journal editors might investigate suspicious withdrawals and take appropriate action.

Tip 3: Stay away from bad science. Ensure that blinding, randomization, control groups, and sample and effect sizes are appropriate. When in doubt, do not hesitate to get external help from a statistician. Do not play with your data. Resist the temptation of data and image fabrication or falsification, as well as data dredging practices like p-hacking and HARKing. Misconduct, if undetected by peer review, is increasingly being identified by science integrity sleuths.

Tip 4: Do not sensationalize your title. An exaggerated title that does not match the findings is a recipe for disaster. As soon as the editors and referees identify that you are trying to oversell your study, they might reject the manuscript. Make sure the title is catchy yet representative of the study. Findings need not always be groundbreaking!

Tip 5: Ensure a complete submission package. Your manuscript is usually accompanied by other elements (which might vary across journals). Ensure that the manuscript is complete in every aspect and has been formatted according to the journal’s guidelines. Scan the journal’s submission checklist and make sure you include all the listed items, e.g., highlights, supplementary material, graphical abstract, author contributions, disclosure of conflicting and competing interests, and approvals for studies involving humans or animals. Provide an effective cover letter that explains the motivation for submission to the journal and the significance of the study.

Spurred by the upheaval the COVID-19 pandemic has brought about, some journals are tweaking the peer review process to make it more author-friendly. The future of scholarly publishing can be expected to become more author-centric and collaborative. Traditional peer review might eventually give way to newer models, such as open peer review and post-publication peer review. Irrespective of the form of peer review, it is here to stay and will continue to serve its gatekeeper function. As a researcher, you need to continue to maximize your chances of a manuscript (i) getting sent for peer review and (ii) getting accepted after revision and resubmission in a fitting journal that reaches the right audience. While you want to convince editors and reviewers of the merit of your study, this should not be done by resorting to devious practices.

This article is part of the CACTUS Peer Review Week 2020, which brings together curated articles, expert-led webinars, and insights from top peer reviewers across the world.

Sunaina did her masters and doctorate in plant genetic resources, specializing in the use of molecular markers for genotyping horticultural cultivars
See more from Sunaina Sinha


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