The publication process – perspectives of an editor

Bjørn O. Mysen

The principal permanent record of our work as scientists is publication in a peer-reviewed professional journal. Editors facilitate the publication process that builds this record.

Here, I will offer a few thoughts and observations from my own experience as an editor by describing the normal process and role of the participants. I also will show examples of what may not be uncommon, but is not acceptable.

Authors and authorship
Each and every author is responsible for the content of a manuscript. Most academic institutions and journals have rules that govern authorship. For example, the following excerpt from the guidelines of authorship of the Medical School of Harvard University states that
"Everyone who is listed as an author should have made a substantial, direct, intellectual contribution to the work. For example (in the case of a research report) they should have contributed to the conception, design, analysis and/or interpretation of data. Honorary or guest authorship is not acceptable. Acquisition of funding and provision of technical services, patients, or materials, while they may be essential to the work, are not in themselves sufficient contributions to justify authorship.(Source: Authorship Guidelines of the Medical School of Harvard University)

Similar rules can be found for most academic institutions.

These rules, however, frequently are ignored. In my experience, one of the most glaringly inappropriate attempts at gaining undeserved authorship was a very senior person demanding co-authorship of paper because as he put it “…I am interested in the topic”. Other cases of ghost authorship include authorship because the researchers used facilities of somebody not associated with the project. There are also times when individuals who have done reading and editing of manuscripts prior to submission demand authorship. There are also cases where the senior researcher wants manuscript text changed because it disagrees with earlier papers published with his or her name in the author list and use seniority or membership in professional organizations as justification. I have witnessed such incidents first hand. This behavior is unacceptable, but it happens.

As editors, we expect the authors to have done the very best they can with a manuscript before its submission. Unfortunately, this is not always so. Authors sometimes submit manuscripts to a journal with the comment that they will clean it up after reviews. Also, in papers with multiple authors where an early-career researcher is senior author and with more senior scientists as coauthors, it is important that those latter authors provide of their time and knowledge to ensure that a manuscript is ready for submission before this actually takes place. Sometimes they do not. Both cases show lack of respect for the journal, its reviewers, and its editorial staff. It also increases the possibility of rejection.

The submission process, authors, and peer review
In the submission process, the first editorial step is to determine whether the manuscript’s topic is suitable for the journal’s objectives. For example, some years ago as an editor of an earth and planetary science journal I received a manuscript dealing with properties of glass used for computer and television monitors. The topic was unsuitable for the journal and as an editor I made that decision without further review. That case was simple. Other cases can be less clear. A recent such example was a manuscript submitted to an earth science-centric journal describing the equation-of-state of NaCl. At first glance, the high-pressure behavior of crystalline NaCl might not seem important or relevant for our understanding of the Earth’s interior and, therefore, might be unsuitable for the particular journal. However, the NaCl equation-of-state is important for calibration of high-pressure/-temperature equipment used to examine physics and chemistry of deep earth materials. This makes the manuscript on NaCl suitable. The manuscript was accepted.

The editor’s main role is as manager of and judge during the review process. The editor will choose reviewers whose interests and expertise cover the specific technical aspects of an article as well broader implications. We also try to find reviewers from different age groups and cultural backgrounds in order to reach balance.

The peer review process is also the most difficult and time consuming step of the publication process and often governs the total time from manuscript submission to publication. It is also where the authors and reviewers can be very helpful in reducing this time.  In order to keep that time to a minimum, potential reviewers are asked to respond to a request or invitation within a small number of days (a week or less is typical) followed by a fixed time within which a review is expected to be finished (typically three or four weeks). In situations where reviewer comments differ significantly, the editor may choose an additional review over the number commonly used. That step also adds time to the review process. When all reviews are in, the editor has perhaps a week to assess the reviews and return those to the authors together with his or her own comments. There also are times when an editor may choose a different manuscript disposition than that which may be recommended by the reviewers.

Occasionally we offer suggestions to the authors in order to improve and clarify the presentation. Sometimes we help with language problems, in particular if the journal’s language (usually English) differs from the author’s first language. We are quite sensitive to this issue so as not to place any author at a disadvantage. Occasionally, I may return a manuscript to authors before review requesting the authors to look for language assistance before proceeding with the submission. This can be helpful for all involved, including reviewers who may not want to spend the extra time to interpret descriptions that may not be clear.

Remember that, in principle, results of peer reviews are advisory. The decision of how to proceed, or not, lies with the editor. Most journals provide the opportunity for rebuttal. Short, succinct, objective, and well-reasoned rebuttals can be very helpful as the next step of the process is decided. Long-winded or personal attacks by authors or reviewers during rebuttal are not helpful and can also be counterproductive. The worst example that I have had as an editor was a suggestion by a very senior and well-known professor who got in trouble with the comments from one of the reviewers that I, the editor, must have a relationship with the reviewer! You can safely assume that this comment did not have a positive impact on the outcome.

A second round of revision is quite common. That happens more than 50% of the time. Additional reviews after the first round less common. An editor may choose this venue only if he/she cannot make a decision on an issue raised by reviewers and discussed without success with the authors.
The worst-case scenario is rejection. A rejection can happen at any stage of the process.  Examples of late rejections are those where authors refuse to make changes or corrections required by the editor. This has happened to me as an editor and I know others also have had this experience. However, authors sometimes seem to believe that an editor’s decision for rejection is open to argument between the author(s) and the editor. Much time can be spent. Little is gained because editors extremely rarely will change their decision.

A few journals do not offer authors the opportunity of rebuttal or discussion of reviewer comments. The reasons for this policy are not clear. It may increase the speed of publication, but it is unhelpful for the authors and unhelpful for the science objectives. Such a review process also can lead to articles being rejected for reasons other than scientific quality. This mechanism also encourages establishment of cliques whose members look after one another through the reviews. Sadly, some of these journals have very high impact factors, which can be a consideration during and author’s job placement or promotion. This situation is unhelpful for both the scientists/authors and their chosen field of scientific pursuit.

The peer review process with discussion and clarification among authors and editors is the best we got. We cannot do our job as editors properly without your cooperation, understanding and generously volunteering your time as authors and reviewers. The process cannot function it.

Dr. Bjørn O. Mysen, Editor of Solid earth sciences Section
Geophysical Laboratory, Carnegie Institution of Washington,USA


Some Thoughts on Review Articles

Kevin Hamilton 

PEPS was conceived as a journal that would feature both high-quality primary research articles and review articles (Tsuda, 2014).  Currently the goal for PEPS is to publish about 30% review articles, and submission of review articles is encouraged by a generous policy of waiving the article processing charges.  As of today (June 23, 2015) the PEPS web site lists 39 total articles published of which 13 are identified as review articles, so we have been close to matching the 30% target.

This mix of primary research and review articles will distinguish PEPS from almost all of the other important journals in earth sciences.  The current earth science publishing “ecosystem” includes mainly either outlets just for review articles (notably AGU’s Reviews of Geophysics and the Annual Reviews of Earth and Planetary Science), or journals that in some cases will accept review articles, but in practice publish almost nothing but primary research articles.  There are some high profile journals, notably Science and Nature, that invite a significant number of critical review articles to go along with the many primary research papers they publish, but these are rather specialized articles which are notable both for their narrow focus on one critical issue and their brevity (typically capped at a just a few pages).  By contrast, PEPS encourages a range of review articles from brief critical reviews to longer, more comprehensive reviews of recent research in particular areas.  

Given the prominence anticipated for review articles in PEPS I present here a little history and a few thoughts that may provide some context and inspiration for potential contributors. 

The modern scientific journal was born with the initial publication of the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London in 1665.  This was developed for the membership of the Royal Society but was a personal project of its Secretary, Henry Oldenburg, and was initially set up “at his own financial risk and profit” (UKPA, 2004).  Oldenburg’s conception of a regular dated serial publication presenting individual papers by various authors had the key advantage of documenting priority and credit for discoveries (UKPA, 2004).  Oldenburg also originated another key feature of the modern scientific journal: “the Philosophical Transactions from its outset did not publish all the material it received; the Council of the Society reviewed the contributions Oldenburg received before approving a selection of them for publication. Albeit primitive, this is the first recorded instance of peer review".

The success of the Royal Society’s efforts helped spawn imitators throughout Europe although few of the early journals had much lasting impact.  According to Porter (1964) “today's characteristic form of the scientific paper appeared about 1780-1790, with the publication of specialized journals in physics, chemistry, biology, agriculture, and medicine”. Porter (1964) reports that by 1830 over 300 scientific journals were being published.  This was near the beginning of a period now exceeding two centuries of revolutionary growth in scientific research activity and scientific publishing.

With the growth of published knowledge the difficulty for individual investigators to assimilate the huge volume of recently published work became apparent.  One of the first responses was the compilation of periodical scientific indexes that would collect (or even prepare) abstracts of recently published papers.  Porter (1964) finds that, after some earlier false starts, many abstracting services began operations starting around 1830.  Beyond this kind of aid the need for more sophisticated summaries and critical reviews of the primary literature must have been felt by many scientists.  Publication of papers resulting from special Annual Lectures and the Presidential Lectures of some scientific societies provided one outlet for more leisurely reviews of the state of a field than is typical for primary research articles, but relatively few “review” papers seem to have been published in the 19th century or early 20th century.

The middle decades of the 20th century saw the development of specialized publications just for reviews and the emergence of the modern form of the scientific review article. One of the pioneering (and enduring) publishing efforts - the Annual Reviews series - began in 1932 founded by a young Stanford professor who felt the lack of available systematic reviews of current research acutely when he agreed to give an advanced graduate course on current research in biochemistry (Luck, 1981).  Much later, recalling his motivation, he noted that “even in 1930 Chemical Abstracts published about 6500 abstracts of papers on biochemistry” (Luck, 1981).  Although initially focused on biology and chemistry, the Annual Reviews series has expanded to cover almost 50 subjects including the Annual Review of Fluid Mechanics and Annual Review of Earth and Planetary Sciences, both of which have been very influential in various aspects of earth sciences.  

A key development in our field was the inauguration of the Reviews of Geophysics by AGU in 1963.  For more than five decades the Reviews of Geophysics (in some periods under the name Reviews of Geophysics and Space Physics) has been the world’s highest profile journal specifically for review articles in the earth and planetary sciences.  It is a flagship of the AGU publishing enterprise and has by far the highest Thomson-Reuters “impact factor” of any AGU journal.  My own experience as a coauthor of a Reviews of Geophysics article 15 years ago has been quite gratifying – a quick check with Google Scholar reveals more than 1000 total citations for this article, more than 4 times that of any of the primary research articles I have published over the last 3 decades.   Writing a widely-read review article is a useful service to the community but it also comes with a reward of broad recognition for the authors.

We hope that PEPS will provide additional opportunity for scholars to publish very high quality review articles in any field of the earth and planetary sciences. As the leadership in science publishing spreads globally it is an exciting moment for JpGU to create a journal featuring review articles that aim to have the high impact of those in AGU’s Reviews of Geophysics.

As noted above, valuable contributions to the review literature can include articles with a variety of specific aims and in a corresponding variety of formats.  The typical article in Reviews of Geophysics or Annual Reviews of Earth and Planetary Science attempts a fairly comprehensive review of recent work in some topical subfield of earth science, and will have well in excess of 100 references and occupy ~30-60 pages.  In addition to such reviews there is a need for the more focused and briefer reviews, perhaps touching on a single controversial and quite specific question.  As I noted earlier, Nature and Science feature high profile articles of this type, generally ~5-8 pages in length.  Of course, many articles will fall between the extremes of the very focused “topical” and the longer “comprehensive” reviews.  One overriding requirement is that any review article should be conceived and written for a fairly wide potential readership, as the main purpose is to make the primary specialized research literature more accessible.

There seems not to be much of a published literature to guide the preparation of scientific review articles.  One very valuable document titled “How to Write a Scientific Review Paper” has been produced and posted on the web by “albertshaldar”.  This appears to be a set of instructions for students in a university biology course who were given a class project to write a draft review article, but the document is quite substantial and is useful for more than just an ephemeral class project. “albertshaldar” notes a review article should be “a creative synthesis of the literature… …beyond just reporting the results and conclusions of other studies, the review must integrate, interpret and expand these conclusions… the independent conclusions of separate investigations must be combined into a cohesive presentation. They must be contrasted and compared ….Can apparent conflicts be resolved through a new outlook or interpretation?.”  “albertshaldar” encourages potential authors to make sure they have a good grounding in the basic literature of a field as embodied in textbooks and monographs before they begin a compilation of the recent literature they propose to review.  The web posting by “albertshaldar” contains much information that will be useful for veteran professional scientists as well as students, including a guide to the precise use of often misused words. 

PEPS is already off to a good start in attracting and publishing high quality review articles. I hope many authors are inspired to write widely useful review articles and will consider PEPS as an appropriate high profile journal in which to publish.  Feel free to contact any editor if you want to discuss possible topics for such an article. 


Luck, J. M., 1981: Confessions of a biochemist.  Annual Review of Biochemistry, 50, 1-23.  DOI:10.1146/annurev.bi.50.070181.000245.

Porter, J. R., 1964: The scientific journal – 300th anniversary. Bacteriological Reviews, 28, 3, 211-230.

Tsuda, T., 2014: Preface to the first volume of PEPS.  Progress in Earth and Planetary Science, 1, 1,  DOI:10.1186/2197-4284-1-1.

UKPA (UK Publishers Association), 2004: The origin of the scientific journal and the process of peer review.  Annex 1 to Publishers Association memorandum presented as written evidence for the Parliamentary Select Committee on Science and Technology in preparation of its Tenth Report. 

Prof. Kevin Hamilton, a member of Editorial Advisory Board, Editor of Atmospheric and Hydrospheric Sciences Section,  Retired professor and Director, International Pacific Research Center, University of Hawaii