The P word

Scientists both fear it and get excited goosebumps over it, but it’s not easy and it’s not quick. Publishing. Getting your work to a stage that’s ready to be seen by the masses, criticised by many and cited by whoever thinks it’s important.


I may only be a first year PhD student but already publishing my work is something I have to think about. It’s not like I’m even having delusions of grandeur as my boss has mentioned the P word to me many times now. I may not be first author on a (hopefully) near future paper but contributing is a massive step for me and fills me with excitement.


Before I started my research, I had very little knowledge of how publishing your work even worked. Now I’m a little wiser and have uncovered a dark, complicated route to getting your work seen. Here I outline a few of the things I’ve learnt…

1. Picking the right journal

Your work has to be deemed appropriate for the journal and this is often the first hurdle people fall at. Many journals are quite specific and also rate your paper based on the impact they think it’s going to have. Is it on trend with their current published papers? Does it add anything to what they’ve already seen and read? Have you got on the wrong side of the editor…?


This is where I have to give much respect to PLOS ONE, an open access journal that just doesn’t care what field your research is from so long as it’s technically sound. The subjective opinions of the editors are removed from the equation and the importance of the paper is left to the scientific community to decide.


2. Impact factor

Impact factor also comes into play when picking the right journal. Aim for the moon and if you miss you’ll still fall amongst the stars right? Wrong. Aim for the moon and miss and you’ll have wasted a lot of your time and someone else might have got all the bright stars before you.


In addition, impact factor is in my opinion a ridiculous measure. How many times papers are cited in a journal is used to score the impact factor of the journal. But that’s a self-fulfilling process as journals with higher impact factors will be the first go to point for looking for good research so those papers will be cited more so that journal’s impact factor will go up purely because it had a slightly higher impact factor in the first place.


The journal’s score is an average, so the idea that all papers within it are of that same high quality is wrong. Each paper should be measured by its own merit. Also, many papers making outrageous claims or including sexy-science (a phrase used far to commonly by the older generation of researchers I’ve met that now just seems creepy) will be cited more purely because of that and not because the paper is actually outstanding in its content.


In a paper published in 2011, a strong correlation was found between a journal’s impact factor and its retraction index a.k.a. how many times the journal has to admit it published a shoddy piece of research that was ultimately wrong or a lie and get rid of it from their journal (Infect. Immun. October 2011 vol. 79 no. 10 3855-3859). However it still stands today, your paper will in some part be judged by the impact factor of the journal it is in. Ridiculous.


3. Open Access

So my institute has an amazing policy, which means that this is basically a must (however with some loopholes it seems). I love open access and am an advocate for all science to be available to all people. I’m lucky that I’m affiliated to enough institutes and universities to have the luxury of subscription to pretty much every journal so I forget how frustrating it can be to see a paper you need to read is stuck behind a paywall. Thankfully this is changing and there are many open access journals available to pick from (I mentioned PLOS ONE earlier which falls under this category).


Whether you’re publishing in a completely open access journal or just also placing your paper in an open access repository, you are allowing the world to see your work. And as scientists always believe their work is of the utmost importance, why wouldn’t they want that?


There is a horrible rumour that open access journals are of poor quality, low impact factor (don’t get me started again) and not regulated through vigorous peer review as well as the conventional journals. Not true. Some of the open access journals have crept their way into the top group of journals thanks to the commitment to peer review and the scientific community embracing them with open arms. Yes there is definitely room for improvement, but the same excuses used 5 years ago cannot be used today.


4. It takes aaaaaaages

Ok so not every paper will take ages to get published, especially if you’ve picked the right journal and your work is sound. I have seen that many colleagues and friends have been stuck trying to get a paper published for 6 months plus. The journals take their time; peer reviewers take their time, that’s ok, as it needs to happen to make sure there is quality in the research. However peer reviewers are semi-randomly selected and if by chance your reviewer is the author of the paper your work is saying is wrong – you’re buggered. Or if the reviewer has written a programme they believe is better than the one you’ve used, they’ll ask you to completely re-do your analysis.


That’s the major stuff but often you can be stuck in a cycle of round and rounds of amendments with your reviewers resulting in months of going back and forth, adding in figures, taking out figures, changing formats, changing words and basically ending up with a completely different themed paper. Nightmare.


5. Which author goes where?!

In case you didn’t know, in science publishing the order of authors on a paper is crucial. Collaborate with the wrong type of people and suddenly you’ll be having meetings to squabble over who did what and why someone deserves to go where in the list.

Here are the unwritten rules:

  • First author is the person that did the most work, this project is their baby that they have looked after.
  • Last author is the person who was in charge of the lab, the supervisor, potentially more like the grandparent of the aforementioned baby who the parents came running to whenever they had a question or needed help.
  • In between from first to last is everyone else who ever put their two pence in and pushed to be included on the paper in order from the most contribution (think second parent who was away most of the time) to least contribution (that neighbour that picked up that post for you that one time while you were out with the baby).


Thankfully plenty of journals now like to know who did what so every author should be able to justify why their name is in black and white, but it’s still a minefield to get to that point.


So if you think getting the research right and worthy of publication over years of frustrating experiments is the hard part, think again. Getting pen to paper, formatting pictures so they’re a centimetre more to the left – no right- no up a bit, and then getting someone somewhere to put it to print is probably as stressful as the science! But it’s all worth it of course…!


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