Our paper “A Pragmatic Approach to Getting Published: 35 Tips for Early Career Researchers” just came out in Frontiers in Plant Science. This is the story behind the paper.
For my second postdoc, I was the fortunate receipient of a PLANT FELLOWS scholarship. PLANT FELLOWS is an international program that provides research grants to postdocs in the field of plant science. The fellows are based at many different host institutions throughout Europe. I myself am working at Bayer Crop Science in Gent, Belgium, in collaboration with the Dessimoz lab in London and Lausanne. Part of the PLANT FELLOWS mission is to provide training, mentoring, and networking to the postdocs—skills essential for career advancement.
Last year, the annual PF meeting was held in Männedorf, Switzerland from September 28 to October 1 2015. Training workshops took place at the Boldern Hotel, surrounded by meadows and with a nice view of Lake Zürich.
The meeting consisted of several days of trainings and workshops. For one of the days, I chose to participate in the workshop “Advanced Strategies for Dealing with the Publication Process.” I was especially keen on learning more about this particular subject. As a postdoc still trying to navigate the publication waters, I was looking for all the advice I could get. We’ve all heard the saying before: publish or perish. Publishing papers in your postdoc years is so important for an academic career.
There were about 15 postdocs in this day-long workshop. The facilitator, Philipp Mayer, came with a bunch of photocopied book chapters, articles, and USB keys full of pdfs for each of us to use on our laptops. The objective of the workshop was to, as a group, write a small paper about advanced publication strategies using the literature we were provided with. Our plan of attack was to pool our collective postdoc experience and come up with a list of our most useful recommendations on how to get a scientific paper published.
After feverishly reading websites, book chapters and papers, at the end of the day we came up with a draft: an introduction, our recommendations broken into 3 main sections, and a conclusion. We had a respectable number of references. But what would be the fate of our paper? About a third of the class was apathetic, a third thought we should aim for a blog post, and another third thought we should try for a “real” scientific journal. I had really enjoyed the workshop so I lobbied for publishing it in a real journal. I liked the experience of learning about a topic, working collaboratively with my peers, and then passing on the information for others to benefit.
I volunteered to take charge of the paper, edit it, and submit it to journals in hopes of getting it published. At the end of the day I left with a draft of the paper, many references, the contact information of all the attendees, and the full support of the facilitator (Philipp) for any future help that I might need. I looked at it as an opportunity take a leadership role in publishing a paper, from start to finish. And more importantly, it was a chance to put our own advice into practice.
Upon returning to Belgium, I quickly found out that one of the sentences we had written in the paper rang true: It is a common misconception among early career researchers that the presentation of the work in a manuscript is the last stage of a project. There is a long and complicated process associated with submission, review, and revision that must be taken into account. During the next month, I reread paper, finished writing short sections, added references, edited, and got feedback from the coauthors. We agreed on the author order, and shared the document using Authorea. Philipp and I went back and forth with several rounds of editing.
We decided to submit our manuscript to eLife, which is a prestigious peer reviewed open access journal with favorable policy toward early career researchers. I wrote a cover letter to the editor describing our paper and asking if the topic was suitable to be considered for eLife.
Within a few days, the editor read the manuscript but informed me that he was unable to send it out for review because it wasn’t “fresh” enough, meaning most of what we said had already be discussed many times in the scientific community. Despite the sting of having a paper rejected directly from the editor, I decided to take the advice we had written in the paper: Remove your personal feelings from the peer review process. Time to find the next journal.
During the following month and a half, the manuscript was pushed to the bottom of my To Do list, as other projects and tasks got my attention. Christmas holidays came and went, and admittedly this paper was the last thing on my mind.
In January, I sent a presubmission inquiry to PLOS Biology. The PLOS Biology editor wrote back within a few days to inform me that although they appreciated the attention to an important problem, they could not encourage us to submit because it didn’t present “novel strategies for increasing access to research, improving the quality of research results, or fixing flawed measures of impact.” Since this was the second time I had heard this same exact criticism, I realized it was time to take more advice from the paper: It is critical to highlight the novelty and importance in the article and cover letter. We were going to have to add something to the paper to make it more novel.
Shortly after, I contacted the Frontiers in Plant Science (FiPS) Editorial Office with a new and improved cover letter. FiPS is an open access online journal publishing many different peer reviewed articles: research, reviews, commentaries, and perspectives, among others. The editor and I discussed morphing the paper into something that would be more plant related, given the plant science background of all the coauthors. Over the next month, it was back to editing the paper. I proposed edits that would make our tips more plant-specific. We added advice about industry-academia collaborations, and more information about plant science journals. Philipp, the coauthors, and I went back and forth several times with rounds of edits, adding more references and polishing more details. I submitted the final version of the paper to Frontiers in Plant Science on March 15.
The experience of the collaborative peer review by FiPS was a pleasant and efficient one. Their website says “Frontiers reviews are standardized, rigorous, fair, constructive, efficient and transparent.” I enthusiastically agree. Within two weeks, we had received comments from the reviewers. There were some major points that needed to be addressed before Frontiers could offer publication. However, the points were all very relevant and only helped to make the paper stronger. During the process of the interactive review, I took more guidance from the paper: Go point by point through the reviewer comments and either make the suggested change or politely explain and clarify the misunderstanding.
April 21st : Acceptance achieved! Approximately 5 weeks after submitting the article, it was accepted and the provisional version of the manuscript was published online. This is an extremely fast turnover time, in part due to the responsiveness of the editor, quick but in-depth peer review, and the interactive, transparent review discussion.
What I learned
This collaboration with the PLANT FELLOWS postdocs resulted in a paper I can say I’m proud of. I learned many things about the publication process—not only through a literature review, but by actually experiencing the process first hand. Here are some of the main things that stuck with me:
- There is a certain creative power in bringing people together in a beautiful location to brainstorm and produce an outcome within a short period of time. However, it is necessary for someone to take the reins and commit to the follow-through in order to get to a finished product. I think things like hackathons or other collaborative group efforts could lead to fruitful outcomes.
- I learned how to coordinate a small project. This was a great collaborative effort, which gave me an opportunity to practice the recommendations we wrote about in the paper. I discovered firsthand the importance of the initial contact with the editor. As soon as we reworked the paper to approach the topic from a plant-specific standpoint, this added novelty to the paper. We were able to highlight this novelty in the cover letter.
- Don’t give up. Many times I got distracted or discouraged and thought to publish the manuscript on our blog, but I’m glad in the end we found a home for it at FiPS. Perseverance is key.
Glover, N., Antoniadi, I., George, G., Götzenberger, L., Gutzat, R., Koorem, K., Liancourt, P., Rutowicz, K., Saharan, K., You, W., & Mayer, P. (2016). A Pragmatic Approach to Getting Published: 35 Tips for Early Career Researchers Frontiers in Plant Science, 7 DOI: 10.3389/fpls.2016.00610