- How Science Works
- Sources and Experts: Where to Find Them and How to Vet Them
- Making Sense of Science Stats
- Editing for Story
- Editing Controversial Science
- Holding Science to Account
- Covering Health Care
- Climate and the Environment
- Fact-Checking Science Journalism: How to Make Sure Your Stories Are True
Illustrating Complex Science Stories
- The Role of Visuals in Science Journalism
- The Process of Building Science-Centric Graphics
- Strategies for Using Visuals to Put Breaking Science in Context
- Special Considerations for Data Visualization
- Uncertainty and Misinformation
- Editorial Illustration, Photography, and Moving Images
- Additional Reading and Resources
- About the Author
- Social Media and Reader Engagement
- Popular Science
- Op-Eds and Essays
- About This Handbook
The Publication Process
By Apoorva Mandavilli / 5 minute read
Why does it take so long to get a paper published?
The simple answer is that it takes time to vet a paper’s claims, which high-quality journals have traditionally done. In addition, the publication process can vary widely depending on the field and the quality of the journal.
At this point, we should differentiate between legitimate journals, which we describe below, and so-called “predatory journals,” which have earned this description by preying on researchers’ need to publish. Those journals, often with fake editorial boards, charge fees ranging from hundreds to thousands of dollars to publish papers, but don’t provide peer review or any other editorial services. As a result, the research in them has not been vetted and should not be considered reliable. If you’re unfamiliar with a journal, it’s a good idea to check it against lists of predatory journals or with experts who might know of its reputation.
The fees at legitimate journals can also vary. Some publish papers at no charge to the authors, while others charge thousands of dollars for each paper. Editors generally send every manuscript of interest out for peer review, typically to two to four experts who can assess the quality of various aspects of the work.
For example, a paper that links a certain genomic signature to smoking-related lung cancer might need to be reviewed by a geneticist, a lung-cancer expert, and an expert in the statistical method used to analyze the genetic data. They analyze the paper to see if the experiments are sound, the results clear, and the conclusions logical and justified. They can recommend rejecting the paper, accepting it for publication, or, in a common scenario, suggesting that it be accepted in principle, pending further experiments or analyses.
The research team revises the manuscript according to the feedback and resubmits with new data. And on it goes, until the peer reviewers and the editor are satisfied. At that stage, the better journals send the paper out for copy editing to clean up the manuscript for publication. The paper is finally scheduled for a print issue — although most journals post papers online as soon as they are ready.
The volunteer peer reviewers sometimes write commentaries that accompany the paper, and make themselves available to journalists for interviews. Because they know the work well, that is a boon to journalists.
That’s the best of peer review. But the system can go awry.
Reviewers can be careful as can be, but they, too, are human and limited by their own expertise and biases. They have to take on faith that the researchers did do the experiments they said they did, and that the data or images haven’t been misleadingly manipulated. Reviewers cannot always catch intentional fraud, such as a cancer-research paper published in Nature Cell Biology in which images and data were manipulated.
Most reputable journals use a single-blind system for reviews, meaning the reviewers can see who the authors are, but the authors don’t know who is reviewing their work. Still, scientists try to game the system. They request reviewers who are their buddies, or they ask to exclude reviewers who they know will pan the work, saying they are competitors and might scoop their results.
In one egregious example, the Journal of Vibration and Control discovered that a researcher from Taiwan had created a “peer-review ring,” with nearly 130 aliases and email addresses for fake reviewers who would deliver positive reviews. In at least one case, the journal said, the researcher had reviewed his own work under an alias.
Having professional editors at the journals who choose reviewers — and know the field enough to see through any ruses — can circumvent some of these problems. Many of the highest-ranked journals have professional editors, often people who left research after just a few years.
The more prestigious a journal, the better it looks on a researcher’s CV, and the more media attention it might receive. So, scientists are incentivized — unfairly to them and to their field, critics say — to publish in just a handful of big-name journals, such as Science, Nature, Cell, and The New England Journal of Medicine. There are thousands of journals, and many within each niche discipline, but about a dozen dominate the landscape.
Scientists who are convinced that their study has uncovered the next big thing — and really, which scientist doesn’t think that? — will submit first to these top-tier journals and then, if the manuscript is rejected, try for the next tier of journals, and so on.
This courtship can take months upon months. It can clog up the pipeline at the big-name journals by flooding them with manuscripts that stand little chance of being published. But historically, it has also given these journals, and their editors, enormous clout in the scientific world.
As a result, some journals have been able to charge hefty fees for published papers. To amplify attention to the journal itself, they often set policies limiting when and how scientists can talk about their results before publication. On the other hand, the journals employ professional editors — as opposed to scientists volunteering their time — who handle the manuscripts, polish them, and put out press releases that guarantee media attention.
So here’s what that means for you in the newsroom. These journals control access to research papers, both by forbidding scientists to describe their unpublished work and by setting embargoes for papers in press. Most journals have embargoes of about a week before papers, and any news coverage of them, become public.
In theory, that’s meant to ensure equal access to the work for all journalists and to make it easier for them to cover the papers. It should give them time to talk with multiple sources and write a more complete story than they could on deadline. “But in practice, journalists’ embrace of the embargo system has essentially turned over control of what they cover and when they cover it to scientific journals, which have their own agendas,” says Ivan Oransky, a veteran medical journalist and co-founder of Retraction Watch and Embargo Watch, nonprofit organizations that hold scientists and scientific publications accountable.
One way around the journal embargo is at scientific conferences, where researchers sometimes present preliminary work to their peers. A few conferences, such as Keystone and Gordon conferences in the life sciences, impose strict limits on journalists’ attendance, either barring them or asking them not to write about any presented work without the presenter’s explicit permission. These conferences are great for picking up on trends, however, because scientists often present unpublished work.
Other conferences are more press-friendly and encourage scientists to hold press conferences and offer interviews. For example, the American Geophysical Union, the Society for Neuroscience, and the American Association for the Advancement of Science encourage journalists to attend their annual conferences free of charge and report on the proceedings. It’s worth asking conference organizers about their media policies before preparing to cover it.
Journals’ policies allow researchers to provide this kind of communication to their peers, and even to clarify facts to journalists. But the journals hold such sway over the scientific community that many researchers, especially those still trying to make their mark, are too scared to speak to journalists. On the other hand, it’s also a good idea to be wary of scientists who are eager to publicize their work before it has been reviewed by others. “Science by press release” is often a sign that the work may not pass muster. One need only recall the 1989 press conference by the chemists Stanley Pons and Martin Fleischmann in which they claimed they had achieved “cold fusion.” They hadn’t.
Much of this usual practice has been changing in the past couple of years — and even more so during the coronavirus pandemic — because of the advent of “preprints.”