What the job of an editor is all about

In a comment to an earlier Peer to Peer post, ‘Regular Scientist’ takes issue with Nature Cell Biology’s definition of a good report, writing (slightly edited for length): the journal sometimes asks the authors to undertake many experiments even before sending a paper to review. Not strangely, papers in Nat Cell Biology, even small reports, contain many Supplementary Figures (up to 20, I´ve seen). I miss the old days where publications were for sending a very interesting result so you could extend it and discuss its importance for your field. Nat Cell Biology’s system is undermining research efforts in the authors´ labs, which have to dedicate an enormous effort to provide many additional experiments that don´t even add much to the concept. This is not what science, and the peer-review process, should be about. I would recommend the editors of Nat Cell Biol a calm reading of the original paper on the structure of nucleic acids, and note the way it was written.

Bernd Pulverer, Chief Editor of Nature Cell Biology, has kindly agreed to my request to write a guest post to respond, and to elaborate on the journal’s practices and policies:

As ‘Regular scientist’ points out, we do strive to publish rather well-developed studies in Nature Cell Biology. It is interesting to read the concern about the supplementary information, since we usually hear the opposite complaint: namely that the tight format restrictions applied preclude presentation of complete datasets. In considering submissions, we expect fewer details of molecular mechanistic analysis if the paper reports a highly novel observation. And because the study of cell biology tends to throw up surprising new findings that deserve a wide audience but that cannot be developed in a reasonable timeframe, we decided some years ago to publish a short ‘Brief Communication’ format, which I hope is appreciated by Regular Scientist.

In the Editorial under discussion, we wrote:

Nevertheless, the most important part of the report is assessment of the data: are key experiments or crucial controls missing? Are the data significant and definitive? Are all claims made supported by the data? A black and white model should not be a requirement — in fact it often underestimates biological complexity. Formulate a clear set of recommendations for additions or improvements. Experimental suggestions are important even if an outright rejection is recommended, as it makes for a transparent and constructive report that will allow the author to improve the dataset and select an appropriate target journal. If the overall assessment is positive, do not feel obliged to ask for non-essential experiments. New experiments should add key information, buttress claims or improve existing data, and they must be achievable. Indeed, the perception that referees invariably ask for more data encourages some authors to hold back data in the hope that these will be requested and can then be provided by return post; clearly, this is a futile exercise. Referees and editors alike should take great care that all key issues are raised in the first assessment — draw a line and adhere to it. Subsequent evaluations may raise issues on new data, but raising yet more ways to develop a study is not fair.

We, the Nature Cell Biology editors, agree that one can always ask for more data, and that sometimes data require an unrealistic amount of effort for the information added. However, we entirely disagree that our editorial and review process does not result in the publication of much-improved datasets. The tendency of referees to feel an obligation to ask for some new data, and conversely for authors to hold back data to give referees something obvious to ask for, is an issue that we tried to address in the Editorial.

We certainly do not ask for more data because we, the editors, feel under any compulsion to do so: the simple fact is that a good number of manuscripts submitted to the journal are rather premature, and we cannot justify wasting our referee’s time when we perceive obvious holes in a dataset that the referees would invevitably want to be addressed. We believe that this step is in an author’s interest, since we will not undertake multiple rounds of peer-review without good reason. If requested data are deemed to be unobtainable for technical reasons, or indeed unnecessary, we are always willing to hear an author’s arguments.

Regarding the 1953 Nature paper that Regular Scientist recommends: indeed, the paper is a good read. However, science has become much more complex since then, and the discoveries often more detail-oriented, requiring a more in-depth analysis. At the same time, the tools available have developed tremendously in 55 years. Even in 1953, readers will note that Watson and Crick’s conclusions depended on the two following papers in the issue, providing experimental details. The challenge is to set ‘the bar’ correctly to what is achievable and what should be achieved for publication in a top-flight journal. This is what the job of an editor is all about.


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    Christopher Edwards said:

    A couple of short follow-up points:

    – The editor knows where the bar is for publication and helps to set or maintain that bar. If an editor asks for more experimental work, she is doing the author a favor since good reviewers will probably ask for it as well. It is of no value to expose your work to the scrutiny of reviewers before the basic standards are met. In addition, a knowledgable editor doesn’t want to waste a reviewer’s time when it is obvious that more work must be reported before publication is considered.

    – Authors new to a journal may not have a sense of what the journal’s standards are. To really get a feel for the standards, it would be necessary to see what gets rejected as well as what is accepted. Only the editor can have that perspective.

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