Friday, January 9, 2015

Gestating a human takes less time than publishing a paper

Long have scientists ranted about the arbitrary and lengthy process of peer review (see a great post on what is wrong with peer review by Michael Eisen).  Now it's my turn, alright?

What is supposed to happen during peer review (an evaluation of the merits of the paper, an assessment of novelty/impact, and constructive criticism of the science) can happen.  But this is a story about how it failed, in one particular way.  A story, in three parts (three rounds of reviews) -- about how it will take me less time to create a fully formed human being than it will take to publish this manuscript.

Part I: Submitting a manuscript to PLoS Pathogens

We've got some exciting new work coming out of the lab -- I won't be shy about it.  We've discovered an interesting interaction between Drosophila actin and Wolbachia.  We had several lines of evidence to support our conclusions (immunohistochemistry + microscopy, western blots, PCR) and so submitted a presubmission inquiry to PLoS Pathogens (below) on May 9th of 2014.




This journal has published many important articles in the Wolbachia community so I was encouraged when the editors responded with a "maybe - submit it and we'll let you know" response.  I submitted the manuscript and waited eagerly for the response.  <Oh, as a side note, I also became pregnant during this time> 

I'll tell you one thing about PLoS Path - they were fast about getting their decisions to me.  I got the first response from PLoS Path June 10th, 2014, a mere month after our initial submission -- revise and resubmit.  Two reviewers were involved in the evaluation of our manuscript and both seemed to be experts in the field, based on their knowledge of Wolbachia.  Therefore, I can't complain that "peers" weren't consulted, right?

Part II: Submitting a revised manuscript to PLoS Pathogens, round 2

We finally got all our ducks in a row for the response September 15, 2014.  This time, and again after a mere month, we got another revise and resubmit October 23rd, 2014.

<At this point, my gestating human is four months along>

Well, what did I expect? That I could respond to each reviewer comment and actually get a paper accepted?  What I find comical about this particular decision letter, was the way in which the editor emphasized how "supportive" my reviewers were being.  Of course, everyone likes to gripe about reviewers -- it's so much fun when you're on this side of the equation, right?  In this case,  my reviewers were asking us to perform a very large number of very expensive experiments.

I appreciate editors that take a more hands-on approach to the process, providing authors with substantive feedback on which aspects of the reviewer comments are most significant.  This can help to guide the authors and also, in cases where reviewers are potentially arbitrary in their assessments, can help to minimize the length of the review process.

Part II: Submitting a revised manuscript to PLoS Pathogens, round 3

Because I think we did a shit ton of work on this manuscript, I've included the first page of the cover letter, with the beginning of our response to reviewers, for your appraisal (redacting the name of the editor).  I do think it is a better paper - how could it not be - after all of the money, time, and effort poured into it.  If I had to estimate, I'd say that the response to reviewers alone cost us at least 2,000 dollars - that's people time, stocks, reagents, and time on shared facility machines.

<At this point, my gestating human is six months along>


Did you read that letter?  
Did you realize that all of the experiments suggested by the reviewers SUPPORTED our initial conclusions????

This final time, we submitted our revised manuscript on December 18th, 2014 and heard back today, January 9th, 2015.  Apparently, only one reviewer was available to re-review the manuscript and this individual decided to change their decision from "revise" to "reject".  Interestingly, this reviewer seems to have morphed into a completely different person between response 2 and 3 because their feedback has nothing to do with their previous concerns and instead brings up entirely new gripes  (my favorite of which comments on our use of italics in the text).  (It's also possible that Santa did not bring them what was on their list and they took it out on us)

Based on this single review, our editor decided to reject our manuscript...oh, but should we be complete masochists, the editor also encouraged us to resubmit a new manuscript, and address the reviewer concerns - *hysterical laughter recedes into distance*

<At this point, my gestating human is seven months along>

So, currently, I do not feel that it will be a useful process to resubmit our manuscript to PLoS Pathogens.  We wasted a long time in this review process and yes, at this point my son will be born before this paper is published.  My major complaints have to do with the arbitrariness of the review process and the fact that our editor did not step up and take ownership of the process.   On the plus side, I won't have to pay the large fee for publishing at PLoS Path; maybe we will break even on the cost of the response to reviewers! Yippy!

If you're interested in our results, email me and I'll send you the paper.  I'm looking into posting on bioRxiv (depending on whether or not other journals will consider it "published") and will put a link here should we go that route!  Hooray for preprints - perhaps our data will see light of day before my infant does.

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AN UPDATE
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Maybe you're wondering what I decided to do about the manuscript? Upon the advice of the editor, of several here at IU and on the tweet-o-sphere I decided to submit it again as a new manuscript to PLoS Pathogens.  That was back in January, 2015.  Today...still gestating...about to start my maternity leave...and get a pleasant surprise.  The paper has been accepted! So, in the end, it didn't take longer to get the paper accepted than make a baby...but we'll see which comes out first!


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