Today, I am welcoming Dr. Nancy R Gough who shares her views on academic publishing as an editor. Nancy R. Gough is the owner and founder of BioSerendipity . After 17 years with AAAS, she stepped down as the Editor of Science Signaling (a weekly journal on the topic of cellular and organismal regulatory biology), she left to start her company. She is dedicated to helping scientists communicate effectively. Dr. Gough has a Ph.D. in Pharmacology and Experimental Therapeutics from the University of Maryland Medical School and was a post-doctoral fellow at Johns Hopkins University. You can email her at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow her on Twitter @NancyRGough and Facebook.
Science Signaling is a weekly journal about regulatory biology at all scales. Submitted papers included those about mechanisms of molecular regulation, cellular regulation, regulatory biology in model organisms, and in plants and man. I also had the opportunity to evaluate basic and applied or translational research relevant to biological signaling. I personally evaluated each submission, assigning the appropriate ones to the staff editors, rejecting those that were inappropriate or out of scope, and providing initial comments about level of interest, Board members, and potential reviewers. From this perspective, I can offer a few words of advice for authors preparing to submit a manuscript for in-depth review and publication. The first hurdle you must pass after submission is the editor who assigning manuscripts for evaluation to other staff editors or members of the academic board. Then, you must pass the hurdle of engaging the interest of the handling editor to have your manuscript go for in-depth peer review.
First, think carefully about the title of your paper and the abstract. These two parts, and the cover letter to the editor, give the first impression of your paper. Ask yourself, is the title accurate? Does it overstate or overinterpret the data? If so, the editor and the reviewers can use this as justification to reject the manuscript once they have skimmed the methods and results. A simple example that I saw often was authors who made claims about human disease in the title and abstract from studies performed only in cultured cells or using animal models and who failed to clearly state that the studies were performed in cultured cells or only in an animal model of the disease. The study may have had implications for disease, but the title or abstract used language that was too strong for the main conclusion and the description of the study in the abstract lacked precision and accuracy.
Second, remember that titles and abstracts are what makes readers want to read your paper in more detail. Think about the intended audience for your paper. Are they likely to understand the title and abstract? Are they likely to read the journal where you have submitted the manuscript? Although you are writing for a scientific and expert audience, the abstract should be clear, free of lab jargon, have terms defined the first time that they are used, and provide a clear (not overinterpreted) take-home message. Remember that these parts of the paper are also often read by computers that text mine the scientific literature and by various search engines and indexing services. Think about key search terms that are important for your work. Ensure that these are present, and if they are abbreviations, define them for readers outside of your field. Use precise language, avoiding words that have multiple meanings.
Finally, the cover letter serves as the place where you can convey the excitement and potential implications of your study in stronger terms. Here is a place to capture the interest of the editor, convey discrepancies or controversies in the field, note the main gaps that your paper fills, and highlight a few key findings and their implications for the field of study or across fields, if appropriate. The cover letter is your chance to “sell” your work. Try to keep it to one page or at most 2 pages. Remember that the editor is unlikely to be an expert in your field and may not know the methodology in detail. Give the big picture view and then provide enough explanation for the highlighted findings to make sense to someone who is not familiar with your work or your field. Too often, I found that authors failed to realize that the editor is not an expert in your specific discipline, system of study, or field. The reviewers certainly should have the appropriate detailed expertise, but the editor often will not.
In summary, remember the intended audiences for the different parts of a paper. Avoid giving an editor or a reviewer a reason not to proceed right from the title and abstract. Don’t treat the cover letter as an afterthought. That is your chance to “speak” to the editor.