What Editors Want: An Author's Guide to Scientific Journal Publishing

What Editors Want: An Author's Guide to Scientific Journal Publishing

by Philippa J. Benson, Susan C. Silver

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Research publications have always been key to building a successful career in science, yet little if any formal guidance is offered to young scientists on how to get research papers peer reviewed, accepted, and published by leading scientific journals. With What Editors Want, Philippa J. Benson and Susan C. Silver, two well-respected editors from the science publishing community, remedy that situation with a clear, straightforward guide that will be of use to all scientists.

Benson and Silver instruct readers on how to identify the journals that are most likely to publish a given paper, how to write an effective cover letter, how to avoid common pitfalls of the submission process, and how to effectively navigate the all-important peer review process, including dealing with revisions and rejection. With supplemental advice from more than a dozen experts, this book will equip scientists with the knowledge they need to usher their papers through publication.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226043159
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 12/07/2012
Series: Chicago Guides to Writing, Editing, and Publishing
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 176
File size: 4 MB

About the Author

Philippa J. Benson has taught science writing and technical communication at Carnegie Mellon University, Georgetown, the United Nations, and the National Institutes of Health, and has launched scientific publications for two conservation organizations. Susan C. Silver is editor-in-chief of Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, published by the Ecological Society of America. Previously, she held editorial positions at Academic Press and the British Dental Association and was editor of Biologist and the Lancet Oncology.

Read an Excerpt

What Editors Want

An Author's Guide to Scientific Journal Publishing

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2013 The University of Chicago
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-226-04313-5

Chapter One

Who cares what Editors want?

Some researchers believe that becoming expert in their science is the only important aspect of their professional development. The reality is that to become a world-class scientist today one must also be able to navigate the publishing process with skill and speed, as well as write with clarity, accuracy, and grace. MONICA BRADFORD, Executive Editor, Science

Researchers in scientific, technical, and medical (STM) fields around the world study a diverse array of topics, but they all focus on the same professional goal: getting their science published. Despite efforts in academic circles and elsewhere to develop a broad spectrum of measures to evaluate a researcher's worthiness for employment or promotion, the age-old dictum still holds true: it's publish or perish.

Inexperienced authors often need help as they try to tackle the different phases of the publishing process—and sometimes during the earlier stages of manuscript preparation as well. They need guidance on how to judge when to write up their research and what kind of scientific papers to write. They need to learn how to select the journal that is most likely to publish a specific paper and how to submit their work to particular publications. When they receive a response to their submission, whether positive or not, they need advice on how to reply and what steps to take next. Some inexperienced authors turn to research advisors, colleagues, or academic mentors to get this advice. However, some advisors tend to focus more on helping students do the science rather than on how to write it up and submit it for publication. In reality, some advisors have received little advice and guidance themselves, have learned the publishing process by trial and error, and therefore aren't entirely comfortable leading others down that road. Sadly, a few senior researchers are more concerned with their own publishing projects than with those of their students and are unwilling to spend much time on mentoring in this area. Colleagues within the same field are also potential rivals and may be hesitant to share the tips and tricks they've learned.

In short, the imperative to publish never stops, but only fades slightly with time and tenure. The bottom line is that little formal training is available for researchers in this vital aspect of career development. As a result, many young researchers have almost no idea of what obstacles they'll encounter, and how to get to the finish line—a published paper—as quickly and painlessly as possible. The aim of this book is to address the needs of these novice authors, whether graduate students, postdocs, young researchers, or faculty, to help them meet the specific challenges they may encounter at each stage of the publishing process. We also hope this book will be useful as a reference for senior researchers, as well as for teachers of science writing and for those who train up-and-coming Editors. However, we must stress here that Editors, and their opinions on how things should be done, are as varied as the journals they work on, a reality that became very clear to us as we heard from editorial colleagues while writing this book. For example, some Editors firmly insisted that authors should include line numbers when submitting a manuscript, as this saves reviewers a lot of trouble when drafting their reports, while others felt that line numbers are unnecessary. In yet other cases, authors are instructed not to add line numbers because the manuscript submission systems of some journals add these automatically. Similarly, one Editor claimed never to read cover letters, while another believed that it was very important for Editors to do so. (Our advice on these two issues is to always include line numbers on your manuscript unless instructed not to do so in the instructions to authors of the particular journal you are submitting to and to always provide a cover letter.) The point is that the opinions and preferences of Editors vary widely on many publishing matters.


To help young authors understand the publication process, we first explain what Editors are looking for when considering new submissions and then examine the publication process in a logical sequence to reveal the reasoning behind the many requirements that journal Editors have. Few resources are available that describe what goes on in editorial offices, from who looks at initial submissions, to what criteria are used to separate submissions rejected without review from those that are sent to peer review, to how the peer review process itself works.

Novice authors are often not aware of how different behind-the-scenes operations can be from journal to journal. No two journals are exactly alike in terms of the criteria used to select papers or the processes used to assign reviewers. Editorial standards and styles also vary widely, as do the roles and responsibilities of Editors, other editorial office staff , and reviewers. Many of the top-tier journals (e.g., Nature, Science, Cell) and their associated families of specialty titles have full-time, professional Editors in their offices, working on their journals and making decisions, while the vast majority of academic journals have an off-site, academic Editor, working in a university or research institute, and doing journal work in his or her spare time. Operations also differ depending on the size, finances, and goals of each journal, and whether it is published by a not-for-profit professional society or a for-profit publishing house. In short, there is no exact formula for predicting what the Editor of a particular journal wants. However, there are ways of figuring this out if you know what to look for and where to look for it.


To provide a broad view of the editorial landscape of scientific publishing, we begin with a few assumptions. We assume, for example, that researchers have completed their research and have correctly analyzed their findings. We also assume that the research is original, that the findings are valid, and that the science has been done properly, adhering to all legal and ethical guidelines, although we do touch briefly on scientific misconduct and ethical issues (see chapter 11). We also assume that some readers will be nonnative speakers of English, since, in recent years, journals have seen huge increases in submissions from international authors, with the greatest numbers coming from countries such as China, Korea, Japan, India, and Brazil (figure 1.1).

We also acknowledge that there may be limits to how widely readers can apply the perspectives and information we provide, since we are drawing on our own experiences working in editorial offices in the US and the UK. In other parts of the world, editorial practices may be different and researchers living in non-Western cultures may be accustomed to editorial requirements that differ from those associated with Western English-language journals.

We have also limited the scope of this book to the processes of publishing a manuscript and therefore do not provide specific instructions on how to write a scientific paper. Many excellent textbooks on technical and science writing are available, and many universities and colleges also provide free online resources that offer guidelines and examples of how to write clear and readable technical prose. We do touch on the importance of authors knowing when they are ready to start drafting a manuscript, but this is in the context of better understanding what Editors want. In appendix 1, we include a list of some of the many resources that are available, including links to online writing resources offered by universities and colleges across the US.

In this book, we also occasionally note information that is specifically for nonnative speakers of English. While writing a paper in a foreign language is an added challenge for authors, we believe that many of the other challenges in publishing are actually the same for both native and nonnative speakers. Certainly, if a manuscript is written in clear, concise, and readable prose, Editors will have an easier time assessing the quality and appropriateness of the paper for their journal. However, success in publishing comes not only from good writing but also from making sound choices about when, where, and how to submit a paper for consideration.

Throughout the text, we have also included sidebars by a variety of experts, including Editors and publishers from well-known journals and publishing houses. These contributors provide their views on a broad range of topics that are central to scientific publishing and add a variety of explanations and opinions that are both interesting and informative.


We begin chapter 2 by explaining how an understanding of an Editor's perspective can help authors more successfully navigate the publishing process. In chapter 3, we discuss how authors can judge whether they are actually ready to write a full scientific paper or whether they should consider waiting or using a different channel of communication at a particular stage of their research. The decision regarding when and where to submit a paper for publication is where our story really begins because how that decision is made is crucial. We move on in chapter 4 to discuss issues of authorship and the importance of agreeing on roles, responsibilities, and author order at a very early stage of manuscript preparation.

In chapter 5, we discuss how authors can narrow down the choice of journals to two or three possibilities and stress the importance of thoroughly studying previous issues of each of the short-listed publications, as well as their websites and instructions to authors. Together, these resources should provide not only the form and format that Editors want but also the scope of the journal, the topics it will consider, and the specific approaches to the science that the Editors are looking for. Although a complete and clear set of instructions to authors is perhaps the best resource that authors have, in reality these instructions are not always as coherent and comprehensive as authors might wish. In fact, in the past few years, science Editors are increasingly addressing the challenge of improving instructions to authors through their professional organizations, such as the Council of Science Editors (CSE, see councilscienceeditors.org), the Society for Scholarly Publishing (SSP, see sspnet.org), and the International Society of Managing and Technical Editors (ISMTE, see ismte.org). Chapter 6 discusses how impact factors are calculated and what they really mean because so many authors are influenced by the impact factor of a publication. In chapter 7 we give advice on how to write a cover letter and in chapter 8 we provide guidelines on how to prepare a manuscript for submission to a journal and how to avoid mistakes that authors often make when submitting papers.

Chapter 9 reviews general information about how peer review is managed, including brief descriptions of what different editorial staff do and who authors should approach with particular questions or problems. We then explain the range of editorial responses an author may receive in decision letters from journals, what those responses mean, and how to respond to them.

In the two final chapters, we look at some of the ethical problems that authors and Editors have to grapple with, including plagiarism, copyright issues, and multiple submissions. We conclude with a discussion of various trends in the publishing industry and how they may affect authors—these include open access, new measures of impact, and the way new technologies might change the way publications are produced and read.

The appendices at the end of the book provide readers with additional resources that we hope will help them succeed in their publishing efforts.


We titled this first chapter "Who cares what Editors want?" and we hope that by the time you finish this book you will understand why it is that you, the author, need to care what Editors want. We also hope that the explanations, tips, tools, references, and resources we provide will help you to better understand the roles and goals of journal Editors and, in turn, how to publish your research with more confidence and success. That's what you want, and that's what Editors want too.

Chapter Two

Changing perspective from author to Editor

Those who can tell us the most about journal publishing are the editors, whose success as authors and/or reviewers secured their appointments as editors. With their unique perspective, no other group is better prepared to advise on how to effectively play the publishing game. KNAPP AND DALY, A Guide to Publishing in Scholarly Communication Journals

Competition to publish is stiff, and scientific careers depend on a researcher's success in publishing papers in well-respected scientific journals. Along with conducting and publishing studies, researchers also have to keep up with new techniques and technologies, go to meetings (often in faraway places), and learn to use new tools for communicating and collaborating with colleagues. Many researchers are faculty members and so must also develop and teach multiple courses to undergraduate students and perhaps supervise graduate students and postdocs as well. It's no wonder that most researchers are eager for a set of clear guidelines to help them succeed in publishing their science.

Many scientists become deeply engaged in the complexities of their work and believe that other people are (or should be) equally intrigued by the problems they are trying to solve. This concentrated focus on a narrow area of research can lead to problems in publishing because when researchers write, they often assume that readers share their deep knowledge of and interest in the topic of the paper. Unfortunately, neither the researchers' fascination with their work nor their desire for a clear-cut recipe for success in publishing is of much help in actually getting published. Authors face an exploding number of channels for finding and reading information—from print and online publications to blogs and twitter feeds—and an almost equal number of new tools and technologies for writing and publishing. The challenge for authors is to learn how to navigate their options and target the best medium for presenting their new findings. When the chosen medium is a scientific journal, we believe that if authors can learn to see the publication process from the perspective of a journal Editor, they will be more successful in getting papers into and through peer review to publication.

The difference between the perspective of an author and that of an Editor can be thought of in much the same way as the difference between a programmer and a user of soft ware. The programmer who writes the software understands exactly how the code was written, why it was written that way, and how the program is supposed to work. Users don't usually care about why a program was written in a particular way or how the code works; they care only that the program helps them achieve their goals and that it makes their work easier along the way. Similarly, authors may do their science meticulously and believe strongly in its importance, but the Editors of the journals they submit to don't necessarily share the same background knowledge or the commitment to any particular aspect of research. Journal Editors have their own jobs to do and have very specific hopes for each new submission that arrives: "Will this paper interest our readers and advance our knowledge of the field? Will it improve our coverage of this particular topic in the journal? Will it increase the reputation of my journal and help to improve its impact factor?" Authors need to see Editors as their "users," making sure that the paper matches this particular user's requirements and that it is clear from the moment a file is opened that the paper is a good fit for the publication.


Many inexperienced authors see the publication process as beginning at the point when they submit a paper to a journal. However, decisions about where and when to publish should start as soon as you've completed your research, if not before. Key steps to success involve being realistic in recognizing what you've got in terms of new scientific knowledge, identifying the audience who will want to know about your work, and finding out which journals are read by that particular audience. Many authors write with the assumption that most (or at least many) of their end readers will be familiar with the concepts and terminology associated with their research, and so write for researchers who have some level of expertise in their field. While this may be true of readers of some narrowly focused journals, it is not so for readers of journals that cover a wider range of topics. Authors often fail to understand that the Editor is their first reader—the gatekeeper for all the other readers of that publication. Editors know their readers well and understand what they expect to find in the journal. The Editor is the first filter, the person who is responsible for picking the best offerings and discarding the rest.


Excerpted from What Editors Want by PHILIPPA J. BENSON SUSAN C. SILVER Copyright © 2013 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


Chapter 1. Who cares what Editors want?

Chapter 2. Changing perspective from author to Editor 

Chapter 3. Judging the newness of your science

Chapter 4. Authorship issues

Chapter 5. Choosing the right journal

Chapter 6. Understanding impact factors

Chapter 7. How to write a cover letter

Chapter 8. Preparing for manuscript submission or “What Editors wish you knew”

Chapter 9. Who does what in peer review

Chapter 10. Dealing with decision letters

Chapter 11. Ethical issues in publishing

Chapter 12. Trends in scientific publishing

Appendix 1  Resources for improving science writing

Appendix 2   Databases with free access to articles or abstracts

Appendix 3   Presubmission checklist

Appendix 4   Free and low-cost image resources

Appendix 5   The Brussels Declaration


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