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Scientific Publishing Success: Understanding Peer Review July 23 2014, 0 Comments

Submitting a paper to a journal is a major steppingstone on the path to scientific publication. However, submission does not necessarily (or even usually) mean that work on the manuscript is complete. After submission, most manuscripts undergo a rigorous evaluation process (called peer review) by a panel of experts. The purpose of peer review is to improve the work, maintain standards of quality, provide credibility (to the work and the journal), and to determine the paper's suitability for publication.

There are three basic types of peer review; open review, single-blind review, and double-blind review. In an open review, the identities of both the reviewers and the authors are made known to one another. In a single-blind review, the reviewers are anonymous to the authors. In a double-blind review, both the authors and reviewers are anonymous. The majority of journals in the biological and biomedical sciences employ a single-blind review model. However, the double-blind review model is gaining popularity. Recent research has shown that the double-blind model helps minimize reviewer bias, and levels the playing field for scientists from underrepresented groups.

When a paper is received by a journal, a handling editor screens it for basic quality. If the editor deems the manuscript worthy of consideration, he or she will ask several experts in the field to critically evaluate it. The role of these experts (called ‘peer-reviewers’ or ‘referees’) is to provide constructive feedback to the authors, and tell the editor whether or not the study should be published. The review itself usually consists of responses to a set of specific questions asked by the journal, and a set of comments for the author to consider when revising the manuscript.

What criteria do reviewers use to evaluate a manuscript?

Some journals publish their publication criteria online, but most do not. In the sciences, journals often use a structured question form to request specific feedback from reviewers regarding technical soundness, data quality, originality, significance, and the quality of the writing (including English language use).

Significance and originality

Journals want to publish cutting-edge research that clearly advances scientific knowledge. Therefore, it is not surprising that questions about the paper's significance, or relevance to the field, often appear first on the review form. A journal may ask the reviewer to give his or her opinion about the significance of the research, its novelty, and whether it is clear advance on previous work in the area. Reviewers are often asked to rank the relative importance of the results, given the current state of knowledge in the field (e.g., top 10% of papers, 25%, 50%, lower 50%, lower 25% of papers). Editors weigh reviewer responses to these questions heavily when deciding the fate of a manuscript, so the significance or novelty of the study should be made clear (but not inflated) in your cover letter and abstract, and in the body of your manuscript.

Experimental rigor and data quality

Peer review is a quality control mechanism. A scientific claim must be based on solid conceptual reasoning and good experimental practices before it is published. A journal may ask:

Are the hypotheses being tested clearly stated?

Are the methods and data suitable for the hypotheses being tested?

Are the methods described in sufficient detail for the study to be repeated?

Do you have any animal care or other ethical concerns?

Has the statistical analysis been performed appropriately and rigorously?

Writing quality and manuscript suitability

Scientists work hard to design, carry out and analyze their data with rigor. However, even a solid study with interesting results stands a good chance of being rejected if the writing is weak or suffers from poor English language use. For that reason, it is worth taking the time to have the paper checked by a colleague or professional scientific editing service prior to submission. Common questions about writing quality that may asked by a journal include:

Is the manuscript presented in an intelligible fashion and written in standard English?

Do the title and abstract accurately describe the contents of the article?

Does the introduction clearly state how the study is novel and set out the reasons for, and context of, the study?

Do the conclusions in the Discussion follow from the results?

Is the literature correctly treated, with all relevant references cited?

Is the overall presentation clear and accurate, without wordy or tangential passages, or superfluous tables and figures?

Is the manuscript's length acceptable in the view of its contents?

Is the journal suitable for the manuscript?

Is the work of general interest to the journal’s readership?

Peer review has been criticized for its failure to ensure scientific accuracy. Most reviewers take their role as an objective arbitrar of science seriously, but even the most conscientious researchers may fail to catch an error in the methodology or results, or be unable to detect fraudulent data. Reviewer opinions are also vulnerable to human biases. Nevertheless, most researchers agree that peer review improves the quality of published research, and the review process is likely here to stay. By keeping in mind the criteria used by reviewers to evaluate a manuscript, you can improve the chances that the reviewer will recommend your paper for publication earlier.

Scientific writing: some damned good advice July 07 2014, 0 Comments

Substitute ‘damn’ every time you’re inclined to write ‘very;’ your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be.

~Mark Twain

Scientific Publishing Success: How To Avoid Rejection Without Review June 20 2014, 0 Comments

Scientists often put months – or even years – of hard work into each academic manuscript that they write, with the goal of publishing their research in a reputable academic journal. However, because journals often receive many more submissions than they have space to print, it is becoming increasing common for journal editors to reject submitted manuscripts without sending them out for peer review. Elsevier estimates that 30%-50% of the articles that are submitted to one of their scholarly journals are summarily ‘desk rejected’. For journals such as Nature or Science, that percentage can top 80. Having your manuscript rejected from a journal without review is discouraging, and can negatively impact your research productivity. Fortunately, there are several steps that you can take to increase your odds of clearing this publication hurdle, and to improve your rate of publishing success.

Who decides the fate of your manuscript?

When a manuscript is submitted to academic journal, it typically undergoes a preliminary assessment by an assigned handling editor. The editor decides whether to send the manuscript out for review. There are many reasons why an editor might decide to reject a paper. He or she might have ethical concerns about the study, believe that the experiments are flawed, or detect evidence of plagiarism. Here, we assume that you have great research to publish. By understanding how handling editors assess new manuscript submissions, you can maximize the chances that your manuscript will be reviewed and eventually accepted for publication.

1. Ensure that your manuscript is a good fit for the journal. Editors are only interested in papers that will be of interest to the journal’s main audience (which may or may not include the general public). Most journals have a webpage that describes the aim and scope of the publication. Make sure that your study is appropriate for your target journal. For example, if your manuscript is a review of auditory neurophysiology, don’t submit it to a journal that primarily publishes experimental biochemistry research.

2. Confirm that your manuscript is submission-ready. Editors like papers that adhere to the journal’s formatting requirements because they are easier to assess for scientific merit, and they save the journal copy editing time (and money). Most journals have a ‘Guide for Authors’ on their webpage with specific instructions for the layout of the manuscript, and the presentation of the manuscript components. Failure to submit a properly formatted manuscript can give the editor the impression that you are lazy, uninterested, or lack pride in your work. Does your lack of attention to detail also extend to your science? Cast your manuscript in the best possible light by making sure that it conforms to journal formatting guidelines before your initial submission to the journal. If you are unsure how your paper should be formatted, consider asking a professional scientific editing and formatting company to do it for you.

3. Submit a perfectly polished manuscript. Editors prefer to send focused, well-structured, and well-written manuscripts out for review. Consider asking a colleague or professional to review your paper prior to submission to ensure that it is grammatically correct, free from spelling errors, and logically structured. If English is not your first language, it is a good idea to ask a native English speaker to read the paper. The quality of English language use can have a significant effect on perceptions of research merit. If an editor decides that your manuscript is incoherent or requires substantial editing for clarity of meaning, it is likely to be rejected outright. Therefore, many journal editors recommend that authors enlist the services of an English-language scientific editing company to improve the writing prior to submission.

4. Compose a high-quality cover letter. The cover letter is your first opportunity to convince the editor that your research is worthy of scientific review. A well-written cover letter clearly states that the manuscript falls within the scope of the journal, that it is not under consideration at any other journal, and that it is likely to be relevant and of interest to the journal’s readership. The letter is also an opportunity to describe (in one or two sentences) the contribution to science that your manuscript makes.

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8 Tips For Writing A Kick-Ass Personal Statement For Medical School June 10 2014, 0 Comments

The personal statement is an important part of your medical school application package. The purpose of this essay is to describe why you are uniquely qualified for a career in medicine. It is an opportunity to explain to the selection committee what medicine means to you, and how you reached the personal decision to become a doctor. However, applicants often don’t realize that the style, flow and organization of the essay can contribute as much to the overall impression left on the reader as the content. Spelling errors, grammatical mistakes, and sloppy writing can easily land your application in the ‘do not invite’ pile. Taking the time to craft a well written, enthusiastic and passionate personal statement greatly improves your chances of being invited to interview.


Here are the top 8 tips for writing a medical school personal essay, compiled from some the best medical schools in the country and the AAMC.

  1. Write it good. Your essay should be grammatically correct and free of spelling errors. The AMCAS application website does not feature a spell-checker. Ask a friend, mentor or professional service to proofread your essay for you. Do not rely exclusively on your word processor.
  2. Focus your essay. Select a central topic for your essay. The Johns Hopkins website offers a great list of topic ideas. The site also has an equally important list of AMCAS essay themes to avoid. Our favorite? Unusual formats. Do not convey your personal statement through interpretative dance.
  3. Go with the flow. Your essay should read in a logical, organized manner. Consider writing an outline first to organize your paragraphs.
  4. Keep it interesting. Remember, committee members are people too. Your essay should be an engaging read. Avoid the temptation to simply list all of your accomplishments or experiences. It is far more effective to selectively describe one or two experiences in detail that illustrate your character.
  5. Keep it real. The tone of the essay is important. Be authentic, passionate and enthusiastic. Avoid boasting or implying that the school would be lucky to have you.
  6. Be active. Using a first-person, active voice is a great way to inject energy into your essay and keep it direct.
  7. Avoid using the word FLOCCINAUCINIHILIPILIFICATION. Long, impressive-sounding words often add little or no value and can detract from your overall message. Similarly, avoid using slang, colloquial phrases, undefined acronyms, and txtspk.
  8. Start early. Give yourself lots of time to revise, and then revise again. Ask several people to review your essay. Does it begin with one theme and end with another? Does it ramble? Do you have a strong introductory paragraph and compelling conclusion? If you don’t have time to edit multiple drafts, consider using a professional editing and proofreading service.
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