In January 2019, to mark the new year, Dr. Madhu Pai conducted an informal survey on Twitter to ask researchers to put together an author wish list, addressed to medical journal editors.
Being the flagship medical journal of the BMC Series, and having worked with Madhu previously, BMC Medicine felt that a thoughtful response was warranted. His author wish list had many salient points, for which we felt our responses could help to de-mystify the peer review process. Below the wishes (in bold) are the responses from the editorial team at BMC Medicine.
1) Please don’t make the online submission process so complicated that we give up on your journal; instead allow submissions across multiple journals using a single ID or login; allow initial submission in any widely accepted format as a single PDF; accept one referencing style across multiple journals, at least during initial review; be thoughtful of authors in low-resource settings with limited internet connectivity; defer asking for signed forms until closer to acceptance; accept digital signatures and not insist on wet signatures; reduce the number of forms to complete)
We completely agree that a more streamlined submission process would be ideal. Regarding formatting, we agree that many things (reference styles etc.) should be dealt with on the back end of the review process to avoid unnecessary delays and work for the authors if a paper isn’t likely to move forward. On rare occasions, if a manuscript is of interest to us, but initial formatting is such that we think it could hinder a thorough peer review, we try to communicate this to authors quickly and ask for specific changes before making any decisions. As for signed forms, this is a bit tricky since these can sometimes involve important publishing ethics (such as fair and transparent authorship). We do our best to streamline this process where possible (e.g. allowing emails to stand-in for physical signatures).
2) If our manuscript is clearly out of scope (or is not likely to even get reviewed), please reject early; it is not cool to sit on a manuscript for 3 months and then reject because the paper is out of scope for your journal
100% agree (sitting on an initial assessment for months is unacceptable)! We provide rapid assessments (typically within 3-5 business days) and decisions on whether we will send your piece out for peer review or feel it is better suited for another journal. Once a manuscript is submitted, first decisions are reached after a thorough initial assessment and a team discussion. Some pieces may then be sent to an appropriate editorial board member for further advice, but we aim for this to not add more than a few days’ delay. In instances where we feel the manuscript is out of scope for BMC Medicine, in most cases, we will be able to provide an alternative journal via our Transfers Desk service.
3) Kindly don’t dismiss manuscripts from low and middle-income countries (LMIC) or smaller, less known institutions – good science happens even outside of Harvard and Oxford.
It is an unfortunate issue in scientific publishing that there is a general and historical under-representation of locally-led research and reviews from LMICs, often due to resource and capacity issues. However, good science is good science, regardless of institution, and the editors at BMC Medicine apply the same standards and assessment process regardless of where an author is from.
4) Please don’t invite the same high-profile (‘big names’) authors from top-tier institutions to write all the commentaries and editorials – give opportunities to junior researchers, experts from LMICs, and women to contribute.
Agree! Young investigators are crucial to ensuring views at the journal are balanced, and we aim to have a mix of voices in the journal, both younger and more established.
5) Please set an affordable article processing charge for authors from low and middle-income countries.
We offer waivers and discounts for countries classified by the World Bank as low income or lower-middle income. Please see our waivers page for more information.
6) Please don’t ignore papers that have negative findings or try to reproduce prior work.
We agree null and confirmatory results are critical to clinical and global health research. As one of the few general medical journals to offer a registered report format, where authors can get provisional acceptance before collecting any data, we hope this will encourage authors to conduct high-quality studies on critical questions without worrying about getting “positive” results.
7) Please don’t send us 8 peer reviewers’ comments – that is overkill; all we get is conflicting reviews and recommendations; we cannot possibly make them all happy.
We take decisions mostly based on the advice of two reviewers (more if necessary for specific expertise), and have editorial input at every stage to make sure that the peer review process isn’t unreasonably and irrationally long.
8) If some peer reviewers are hostile, nasty, or get personal, kindly intervene, put them in their place, and protect your authors.
On the rare occasion when a reviewer is being genuinely hostile or unprofessional (our experience is that reviewers are mainly interested in helping to improve a manuscript), we do step in. Please keep in mind that this is a two-way street, so we expect both authors and reviewers to treat each other with professional courtesy.
9) Please do not allow Reviewer #2 to call all the shots and hold our paper hostage – you are the editor and should make decisions.
We take an active role in the decision-making process, guided by reviewer input. If we feel there is an impasse, we also work with our editorial board to reach a resolution.
10) Please chase late reviews and give us a first decision within a reasonable time-frame (e.g. 4 – 8 weeks); if you are struggling to find any reviewers, please let us know and give us the chance to provide suggestions or withdraw the paper and submit elsewhere.
We agree this is a reasonable time frame. However, we all have experienced reviewers who vanish after agreeing to review, and therefore, sometimes these delays are out of our control. But we are active in finding suitable replacements and will contact authors to see if they have suggestions on potential objective reviewers. We also contact authors to let them know of any problems so they are aware of potential delays.
11) Please don’t make us revise the paper 5 times – that is torture; if you must, kindly do not send it back to the reviewers every single time, or send to new reviewers who have no idea about the revisions already made (each cycle adds weeks of delay).
This depends on the paper. Sometimes (though rarely) the paper needs to be revised that many times, and does need to be seen by reviewers again. But we endeavor to send the manuscript back to the same reviewers, or see if we can make an editorial decision without reviewers’ input.
12) Please don’t reject a paper after making us revise 3+ times – that is just cruelty.
This is totally understandable, and we minimize revisions as much as possible to reach a quick decision. That said, this comment assumes that the authors are being adequately responsive to important and reasonable comments, and sometimes that is not the case. We request the minimum number of necessary revisions with the goal of obtaining the best possible manuscript, if we see there is potential. If a paper needs to be revised multiple times, we aim to be as directive as possible with our instructions.
13) Once a paper is accepted, please don’t completely rewrite the paper that we can no longer recognize it as our own – we appreciate copy-editing but do trust your authors to get the science and writing correct.
We agree! Copy editing is intended to improve clarity and not change any of the science or meaning. In our experience, authors typically appreciate the work that our dedicated copy editing team performs (including finding mistakes that might have slipped through otherwise).
14) Once a paper is accepted, please ensure online publication in a reasonable time-frame (e.g. 4 – 8 weeks).
We typically publish accepted papers within 4-8 weeks to ensure rapid dissemination of the results.
15) Lastly, when we get anxious and email you to check about on our submission, do send us a response (we know you care, and this is one way to show it!).
As full-time editors, we work closely with our authors and are always available to answer any questions or concerns. Our authors can typically count on a 24-48 hour response if they email us about their manuscript.
We hope these responses provide some insight into the editorial process at BMC Medicine. We’d like to thank Madhu Pai and all of the authors that provided feedback to him for the “Dear Editors’ wish list. Every year provides a new opportunity for journal’s to reflect on what’s working and what needs improvement. We look forward to working with our authors and reviewers in 2019 and a new year of exciting science!