How the Publication Process Works for Science Journals


By Allison Kubo Hutchison

Stack of papers on a black background. ISTOCK.COM/PURPLEANVIL

How does work become a scientific consensus? Nowadays, it has to go through a process called peer-review. Science is conducted by researchers at universities, NGOs, national labs, observatories, and private entities. Then this work is compiled into a paper or journal article which is submitted to the appropriate journal. There are many subfield-specific journals for example the American Physics Society publishes 15 peer-reviewed research journals including Physical Review Letters, Physical Review Fluids, and PRX Quantum. Each of which has specific publishing guidelines. There are also larger publishers such as Nature or Science which publish a variety of topics the editors consider to be highly important. 

 We, scientists, love to measure things so we invented a way to measure the relative importance of different journals: impact factor. Journals with a high impact factor, the number of citations they receive in a year divided by the number of publications in the 2 prior years, publish few journals that receive a lot of attention. For example, Nature has an impact factor of 42 meaning very roughly that each article will have 42 citations two years after its publication. Citations are, for better or worse, a big deal. They are more than just people reading your work. It means that in some way your science-inspired new science and was a step forward. Of course journals with high impact factor also reject more papers. Nature only has a publication rate of 7% of submitted papers and most papers are rejected before even proceeding to the peer review step. Choosing a journal is much more than an impact factor and often scientists choose more niche journals that will reach their intended audience.

But choosing a journal is only the first step in a long process. After sending the article to the editors of your chosen journal it can be rejected before reaching the next step. However, no news isn’t necessarily good. You have to wait for peer review. Three other scientists who are in your field and can thoroughly understand your work will review the paper and suggest changes or concerns. This is called the peer-review process, the modern foundation of science publishing. When the editor receives the paper, they will choose reviewers often based on the author’s suggestion and send it to the reviewers. Peer review which is often anonymous can be an infamously difficult part of the process. Anonymity can bring out more brutal and honest critiques of science. However, it is the job of peer reviewers to question and investigate the author’s claims. Peer reviewers are generally not paid for their work and it is considered a duty of the professional scientist to engage in editing new papers.
After the peer review comes back, the journal editor makes a choice to accept or reject the paper. Acceptance doesn’t mean the end of the work. It can be accepted with major or minor revisions. Revision is a rewriting, recalculating period to address the concerns of the reviewers. This may be changing some graphs, redoing calculations, or if you disagree with the review writing a rebuttal explaining your justification.

And alternatively, rejection doesn’t mean the end of the work either. In some fields, 62% of papers are rejected before eventually being published after significant changes or changing journals. And this process isn’t quick. It can take months from submission to publication. The median time between submission and acceptance is approximately 100 days based on analysis of PubMed paper for the last 30 years. However, after acceptance, the paper must go through several versions to get it ready for printing or online publication averaging about 25 days. Between submission and publication it can take over 4 months to get your work out there and when looking at Nature the gestation time was about 9 months.

So when someone publishes a paper, it’s time to bring out the bubbly and cigars.

If you want to read more about science publication check out this article on LaTeX the computer programming language invented specifically to write papers.

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