Tuesday, July 22, 2008

On Resubmission

What do you do when your manuscript is rejected and you want to resubmit it to another journal? Let's assume that the manuscript is publishable (perhaps with some revision), but for some reason it wasn't accepted by the first journal.

Perhaps the first journal has a one-word name and has an extremely high rejection rate. In that case, it is expected that the manuscript will be submitted elsewhere. Even if the resubmitted manuscript is sent to some of the same reviewers, they may view the manuscript more kindly in a new context.

No matter how many words are in the name of the journal that first rejected your manuscript, you don't have to tell the editor of Journal #2 that your submission is a resubmission. There may, however, be some circumstances in which you want to provide this information, as it can be very useful to the editor. There is no shame in revealing that the manuscript has previously been rejected. Sending information about the prior submission and review history of a manuscript can help an editor make an informed decision about new reviewers.

When you make your decision to resubmit a manuscript, you presumably are either moving down the journal food chain and/or selecting a more specialized journal. Presumably you have made whatever changes are necessary to reflect the focus and format of Journal #2, and have taken into account whatever reviewer comments were useful. These types of things can be explained to the editor of Journal #2 in a brief summary in your cover letter.

If you do send reviews and other materials to an editor, it's helpful to provide an executive summary and not dwell on all the details of what you have changed or didn't change from the first version. If you feel very strongly that the comma in line 329 should stay, go ahead and keep it (and keep this information to yourself), but if you changed something major about your manuscript, you should indicate what those changes were.

If you decide not to send reviews and other information about the first submission, in my field this would not be seen as an ethical lapse, just a personal choice. Some people might not think that the first submission is relevant anymore, and others might not want to admit that the manuscript was rejected.

There have been two recent cases in which I was involved in a manuscript resubmission, and in both cases I chose to tell the editors about the manuscript history.

For Manuscript #1, I was a minor co-author although I had been closely involved in some aspects of the research. The first author was a graduate student (not mine) and he did a great job of putting the manuscript together. He sent it to an appropriate journal for the topic, but the manuscript was negatively reviewed by some people who worked on a similar topic and were rather savage about something we considered a detail but that they considered a fatal flaw. It seemed to me that they held our work to an unreasonable standard that they had not been able to meet in their own work (perhaps because it was impossible), but they convinced the editor that the manuscript should be rejected.

The student did a thorough and thoughtful revision. Even so, there was this one issue that we couldn't do anything about, and it had been a deal-breaker on the first submission. I thought it would be a good idea to face this issue head-on in the resubmission. We described the issue in a cover letter to the editor, and provided the reviews from Journal #1 so that the editor of Journal #2 could see that this one particular issue had been considered the fatal flaw. This editor told us that he had no objection a priori to this issue, and selected different reviewers.

For Manuscript #2, I was disgusted by the unfair comments of one reviewer who had obviously discussed the manuscript and his review with other people while taking a very long time to do his review. This reviewer's comments were strange and kind of rude; he cast aspersions on some data without any justification. This manuscript spent a year in review for this journal. In fact, I wrote about this case last year, including the editor's decision, which I paraphrased as:

You should revise and resubmit and fix your deeply flawed data table, and also please rethink your interpretations because I think the most likely explanation for your data is that there are swarms of tiny purple kangaroos living on the moons of Jupiter. [I made that last part up completely to indicate how bizarre the editor's comments were]

When I wrote about this review experience last year, I was still trying to decide what to do. In fact, I withdrew the manuscript from further consideration by that journal, although it was painful to have lost that year in review, and resubmitted the manuscript to another journal. I sent the editor of Journal #2 the reviews and information from Journal #1, the manuscript sailed through review, and was published.

In some cases if you provide reviews and other information about a rejected manuscript, the editor can see that problems were fixed in revision or that the reviews were unfair, and make decisions accordingly.

I think the content and tone of the information you transmit to the editor of Journal #2 is very important. For example, I have recently reviewed some manuscript that were previously either rejected or sent out for additional reviews owing to major problems with the original versions, and the editors also sent along the first reviews and the author's rebuttal/cover letter. I was surprised to see that in at least two of these cases, the authors spent more time arguing in their letter for why the first reviewers were wrong and stupid than they had in re-thinking their work. Their arguments had little content. Example: "Reviewers X and Y say we are wrong, but in fact we aren't. They are." And so on.

In fact, I agreed with the first reviewers in most cases, and the negative tone and rude comments in the authors' letters made me feel even more negative about the manuscripts. If the authors weren't going to consider any criticism, however constructively worded, why should their flawed and poorly written papers be published? They seemed to care more about appearing to be right than they did about the Science, and that was disturbing.

Executive summary: Don't send reviews and other information about rejected manuscripts along with your resubmission if you really don't want to, but realize that sending this information might actually help your resubmission, not harm it, especially if you provide a calm and sincere explanation of the relationship of submission #1 to submission #2.


Mister Troll said...

Thank you for the advice. Perhaps this would have helped me a few years ago, during my Great Journal Shop of Many Years Duration. (Grr to senior authors, some editors, and several reviewers. And also grr to that horrible institution known as "online supplements".) All's well that ends well I suppose.

Anonymous said...

Example: "Reviewers X and Y say we are wrong, but in fact we aren't

Anonymous said...

Great post. Who knew about the kangaroos?

Anyway, I am on the editorial board for a journal that is part of a large European science publisher, and heard something related to this and, in my view, scary, in our last board meeting. Apparently there is an opt-in arrangement that journals can utilize that provides access to reviews from previous submissions of a manuscript to other journals to the editors of other journals when they receive the same paper. There is even the option of editors passing those previous reviews on to the new reviewers. Although the thinking here is that valuable information is provided in those previous reviews (undoubtedly true in many cases), all the bizarreness also gets passed on. Wondering what you and others think about this...

Anonymous said...

I always find this blog so helpful. I want you to know you are doing an excellent service to the science community.
The info on reviews go for proposal reviews, too. I usually try to incorporate the critical part into my new proposals so I don't make the same mistakes twice.

Ms.PhD said...

Thanks for this post. Nobody has ever told me this before, I would never have considered it.

I guess I always assumed that most editors are the same, and stupid or nasty reviews were just a waste of everybody's time.

I'm surprised to hear that some editors would actually bother to read the previous reviews and might even see how ridiculous they were.

Unfortunately, if the reviews are anonymous, the editor at Journal #2 has no way of knowing how to avoid sending the new version to the same reviewers, do they?

Regardless, I have probably missed good opportunities in the past and delayed my publications for lack of knowing this. I don't think this is common practice in my field, I have never heard of anyone doing it. But it is probably worth doing the experiment to find out!

dr. mcr, I have never heard of this. It is especially interesting to hear, since it sounds like you're saying Journal #2 doesn't even tell the authors about this behind-the-scenes practice?? So they might not even be aware?

Giant databases are powerful things, can be used for good or evil! This sounds pretty evil to me!

Anonymous said...

Agreed with the new FSP's comment above, this is a very good blog!

To endorse the point you make in your post, I agree that it can be helpful to enclose previous reviewers' comments when you submit a manuscript elsehwere. At the journal where I am an editor (one of those single-name journals to which you refer) we sometimes receive manuscript submissions that have been previously rejected by another single-word journal, in which the author encloses the referees' comments and editor's decision letter. We always consider each manuscript "de novo", and it would not affect our view of it one way or the other whether it had been previously rejected elsewhere (we'd operate our own peer-review process in either case). Sometimes, the previous journals' reviewers' comments can be quite helpful.

DancingFish said...

Great post! Most of our reviews are anonymous but we often suggest and exclude different reviewers for resubmissions. I would never had thought to include a response to previous reviews.
Perfect timing too- I am in the resubmission process right now!

Anonymous said...

We recently had one rejection because of one such reviewer from a well reputed Chemistry journal, we revised the manuscript and submitted to Nature where is got decent reviews and right now we are trying to resubmit the manuscript with revision. so sometime, a rejection is not so bad.

Anonymous said...

Very interesting Maxine, thanks for that.

And thank you, FSP, for bringing this to our attention. Maxine's comment seems to corroborate what you say; win-win all round.

Jonathan Jacobs said...

to add to the applause: Great Post! I'm curious, however, what advice you might give for resubmissions in terms of the choice of the 2nd journal. I've heard some PI's say that you should exhaust your lateral choices first, before submitting to a 'lesser' journal. This seems like a waste of time to me and just adds to the 'shop your paper around' phenomenom. Would you agree?

Female Science Professor said...

I used to favor 'lateral' moves for resubmissions, but these days, as long as the journal is in a Citation Index and can therefore be found easily, I think it's fine to move down in impact factor. If I were an early-career scientist, however, I would try lateral moves, as the prestige of the journal matters for hiring, tenure, promotion, and grant-related activities.

Candid Engineer said...

Very interesting post. I have never heard (in my limited experience) of including previous reviews of a manuscript. I could certainly see how this kind of approach could positively influence an editor's and perhaps reviewer's decision making process if done in the right way. Great advice that I will keep in mind in the future.

Anonymous said...

I was wondering why you refer to all the reviewers as "he" ? Unless you knew there identities?