03 September 2012

How students see scientific publishing, part 2

It’s fascinating to see how outsiders think a process works compared to how it actually works.

Like last year, I asked my biological writing students, “What happens to a manuscript between the author finishing writing and it being final form that an audience can read?” I asked them to make a little flowchart. This year, there seemed to be greater understanding that there was some sort of review, though only about half specifically mentioned peer review.

Like last year, students were uncertain about who was doing the reviewing. Some people said publisher, some said editor, and some said reviewers.

One of the more interesting points in discussion, though, was when I asked them, “Who makes the decision about whether a paper goes into a journal or not?”

The students were unanimous in their opinion: the publisher decided if an article was accepted for a scientific journal. They thought the role of the editor was to check for grammatical errors, consistency, and things like proper comma usage. And students considered the reviewers to be more like fact-checkers, rather than people evaluating things like the significance of the work, experimental design, and other bigger picture stuff.

I tried to explain that in scientific publishing, a “publisher” usually refers to a large entity, like a large multi-national for profit corporation or a non-profit organization. Individuals are rarely publishers, and publishers don’t have much say in day-to-day decisions. I don’t interact with publishers directly when I submit a manuscript; I’m getting emails from editors.

The names of the titles are no doubt contributing to the confusion here. It’s so logical to think that a decision to publish would be made by a publisher. Students hear us talking about editing manuscripts, and think that the language crafting is all the job entails.

I wonder at what point a student working in the sciences figures out how the publishing system works. At the undergrad stage? Early graduate career? Late career? Whenever that first manuscript goes out?

When did you figure out how a manuscript turns into a paper? And did you get someone explicitly telling you, or did you figure it out by example?

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How students see scientific publishing


Peter said...

I doubt I ever thought about it prior to submitting my first paper, but I figured it out pretty much for myself then.
Incidentally, I think your students are right. The publisher is legally responsible for what appears in the journal and therefore is the real decision-maker. Most publishers, however, delegate to an editor who makes the decisions on the publisher's behalf.
If legal claims are brought as a result of something that appears in the journal, it will be the publisher and/or the authors who face them, scarcely ever the editor. Likewise, an editor who makes publishing decisions the publisher doesn't like can only expect to have some explaining to do if they don't want to lose the editing gig.

Melissa said...

In graduate school for sure.... Interesting post. I'm going to poll my research seminar on Thursday. I polled students in this seminar last year about authors and they all believed the first author to be the chief scientist. That was enlightening. In my field it is the last person with student or postdoctoral authors going first.

Eric Charles said...

Fascinating! I am now intrigued to ask some classes about this.

It is also all the more confusing now that most editors have stopped performing the duty of deciding what goes into a journal. I know a few who still have the gumption to make those decisions, but most tend to defer to the reviewers. Thus, it is the reviewers who decide (at most journals) what gets published and what doesn't - the editor sets themselves up as a mere intermediary.

Oddly, too often reviewers think their job is to be negative towards the paper, rather than to review or critique it in the broader sense.

All very confusing.

thecancergeek said...

I think I got it in the 1st or 2nd year of grad school as a result of journal club discussions (I didn't get on my 1st paper till i think it was my 3rd year).

As a undergrad (non-science major) I didn't do a formal UG research experience, and the project I did work on, the PI handled all the publishing stuff, which was a bit unusual anyway since it went into a book chapter before being published also in a journal.

PS is there a problem with OpenID commenting on your blog? I can't seem to use my wordpress credentials, like ever!

Irene Hames said...

A good place to point your students is Peer review: the nuts and bolts, a free 26-page leaflet produced by the Voice of Young Science arm of the UK charity Sense About Science.
It’s written for early-career researchers, but might help your students understand more about the peer-review process and who does what.
Also, I Don't Know What to Believe: making sense of science stories, which covers peer review and science research publishing in a very basic way.

Zen Faulkes said...

CancerGeek: Regarding Wordpress, um, I don't know. I haven't heard any one else having problems with that specifically. I'll look into it / keep an eye open for it.

Namnezia said...

I usually go over this with my undergrad class at some point during the semester. When I ask how many people are familiar with the process about a third do.