My ideal journal (MIJ)

There is an increasing yearning for a better ethos of scientific publishing, a general agreement that reviews of papers are lengthy, expensive and tedious and, like others, I have discussed before some of the details that lie at the heart of the problem.. There are, however, initiatives trying to improve on the current system which, basically, has spiralled out of control. Some of these initiatives consider ‘Science without Journals’. This is, of course, a Utopia, an interesting one, but a Utopia that is not within reach in our life time. Journals are here to stay and what we have to do is to decide what kind of journal we want and shape the ones that already exist into that mould.

Over the last two months, perhaps as part of an interest to change some of the established manners, some people involved with some journals have asked me for suggestions and one of these people, perhaps as a challenge, suggested that it would be good to know what is an ideal journal for the Life Sciences. Such a journal is like the ‘ideal gas’, good to establish laws but it does not and cannot exist other than in our imaginations. Nonetheless, like the ideal gas, thinking about such an entity can teach us something and might provide some ideas for people, editors, scientists interested in getting this business, our business, in tune with the times and the community. At the very least, it generated discussion. So, on the knowledge that many people are making parallel suggestions, here is my two cents on what would be ‘My ideal journal (MIJ)’. I appreciate that some of these thoughts have been or are being considered by journals and editors, but it will not harm reviewing them.

1. A modern journal should not be printed. Printed journals are a burden in today’s e-world and a ballast that places extra layers and work between the product (the scientific report) and the consumer (the scientific community). It is also an excuse to increase charges, to increase rejection rates and to limit the number of words.

If somebody wants to keep paper, they could use it for special editions of review topics once or twice a year.

2. It should have an editorial board that is committed to the journal and not one that splits itself between A and B league journals and MIJ. It is very simple, if they are part of more than one editorial board they have a conflict of interests. It is neither reasonable nor sensible to have people who are editors of journals which they consider second tier. An editorial board should fight for the journal they are part of. In the SFDORA era, they should aim at getting the best papers for MIJ.

3. It should have a simple and clear publishing structure. Despite efforts by some journals, it is clear that professional editors have to be involved at some point in the publication process, but their job should be to keep the system moving and not stalling. Papers should be reviewed efficiently and fairly.

The editorial processes of EMBO J (http://www.nature.com/emboj/about/process.html) and now eLife (http://www.elifesciences.org/the-journal/review-process/) are good guides for this. In essence, the structure of eLife with a reviewing board of editors i.e. the members of the editorial board do all the reviewing, is good but this will need commitment to MIJ by the editors. And, of course, I would streamline the actual reviewing process. Rather than one round of review being the exception (as it is the case now), I would make two rounds of review the exception. So:

• From EMBO J, the role of the editor as chief responsible for the fate of a paper (not to let the decision be taken by the reviewers), the policy of one round of review and the making sure that the experiments are what the paper needs and not what the reviewers want. An additional feature of EMBO J that I would borrow for MIJ is the publication of reviews on line.

• From eLife, the structure of the editorial board with the senior editors at the top and the board of reviewing editors below. Also, the speed and simplification of the decision process. What is at stake is not some long lasting piece of work but something with a short shelf life, a stepping stone on a long road of discovery.

NB  have not had very much contact with eLife but I understand that the editor summarizes the reviews and that the letter of acceptance or rejection is a simple one and these are good features.

4. In terms of the simplification of the reviewing process, and assuming that for a while one wants to remain ‘classical’, I would not allow for the free ranting that goes on at the moment. In MIJ the reviews (and the replies) should have a word limit. In this manner the critiques will always go to the heart of the matter. This procedure is followed all the time in the reviewing (and discussion) of many grants and it is odd that we have not incorporated into the peer review process.

Being brief and to the point will emphasize that the decision is made by the editor and that the role of the reviewer is to guide the decision not to interfere with the work. The point is that the decision should lie with the editor and that the role of the reviewer is, simply, to provide information for that decision.

An alternative to the word limit, or in conjunction with it, the reviewer should be asked to reply, briefly, to a number of defined questions, for example:

a. What are the main findings of this work?

b. Are they novel; are they significant or not and why?

c. What experiments are absolutely necessary (and make clear if these experiments are already in the literature and you have reason to believe that they need to be repeated)?

d. Reasons to publish (if not leave blank)

This should help the editor’s decision and, remember, in the end it is the editor who decides.

5. A useful variation to the reviewing process is that submission to MIJ should allow the others to include reviews by one or two peers who in this manner will assist the editor in making a decision. In some instance this might even be the decision and save everybody time.

6. MIJ should not publish less than 20% of the papers it receives. A higher limit of 30% would be good. The idea is that good papers should be published and there should not be competition between equal paper. This will be easier if you get rid of paper (see 1). Much has been said about the connection between quality  and rejection rate. The truth is, there is very little and rejection rates do not assist in attracting more papers.

7. In MIJ, the editors will respond sensibly to the authors and not mislead them. In the first and only review, the bars should be clear. What needs doing should be made explicit and, if it is fine, that is it. The editors, professional or not, should be able to judge the limits of what has been done.

8. Should be cost effective. Open Access has many a good thing but there are dangers ahead that only those who can pay will pay

In essence what we need is journals that use common sense, that remember that their job is to publish not to shape science, that are responsive and sensitive to the scientists who provide the content to the business. Journals in which the reviewing and publishing processes are transparent and fair.

In these days of San Francisco DORA, we –the scientists- should really take home the message that what matters is the work and not the journal. If we do, things will change. If we don’t, things will change slowly, probably, not for the better.

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