A couple of weeks ago I submitted a scientific manuscript for publication. It was the first manuscript I’ve ever submitted, the first time I was the first author.
For those of you not in science or academia, let me try to explain. In science, publications are a necessary part of the academic journey. As a graduate student, I am learning to become a scientist. The first step is to design and implement an experiment. Then, collect and analyze the data. Finally, present findings to the scientific community. This can take two forms: oral presentation and written publication.
Written publications, or papers, are a scientist’s bread and butter. The explicit purpose of a paper is scientific communication. However, publications also reflect a scientist’s reputation. The contents of a paper not only contain all the details from years of work but also the author’s intellect, collaborators, and affiliation(s). The journal in which a paper is published reflects the (perceived) prestige of a scientist’s work whereas the number of times a paper has been cited reflects the importance of that work. In general the higher prestige the journal a paper is publish in, the better a scientist’s reputation will be. That isn’t always true but, in general, is a good rule of thumb. Reputation factors such as these contribute to a scientist’s likelihood of being hired and funded for future research.
In science, publications have multiple authors. The first author is the person that did the bulk of the work. It is usually a junior researcher, such as a graduate student. As far as I can tell at this stage of my journey, the person in this position gets the most credit for the published “discovery.” My advisor, Rebecca Saxe, was the first author on a publication that showed the RTPJ is selectively involved in thinking about the thoughts of others and she is credited with that discovery, not the other authors. (Many follow-up experiments are required to prove the validity of the claim but, credit for discovery seems to go to the first author of the first paper that published the finding first.)
The last author of a publication is also very important. This position is generally reserved for the senior scientist — the person training and advising the first author. This person also gets credit for the discovery but generally lets the junior author use the finding as a launching point for their career and, in many cases, credits the first author with discovery. For example, Nancy Kanwisher was the senior author on the RTPJ paper and so also discovered the RTPJ. But, whenever Kanwisher talks about the RTPJ, she credits Saxe. Further, Saxe did many, many follow-up studies on the RTPJ whereas Kanwisher did not. Thus, while both Kanwisher and Saxe discovered the RTPJ, Saxe is generally credited.
For my paper, I am the first author and Saxe is the last author. As the manuscript came together, I really struggled. A scientific publication is vastly different than the lab reports of science classes. You can’t just list the results, you have to transform the data into an easy-to-digest story. The writing process is not about numbers, it’s about making the numbers accessible to readers.
We went through many, many drafts. Words and phrases were tweaked. The way we told the story changed many times but, the numbers always stayed the same. In the end, I’m not sure which words and phrases I contributed or which were written by others. There is one word I know I contributed — hedonic. To include that word made me feel smart and I am ridiculously happy “hedonic” made it through so many rounds of revision!
Once we had a draft that we all agreed on, we submitted it to a journal. After submission there are a variety of responses authors may receive: desk rejection, rejection after review, revise and resubmit, accepted with minor revisions, and accepted.
A desk rejection is when the publishers state that the submitted paper is not well-suited for publication in their journal. This happens often, especially at the most elite journals. Science and Nature are the top two scientific journals and they each boast a 90% desk rejection rate.
If not rejected outright, a paper will be sent out for review. “Review” is when the editors ask established scientists to evaluate a paper for scientific merit. The review process can take months — scientists are very busy people and reading a manuscript with that much attention to detail is hard (at least it is for me). Manuscripts are usually sent to three scientists for review. Each reviewer then makes a suggestion to the journal editors about whether the paper should be published. The editors take into account the suggestions of the three reviewers and then decide next steps for the paper.
The best answer an author can receive at this stage is “accepted.” That rarely happens. The next best (and slightly more common) answer is “accepted with minor revisions.” To receive this answer is pretty much a dream come true. The two most common answers, however, are “revise and resubmit” or “rejected.” Either of those responses require much more work. A response of “revise and resubmit” generally means there are more analyses to do or sometimes even whole new datasets to collect. Importantly, however, the journal will keep working with you. A response of “rejected” means you need to go back to the drawing board and re-write your paper and try again at a different journal.
The publication process is long and arduous and, for every scientist and every paper, it looks a little different. I know someone who is truly brilliant that has flawless work. But the finding they want to report is a null result (a non-significant difference between groups). Publishers and scientists never really believe, trust, or value null results. As a result, they have had to re-write and re-submit and re-analyze and iterate through that process countless times. Unfortunately, their story is not unique.
My paper is “under review” now. We tried for a prestigious journal and so I was shocked it wasn’t desk rejected. I am not sure what will happen next but, in the end, I am really proud of the work we did to construct this paper. It took longer and was harder than I ever could have imagined. My advisors stuck with me through some difficult times (we wrote this during a global pandemic!). But, the result at this stage really is quite lovely. I am proud of our work. I really am very lucky to have such an impeccable team.
As I wait for the editors to get back to me with their decision, I am busy going through the process of writing up another manuscript. There is still a lot of work to do but at least now I understand the collaborative writing and story-telling process a little better. As a graduate student, I am not only being trained to be a better scientist, but also a better collaborator, a better writer, and a better person.