Bats are bad to publish: an odyssey

This year we published a paper about how bats respond to different environmental gradients in a south-eastern Australian grazing landscape (Hanspach etal 2012 JApplEcol). The paper is a solid piece of work with a well-planned design, some nice stats, interesting results (not ground-breaking though) and quite readable . That’s at least what we thought before we first submitted it. During this specific publication process we had doubts about it various times, but read yourself how it went:

Journal 1: submitted April 2010 – Rejection without review

Journal 2: submitted June 2010 – Rejection without review: lacking generality

Journal 3: submitted June 2010 – Rejection without review: too bat-centric, too applied, lacking novelty

Journal 4: submitted July 2010– Rejection without review: does not match scope of the journal, lacking novelty, lacking relevant literature

Journal 5: submitted August 2010 – Rejection without review: lacking conservation relevance, lacking novelty

Journal 6: submitted August 2010 – Rejection after review (Dec 2012) – Hooray, we made it one step further in the review process. We were pretty happy and the arguments were compelling. It took the editors and the referees more than three months to reject us with arguments like: „More COMPLICATED analyses using multi-variables are used these days for such a study”  [caps are mine], “not sure if sampling was adequate” [we had performed a pilot study to test sampling], “rephrase the sentence”, “some conclusions … may seem inappropriate” and so on. The two reviews had a total word count of 302.

(BTW, if you ever feel tempted to argue with an editor about the quality a particular review process he or she is responsible for, don’t do it. It is a waste time and energy…)

Journal 7: submitted January 2011 – Rejection without review: just not interesting enough

Journal 8: submitted January 2011 – Rejection after review: this time the comments were a bit more substantial than with Journal 6 – mostly criticizing quality of data collection (despite us using more acoustic monitoring data than the vast majority of comparable studies)

Journal 9: submitted May 2011 – Rejection with resubmission encouraged – Resubmission – Revision – Submission of the revision – Provisional acceptance – Submission of revision – Immediate accept (May 2012)

(All these journals have a more or less ecology/conservation focus and the 2010 impact factor varies between 3.2 and 4.9).

After that procedure, it feels always like random luck when you  make it past the editor with your manuscript (random with a low probability – here 0.22 –  to make it to the reviewers). And even if you make it, you may end up with hasty and low-quality reviews and the editor does whatever she or he likes with it (being unwilling to be challenged on it). Well, I don’t want to be too negative about the review process, I generally like the concept and with, e.g. Peerage of science, I see promising projects to overcome the shortcomings of it. Of course, what I don’t want to say that you just have to submit your manuscripts often enough, and then in the end it will end up somewhere (just by chance). And the journal that published our study had the highest impact factor of all we submitted it to.

So what? That happens to you all time? I hope not. Luckily for us, this was exceptional so far and I hope it won’t happen again.

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23 thoughts on “Bats are bad to publish: an odyssey

  1. May indeed be exception to rule. Have you also considered that your experience may have more to do with the paper/choice of journals than with publishing review process per se? At least one of the journals mentioned it was out of scope. Best wishes with your further research and publications.

    Disclosure: I’m a publisher for Elsevier.

    • Hi Andrew, thanks for your comment. Yes, I hope that this is and remains rather an exception than the rule and maybe next time I write a blog entry about how smoothly publication process goes in so many other cases.
      I am not sure about your argument with the choice of the journal though. There were not so many journals left for submission that publish such kind of studies at that IF-league. I agree that in the single case the choice of the journal plays an important role and we were desperate enough to try jourals that were not our first choice (well technically impossible after the first rejection). In such a way we ended up being a bit out of scope, but still a journal’s scope is not a sharp line and you can not be sure if you are in or out until the editor tells you.
      Cheers to all the unexceptional cases!

    • I went through a very similar odyssey (which landed in Proc B so the port of origin was at the top), and that was a a major reason why Peerage of Science was born. These experiences do result from journal choice, yes, but that journal choice is dictated rather than free will.

      When you are a postdoc with uncertain (or expired) personal subsistence, and have a result and a paper that you know are scientifically solid and exciting, you really have no other option but to try to aim high. Its that or die.

      The traditional process is a lottery. Why? Because nobody judges the justification of peer review arguments. Because nobody judges the editorial decisions (of course continuing incompetence leads to replacement but in single decisions editors are deemed infallible).

      Because of the twin tragedy of publish-high-or-perish and editorial infallibility coupled with opaque and haphazard peer reviews, the traditional process is frustrating enough to make many brilliant people switch to other careers from science. But perhaps some consider that a useful initiation ceremony, weeding out the faint of heart.

      So, send you next manuscript to Peerage of Science instead. Disclosure: I’m one of the founders of the service.

      • Very interesting, thanks. I am encouraged that the number of journals in peerage of science is increasing — though I am still lacking obvious strong applied (even conservation) journals at this point … so that’s kind of my problem, at this stage. But well done on moving the idea to what is now (evidently) a very successfully growing, better model!

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  3. What a fantastically stupid waste of the time and effort of five authors, eight editors (all but the last) and four reviewers. This is one of the most depressing things I’ve ever read, and makes me want to agree with Michael Eisen’s “tear the whole thing down and start again” approach.

    More practically, at least in the short term, have you considered PLOS ONE? It’s in your IF range (4.029 for 2011) and never rejects for “lacking generality”, “too bat-centric”, “too applied”, “lacking novelty”, “does not match scope of the journal”, “lacking conservation relevance” or “just not interesting enough”. If your paper is scientifically sound, it will be accepted — and freely available to the world forever.

    Disclosure: I like scientists to invest their time in science, not unrewarding clerical work.

      • Sorry, that was not clear from my side. It was not meant against you writing about PLOS ONE as a possible journal, but as a response to your question if we considered PLOS ONE and that I don’t want to say something about the journals we submitted to. But probably your question was rather rethorical and I misread it a bit. Cheers!

  4. By the way: “if you ever feel tempted to argue with an editor about the quality a particular review process he or she is responsible for, don’t do it. It is a waste time and energy”.

    I am not so sure. Even if the process didn’t yield any results you wanted for your own paper, it’s possible that you’ve shifted the editor’s previous behaviour. We can only hope.

    My own experience of peer-review has never been as awful as what you’re describing here, but I’m afraid it does rather confirm the hypothesis that results depend much more on who you get allocated as your HE and reviewers than it does on the quality of the ms.

    • Hi Mike, thanks for commenting. I agree that the process can depend a lot on the people that are involved, even in the less restrictive journals like PLOS ONE.

  5. Jan, I think your mistake was to the frame the problem around the response of bats to changing land use. If you had written it more in terms of the effects of man-made climate change, it would have been published promptly. Better still, devise a computer model to show that unless action is taken is immediately, bats could be extinct as soon as 2040, then you can publish in Nature.

  6. Y’know, if you’d never written this post about its PR saga (here via Twitter), I’d never have come across or thought to read this paper. I don’t work in anything remotely like this area. But I live in SE Australia and like bats, and therefore found it very interesting. So thank you.

  7. Hi Jan, sorry to hear about this terrible odyssey. Like Mike, I am also not sure that informing an editor about particularly low-quality reviews cannot help sometimes. I did this already several times and the editor usually agreed and sometimes even apologized.

  8. Thanks for writing the post, it was sad to read but informative; you know the tune, “sad songs say so much”.
    As a matter of fact, bears, wolves and grouse are also pretty bad to publish; they lack generality and do not really fit scope. Personally, I do not feel arguing with editors is of any use, or at least not when you get a “cut and paste” sort of decision letter. I feel this sort of cut and paste behavior of assoc. editors is on the rise lately; any similar experiences?

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  11. Just came across this post again by coincidence and found it oddly reassuring – I’ve got a bat paper that I’m quite proud of that I’m attempting to get published, which has been rejected six times (four times without review). Sigh – I blame the bats too. Based on your experience, I figure I have three more shots up my sleeve until I’m officially allowed to lose all hope. Here’s to wasting time playing this ridiculous lottery! But thanks for sharing your experience Jan – always good to know I’m not alone on this 🙂

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