Karla’s first year as associate editor at Bioscience Reports

Some of you may know from my rants IRL or from posts on Twitter, that about a year ago I joined the editorial board of Bioscience Reports.

Why rants, you may ask? And why take on extra work?

Being a scientist who was offered the opportunity to join this editorial board, I thought it might be interesting to see the other side. How do editors decide whether to send a manuscript for review or not? How are reviewers selected? What metrics do journals care about?

Back in the days, papers were sent by pigeon to other scientists who’d then read them 🙃. These days, you’d think we’d throw it on a blog et voila, data communicated to the world outside. But no: the status of the journal we publish in determines our future career and that of our trainees. Some journals are trying to change the status quo, for example by first publishing, then reviewing. I digress. While writing this, I realise I can’t possibly explain the intricacies of our archaic publishing system AND potential emerging innovations in a blog post that was meant to be about editorship…

My main reasons to join the editorial board of this particular journal:
1. It’s open access. Anyone who wants to read articles, can!
2. It’s non-profit. Proceeds flow back to the Biochemical Society.
3. It’s not pretentious: it will also publish negative results, confirmative studies, et cetera, as long as the presented science is sound.
4. It accepts initial submissions in any format. This may seem trivial, but I really dislike having to format extensively for a submission, only to get the manuscript desk-rejected and format again for the next submission. Massive waste of time if you ask me!

Shortly after I joined the board in January 2020, some whispers about papermills started to bleed into my Twitter timeline. It turns out that there are quite a few (often Chinese) researchers who are paying someone to copy-paste whole manuscripts for them. Thanks to the vigilance of a number of people, this issue has become very clear. Potential flaws are often communicated through PubPeer, an “online journal club”. PubPeer can automatically notify the authors and journal of comments. It has a handy little plugin for any web browser, to get warnings when looking at papers with comments on PubPeer.

As a result of these papermill productions, whenever a new submission to Bioscience Reports reaches my inbox, instead of asking myself whether the manuscript in front of me is interesting, I’m asking whether it is real. And the numbers are shocking to me. This year, so far I have a rejection rate of 83%. (Go away, imposter syndrome! It’s not me, it’s the papers submitted!) Mind you – this journal publishes all that is “sound science”, regardless of novelty. Meaning that at least 83% of the manuscripts I received are either sloppy science or outright fraud. Hence the rants mentioned: the scale at which this fraud is happening is unbelievable. Perhaps even more scary is that we are talking about the obvious ones here. The slightly more clever fraudsters may never be caught. I’m beginning to understand why the reproducibility rate of fundamental science has been reported to be so depressingly low (90% of cancer research estimated to be irreproducible as discussed in the linked commentary 😱).

So to get to the point of this blog – what does an associate editor do?
Step 1 – the editorial office sends a manuscript, after initial quality controls, to an editor
Step 2 – the editor assesses whether the manuscript merits peer-review or whether it should be rejected outright
Step 3 – the editor assigns potential peer reviewers
Step 4 – based on the reviewers’ reports, the editor makes a decision: reject, revise & resubmit, minor/major revisions or accept as is
Step 5 – either another round of reviews or accept the revised version

I’ve found step 4 definitely the most challenging. The COVID19 pandemic may make matters worse, as it has happened a few times that a researcher accepted my request to review a manuscript, followed by weeks of silence. This is not great for the authors of a manuscript, as then the quest for a reviewer starts anew, extending the process quite unnecessarily. Therefore, dearest future reviewers: we don’t mind at all if you’re busy and reject! Or don’t like the abstract and decline! But please, please don’t accept and then don’t deliver…

Which summarises the two basic challenges at the moment I’d say: distinguishing real from fake and finding good reviewers who’ll provide a review in a timely fashion…

Piled Higher and Deeper

I think I did make the right choice joining the board of this particular journal though. I’ve been following the reactions of other journals to papermills, many of which are not acting at all to allegations of manipulations. The editorial board of BSR have been treated to a presentation by Dr Bik, showing us how to look for signs of forgery to prevent more from slipping in. The editorial office is investigating all suspicious papers that were flagged on PubPeer and will retract following COPE-guidelines.. They have put new guidelines in place to fence off as many fakes as possible at the gates, for example asking for more raw data upon submission. I applaud their commitment to cleaning up the scientific record.

Let’s hope for calmer seas during year two…

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