Recently, there has been some talk on the blogosphere regarding the role of editors in glamour scientific journals vs. journals affiliated with professional societies. In a glamour journal, the editors are professional editors who's job is basically to be an editor, while in society journals editors tend to be working scientists who are doing a stint as acting editor for a journal. Submitting papers to these journals can result in very different experiences, and much of it has to do to the level of editorial control over the process and the experience of the editor. I'm sure many readers are curious how the publishing and peer review process works in various scientific disciplines. This was our experience.
In my lab, we recently had the fortune of having a paper published in maybe not quite a glamour journal but one of the glamour journal offshoots, which still has a relatively high impact factor (~14) and is one of the top journals in my field. Also we had a paper published in the journal of my scientific society (IF ~8). Let's call the first, fancy journal and the second, society journal. So what were our experiences with the different journals?
The first paper was the work of my grad student who had worked on it for 3 years or so. I've written before about this paper. It was a novel finding with a new mechanism and model system by which to study a neurological disorder. Because it was medically-related and thus of potential general interest, we chose the more visible fancy journal. Mind you that my lab had already had some decent publications before sending this out. If I were panicking to get more papers out I would never chance the long delay that you can encounter with fancy journals. The second paper was also the work of a grad student, took about the same amount of effort and time as the first and the results were of equal quality. Although we had to develop some fairly sophisticated experimental techniques for this study, the findings were more phenomenological and more discipline-specific, and this kind of a thing tends to not interest fancy journals. We did send it to a fancy journal but they basically said "fuck you very much" and was returned without review. Fuck you too. So this paper went to society journal.
After about ten days after sending the first paper to fancy journal we received notice that it had gone out for review. This is good because most of the time they send it right back saying they are not interested. About 5 weeks later we received the reviews. It usually takes the journal a week or so to find reviewers, then the reviewers typically take 3 weeks to return reviews and then another week or so for the editor to read the reviews and decide on the paper. The paper was sent to two reviewers and both indicated that our findings were interesting and novel, but they each had suggested an extra buttload of experiments to strengthen our case. Since both reviewers were reasonable, and the experiments were doable, my student and I decided to just go for it and do everything they asked. I mean if they say, "if you do X,Y and Z we'll find your paper acceptable", they you do X,Y and Z. The editor asked us to substantially extend the study (which was already quite substantial) and resubmit. My student had to develop a few new assays but with the help of a couple of undergrads this was done as well as the other buttload of experiments. Everything worked well and fit together beautifully. We re-wrote the manuscript and resubmitted. This whole process took about 8 fucking months, but for a fancy pub it was worth it. Or was it?
Things were not so simple. About 6 long weeks later we get an email saying that our paper was rejected. Whatthefuck!?! When we looked at the reviews, the original two reviewers praised us for the good job we did and suggested the paper be published. But of course the editor sent it to a third reviewer who you could tell barely read the paper and dismissed the whole thing with a very short review suggesting basically a host of impossible and useless experiments. We were pissed. So we had to go through an appeals process. They basically make you fill out a bunch of tedious forms and write a rebuttal stating why they should change their mind. Since this needs to be written carefully, it took us a few weeks to get it right. You want to be diplomatic here. You want to convey that the reviewer is an idiot without quite saying so. They also tell you that appeals are their lowest priority business, and that they'll get to them whenever they get to them. For us was that about 10 weeks. What they did is send the whole thing to one of the original reviewers. Fortunately the reviewer agreed with us that reviewer 3 was out of line and somehow this convinced the editor who finally accepted the paper. In total, form initial submission to acceptance it took over a year. I really find this last minute third reviewer bullshit to be very backhanded. If they want three reviewers, then they should send it to three reviewers from the beginning. Not have you spend months pandering to the first two and then stick you with a third one. But in any case, at least we got that one through.
The second paper was submitted to society journal and we promptly received notice it had been sent out for review. About 4 weeks later reviews came in. Both reviews were very extensive, but ultimately positive and mainly had issues with one of the figures and wanted extra data. We were also asked to completely overhaul our discussion section. The editor asked us to revise the paper and resubmit. He also suggested doing the new experiment since it did not seem too difficult with the techniques we already had available in the lab. So we did, we removed the problematic figure, did a couple of extra experiments, which in fact were not that difficult, did a thorough revision of the text and resubmitted. This took only a few weeks of work. About four weeks later we get noticed that the paper is basically accepted but that one of the reviewers still had some issues with our conclusions. So we did a second round of revisions, only in the text and figure layout and resubmitted. At this point the editor usually makes a decision without sending it again to the reviewers, but in this case he did send it back. So we had to wait another 4 weeks for the paper to be finally accepted. All in all this was a much more pleasant experience than with fancy journal. And its not that the quality of one paper was better over the other, but in the glamour journals they really make a big deal about impact and novelty. Whereas a respectable society journal typically will publish any solid piece of science, although of late some society journals are starting to make a big deal about impact too.
So why publish in a fancy journal? For one it looks good in your CV, but more importantly you get tons more exposure. There are many people who only routinely look through fancy journals and basically ignore the rest unless it's in their immediate subfield. Whenever we've published in a fancy journal, I typically start getting random emails from people who read the paper and had questions or were interested in collaborating, etc. This never happens with society journals. Maybe my friends or immediate colleagues will write. It is always tricky picking a journal to submit your work to. You have to keep in mind your audience, the novelty of your findings and how much extra time and effort are you willing to sacrifice to get the thing published.