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Editor-in-Chief's Column

Peter Hall

Getting a paper published in the Journal of Pathology: Episode 3

In the last instalment (much like Sexton Blake!) we left our hero manuscript languishing in the electronic maze of Manuscript Central.  You may recall this is the Web-based manuscript handling system that the Journal of Pathology (and many others) employs to facilitate submission.  Assuming all has gone well with this process, our Managing Editor will make sure all the files are correctly uploaded and the manuscript is given a unique identifying number.  At this stage it goes into review.  We have recently published an Editorial that details this (1) but I will here overview peer review in the Journal of Pathology.

Manuscripts are assigned to an Associate Editor.  We do not have subject-specific Associate Editors but simply assign an uniform number of manuscripts at random.  We avoid Associate Editors from the same Institution or if there were other potential conflicts of interest.  The Associate Editor makes an initial assessment of the manuscript and in particular whether the manuscript is in our general area and is likely to be competitive in review.   About 30% of manuscripts are referred back to the Editor-in-Chief at this stage.  I may agree with the Associate Editor's view or seek additional advice from one of more other members of the team.  If all are in agreement with the initial view then a letter politely indicating that we will not consider the manuscript further is sent to the authors.  This process typically takes no more than a few days and has the merit of allowing authors to submit elsewhere promptly and not waste time in a review process which is unlikely to be successful.  It also reduces the burden on our reviewers!

About 70% of manuscripts pass this initial triage and the Associate Editor will choose reviewers.  Our reviewer database is large and international.  Authors are at liberty to suggest reviewers and to indicate non-preferred reviewers.  We are not obligated to take these suggestions into account but will always look at suggestions and non-preferred reviewers.  This is a difficult area and judgements have to be made.  Certainly there are reviewers who I would not want my papers to go to and I think we all accept this, but there is a fine line to be trodden.  Similarly one has to be rather careful with preferred reviewers: we even had someone suggest a reviewer in the same Department as the lead author!  In all of this the guiding principles are fairness and objectivity.

Some reviewers excuse themselves on grounds of real or perceived conflicts of interest and this is to their credit.  Other reviewers may not be available or simply never respond to requests to review.  We usually seek at least two timely reviews.  Sometimes we seek more than two, particularly is there are for example bioinformatic or other specialist issues to consider.  Rarely (and unsatisfactorily) we can only obtain a single review.  We hope to get reviews back in no more than 21 days and preferably less. Our median time to first decision is now 15 days, and while skewed by the fast reject category, this is only 30% of the total and so it is clear we do obtain fast reviews for a substantial fraction of our manuscripts.  Speed is one thing but objective and fair review is paramount if a Journal is to be perceived as making robust decisions.  Objective evidence for this is hard to accrue but a recent audit processes suggests we do have a reliable review process (1). 

Of those manuscripts that go to review more than half are rejected after initial review.  It is rare for manuscripts to be accepted without revision (it has only happened once in the last 20 months) and one, two or even three rounds of revision can occur.  While authors do not like it, it does occur that manuscripts are rejected following revision, usually because the authors have simply not dealt with reviewer' concerns.  So. paying careful attention to reviewer's comments is key in getting your work published!

What happens if reviewers give conflicting advice? Lack of total concordance between reviewers is not uncommon and we use several devices to resolve such dilemmas.  We might seek the views of third (or fourth!) reviewers.  Another approach is to make use of Editorial Board members or Associate Editors  with particular specialist expertise.  At some point the Editor-in-Chief (and his deputy) must make a decision and the 'art' of Editorship is to find a fair and balanced approach.  It should be remembered that the principal role of the Editor-in-Chief is to maintain the integrity of the academic record: it is not about journalism or popularism, nor should it be about fashion, impact factor nor publicity per se.  We hope that these represent high quality, scientifically sound contributions to the literature.  For the record, ultimately about 25% of manuscripts originally submitted are accepted for publication.



1     Peter A Hall, Victoria Campbell, Jo Taylor, Richard Poulsom, Jo Wixon.   A guide to the Editorial processes at The Journal of Pathology.  Journal of Pathology  2009; 218: 1-6.

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