17 Jul 2007

13 ways to get your manuscript rejected

I've seen a couple of good guides to getting your work published in a peer reviewed journal. But how to ensure that you get it rejected?

1. Don't write in clear English. Hell, forget clear English, don't even write in English. Editors who insist on good English are probably just pining for the days of the Empire. The more incomprehensible the better. Ignore simple grammatical rules like the use of articles, and don't run a spell check. Spell check is for losers. Certainly don't get it copyedited - good lord, that'd just be throwing good money after bad.

2. Never cite prior work. Be like this correspondent to a physics journal*, who gaily admits that "The only time I access previous articles is when the referee forces me to". Oh joy.

3. Try and try again. So your work has been rejected several times over? Play the lottery of peer review, and eventually you'll slip it past the reviewers! Reviewers love it when they see an article for the fourth time, with none of their advice acted on. No, really, they do**. ***

4. Argue. Argue. Argue. The reviewers hate you; you hate the reviewers. Don't be diplomatic: let loose the vitriol. The editor won't mind, they'll obviously take your side. After all, who the hell do the reviewers think they are? Oh, you mean the editor picked them because they think that they're experts in the field? Then the editor's an idiot too!

5. Do you know who I am?! Editors are always delighted when an author points out their eminent qualifications in a rebuttal, while ignoring all scientific substance for the reasons for rejection**.

6. Use Word Art to brighten up your article**. It shows your playful side.

7. Go completely off the wall. Five dimensional alien brains?** Bring it on.

A typical day in the editorial office.
Image credit Shira Golding on Flickr, Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial 2.0
8. Ethics committee? What ethics committee? Oh, yeah, right, we've got an, er, ethics committee. What do you mean, it can't just be me, my dog, and my next door neighbour?!** You mean we actually had to ask the patients before we experimented on them!?!**

9. You're a hero. Patients adore you as their saviour and the scientific community are all paid lap-dogs of big pharma. You know what results you want, so what's a little data misrepresentation between friends?**

10. ID. The reviewers and editors won't mind if you slip just a little bit of Creationist terminology into the scientific peer-reviewed literature...**

11. Photoshop rules!!! Pesky band in the way? Just photoshop it! Transformation failed? Just photoshop it!**

12. Copy. Has someone else said it better than you ever could? Copy! Copy! Has someone else done the experiments better than you ever could? Definitely copy!

13. Don't support your conclusions. Who needs to spend hours preparing supporting data? Loser! It just takes a few quick keystrokes to write "Data not shown".

Be sure to also check out Horacio Plotkin's sage advice.

* Thanks to the Blog of the "Editor's Bookshelf" for helping me to find that letter again.
** Any resemblance of this blog post to real events or persons is, um, entirely coincidental.
*** Stop messing about and submit it to Biology Direct!

12 Jul 2007

Not being clear about authorship is lying

That blunt statement is the start of the title of an editorial in the March/April issue of the National Medical Journal of India, "Not being clear about authorship is lying and damages the scientific record" by Charlotte England, Matt Hodgkinson and Pritpal Tamber. Yes, that's right, I'm published. Very exciting.

The online version isn't available yet; I'll see if I can get permission to reproduce the text here. I forgot to speak to Pritt about an 'Authors' addendum' when he submitted it, so the journal retains copyright and their permissions policy is that "The published manuscript may not be reproduced elsewhere, wholly or in part, without the prior written permission of the Journal".

I can, however, post an early version that I drafted with Charlotte, which formed the skeleton for the finished editorial. It bears little resemblance to the final version, so I'm in no danger of breaching copyright.


Misattribution of authorship is corrupting the scientific and medical literature. Those who do not deserve to be included within the byline of research articles can be found listed despite this, the recipients of ‘gift’ authorship. The efforts of others go unrecognised by readers of articles since they have vanished to become ‘ghost’ authors. Why this abuse of the scientific record happens may be the same as why much corruption occurs – the opportunity for reward without effort, and the influence of money. Transparency can counter the temptation to misattribute authorship, but this requires the cooperation of journal editors, authors, and the authors’ institutions.

Authorship criteria

Authorship is intended to give credit to those who conducted the published work, as well as to highlight those who should take responsibility for the content of the published article. In order to make clear who deserves to be an author, criteria for authorship have been drafted, the most widely known being those of the International Committee of Medical Journal Editors (ICMJE). These classify an author as someone who has substantially contributed to a published study and suggest that authorship credit should be given when an individual meets each of three criteria: 1) substantial contributions to conception and design, or acquisition of data, or analysis and interpretation of data; 2) drafting the article or revising critically for intellectual content; 3) final approval of the version to be published [1]. Many journals have since adopted these guidelines in their instructions for authors.

Policies on declaration of authorship often vary between journals. For example, the BMJ asks that authors explain their contribution in their own words [8], while JAMA has a checklist [9]. Research by the Croatian Medical Journal has shown that the structure of author contribution forms can significantly alter the number of contributions reported for each author, and therefore declared contributions should not always be taken at face value [Marusic et al., 2006].

Rising numbers of authors

Since the ICJME guidelines were first published in 1979, there has been a steady rise in the number of listed authors. The most significant aspect of this increase has been the inclusion of senior researchers such as department chairs or professors as either first or last authors [2]. This trend towards increasing numbers of authors is not exclusive to international journals such as the BMJ, as the Indian Journal of Pathology and Microbiology has also seen a 10-15% increase over two decades in the number of articles that have five or more authors [3]. However, this trend is not universal, since the number of authors of articles published in Indian Pediatrics has remained stable over the years [4]. It is not clear whether the increase in the number of authors can be attributed to an increase in the number of scientists being active in research or whether the inclusion of senior scientists as an author is due to the laboratory hierarchy, in other words whether a senior author has been ’gifted’ authorship solely due to their position.

Gift authorship

Honorary or gift authorship is known to frequently occur in biomedical publishing – one study in a French university suggested that up to 60% of senior researchers have received gift authorship by failing to meet all three of the ICJME criteria [5]. The prevalence of gift authorship has been seen to range from 0.5% of research papers in JAMA [6] to 39% of Cochrane systematic reviews [7]. Failure to meet ICJME criteria for authorship can be attributed to several possibilities. Due to the way in which the reviews are compiled, Cochrane authors may not be involved in the original draft or the ongoing revisions, thereby failing to meet all three criteria [7]. It is seen worldwide that the head of a department may insist on being listed as an author on any article issuing from their department, regardless of their own input [5], but in particular it has been acknowledged that authors listed on Indian research papers have a tendency to follow a traditional hierarchal order, where the most senior individual is listed first, followed in descending order by everyone else involved in the study [3]. The tendency to bow to authority has been criticised by Inder Verma, who has argued that “Science is best carried out in an irreverent environment, where the status quo is challenged, often at the risk of offending superiors. But the Indian scientific enterprise frowns on questioning authority and rewards obedience. Senior scientists are too often selected by seniority and rank, rather than their ability and achievements” [18].

Ghost authorship

Further issues arise with the concept of ghost authorship, where individuals do not receive acknowledgement of their contributions to a manuscript. This failure to disclose contributions is generally regarded as an unethical practice because of the potential conflicts of interest that may be present, such as resulting from the use of a professional medical writer by pharmaceutical or communication companies. The prevalence of ghost writing is not as great as that of gift authorship, with around 10% of manuscripts being written by ‘ghosts’ [7, 12]. However, there is a danger that pharmaceutical company-employed writers can ensure that the medical intervention in question is shown in the best possible light, and editors and readers will be unaware of the potential bias. There have even been reported cases where a medical communications company working on behalf of a pharmaceutical company will send potential “authors” a draft article, complete with a title page containing their name [13]. Provided the involvement of a professional writer in a manuscript is made as transparent as possible by acknowledging their contribution, their involvement can serve to improve the quality of articles [14]. The best way to deal with the potential issues surrounding the use of ghost writers is to ensure that not only is their involvement made plain, either within the byline if they meet the criteria for authorship, or in an acknowledgments section, but their competing interests, such as their employment by the sponsoring company, should also be stated. The present rapid growth in clinical trials in India run by foreign pharmaceutical companies makes this issue of increasing importance to Indian researchers [19].

Why authorship criteria matter

The reasons why authorship criteria should be adhered to and declared can be as mundane as making life easier for editors who are trying to find appropriate peer reviewers! Frequent gift authorship can make someone with little knowledge of a subject appear to be an expert, and lead to them being inappropriately invited to review. As has been discussed, ghost authors or unacknowledged contributors may have links to pharmaceutical companies, introducing a competing interest that will remain hidden. However, the issue of the ethics of authorship and contributorship is not only of interest to journal editors. Medical professionals have an obligation to behave ethically, and under the Medical Council of India Code of Ethics Regulations [15] they should “expose, without fear or favour, incompetent or corrupt, dishonest or unethical conduct”. The code specifically states in regard to signing professional certificates, reports and other documents that “Any registered practitioner who is shown to have signed or given under his name and authority any such certificate, notification, report or document of a similar character which is untrue, misleading or improper, is liable to have his name deleted from the Register”. Handing out a gift authorship or knowingly suppressing the involvement of a ghost could well fall within these regulations.

A further hazard of accepting undeserved authorship is highlighted by a case of fraud involving the University of California, San Diego. As Harold Sox and Drummond Rennie recount, “Slutsky had published 137 papers with 93 different coauthors when someone noticed anomalies in a few of his publications. The university's response was exemplary. [They] contacted Slutsky's coauthors and held them responsible for defending the integrity of every published paper”. They rightly conclude that “the guilty scientist's coauthors bear primary responsibility for publicly validating or retracting their joint publications” [10].

It is important that credit is given when credit is due because authors need to be accountable for the work they publish. This is especially important in cases where one of the authors is found to have produced fraudulent data, thereby affecting research that cites this data. Once there is suspicion that one research article contains fraudulent data, all other manuscripts from that group of authors need to be called into doubt [10, 11]. These matters are incredibly serious and co-authors should be involved in raising doubts about data as well as employers and journals. As an author, they should accept responsibility for that manuscript, even if their actions were not at fault.

Junior researchers who find themselves locked in a dispute over authorship can turn to the guidelines of the Committee on Publications ethics [17]. These guidelines advise that researchers start discussing authorship when they plan the research project. This is sage advice. The failure to agree authorship of a research project has previously seen researchers resort to legal action [16].


The corruption of the hard-won right to be recognised as an author of a scientific article can be countered by requiring authorship contribution declarations on all manuscripts, and requiring acknowledgment of anyone else who contributed. Despite the existence of journal policies on authorship, it is difficult for editors to enforce these policies. Editors do not have full knowledge of who contributed; only the authors and contributors can themselves say for sure. To avoid disputes, researchers should follow journal guidelines, and as COPE recommends collaborators should discuss authorship at the inception of a research project. As journals rely on authors’ institutions to arbitrate disputes between authors, institutions should have their own code of conduct for authorship, and be prepared to follow up on cases of authorship misconduct, be it gift or ghost authorship.


  1. International Committee of Medical Journal Editors. Uniform Requirements for Manuscripts Submitted to Biomedical Journals: Writing and Editing for Biomedical Publication. Updated February 2006 [http://www.icmje.org/#author]

  2. Drenth JP: Multiple authorship: the contribution of senior authors. JAMA 1998 Jul 15;280(3):219-21.

  3. Kakkar N: Authorship trends in the Indian Journal of Pathology and Microbiology: going the global way? J Clin Pathol 2004 Jun;57(6):670.

  4. Sohi I, Kakkar N: Author numbers in Indian Pediatrics--going against the tide! Indian Pediatr 2004 Dec;41(12):1286-7.

  5. Pignatelli B, Maisonneuve H, Chapuis F: Authorship ignorance: views of researchers in French clinical settings. J Med Ethics 2005, 31(10):578-81

  6. Bates T, Anic A, Marusic M, Marusic A: Authorship criteria and disclosure of contributions: comparison of 3 general medical journals with different author contribution forms.JAMA 2004, 292(1):86-8

  7. Mowatt G, Shirran L, Grimshaw JM, Rennie D, Flanagin A, Yank V, MacLennan G, Gotzsche PC, Bero LA: Prevalence of honorary and ghost authorship in Cochrane reviews. JAMA 2002, 287(21):2769-71.

  8. http://www.bmj.com/advice/article_submission.shtml#author

  9. http://jama.ama-assn.org/cgi/data/295/1/103/DC1/1

  10. Sox HC, Rennie D: Research misconduct, retraction, and cleansing the medical literature: lessons from the Poehlman case. Ann Intern Med 2006 Apr 18;144(8):609-13.

  11. Flanagin A, Carey LA, Fontanarosa PB, Phillips SG, Pace BP, Lundberg GD, Rennie D: Prevalence of articles with honorary authors and ghost authors in peer-reviewed medical journals. JAMA 1998 Jul 15;280(3):222-4.

  12. Fugh-Berman A: The corporate coauthor. J Gen Intern Med 2005 Jun;20(6):546-8.

  13. Jacobs A, Carpenter J, Donnelly J, Klapproth JF, Gertel A, Hall G, Jones AH, Laing S, Lang T, Langdon-Neuner E, Wager L, Whittington R; European Medical Writers Association's Ghostwriting Task Force: The involvement of professional medical writers in medical publications: results of a Delphi study. Curr Med Res Opin 2005, 21(2):311-6

  14. Jacobs A, Wager E: European Medical Writers Association (EMWA) guidelines on the role of medical writers in developing peer-reviewed publications. Curr Med Res Opin 2005, 21(2), 317–321 http://www.emwa.org/Mum/EMWAguidelines.pdf

  15. Medical Council of India Code of Ethics Regulations, 2002 (Published in Part III, Section 4 of the Gazette of India, dated 6th April,2002) http://www.mciindia.org/know/rules/ethics.htm

  16. Abbott A: Dispute over first authorship lands researchers in dock. Nature 2002, 419(6902):4.

  17. Tim Albert, Elizabeth Wager: How to handle authorship disputes: a guide for new researchers. COPE Report 2003. http://www.publicationethics.org.uk/reports/2003/2003pdf12.pdf

  18. Verma I: Then and now. Nature 2005 Jul 28;436(7050):478-9. http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v436/n7050/full/436478a.html

  19. Srinivasan S, Loff B: Medical research in India. Lancet 2006 Jun 17;367(9527):1962-4.

10 Jul 2007

Open Choice takes a beating

I've been impressed with the way that publishers have begun the shift to open access with schemes such as Springer's Open Choice, offering authors the choice to have their article made open access in an otherwise subscription journal, depending on the payment of a fee ($3000 for Springer).

Stevan Harnad has criticised Open Choice, arguing against double payment (readers and authors in effect paying for the same article), and what Stevan sees as the way that paying for open access publication is a distraction from self-archiving.

Now, Open Choice is being criticised from another front: researchers such as Peter Murray-Rust who are keen on open access publication, but who find that Open Choice does not quite meet the usual standards they expect of open access.

Peter Murray-Rust has resigned from the editorial board of a Springer journal in protest at the way that Open Choice is working. In particular, he is concerned at the lack of visibility or explanation of Open Choice, other than just a small logo
as well as the way that Springer retains copyright to the articles (Open Choice articles seem to be © Springer, although information on the Springer site states that "if authors choose open access in the Springer Open Choice program, they will not be required to transfer their copyright to Springer"). One of his real concerns is about the transparency of permissions to reuse the work, a criticism that has also recently been raised about self-archiving with the battle cry, 'Free is not open!' (it is unusual to see Stevan and Jan Velterop, Springer's open access champion on the same side of an argument). Jan has responded to Peter, to which Peter has replied, clarifying his worries.

One thing that Peter noted really did surprise me. Although readers can access Open Choice articles without charge, on the page there is a link that invites readers to 'Add to shopping cart'. There is also a 'Request Permissions' link, which if you follow tells you that "To request reuse of content from this Springer Science+Business Media journal, please e-mail Springer Rights & Permissions directly at permissions.heidelberg@springer.com for assistance". No mention of Open Choice.

Click the link to 'Add to shopping cart', and you are told that you can purchase it (for $32 in this case). I thought that it was unlikely that a reader would really be able to proceed with the purchase of an article that is actually open access, but I got all the way to being asked for my credit card details with no warning that I was about to pay for something that was free! This problem of people paying for articles that they could access for free elsewhere is an issue with self-archiving, but it really shouldn't be possible when the publisher has already been paid by the author!

As if criticisms of double payment weren't bad enough, this appears to be triple payment (subscribers to the journal, authors, and readers of the individual article who purchase it without realising it is open access). I wonder how many readers have made this mistake, if any? I take no delight in highlighting this criticism of Springer, as the blind spots in their implementation of open access are surprising considering Jan Velterop's genuine dedication to the cause of open access (his blog is called The Parachute, because 'it only works when it is open'). I'm sure that Jan will be working to fix these glitches in Open Choice.

Journalology roundup #9

Mentors of tomorrow. "Everyone knows bad peer review when they come across it — but too few are nurturing good referees".

Physicians and researchers have different needs. "Alex Williamson is publishing director at the BMJ Group, the publishing arm of the British Medical Association (BMA). We ask her about the role of journals in clinical medicine". A pity to see the BMJ Group being ambivalent about open access, especially as the BMJ is a good example of a high-profile medical journal publishing open access research.

Is physics the new biomedicine? "A new set of physics and maths journals are planned for BioMed Central. Siân Harris finds out why this open-access publisher is branching out from biomedical sciences". All about the launch of Chemistry Central and PhysMath Central.

Researcher accused of breaching research ethics faces GMC. "A former senior lecturer at the UK Institute of Psychiatry repeatedly breached research ethics guidelines and lied to study sponsors while building an international reputation as a leading researcher, according to charges laid by the General Medical Council. The GMC's fitness to practise committee heard that Tonmoy Sharma, who left the Institute of Psychiatry as a clinical senior lecturer in 2001, falsely claimed to have sought and received approval from ethics committees for several studies. He is also accused of recruiting patients by telephone without informing their carers; offering financial inducements to research subjects; breaching agreed research protocols; lying in a job application; posing as a professor; and in one case threatening a patient with withdrawal of treatment if she left a study".

PLoS journal retracts phylogenetics paper. "Computational Biology journal pulls paper about estimating the accuracy of phylogenetic trees, in what colleagues deem an exemplary process".

New site pits 'published' vs. 'posted'. "Nature Precedings raises questions over the value of sharing findings before submitting to peer review".

Search skills needed for new Web world. "Consumers now regularly go to the Web to look for medical information or to gain from the experience of people with similar ailments. They also take that information to their doctors, who have to contend with this new found influence on their patient relationships (whether they actually appreciate it or not!). And now even doctors are using Web searches more, sometimes for fairly sophisticated diagnostic reasons. However, all of this makes several basic assumptions: that people basically know what they want, even if they don't know the details, and that they basically know how to go about getting it from the Web. Au contraire, at least according to a couple of recent articles in the online journal BMC Medicine. One points to a study of Swiss people -- generally considered a very literate and knowledgeable lot -- that concluded there is a "consistent and dramatic" lack of knowledge in the general public about medical matters. The other is about a project that examined the search skills of people trying to get medical information from the Web, and found them lacking".

Copyright and research: an academic publisher’s perspective. "As a publisher working on the legal and rights’ side of the business at present, but who used to be a Commissioning Editor responsible for research books in the Humanities, the author finds himself sympathetic to the needs of academic authors and keen to find ways of ensuring that their copyright interests are adequately protected"... "A full-scale tilt into unrestricted Open Access would be too big a shift. Someone has to pay, and it can be argued that the current mildly regulated framework which ‘publisher-controlled’ copyright represents does the job quite well: of keeping the economics in equilibrium". Peter Suber has commented.

Retrovirology editorial compares impact factors and H-factors.

Reviewing Reviewers. "This weekend I have been poring over statistics provided by a journal for which I do some editorial work. In addition to data related to how the journal is doing (impact factor, ranking among journals in related fields etc.), there are also lists of reviewers: who did reviews, how many each has done, and how long the reviews took. It's amazing to contemplate these lists, first of all because they are a testament to the huge amount of work reviewers do in the name of 'professional service'. I have done my share of complaining about reviews of my own manuscripts, so it's good to be reminded from time to time that, despite some unethical and rude reviewers, the system of peer review is an impressive thing in terms of its scope and time involved".

Do scientists really believe in open science? "I am writing this post as a collection of the current status and opinions of “Open Science”. The main reason being I have a new audience; I am working for the CARMEN e-Neuroscience project. This has exposed me, first hand, to a domain of the life-sciences to which data sharing and publicly exposing methodologies has not been readily adopted, largely it is claimed due to the size of the data in question and sensitive privacy issues".

Clinical trial results often overstate benefits of treatment. "Failings in the way that clinical trials are designed and presented may lead doctors to overstate the benefit of treatments, experts warned last week. The conference on clinical trials, organised by the James Lind Alliance and the Lancet and held at the Royal Society of Medicine in London, also heard that key groups of participants were often excluded from clinical studies and as a result were denied the benefits of evidence based medicine. Stephen Holgate, professor of immunopharmacology at Southampton University, said that children and elderly people were "especially neglected" in this area".

For free or for fee? Dilemma of small scientific journals. "Biomedical publishing is becoming increasingly dominated by multinational companies, advertising research articles at the international market, presenting them electronically through web-based services, and distributing them to readers-consumers. It seems that they will soon become the sole publishers for the majority of biomedical journals. In the past decade, however, we witnessed a quiet revolution in the whole structure of scientific communication, influenced by new technologies and initiatives such as Open Access, PubMedCentral, PLoS, and BioMedCentral. The Croatian Medical Journal (CMJ) has recently been approached by two major publishing companies and offered to become one of the journals in their group. The editorial decision was to join neither of the publishers".

Journal of Biology celebrates its fifth anniversary. Hidden away in a table in this editorial is the calculation of the 'unofficial impact factor' for J Biol for 2005 - 20.1. Not bad, if I say so myself...

Free is not open. The CMAJ congratulated its former editors for the launch of Open Medicine - and got the response that, thanks all the same, but you're not open access.

Free medical textbooks. The 'Flying Publisher' describes their project to publish free medical textbooks.

Biomedical Journals and Global Poverty: Is HINARI a Step Backwards? "Our experience in Peru with the Health InterNetwork Access to Research Initiative (HINARI), an initiative managed by the World Health Organization that helps promote access to scientific information by providing free (or low cost) online access to major science journals, is not as accessible as hoped for and, in fact, is getting worse".