News - October 4, 2018

'The initial selection is based on gut feeling'

Tessa Louwerens

Scientific publication is like being on Tinder with the editors, says PhD candidate Yavanna Aartsma. The editors swipe you right or left based on the barest information.

Yavanna Aartsma will receive her PhD on 5 October. She investigated how plant odours in the landscape attract parasitic wasps.

Proposition: Publishing papers is becoming more like online dating.

‘My husband and I have been together for 11 years so I don’t have much personal experience of online dating. But I know people who do and I see similarities. When you submit a paper, the editor first has to decide whether it’s suitable for the journal before it even gets sent for peer review. The problem is that those editors are often doing this essentially as volunteer work alongside their other jobs and they have very little time. More and more papers are being written but the journals and number of editors aren’t growing at the same rate.

So editors plough quickly through the submissions and, like in Tinder, have to decide whether you advance to the next stage on the basis of very little information — your accompanying letter, keywords and possibly the abstract. That makes it a kind of gut feeling. I can’t judge whether that’s a good thing for online dating, but it doesn’t work for science.

There’s this idea that publishing is an objective process in which you are assessed on the quality of your research. But that’s difficult if you never reach the stage at which your research actually gets read. It also costs a lot of time because then you have to send the article to another editor. One of my papers was rejected three times without a review. I could tell from the general comments I got from the editors that they hadn’t spent much time on it. Whereas the reviewers were really positive once it did get a peer review.

In my opinion, learning how to get through the initial selection round is an important part of your development as a scientist. What I’ve learnt is that you need to take a good look at the journal’s scope and spend a lot of time on the accompanying letter. The fact that a journal has previously published papers similar to yours is not a good indicator of success.’