Academic criticises reviewers after five-year delay to paper

Researcher sent thousands of emails trying to get paper published

November 28, 2016
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Defence mechanism: an academic has faced constant barriers when trying to publish interdisciplinary research

An academic who battled for almost five years to get his research into a journal has spoken out about the problems with publishing interdisciplinary science.

Enrique Martin-Blanco, a principal investigator at the Molecular Biology Institute of Barcelona, claimed that anonymous peer reviews from “extremely opinionated physicists” tried to censor his paper.

He added that the research provided an alternative to an established methodological analysis that has been used for years by some physicists, who did not like the idea.

The research, which took three years to complete and then a further four years and seven months to get published, features in the 15 November edition of The Embo Journal.

Dr Martin-Blanco, who has previously published in high-impact journals such as Science, told Times Higher Education: “I do not know how many hundreds of versions of this paper I have.” He sent the paper to 11 different journals to be assessed 16 times by 22 reviewers before it was published and wrote thousands of emails about it.

He said that he continually got feedback from physicist reviewers that the analysis could not be done, despite having data to back up his theory.

“We were getting comments like ‘we don’t believe it’ [and] ‘it is not possible on theoretical point of view’ because it was a challenging way of doing new physics,” he said. “They didn’t like it,” he added.

Although he has no proof, molecular biologist Dr Martin-Blanco said that he thought some physicists did not want the paper to be published. “I have found physicists extremely opinionated and bound to concepts that they do not [want] to change,” he said.

“Interdisciplinary papers are difficult to evaluate and analyse,” he said, adding that communication between biologists and physicists is “not yet fluid”. “[That] it took that long was unfortunate, but it shows how badly the reviewing and publishing system works in some scientific fields.”

“Reviewers potentially behave very badly and react against things that go against their own interest. Of course this is [an] anonymous reviewing system so you cannot fight back,” he said.

“The editors are influenced by the reviewers and in many cases do not have the scientific background to make decisions based on scientific terms,” he added.

In fact, the paper took so long to be published that one of the first co-authors, who had the original idea for the research, died before it saw the light of day.

Dr Martin-Blanco said that the delays had caused a “nightmare” for his laboratory as staff became “frustrated” that their careers were on hold. “The environment in the laboratory occasionally became very tense because with every rejection people stop trusting you,” he said.

He said that delays in getting out the paper, which used hydrodynamic equations to analyse an elastic cortex in zebrafish, also affected his ability to secure new research grants and attract new staff to his team.

He added that he can now submit for publication two or three further papers on this area of research that have been languishing because they needed to reference the methods used in the original paper.

holly.else@tesglobal.com

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Reader's comments (1)

The editors of the EMBO Journals were glad to be able to publish the paper - the process was in our view efficient, including a single round of revision. All the details are documented in the Transparent Process review file that we publish with most papers: http://emboj.embopress.org/content/embojnl/early/2016/11/09/embj.201694264.reviewer-comments.pdf. For data and approaches that raise discussion among experts, in our experience the EMBO Press cross-referee commenting process works extremely well: all referees see each other’s reports before a decision is made and often comment on specific issues they agree or disagree with, allowing the editors to make a more nuanced and informed decision. Where appropriate, we also approach the authors before an editorial decision is made to take into account their take on the referee reports. It is also interesting to note that the article past posted one year earlier as a preprint on bioRxiv - this helps get information shared earlier and often yields feedback from the community to allow revision before formal submission at the journal. Bernd Pulverer, Chief Editor, the EMBO Journal

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