Research intelligence - Harnessing the power of Nature

Separating research wheat from chaff is a science in itself, editor of leading journal tells Paul Jump

October 6, 2011

Credit: Kobal
Golden opportunities: having a paper accepted by Nature can provide a major career boost for academic researchers

A scientist who receives an acceptance note from a top-ranked journal such as Nature can be forgiven for feeling rather like Roald Dahl's Charlie holding a golden ticket to Willy Wonka's chocolate factory.

For an early-career researcher, a Nature paper can be the key to a permanent appointment; for an established scientist, it can open the door to professorships and large grants. In some countries, such as China and South Korea, it can often bring considerable cash benefits.

But while Nature editor-in-chief Philip Campbell is, at best, ambivalent about this unlooked-for power, he does not feel overwhelmed by the responsibility to wield it equitably.

"Our decisions can affect people's careers, but how on earth can you take that into account when you are choosing whether to publish a paper?" he said in an interview with Times Higher Education.

"We just do what we have always done: we focus on whether readers would want to have this particular paper in a journal such as Nature. Will it be one of the best papers this year? This is the only thing we ultimately need to worry about."

Dr Campbell first joined Nature in 1979 after postdoctoral research in upper atmospheric physics at the University of Leicester.

Electronic publishing aside, he said, little had changed since then. Nor had it needed to: the success of the journal proved the efficacy of its editorial processes and structures.

Salient among those is the lack of formal influence for practising scientists, either in the form of academic editors or members of an editorial board. Instead, editorial decisions are taken exclusively by the journal's 25 professional editors.

Dr Campbell rejected some researchers' jaundiced depiction of professional editors as "failed" researchers, pointing out that almost all Nature editors have postdoctoral experience, and all were selected for their wide scientific interests and ability to assess the quality of manuscripts from outside their specialisms.

He also argued that their ability to spend significant time attending conferences and talking to a wide variety of scientists about emerging trends gave them the edge over most academics in assessing the significance of manuscripts.

But he admitted that they sometimes consulted trusted experts about whether to send a manuscript out for review, or to help resolve conflicts between reviewers and authors - although this did not amount to "cronyism" because editors always maintained a critical stance towards their advisers.

He denied that professional editors sometimes lacked the scientific confidence to overrule peer reviewers, insisting that his staff sometimes overruled all three referees over whether a manuscript should be published or whether another experiment was required.

Nor, he said, could trusted advisers or reviewers expect their own manuscripts to receive favourable treatment: "One of the first principles editors learn when they come through the door is that you simply can't trust anybody in terms of what they are sending you.

"Whenever you are tempted to (favour) a buddy, you stop yourself immediately and (reflect) that this same buddy will be reading this journal and would be disgusted if this paper was published in it."

For Dr Campbell, the lure of peer reviewing for Nature was simply that it gave reviewers an opportunity to read "interesting work" and to get an "inside track" on what was going on in their field. "I hope they don't abuse that, but who knows?" he said.

He also rejected the perception that getting one paper into Nature made it easier to get another one published, insisting that editors applied the "same degree of critical mindedness" to all submissions.

However, he could not guarantee that every referee stuck rigidly to that standard and he thought it was reasonable for reviewers to require a higher level of proof in papers from unfamiliar labs.

"But it is one thing to say, 'I am going to discriminate against that paper because of this author,' and another to say, 'This paper is from a lab where I have never seen them do this (kind of) work before. I am not sure I can trust it.' I don't think that is a bad situation," he said.

Dr Campbell argued that peer review worked well in general. Nature was considering an experiment in double-blind reviewing, in which authors' names were kept from reviewers and vice versa. But he said that very few people he had spoken to believed it would make the process fairer - not least because, in practice, reviewers would often guess authors' identities.

He said Nature could do more to check the impact of the 800 papers it publishes annually - perhaps by talking to authors and peers one or two years later.

He noted that the majority of the papers published in Nature failed to gain huge numbers of citations, but, on the basis of informal chats with researchers and the perusal of blogs, his perception was that the journal had a "reasonably positive" record of selecting the most important and useful ones.

But he admitted to being less confident about the more than 10,000 manuscripts Nature rejects every year - up to 70 per cent of which are not even sent out for review.

He kept an eye on where such papers were eventually published and, although he had not "gone out and looked for the biggest misjudgements we have made", he admitted that editors could sometimes be too conservative and ignore a new idea that a creative academic "steeped" in a particular field might identify as "tremendously powerful".

Element of chance

Dr Campbell agreed that the irreducible subjectivity of editorial judgement inevitably meant that there was an element of chance about which papers the journal published.

"But that is quite different from saying there is a high probability that the work in Nature isn't worth the paper it is printed on," he added.

The inexorable rise in global scientific output meant that Nature's rejection rates had gone up "a bit" recently. For this reason, he was inclined to expand the journal, but would not be unduly concerned if his publisher vetoed such a move.

"The rejection rate is not so high," he said. "There comes a point where you are just making random decisions if you are too constrained, but we are not there."

Dr Campbell said that Nature's American rival, Science, was prepared to accept "riskier" papers than his own publication. But he made no apology for being more "conservative in terms of robustness". Requests for authors to conduct extra experiments prior to publication had increased in recent years, but this was because of "the availability of increasing resources and better technologies" to carry out "more thorough and robust experimentation".

"We try to ensure that requests are manageable (but) we can't commit to their being easy," he said. "The whole point about science is that if nature can fool you it will. If your experimental protocols allow loopholes, Murphy's Law states you will fall into them and they'll undermine your very strong conclusions."

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