Scientific publishing - Behind the scenes

Swetha Suresh

EMBO   (Photo: EMBO)

The European Molecular Biology Organisation (EMBO) promotes life sciences research in a variety of ways: by offering fellowship to scientists in different stages of their career (their postdoctoral fellowships are open to Indians too!), conducting meetings and workshops, recognising scientists through EMBO membership and publishing scientific journals - The EMBO Journal, EMBO Reports, Molecular Systems Biology and EMBO Molecular Medicine.

Karin Dumstrei, a Senior Editor at the EMBO Journal, which publishes full-length research articles on a wide range of topics in molecular biology gave insight into what happens when a paper is submitted to The EMBO Journal during the India Yatra. She also discussed how journals are evolving and changing with the times and initiatives put in place by EMBO publications to reflect this.

In my grad school, I had the idea that editors were paper chomping people who took immense glee in throwing most of submitted papers into the bin. Not only did this seem a bit ridiculous, but once I met Karin the entire notion has been completely banished since I heard her talk.

Turns out every time one submits a paper, it first goes to the editor in charge of that topic. Karin for e.g. is in charge of neuroscience, immunology and plant biology. Editors all have research backgrounds and are PhD holders. The EMBO Journal has professional editors, which means the initial decision to review the paper or not rests with the editor. The editor makes this decision by assessing suitability, scope, fit to the journal and quality of science. At this stage a whopping 70% of the articles are rejected.

Once the paper makes past the editorial scrutiny, it is sent to referees. The EMBO Journal gives the option of excluding 3-5 referees. Referees are asked for their comments and based on these the paper is rejected, accepted or sent back for revisions. Interestingly, The EMBO Journal has a unique system of referee “cross-talk”. All the comments are pooled together and sent back to referees for them to comment on each other’s report. Karin finds this to be a very useful aid to make decisions and says discrepancies are often weeded out. EMBO is committed to a paper once it reaches the revision stage and offers a scooping protection. If revisions are found acceptable, the paper is published. In order to make this entire process transparent, time lines and referee reports are published along with the paper online. The review process file acts as an important teaching tool as well.

So if an intellectually stimulating job that keeps you in touch with science yet away from actually doing it, identifying ground breaking ideas and travelling a lot appeals to you, being an editor might be a rewarding career choice! Do consider it.

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