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Cornell University


Thursday, January 10, 2019
Takeaways from Hoffmann's Research to Publish

Every future peer-refereed paper author can benefit from Roald Hoffmann’s illuminating walk through the current scientific publishing process. He highly encourages faculty to let their graduate student or postdoc pen the first draft of a manuscript, as “writing the first version is an important part of the learning process.” Then there will be substantial back-and-forth between the co-authors as the story is refined prior to the submission to a selected, preferably ‘high impact’ top tier journal. A first pass of a “subhuman species” gatekeeper—alluding to the robotic, strict formatting check of the technical editor—can yield what is more recently called an ‘unsubmitted’ decision if the manuscript does not conform to the journal’s particular guideline-driven standards. But if it passes this initial gate, the manuscript then goes to the editor-in-chief who often delegates the triage to a subeditor who is charged with finding 2-4 reviewers and the decision whether to recommend with—or less commonly without— revision for publication.

Prepare yourself: the total process, counting the selection and response time of reviewers, author revisions and re-evaluation by the subeditor, can take up to six months after the authors might consider the work completed. Despite this long timeline, the peer review process might still be the preferable method for validating and publishing scientific research.

However, the changing nature of publications via open source, an increase in ‘bogus journals’, and even blogs which can add value and access to data, can all contribute to increasing difficulty to keep up with the over 700,000 articles published each year. Hoffmann shared tips for how he keeps on top of over 100 journals that publish relevant articles in his fields of research. He suggests that a list starts with your reading habits. So, if you read five articles from the same journal you can add it to an RSS aggregator list along with a subject search. University librarians can help you set up a relevant searching strategy.

Hoffmann figures he spends about 3 hours a week to scan 2000 article titles, read the abstract of roughly 30, and send about 5 articles to colleagues, especially graduate students in the lab. “This practice,” he said with a wink, “shames them” into staying on top of the literature in their own domain and spurs them ultimately to do more.

Hoffmann shared certain tips he learned throughout his prolific publishing experience. Despite an initial negative reaction to a reviewer who clearly did not read the manuscript, he urges authors to resist the impulse to deride the editor. Instead, make it easy for them, gather all comments and respond to every point, “as if they were rational people. Do not fight the editor!” Sparking laughter and solemn nods from audience members, he then shared verbatim nasty comments by reviewers he personally received. “Authors have to develop a thick skin and not take these comments too seriously.” In addition, he hopes these examples can guide future reviewers to be more helpful in their comments to authors.


Link to the event hosted by the Cornell University Library. This two-day workshop was intended for engineering, math and physical sciences graduates, and open to any students looking to use library services and resources. Additional skill-building events included workshops on presentation skills, and innovative ideas for test-driving your career led by the Executive Director of the BEST Program.