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You’ve painstakingly mapped out your research goal: to answer that unanswered question. You’ve conducted your experiments, analyzed the results and written your paper. Now it’s off to a journal. And the process begins. PLOS editors have seen it all and want to help get your paper published as quickly as possible.
What does the journal office look for, and what are the potential pitfalls? More importantly, how can you ensure that your manuscript passes journal checks and moves on to peer review quickly? Here, PLOS staff discuss a few of the most common reasons why a manuscript is rejected during the initial technical check, and how to avoid them.
For a bit of background, after a manuscript is submitted to a scientific journal it undergoes a series of technical and ethical checks. Submissions that pass this initial screening go on to editorial assessment and peer review. Submissions that don’t meet requirements, or don’t provide enough information, may be returned to the authors for clarification. This can extend review times and even lead to a manuscript being rejected without review. Below are 5 checks and tips on how to smoothly get past them.
Check #1: Sense check
Quite simply, does the manuscript make sense as a submission? Is it a scientific article? Are all the typical parts of an article (abstract, introduction, methods, results/discussion, figures citations) all present? Is the language clear and understandable?
How to pass it: Make sure that your manuscript is complete, and that the writing is clear and unambiguous. Note that it doesn’t have to be perfect at this stage, just precise enough for fellow researchers in your field to understand and evaluate your work.
Check #2: Journal fit and scope
Journals tend to specialize in particular subjects and types of studies. “The biggest reason we reject without review is scope.” Explains Kendall McKenzie, Managing Editor of PLOS Neglected Tropical Diseases. “Our scope page breaks down the diseases and categories of research we’re interested in, and even specifically states the kinds of things we don’t consider.”
How to pass it: It comes down to submitting the right manuscript to the right publication. Carefully investigate the journal’s scope before submitting to ensure that your manuscript has a good chance of publication. If your particular article is on the edge of the journal’s expressed scope, or if you’re just not sure, search the journal for similar articles; if there are no comparable publications, your study is likely out of scope.
Check #3: Acceptance criteria
Laura Simmons, Managing Editor of PLOS Genetics agrees. “In addition to scope, our Editors in Chief and Section Editors may reject without review if a submission is lacking in biological or mechanistic insight (i.e. if it is too descriptive), or if the research doesn’t represent a significant advance in the field.”
How to pass it: This one is all about doing your research. Different journals have different criteria for publication. Consult the journal website and consider whether your study fulfills the requirements and mission of the journal. Does the journal publish the type of research your study describes? Will your article appeal to the readers the journal serves? If not, consider a more specialized publication that focuses specifically on the type of research you are conducting, or, alternatively, a journal with a broader, more inclusive scope.
Check #4: Plagiarism
Most journals run an automated check that looks for similarities between your manuscript and previously published works. If the manuscript scores above a certain threshold, members of the journal staff will take a closer look at your manuscript to ensure that any direct quotes are framed within quotation marks and properly cited. “Overall the most common issue we see is authors reusing their own methods section, introduction, or conclusion from previous or related studies,” explains PLOS ONE Publishing Editor Emma Stillings. Authors don’t always realize that “you have to cite everyone, even yourself, to avoid any delay in the peer review process.”
How to pass it: Any direct quotes must be framed within quotation marks and properly attributed. That includes your own prior works. Try to avoid reusing text, and especially copy-pasting from your other papers. Check to make sure that any summaries or allusions are properly cited as well.
Check #5: Complete and consistent ethical, funding, data, and other statements
If the statements in the submission form are unclear, lacking detail, or otherwise incomplete, the process will pause while the journal office contacts the authors for more information. Similarly, if the statements within the manuscript are different from those in the submission system, the journal office will work with the authors to reconcile them before the manuscript can advance.
How to pass it: Label and save the paperwork from the early part of your research process: funding information, committee approval documents, permits, permission forms, patient disclosure statements, study designs, and any other materials. You may need them to complete your submission form. When you are ready to submit, proofread carefully to ensure that everything in your manuscript is up-to-date and clear. Double check to make sure that any placeholder text has been replaced with the final version.
Final words of wisdom
“It’s so important to familiarize yourself with a journal before submitting. What’s the scope of the journal? What article types do they publish? Are you adhering to the guidelines for that particular article type? Making sure you’re informed about what type of work the journal publishes and how, can go a long way in deciding where to submit and speeding your manuscript through the initial submission stages.” Eileen Clancy, Managing Editor of PLOS Pathogens