Fieldwork in the Atacama Desert, Chile

Tuesday, 28 November 2017

Adventures in Peer Review or There and Back and Again and Again and Again

So my latest paper (and my first on Martian geochemistry rather than corals) is now online at JGR: Planets in its pre-proof form. I’ll be posting an easy to understand summary of the science once the finalised article is up in all of its open access glory but for now, so not to anger our publisher overlords with potential copyright violations, here is the saga of this paper’s epic journey through the peer-review process. I'm posting this story as it feels very disparaging getting your submissions that you've worked hard on knocked back, and I think it's good to know that behind many successful publications there is a back story of rejection and so a light at the end of the tunnel.

The work for this paper was one of the first projects I carried out here at Imperial; investigating the relationship between the hydration state of perchlorate salts and the temperature they decompose at. This is an important issue as it is believed that the thermal decomposition of these salts when heated during analysis of Martian soil may be confounding our attempts to detect organic matter on Mars – but more on that next time.

This work was completed, written up and initially submitted to a well-known geophysical research journal back in October last year (2016). Unfortunately despite our research group having published similar themes in their before it was rejected by the editor for being ‘too specialist’. Not to be beaten, the manuscript was quickly reworked to another geochemical journal’s format and resubmitted. However, they thought it was ‘better for consideration for another journal’. It seemed salts on Mars weren’t in vogue at the moment – all the cool geo-astro-bio-chemists-or-whatver-the-hell-I-am-now are researching Enceladus now…

After another round of reformatting (thank fuck for Mendeley and its instantaneous citation-style-reformatting) and re-registering into another publisher’s online submission machine we submitted to a more specialist (think space-chemistry not bondage) journal in November (2016). Thankfully, this time there was no instantaneous letter of rejection from the editor as the manuscript was sent out for peer review.

To those who don't know, all legitimate scientific work has to be checked over by other experts in the field before it can be released into the wider scientific community. This is the peer-review process and it keeps the amount of bad science out there down to a minimum - or at least it did until you could say whatever you wanted on the internet and people would lap it up and tinfoil hat wearing nutters started having their own journal and conferences.

We received two reviews of the paper at the beginning of February 2017, both reviewers reasonably wanted proof that the perchlorates I was experimenting on were indeed changing their crystal structure when dehydrated, as I hypothesised, rather than just losing superficial water. They requested, therefore, that we carried out additional tests on the samples to prove this – by X-Ray Diffraction (XRD). This was fair enough, it would make our argument much stronger.

Unfortunately we do not have our own XRD machine in the lab, they’re pretty big, specialist expensive pieces of kit. Also, all of the samples that I had used had spent much longer either in the drying oven or exposed to the laboratory atmosphere than they had when I analysed them, this meant the whole month-and-a-half drying and subsequent re-exposure experiments had to be repeated on fresh perchlorate. So, I booked time on the XRD machine next door at the Natural History Museum and put the samples in the oven for 6 weeks at about gas mark 0.25. The flip side to this was that I got to go behind-the-scenes at the Natural History Museum which is always cool – getting a security pass, jumping the queues (it was half term) and getting let through the mysterious door hidden behind the giant sloth skeleton, going from the mad noisy crowds to the peace and quiet of the underground laboratories. However, repeatedly running from our lab, through the crowds of tourists on Exhibition Road carrying a lunchbox filled with nitrogen gas to preserve my sample was interesting to say the least.

The guardian of the secret science caves (Image credit)

While the truth was somewhat more complicated than we had expected, the XRD data did indeed prove that the conditions we were subjecting the samples to was enough to change their hydration state. Bolstering our conclusions that it was changes in hydration state that were affecting the breakdown temperature. The manuscript was updated to include these findings (along with making many more minor changes suggested by the reviewers) and sent back to review at the end of March.

Just over a month later the second round of reviews came back, this time they didn’t agree. 

Reviewer One’s was basically,

Ah, I see you did as I asked and it proved your point, nice work, this should be published 😊’

Reviewer Two on the other hand,

Ah, I see you did as I asked, I still don’t believe it, I think my idea is the best, REJECTION 

Unfortunately for us, although probably good for scientific integrity, the Editor has to go with the harshest review and the paper was rejected by the journal. I thought in this case, however, that this was unfair, after the amount of work I’d put in to, fulfill everything this reviewer had asked for. As there was such disparity between the two reviews, it felt like they had an axe to grind, maybe they were one of the many that this work was disagreeing with and didn't like that. Unfortunately, from talking to people, this seems to happen a lot during the peer-review process, which isn’t cool, if the work is solid, but doesn't agree with your ideas, then it’s up to you to prove its wrong with your own research later, not block it from coming out, that’s how science progresses.

So I sent a whiny letter to the editor, telling on Reviewer Two for being mean. Surprisingly this worked and the editor promised to send the paper out to new reviewers IF we made a few concessions and elaborated on why we didn’t think the alternative hypothesis Reviewer Two washing pushing was correct.

After some improvements we re-re-submitted at the end of June, a tense few months followed as we waited to hear what the new reviewers thought of our work – would they be kind? Thankfully both reviews we received at the beginning of November were very positive and it only took a few days to put right the points they made – which were mostly just things needing re-wording to make more sense/be less ambiguous, or typos that had somehow made it this far unspotted.

Finally on the 16 November 2017, almost exactly a year after the first submission, the paper was accepted. The battle was over, we had won, now to wait and see what the wider community thinks…

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