Thursday, October 31, 2013

Where manuscripts go to die

The other day Dr24hours wrote about when you decide to abandon a paper because a bunch of journals do not want to publish it. Personally, I think that if you’ve come to the point of a completely written paper, I would never abandon it, but just send it anywhere (with perhaps a lower impact factor) instead of having it die in a drawer. However, what happens in this case if you’re not the senior author on a paper?

For example, I worked in a lab for 9 months during my master’s training (which in my homecountry is required before you can enroll in a PhD program). I did a lot of work in that lab and became 2nd author on a paper that (at the time) was relatively novel and interesting (now, 10 years later, it’s not novel anymore at all). The grad student whose project I worked on was the first author and the PI was the last author. They submitted it to a pretty okay journal that rejected it. And then the grad student left science, and the PI assumed a position with a lot more administrative work and neither of them was interested in trying to publish the paper anymore. I’m still a little sad about the fact that my CV doesn’t show the work that I did (and that my H-index isn’t 1 point higher because of this…). However, in this situation I don’t think there is much I could have done.

But what if you’re a grad student or a post-doc and your PI is not interested in publishing your papers, because they are either not suitable for high impact factor journals and therefore the PI is not very eager to publish them (this happens, I’m sure) or because the PI is leaving academia? (this also happens) What if you have a finished manuscript but a very uninterested PI who does not care to look at the manuscript let alone submit it? (and I know some of you think that this will never happen, but trust me, it does). When I was afraid this might happen I decided that I needed at least a decent first author paper from my post-doc, so I took the following measures: 1) I got a collaborator involved who helped me a lot with writing the manuscript, and who was helpful in setting deadlines to get the paper out. 2) I sent it to a lower impact factor journal than I might have otherwise because I had an invitation for a special issue at that journal. This way I was pretty sure it would get reviewed and published relatively quickly and I wouldn’t end up with a manuscript with good review comments but no possibilities to address these comments.

So what else can you do when you’re feeling like you’re beating a dead horse trying to get a paper out that you need, but that the other authors don’t really seem to care about?


  1. And of course, Syd (retired marine bio prof and something of a major player, I think), said 3 strikes and it's out.

  2. My former PI has been dragging his feet for 2 years on one paper that I'm 1st on, and 3 years on one that I'm 2nd on. Basically, he got tenure and slacked off after, and is a serial rewriter which slows him down. I'm lucky that my institution knows about these issues and is cutting me some slack, but I would love to know how others deal.

    1. Yes it sucks and I feel that aside from reminding someone repeatedly there's really very little you can do. I mean you can't put a gun to someone's head and wait until he reads/edits/writes a paper right? Or can you....?

    2. Send him an email saying "unless I receive your comments within 2 weeks I'm submitting without them. If you like, I"ll remove your name from the author list." Don't let them fuck you over.

    3. I agree that that would be one way to persuade someone to look at your manuscript, but I think there are two problems with submitting a manuscript without the PI's name on it: First, people in the field who know you've worked with that person will find it surprising/shady if the PI's name is not on the manuscript and that might not help in your career. Also, if you still need your PI to write letters of recommendation for you (which you most likely will) you might not put someone on the spot like that... I think that's what makes it particularly hard.

  3. The manuscript I wrote about my master thesis project (me 1st author) died after the first round of review as well, because my adviser had not interest in it at all and the PhD student was too busy writing up his PhD thesis that he didn't want to invest time in the paper. At this point there was nothing I could do about it and I think even as a grad student there is nothing you can do about something like this.
    Now as a Post-Doc I'd write a similar email as to what Dr24Hours suggested. Not necessarily with the aim to take the PIs name off if they don't reply, but to take their non-reply as agreement with the content and submit with their names on it. If the time frame they have been given is reasonably long (2 weeks sounds like a good span) I think this is appropriate to do. So far deadlines like this have done good service to me and it's amazing how fast people you haven't heard from in months suddenly reply.