Article 27.10.2020

From the researcher's desk to a scientific journal

Nature, Science, PNAS, The Lancet. If you follow science news in Finnish media, the names of these scientific journals, among others, may be familiar to you. Do you know what kind of a journey a research article goes through before ending up in an international scientific journal?
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Everything starts from doing research – without research, there would be no research articles. Ari Laaksonen, Executive Vice President, Strategic Research, at the Finnish Meteorological Institute, tells that the first step in writing an article is often applying for research funding. Once the funding has been arranged, the research study can begin.

“The study may begin with collection of research data or an analysis of existing material, depending on what matters are being examined,” Ari Laaksonen says. “After the material has been collected, it is analysed.”

In an article like this, the stages of a study from the submission of the funding application and the collection of material to the analysis of the material can be described in a few sentences. In reality, this may take several years. Only after this, the research scientist starts writing: the first step is drawing up the manuscript for an article.

Scientific articles often have several authors. The list of names can vary from one name to a string of dozens of names. The first author mentioned is the lead author with the greatest responsibility for the research study and the article. The other authors contribute to the study, for example, by carrying out measuring and analyses related to it.

The article is first evaluated by the editor of the journal

When the researchers are satisfied with their manuscript, they send it for evaluation to the journal they wish to use as the publication channel for their article. The first person to see the manuscript is the journal's editor, who scans through the article and decides whether it is suited or not for the journal in question.

If the editor estimates that the topic is suitable, he or she will find reviewers for the text. The reviewers are researchers with in-depth knowledge of the topic, and they are called peer reviewers. There are at least two peer reviewers, often three to four, per article. They usually remain anonymous, that is the author of the article does not know who comments on the article. The peer reviewers read through the manuscript and make critical comments on it.

The peer reviewers read through the manuscript and make critical comments on it.

“It happens only rarely that the reviewers think the article is ready for publication as such. In most cases, they propose some changes. Sometimes, the proposed changes may just be minor technical revisions, but in the worst case, they propose that the article be dropped,” Ari Laaksonen says.

Ari Laaksonen has personally published 250 scientific, peer-reviewed articles. He recalls that it has happened a couple of times that he did not need to make any changes, in other words, the article was ready for publication as it was.

Peer reviewers weigh the methods, language and conclusions

The comments of peer reviewers may concern the method used in the study or the fact that a certain perspective has not been taken into account to a sufficient extent in the study. Sometimes, the comments may be related to the ambiguous language of the article.

“The research may take years to complete, and waiting for the comments on the manuscript and making changes based on them may take several months as well,” Ari Laaksonen says.

Ari Laaksonen is in the editorial staff of the journal Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics, where the reviewers are asked to give their comments within eight weeks of the receipt of the manuscript.

It may sometimes be difficult to find peer reviewers. Research bibliographies and Google are valuable tools when the editor of a scientific publication is looking for experts within the field of a specific article around the world. According to Laaksonen's experience, young researchers are particularly motivated to act as reviewers.

The article must reveal something new

The main purpose of scientific publications is to convey the latest research information to the research community. There are countless scientific journals in the world, each field of science having its own specialised journals.

“In order to have an article published in a scientific journal, the topic being studied must also be of sufficient interest to other members of the research community. It must present something new. Of course, one can sometimes repeat a study made earlier using another method. In that case, new information is whether the same result can be obtained using a different method,” Ari Laaksonen points out.

In the study, the research findings must be presented in a consistent and transparent manner.

“The article must specify what was done, what kind of findings were made, what conclusions were drawn from the findings and why,” Ari Laaksonen sums up.

This all is part of responsible conduct of research. It also includes the general practices recognised by the scientific community: research integrity, diligence, and accuracy in research, recording and presenting the results and in evaluating the results. Likewise, it means that the publications of other researchers are cited appropriately and potential conflicts of interests are openly disclosed in the research study. These are the criteria every article submitted to a scientific journal must meet.

The best-known journal is not always the best publication channel

Not all scientific journals have an equal status. Researchers are well aware of which publications have the highest prestige in their field. The impact factor is a measure used as an attempt to rank publications. It describes how many times the articles in each particular journal have been cited to other research studies. However, a publication with a high impact factor does not automatically mean that it would be the best publication channel for every study.

Top magazines, such as Nature and Science, with a high impact factor also have a very high publication threshold. For example, less than ten per cent of the manuscripts submitted to the Nature journal end up being published.

The editors choose for further processing only publications that they believe to be of interest to a wider readership than the research community alone.

“Therefore, you may find a more suitable publication channel for your research paper in a less known journal with the right topic and readers with a view to the results of your research paper,” Ari Laaksonen says.

Text Kaisa Ryynänen. Translation: Lingsoft.
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