Demystifying the editorial process

On the 16th of June, a virtual “Meet the Editors” session brought together eight editors from six different Nature Portfolio journals that publish astronomy-related content. The aim of the session was to explain the editorial, peer-review and publishing process within the Nature Portfolio journals.

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On the 16th of June, a virtual “Meet the Editors” session took place that brought together eight editors from six different Nature Portfolio journals that publish astronomy-related content. The aim of the session was to explain the editorial, peer-review and publishing process within the Nature Portfolio journals and give potential authors the opportunity to ask questions directly to the editors. We collected these questions at registration for the event and also during the event itself. 

Event banner showing photographs of eight editors, along with the details of the meeting.

The editors in attendance were Leslie Sage (LS, from Nature), May Chiao and Paul Woods (MC and PW, from Nature Astronomy), Iulia Georgescu (IG, from Nature Reviews Physics), Stefanie Reichert (SR, from Nature Physics), Nilda Oklay-Vincent (NOV, from Nature Communications) and Elena Belsole (EB, from Communications Physics). The panel discussion was moderated by yours truly (Marios Karouzos from Nature Astronomy).

This post is meant to summarize the discussions that took place during the event and provide a reference for some of these frequently asked questions. We hope this collection is helpful and if you have any further questions, not covered below, feel free to reach out to us!

Differences between different Nature Portfolio journals

With a wide range of journals to choose from, authors rightfully may wonder which journal might be the most appropriate for their paper. How can authors understand the differences in selectivity and scope of these different journals?

LS: Every astronomer, when looking back at a year, can identify one or two papers in their specific field that stand out as landmark papers. These are the papers suited for Nature.

IG: Unlike the other journals, Nature Reviews are different in that they do not publish primary research papers. Instead, they focus on commissioned content and the editors work closely with the invited authors to develop the ideas behind a piece of content, edit the text, and redraw the figures. Nature Reviews Physics is very keen on technique papers, instrumentations and methodology.

SR: Nature Physics is primarily a physics journal and as such looks for papers that focus on the underlying physics of a particular problem. Both observational and theoretical astronomy papers are within scope.

MC: It is often the case that a paper falls within the scope of more than one journal. The question is then, which community does the author want to reach or feels would be most interested in their results. In terms of selectivity, the Nature Research journals (Nature Astronomy and Nature Physics) require significant novelty but perhaps not as wide implications and relevance as Nature.

PW: Nature Astronomy is interested in the full gamut of astronomy topics. These can include theory, methodology, instrument and community-centred pieces.

NOV: Nature Communications publishes high-quality research from all areas of the natural sciences. Its editorial criteria include a significant advance and the potential of a paper to influence thinking in its specific field, or a paper that introduces a new idea or technology or technologically viable solution to real-life problems.

EB: Like Nature Physics, Communication Physics is primarily a physics journal. It looks for papers that present an advancement in the field but can be relevant to a niche part of the community.

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Is there a bias against unaffiliated researchers, independent researchers or early-career researchers?

There is often the worry among researchers submitting papers to Nature journals that editorial decisions may be biased due to their country of origin, the reputation of their affiliation (or lack thereof), or stage in their career. Are such concerns well-founded?

PW: We read all the submissions we receive and assess them according to their content. Who is in the author list is not a deciding factor when evaluating a paper.

LS: I don’t care who you are, or where you’re from. Some of the best papers published in Nature have been led by grad students.

IG: While generally Reviews in Nature Reviews Physics are written by senior researchers, the journal publishes a number of other types of content that are well suited to earlier-career researchers. One example is the “Tools of the Trade”, which is content focusing on a specific method.

MC: If you are worried about potential bias, all Nature Portfolio journals offer the option for a mutually anonymous peer review, where the identities of both the referees and the authors are hidden from each other throughout the peer-review process.

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What is the Nature embargo?

Results published in Nature journals often produce a lot of impact and as a result, attract media attention. To maximize media coverage and ensure best practices in communicating science, there is an embargo policy. How does it actually work?

LS: Putting the original submitted version of a primary research paper on the arXiv has no impact whatsoever on the consideration of the paper in a Nature Portfolio journal. This has always been the case, even though there is sometimes confusion about it.

IG: Invited commissioned content has an embargo of six months before it can be posted on the arXiv.

Further reading: Press and Embargo policies, Preprint policies, Preprint sharing

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How does open access work for Nature Portfolio journals?

There are some clear and well-documented benefits for papers published open access. What options do authors have when publishing in Nature journals?

EB: The astronomy community has been “open access” for some time through the extensive use of the arXiv. It is well known that open access papers get more visibility and more citations, while remaining free to read (and use) in perpetuity. As more institutions and funders recognise the value of open access, barriers to publishing open access are coming down.

NOV: Nature Communications and Communications Physics have a waiver program that can support authors unable to cover the open access publication fee in these journals. Authors will need to send a request (apcwaivers@springernature.com) for a waiver or a discount at the time of submission (or transfer) to the journal.

MC: Nature Portfolio journals now offer a gold open access route for publication. This means that authors of an accepted paper can choose to pay an author publication charge to make their paper free in perpetuity.

EB: In addition, there is an ongoing trial called “Guided Open Access” through which a paper can be submitted and simultaneously assessed for a number of Nature Portfolio journals. Relevant for the astronomy community is the group of journals that include Nature Physics, Nature Communications and Communications Physics. The peer-review process is guided by a group of editors from these journals and by the end of it, given the referees agree, the paper is offered open access publication in one of those journals.

EB: Manuscript editors are completely separated from the financial side of open access. We will not know if your paper has been given a waiver, or if you plan to publish open access. This is to ensure that the editorial assessment process is completely independent.

IG: While Nature Reviews Physics does not offer an open access route for publication, some of its content is made free for a specific time period, or in some exceptional cases in perpetuity. In addition, content in this journal can be accessed through the dissemination of SharedIt links.

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Are multi-disciplinary papers treated differently?

Research in astronomy and planetary sciences is increasingly multi-disciplinary, drawing knowledge, methods and data from multiple disciplines. How are such papers treated?

LS: It is very common to receive multi-disciplinary papers, for example in astrobiology. In these cases, the editor can call upon the expertise of referees in different fields so that all the relevant disciplines within the paper can be robustly assessed.

MC: Typically, papers are looked at by at least two editors, each with their own field of expertise. For multi-disciplinary papers, the opinion or help from additional editors can be solicited, based on the required expertise.

NOV: Nature Communications has more than a hundred editors with different expertise. For such complicated papers, discussions can happen between multiple editors to make decisions.

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How do transfers between journals work?

In some cases, papers that are rejected in one Nature Portfolio journal might be the right fit for another Nature Portfolio journal. How does the transfer system between journals work?

PW: A transfer system is in place to ensure that an author can find the best place for their paper in the Nature Portfolio. If a rejection decision is reached in one of our journals, the decision email will typically contain a suggested transfer link that allows authors to easily, through a few clicks, transfer their manuscript, all its files and any referee reports to a different journal in the Nature Portfolio.

SR: The different Nature Portfolio journals are editorially independent. This means that, while the transferred material, such as the manuscript or the reviewers’  reports, are the same, the editors of the new journal will make their own assessment of the situation. A paper that is not fit for Nature may very well be suited for Nature Astronomy or Nature Communications.

EB: Editors in different journals typically communicate with each other if they think a paper might be suited for a different journal (unless authors have explicitly asked for such communications not to happen). Such inter-journal communications usually happen before a final decision is made and are meant to expedite the publication process of papers.

LS: Consultations between Nature editors and editors in other journals (e.g., Nature Astronomy) happen pretty frequently. While authors can opt out of such consultations, there is no obvious reason for them to do so. It is to the authors’ benefit.

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How can a referee judge the novelty of the same paper if refereeing first for Nature and then Nature Astronomy?

If a paper is transferred from one Nature journal to another after having been sent out to review, it is often the case that the second Nature journal will retain some (or all) of the initial referees. How should these referees engage with this process?

MC: If a paper reviewed at Nature is rejected and transferred to Nature Astronomy, referees will typically be asked to stay on and continue the peer review process. While the novelty criterion for Nature Astronomy is less strict than Nature, novelty is only one aspect of a paper, significance and relevance being the other two. We often see that referees disagree with each other on the novelty of a paper and it is then when editors are called to mediate and make a decision.

LS: A lot of our work time is spent on ADS, looking at the relevant literature, to help us understand and gauge the novelty of the paper we are assessing. This information is then fed back into the peer review process when a decision needs to be made. Novelty is not always straightforward to define, especially since different fields may be at very different stages of development.

NOV: It is often the case that a paper has different aspects and only some of them, or one of them, are truly novel. When making a decision, editors assess the synergy of the different aspects of a paper, its novelty and other criteria like significance and relevance.

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Do you have any closing remarks?

LS: Never be intimidated to submit to Nature. Feel free to approach me at a conference or shoot me an email with your idea/paper and I will be happy to provide feedback.

IG: Language skills should never stop you from submitting to our journals. The majority of researchers do not speak perfect English and that’s OK. As long as the main scientific points of your paper come across, the editors are going to assess these rather than the quality of the writing and then help you improve the presentation.

SR: Please feel free to submit your paper in any format you like. We don’t mind if you use another journal’s format, or even the basic article LaTeX document style. Should your paper be accepted for publication, we will help you reformat and restyle the paper according to our journal guidelines. For presubmission enquiries or any other questions, please reach out via email.

MC: This is only a small subset of questions we can answer in the time we have. If you have more questions or would like a more detailed view of the editorial process, we are happy to come to your institute (virtually or in person, when possible) to give a talk about it.

PW: Presubmission enquiries are very welcome. Nature Astronomy is especially keen to hear your ideas about community-centred pieces.

NOV: While Nature Communications does not officially offer the option for a presubmission enquiry, I am more than happy to receive your emails and provide feedback on a paper you are considering submitting to us.

EB: Communications Physics also does not have an official presubmission enquiry option. However, typical assessment times from editors are shorter than 7 days and as such you are encouraged to submit your full paper directly to the journal and you will receive a timely response.

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Marios Karouzos

Senior Editor, Nature Astronomy

I come from Greece, where I studied Physics and I got my undergraduate degree from the National and Kapodistrian University in Athens. I then moved on to Germany, where I did my Ph.D. at the Max Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy in Bonn. After finishing that, I moved on to Seoul, South Korea, where I worked as a postdoctoral researcher at Seoul National University. And here we are now, since August 2016 I have been working as an Associate and currently Senior Editor at Nature Astronomy.