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'The Ugly Truth'

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A day in the life of a scientific journal editor

You can also download this section as a document file for the classroom. This content works well will lesson plan 1 - peer review role play.

Meet Andrew Sudgen. He is the editor of Science, an international journal that publishes original scientific research and discusses science news from around the world. 

Q: Andrew, what do you do when you first arrive at the office?  

The first thing I do is to go through emails that have come in overnight. Science in Cambridge is the European arm of a publishing organisation based in the USA, which is five hours behind, so lots of emails come in overnight. 

I get two types of messages:

1.  Emails from researchers who are writing up their research into a paper and want to know whether we might be interested in it. If the research sounds interesting I encourage the scientist to send in a paper. If the research described is not in my specialist area (ecology and evolution) I forward the email to one of my colleagues who knows more about the subject.

2.  Emails from authors whose papers we have rejected, asking us to reconsider our decision. 


Q: What are you looking at this morning?

Today a scientist has contacted me about submitting a paper in my area of expertise – ecology. I think the paper sounds original and describes a significant discovery but I need to see the whole paper to be sure about how the research has been conducted (validity). So I am emailing the author to say that it sounds interesting. I would like her to send us the full paper.

When she sends me the full paper I will pass it to a group of editors who help me to decide whether papers are suitable for Science.  (We want to publish papers that will have lasting value and be important to other scientists for years to come.)  The other editors score papers from 1-10. Only the best 30% are sent out to reviewers and only 6% of papers make it through peer review to be published in the journal. 

This morning, a paper on planetary science was also submitted. That’s not my subject so I'm handing it to my colleague, who is an expert in space and earth science. 

What Andrew asks when considering whether a paper is suitable for Science…
  • Does it show something that’s not been shown before? (original)
  • Is it surprising; does it show an unexpected result?
  • Is it an answer to a long-standing question? Is it significant to other researchers?
  • Has everything been done correctly (is it valid)?
  • Does it encourage new questions in research?

Q: What do you do next?

My next job is to check the Science database, which holds information about all the papers that we are currently considering for publication.

There are 25 editors at Science and each has a different area of expertise. In the database I can see other editors’ comments about papers. I have also received some notes from other editors asking me whether I agree with decisions they have made. We have a rule at Science that no decision is made about accepting or rejecting a paper without input from another member of staff.

There is one here asking whether I agree about accepting a rather long paper. I think the length is justified because it’s very good so I am clicking the box to say I agree.

I am also looking on the database for some suitable people to review a paper that was sent to me yesterday. Here I can see which papers a reviewer has worked on before; and which ones they have submitted themselves. I’m working out whether they’ve got the right expertise for this paper. 

We are always trying to increase our number of reviewers and we often bring in experts that we haven’t used before.

Q: What happens when the reviewer has looked at it? What do you do then?

Now I’m taking a closer look at some papers. This will take me until the early afternoon. I have to consider the reviewers’ comments and make a recommendation about whether the papers should be published in our journal.

Often reviewers don’t agree about a paper, so I need to check that they are being fair and are not too harsh or too kind. If a paper covers more than one area of science, reviewers with different expertise will look at different sections of it. A paper might have both ecology and immunology aspects, for example. Sometimes these reviewers don’t agree. The person reviewing the ecology part of the paper might think it’s excellent but the person reviewing the immunology part might think it’s weak.  My job is to check that the reviewers have provided the information to back up their judgements and that they have explained their views.

The following decisions can be made about a paper:

  • Minor revision – no additional review necessary
  • Major revision – the paper must be reviewed again after the changes have been made
  • Rejection, but invitation to submit again when more experiments have been done
  • Straight rejection on the basis that it is not ground-breaking enough

Before I make my final decisions I tell several colleagues about what I plan to do. So now I’m asking another colleague for their point of view on two papers I’d like to accept.

Q: Once a paper has been accepted for publication, what happens?

If I am accepting a paper, but it needs changes, I will edit the paper (“go through with a red pen”) and send it back to reviewers to ask whether they’re happy.  

When I am happy with a paper I read through to make sure authors have done the revisions that they have been asked to do.  I also ask the author to write a letter answering the reviewers' comments and listing the changes made. Sometimes authors disagree with reviewers’ comments – if so, I weigh up both points of view and make a judgement.

This afternoon I am working on a paper on marine biology. The paper is too long so I am going through and making it shorter; some of the information that I have taken out of the paper copy will be kept and put in an expanded article on the Science website. The reviewers said that the authors need to explain their experimental techniques in more detail, and their paper should include illustrations of the creatures they studied.


Q: What do you do with it when it’s finished?

Once everything is agreed by us and the author, the paper is finally accepted. I send it off to the copy editors for formatting. The copy editors are based in Washington.

The next time I see this paper will be when it’s printed in the journal in a month’s time!