I recently reported that one of my papers has been rejected by PLoS Computational Biology after 10 months and 4 revisions, on the ground of general interest. This has generated a little buzz. A colleague mentioned it on his blog. As a result, the editor of my paper contacted him directly to tell his version of the story, which my colleague has now reported on his blog.
Unfortunately, the editor’s story is “misleading”, to be polite. It is a shame that the review process is confidential, as it allows the journal to hide what actually happens behind their closed doors. Nevertheless, I have asked the journal for the authorization to publish the content of my appeal and their response, where I explain what happened in more detail (and more accurately). They have accepted. I have removed names of the persons involved. This illustrates one of the flaws of the current peer-review system (see this post for how it could work better).
(Just one note: the editor has apparently told my colleague that the third reviewer was a collaborator, so they could not take into account his review. Well, that’s a lie. I know because he chose to sign his review. The "collaboration" was the scientist sending me published data.)
So here it is.
Re: Manuscript PCOMPBIOL-D-16-00007R4
So after 10 months and 4 revisions, our paper has been rejected, following the recommendation of one reviewer, because it is not considered of broad enough interest. I quote from the final editorial message: “We regret that the specific hypothesis that your manuscript is geared to dispute does not reach that level of general interest.”.
These facts being recalled, it should be obvious enough that the editorial process has gone very wrong. There were no more technical criticisms already after revision 2, on July 8th, 4 months ago, and the paper should have been accepted then. I have repeatedly asked the editors to explain why we were required to justify novelty and significance after having been required to do so much work on technical aspects. But the editors have refused to answer this simple query. Frankly, I was expecting a bit more respect for the authors that make this journal, and I do not think that explaining the journal’s policy and the decisions is so much to ask. All I know is Michael Eisen’s view, founding editor of this journal, who has cared to comment “I agree - a paper going out for review should mean it is of interest”.
This editorial process has gone beyond anything I have ever witnessed in my career in terms of absurdity and waste. Why scientists (“peers”) would voluntarily make each other’s life so unnecessarily hard instead of cooperating and debating is beyond my understanding. In the end it appears that the ego of one (important?) reviewer matters more than science, and that is very sad. This being said, I have been notified that appeals are only considered when “a) a reviewer or editor is thought to have made a significant factual error” or “b) his/her objectivity is compromised by a documented competing interest”, and since bureaucracy apparently beats reason and ethics, I will now explain how this applies.
I have already explained at length the factual errors of the first reviewer, who is apparently the only one that is trusted by the editors. This editorial message repeats some of them (no, we are not criticizing simulation results of a particular model, but the biophysical interpretation (what goes on physically), and we did so in several state-of-the-art biophysical models, not one). I will therefore focus on case (b), and attach my previous letter to the editors for reference; please also read the responses to reviewers as regards case (a), in particular to reviewer-editor Dr. YYY who has unfortunately not cared to reply to our point-by-point response that he had required from us. The editorial decisions that have led to rejecting the paper on the basis of general interest after 10 months are so bizarre that I am compelled to question senior editor Dr. YYY’s objectivity – I presume that Dr. XXX, who sent the paper for review in the first place, does consider the paper of interest. The sequence of facts speaks for itself:
- On June 6th (revision #2), the editorial message reads “We understand that Reviewer 2 was very enthusiastic, and Reviewer 3 had relatively minor comments, but we both stress that addressing Reviewer 1's reservations are essential. Indeed, it is only fair to say that it seems to us that it will be challenging to address these comments in the context of the presented results.”. The exclusive reliance on one reviewer and the presumption that we could not address the comments is rather surprising. Nonetheless, the editorial message that followed was exclusively about the match with experimental data, not about interest (“the reviewer's point about (apparently) unrealistic voltage dependencies of the currents […]”). We did successfully address these comments, pointing out that the reviewer had made factual errors (such as misreading the figure he was commenting, and discussing the results of an experimental paper he had not opened).
- On July 8th (revision #3), the editorial message was now asking to explain the novelty compared to what we had done in the past (and published in the same journal), blindly following the 3-sentence report of reviewer #1, and making no mention whatsoever to the fact that we had just answered the major (and flawed) criticisms on experimental observations, which constituted the previous editorial message. At this point we complained that we were asked to justify the novelty of our study 7 months after submission, especially when it was explicit in the introduction; nonetheless, we complied and explained again.
- On August 25th (revision #4), we were appalled to read that, instead of finally accepting the paper, senior editor Dr. YYY decided to nominate himself as a reviewer, admitting that “the latest revision is first one he has had the chance to read”. The report was not an assessment of the novelty of the paper, as would have been logical since this was what the previous editorial message was about. Instead, it was a 6 pages long report full of technical queries, making negative criticisms that, for most of them, had already been addressed in previous reports, and asking for substantial modifications of the paper.
- At this point, I replied to the editorial message and obtained no response; as the message stated “If you would like to discuss anything, please don't hesitate to contact either of us directly”, I emailed Dr. YYY, and he started his response as follows: “To answer your email, allow me to be brief, because this sort of exchange should really be going through the journal, and indeed that will be the case from now on.”. Nonetheless, we exchanged a few emails, in which he offered no explanation; in the end we agreed that I would write a point-by-point response to his six-page review, but not modify the paper. I submitted it, together with a response to the first reviewer, and a letter to the editors, on September 22nd.
- Three weeks later, on October 10th, I received a message where I was asked to edit the letter so that it could be passed on to the reviewers. Apparently the editors had not noticed the response to reviewers. It still took them three weeks to read a letter, which, considering the history of this paper, does not strike me as very respectful. I complained to Dr. YYY, who replied “We believe that you have been adequately notified by the PLoS administrative team concerning the status of your revision.”. I had to exchange several emails with Dr. XXX who realized the error. I received no apology from Dr. YYY.
- On November 11th, I received the reject decision, together with the response of reviewer #1 and, oddly enough, of reviewer #3 to which I had not replied (since there was no remaining comment). He also was surprised, since he wrote “I don’t have the expertise, authority or, honestly, the time to judge whether the new comments from Reviewers 1 & 4 are fair, or whether the authors’ responses have fully addressed them – this is clearly a job for the Editors (although hopefully not for the Editor who just became a Reviewer)”. But, editor-reviewer #4 Dr. YYY did not bother replying to my point-by-point response, which he had explicitly required.
- The final decision comes with excuses that are frankly hard to swallow. One is that the editors had failed to see the word “models” in the title. In 10 months and 4 revisions! Who can seriously believe that? And yes, the paper is about models – it is a computational biology journal (note that we have also successfully related the models to experimental observations, on request of the editors). The other excuse is that an anonymous reviewer (reviewer #2) had a conflict of interest and his reviews had to be dismissed. I am of course fine with that decision (let me simply state for the record that none of reviewers I have suggested are in such a position). But this happened in April, more than 6 months ago. Quite appropriately, the editor Dr. XXX asked for another reviewer who identified himself (Dr. ZZZ). Dr. ZZZ wrote a positive review, and in addition he read our responses to the other reviewers and wrote “the revisions of the manuscript in response to the other reviewers' comments seem entirely appropriate.”. At this point, given that no objection had been raised by any reviewer or editor on methods, results or clarity, the paper should have been accepted. Instead, the editors decided to follow a nonsensical comment from reviewer #1 alone: “unlikely to be of broad interest to the computational biology field, but could be of interest to computational neuroscientists”, which was not even consistent with his/her own first positive assessment (“this is an interesting paper”). Given that Dr. XXX sent the paper for review in the first place, this decision must originate from Dr. YYY (who at this point had not read the paper, by his own admission). I am compelled to conclude that Dr. YYY has not been objective, and in fact has been actively blocking our paper. Unfortunately, this is not the first time I witness the questionable attitude of Dr. YYY, as he has recently been a reviewer for an essay I wrote. The review process was extremely long, went over multiple rounds with massive lists of requests, where Dr. YYY basically wanted to rewrite the text to follow his own views and style. During the review process, Dr. YYY contacted me directly by email to discuss the paper, going so far as asking for co-authorship (“Indeed, the level of suggestions are approaching collaboration on this paper- something I would be happy with but I assume is not what you have in mind.”). In the same email, and while the review process was not over, he asked me for an experimental collaboration – which of course I have not followed up. I had to ask the editor to intervene to stop the madness – which he did: “Indeed your paper has been unduly delayed and I have asked the reviewer to answer me within 24 hours.”. I apologize for disclosing these email excerpts, but I have no other choice since I am asked to provide documentation. It is clear that, had I imagined that Dr. YYY could be chosen as a reviewer (which seemed unlikely given his recent track record), I would have opposed him. But I did not anticipate that he would nominate himself, or overthrow the editor’s decision without even reading my paper (by his own admission).
Therefore, I am asking that Dr. YYY is replaced by a new senior editor with a more reasonable attitude.
As far as I can see: 1) the three reviewers were initially positive on the interest of the paper; 2) the editor Dr. XXX, who as far as I can tell is the only scientist involved in this process who is a member of the computational biology community, supported our paper since he sent it for review; 3) one reviewer, who seems to be an experimental electrophysiologist (unfortunately he or she has decided to remain anonymous), reverted his subjective opinion on the paper’s interest after we have pointed out the errors in his/her report, and even then, still judged the paper interesting for the computational neuroscience community. I have failed to see to how the decision is “not trivial to reach”.
Attached: Letter to the editors from September 16th
Letter to the editors, September 16th
In the previous revision, I raised serious objections regarding the abusive attitude of reviewer #1. These objections have apparently been completely dismissed, but what I have been most disappointed about is the total lack of response to these objections. I am writing this letter in the hope that this time it will be given some consideration.
This manuscript has been submitted 8 months ago. This is the fourth major revision that we have been asked to make. The responses are now totaling more than 25 pages, much longer than the article itself. We have now entered a phase where a large part of the responses consist in citing previous revisions where the issues have already been addressed. This revision reaches a new level, where a fourth reviewer is added and repeats mostly questions that we have already answered in previous revisions. Why a fourth reviewer is considered necessary after 8 months of revision is not clear, when none of the three reviewers has raised any serious concern.
I have officially asked a detailed explanation for this peculiar decision. The only response I have obtained so far is that there was “a tie” between “conflicting reviews”. So apparently the editorial decision has been based on a vote between reviewers. This is yet what I read on the journal’s website:
If reviewers appear to disagree fundamentally, the editors may choose to share all the reviews with each of the reviewers and by this means elicit additional comment that may help the editors to make a decision. That said, decisions are not necessarily made according to majority rule. Instead, the editors evaluate the recommendations and comments of the reviewers alongside comments by the authors and material that may not have been made available to those reviewers.
If one followed this process, then one would realize that:
- None of the three reviewers has any remaining objection about results, methods, or clarity of the text.
- Reviewer #2 and #3 have an overall very positive assessment of the paper and in particular of its interest. Rev #2: “This is a great revision. The authors have clarified and addressed all my previous concerns. […] I strongly believe the study is publishable as it stands”; Rev# 3: “This is a very clear and logically presented manuscript dealing with a key question in fundamental cellular neuroscience”.
- On his/her first report, reviewer #1 also made a positive assessment of the paper and of its interest: “This is a clearly written manuscript that addresses an interesting question regarding the nature of spike initiation. Specifically, the authors propose a plausible explanation […] This is an interesting paper.”.
- After two rounds of technical revisions, in which we pointed out the reviewer’s errors and to which no objection has been made, reviewer #1 changed his mood and now concludes, without any argument: “unlikely to be of broad interest to the computational biology field, but could be of interest to computational neuroscientists” (sic).
- Reviewer #3 has read our responses to the two other reviewers and concluded: “the revisions of the manuscript in response to the other reviewers' comments seem entirely appropriate.” From these facts, it appears clearly that there are in fact 3 convergent reviews. All 3 reviewers have concluded that results and methods are rigorous and the text is well written. All 3 reviewers have found the paper interesting. It might be that reviewer #1 has “voted” negatively; however I would expect the editorial decision to be based on the content of reviews and responses, which in this case is convergent, and not on the mood of one reviewer, which in this case is inconsistent between the reports. It is my understanding that an editorial decision should be based on arguments and facts, not on the reviewer’s emotions.
Nonetheless, we have replied in detail, again, to all criticisms. We have pointed out in particular the factual errors of reviewer #1. To help the editors, we have underlined the important points. We would appreciate if the editors checked for themselves whether reviewer #1 is right or not. We have also replied to reviewer/senior editor Dr YYY, although I deeply regret that this fourth version is “the first one he has had the chance to read”.
Finally, I would like to call your attention on the conclusion of reviewer #1, on which his/her recommendation is based, which requires in my opinion a clarification from the journal: “Finally, now in their third revision, the authors acknowledge that this work strongly builds on the previous resistive-coupling hypothesis, and tests whether this hypothesis is compatible with sharp spike onset (a view they have already proposed), vs the alternative proposed by Yu, of back propagation. This very specific theoretical result I feel is unlikely to be of broad interest to the computational biology field, but could be of interest to computational neuroscientists” (Please see also our response, pointing out that the said acknowledgement was clear already in the very first version.)
This recommendation makes some important presumptions about this journal’s editorial views. Therefore I would very much like to know if this journal:
- also considers that proposing a hypothesis is more important than testing one, and that only the former should be published;
- considers that interesting computational neuroscience studies do not belong to this journal. I would also very much like to know if this journal considers that it is ok for a reviewer to ask for substantial technical revisions when he/she has already decided that the paper should not be published anyway. This has been indeed a lot of work for a decision ultimately based on the mood of one reviewer.
As I have argued in this letter, it is very clear that, given the content of the reports of the 3 reviewers and of our responses, this manuscript should have been accepted already. After 8 months and 4 revisions, and no serious objection on the manuscript, I can only hope very much that this journal does not confuse rigorous peer review with author harassment.
Again, I am hoping that this letter will be seriously taken into consideration, and even perhaps responded to.
Response of the editors-in-chief
Dear Dr. Brette,
Thank you for your response to the recent decision on your paper “The Basis of Sharp Spike Onset in Standard Biophysical Models”. The manuscript and your appeal letter have been carefully evaluated by Dr. XXX and the journal’s Editors-in-Chief.
We understand your frustration regarding the length and complexity of the review process, and we would like to apologize for the time taken to reach a final decision.
We would like to provide some further clarification on how the editorial decision was reached. The manuscript addresses the issue - how do cortical neuronal action potentials rise so sharply? – and after an initial evaluation, Dr. XXX found it interesting enough to merit sending out for review, so that the reviewers could assess the technical solidity of the work and the conceptual advance proposed. The paper received mixed reviews, and hence merited a revision. After several rounds of revision, Reviewer 1 remained unconvinced. In order to aid the review process, Dr. YYY volunteered to evaluate the paper in depth, and his opinion concurred with that of Reviewer 1. Dr. XXX also re-read the paper and came to the conclusion that this manuscript is critically close conceptually to the previous PLOS publications - in fact the idea was laid out clearly and beautifully in the 2013 and 2015 PLOS papers. The present manuscript is an implementation of this idea, showing that other biophysically realistic models used to examine the spike sharpness issue show the mechanism that was suggested in the 2013 and 2015 PLOS papers.
We regret that this did not become fully clear before the third revision, and we understand your disappointment with the final outcome.
However, we agree that the findings of the paper are not significant enough for PLOS Computational Biology, and we will not be reconsidering the paper. We are sorry not to be more encouraging, but we hope that you can understand the reasons for this decision.