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Rapid publication vs. scientific quality of papers published in Annals of Forest Science: how do we handle this apparent contradiction?

Erwin Dreyer, Chief Editor of Annals of Forest Science

Nancy, March 19, 2022.

Introduction

Speed of publication has become a major expectation for authors and therefore a challenge for many journals. Indeed, authors expect timely processing of the manuscripts they submit, to ensure a rapid dissemination of their results. The speed of publication became in the recent years a major criterion for selecting a journal, and some publishers promote (very) fast publication as an argument to select their journal (at the same level than the Impact Factor). Moreover, some journals publish extremely rapidly the submitted manuscripts and this may occur at the expense of extensive Peer Review and quality control. In most cases, the speed of publication is obtained through constant pressure on the associate editors/reviewers to deliver their assessments as soon as possible.

At Annals of Forest Science, we have been trying to shorten the publication procedure with more or less success; I must confess that our handling procedures are rather slow compared to other journals. However, we develop a constant effort to produce a first answer (including a full review process) 2 months after submission. This requires to rapidly find suitable reviewers (which becomes a real hurdle-run). The further publication process then depends on the number of iterative versions of the paper before final acceptance, while the production process itself (done by our partner Springer-BMC) is usually quite fast.

Speeding up the dissemination of research results

There are several ways for a researcher to make new findings known rapidly by the research community and to obtain an anteriority in the findings:

1. Deposit the manuscript into a pre-print server for improvements prior to submission to Annals of Forest Science. The preprint is granted a DOI, and the date of deposit therefore establishes the starting date of the process (in case of conflicts of anteriority; any public repository may be relevant (it is the author’s choice); an important added value is to have the manuscript recommended for instance by a Peer Community like the PCI Forest&Wood Sciences. This will make the time for the review process less painful;

The preprint process has several advantages:

  1. Acknowledgement of anteriority based on the DOI and the date of deposit;
  2. Possibility to improve the manuscript based on comments by fellow scientists;
  3. Possibility to obtain a recommendation (full and open review) by a PCi; which is equivalent to acceptance in a journal;
  4. Preprints may be cited in grant-applications and other important documents (but not necessarily in journals).

However, there are other issues behind the slow handling of the manuscripts. One is definitely the quality of the submitted manuscripts that hinders publication (1/3 manuscripts submitted to Annals of Forest Science are rejected without any further review due to poor quality). I now address this important aspect.

2. Increase the quality of presentation and writing to speed up the process and avoid multiple revision rounds that are very time-costly;

A good way to avoid lengthy reviewing with negative outcomes is to submit a manuscript only when it is finished, read by all co-authors, written in a clear and understandable language, and respects the following prerequisites:

  1. Follow an explicit and logical presentation scheme, and stick to the good old structure (Introduction, M&M, Results, Discussion, Conclusions).
  2. Avoid lengthy texts but provide all elements required to understand the logic of the research project.
  3. Identify explicit research questions in the introduction. This is a prerequisite for a good scientific paper. If the questions are not explicit and relevant, there is no way to elaborate a useful and impactful paper. In many cases, a research paper may be structured along a few explicit research hypotheses, according to the expectations of the hypothetico-deductive process (and the hypotheses need be formulated BEFORE the experiments are run). This helps a lot build-up a logical thinking along the manuscript and results in clear structures for the different sections, particularly results and discussion. The statistical models that are developed to address these hypotheses are then easier to describe.

    However, while formulating explicit research questions is a prerequisite to publication, there are some situations where hypotheses are not required; this is mainly the case in observational research, that may also lead to very interesting papers. Review papers and data papers are not built on hypotheses, but however still require clear and explicit questions.
  4. Present as objectively as possible the real novelty of the results presented in the paper, and insist on how they contribute to the advancement of our knowledge in the field. Novelty does not necessarily imply “ground breaking” results, but some kind of added value with respect to the existing background knowledge. In some cases, the added value may be a confirmation of earlier findings, which is acceptable for our journal.
  5. Discuss the results with respect to the question and/or hypotheses formulated in the introduction; pay particular attention to: (i) the domain of validity and the limits of the findings; (ii) the consequences of the findings; (iii) novel and unsolved questions that arise from the discussion and remain to be solved. Pure speculations not based on the presented results should be avoided.
  6. Cite the relevant papers, preferably the original papers and not only the recent review papers.
  7. Share the data in an open data repository under the FAIR (Findable, Accessible, Interoperable and Reusable) principles.

Conclusion

At Annals of Forest Science, we do our best to evaluate the submitted manuscripts with sincerity and we are not bound to publish a minimal number of papers: our decisions are solely driven by scientific quality. We may do mistakes in our assessments, overlook some important aspects of the manuscripts. In such cases, we are open to discussion with the authors who may develop their arguments as a rebuttal to our mistakes.

Our overarching aim is to have Annals of Forest Science become a platform for a community of researchers in forest and wood sciences using the journal for the dissemination of results and new information, and as a basis for a sound scientific debate. This is only possible if we share a common understanding and a consensus about what makes the quality of science as a basis for scientific debates. I hope this brief document helps share this vision.