July 15, 2019

Pin the tail on the donkey

It was sometime around 2015. An esteemed professor who just had returned from a foreign trip. The phrase “pin the tail on the donkey” was mentioned when he and another student traveled and discussed about publishing a research paper on the Science Journal.

He is no stranger to the top-ranked journals on his field. An (American) National Academy member himself and has published around 600 peer-reviewed journal papers, his expression carried weight. The origin of the phrase is from a kid game where kids are blindfolded, handed a donkey tail made by paper with a thumbtack and then spun around before approaching a cardboard with donkey missing tail hanging on the wall. A child won the game if the tail was placed closest to the target. Sounds like a fun game although I have not played it myself.

For the adults, pinning the tail on the donkey is an expression of doing something difficult with not much vision or information and somehow your best hope is your work will present itself. For submitting a manuscript, this means to submit a manuscript to a journal for in a bid for publication.

Here is a pinnacle of the story. Even with the excellent writing, a sound story with substantiated data, no guarantee for that manuscript will be accepted for publication in a top-notch journal. I’m not at the level yet (and sounds like never will be), but I do know authors writing and successfully published articles in Science or Nature journals.

I supposed many of my friends that are not as experienced with publishing journals. Somewhere, luring questions about peer-reviewed journals and don’t know where to start, here are some clues.

1. What is a journal?

It is collection of reports. The name of journal is important because it entails the credits it has in the field. Remember, for a scientific research, there is nothing more than an impact factor because it indicates the significance, originality and novelty of the works presented in the journal and how much the product of the journal (a publication) is respected in the field. Here is an example of ranking journal by impact factor. Each ranking system uses slight different metric and weighted factor.

2. Are journals equal?

A big no. From the journal like Science, the Cell, and depends on the field, they are the crème of the crop, the top of the best. Then perfectly qualified journal that the top in the narrow field such as Environmental Science and Technology (es'n't) as an example in my field. And if you are researching in very specific domain like microalage, you have Algal Research Journal as the most suitable choice based on research topic. And there are many more journals that cover more generic domains and a good intention for scholar contribution. In my domain, algal research and environmental engineering, any journals with Impact Factor > 3 is a "good one", ES&T is an "excellent" one. Journals with IF lowers than 3 or close to 1 is an "okay" choice, judging from a laboratory with the environmental domains ranked #21 in 2015 American-wide.

And there are journals that you need to pay for the review process. And there are journals you need to pay first to get a sound manuscript. Like making an application for studying aboard, agencies took your money upfront to tune up your application and submitted to the those they know that fit your quality and guarantee some success. For publication, unqualified journals that ask you to pay “to cover the expense of reviewing, publication and production”. Those journals simply has a brand name of "international journal" for those who need that category.

3. What is the deal with pay or not pay?

Scientific research is funded through governmental agencies like NSF, NIH or other national agencies. Each funding agent has their goals and objectives and in general aims to discovery, building application for the general public interest.

Of course, R&D from private could fund the research but it is bias to their interest, and that is one reason why disclosure becomes a must. You might heard about funding from sugar industry sponsored research to undermine the links between sugar consumption and heart disease in 1960. ExxonMobil funded research to undermine climate change due to anthropocentric carbon dioxide emission in 1970. Therefore, disclosing which agency funded your research project will inform readers possible entanglements between who pays and who got paid.

For the cost of publication, it not has cost me a dime to publish 8 articles to a good ranking peer-reviewed journals. If someone paid the money, except your lab has extra money to cover the cost of production so that your publication is totally open to everyone - no subscription, to get the writing tuned up and got published, this approach should not considered as “peer-reviewed”. There is, at least, a conflict of interest between financial reward (you are paying) and the scientific contribution of that research.

4. First author, last author, and what constitutes an authorship?

Which this question, I officially open a can of worms. For my field, environmental engineering, the first author is reserved for the one who planned experimental tasks, analyzed results and wrote the first draft. The last position is for the one who advised the team on the direction of the experiment, sponsored cost of materials, and most often that is the advisor of the lab. The rest filled in between are for those who contributed significantly to the values of the manuscript, could be a researcher who analyzed the results or the one who collected the samples, or another one who offered additional insights to the research. A higher bar for authorship is for those who contributed intellectually to the substance of the research. The number of authors differs from each group in one university, and in the same field in different country.

5. How do you know that experiment will be published in a journal?

I don’t know.

When I did an experiment, I thought I would the change the course of the field, and my results would definitely be published. I was younger, naive and and thought everything is possible.

I got my first luck during the summer of the second year in a grad school. I run 8 flasks of wild-type and generic-modified strains of a microalgae. The problem with genetic-modified strain that it has been “hacked” genetically to produce valuable products and in return, the cells are more susceptible to infection and contamination. Growing these two strains in weeks of clean and no-detectable microbiological contamination was not heard of, to my best memory at that time. I got three weeks of clean culturing which seemed shocking to my senior colleges. Before this, I grew several carboys with a modified strain and a good production of valuable products. I guessed with almost two years cleaning carboys and flasks, at least two trips a week of a cart full of carboys filled with BG-11 growth medium finally kicked in. By the way, cleaning carboys, preparing growth medium, attending seminars and group meetings are the entry of myself to the formal research.

But the results of that experiment was not published immediately. The manuscript was first submitted journal A one-and-half year later, and got rejected right way. Then it was submitted to journal B, and got rejected after one major revision. Journal C accepted the manuscript for publication after almost 9 months with no response followed by a minor revision and then got published. I also spent almost a year doing in a range of dozens experiments and got no paper. Your mileage may vary.

Here is another anecdotal. The trip of pushing carboy cart from ISTB5 and LSE buildings across Tempe ASU campus is my first test if I am ready to the true research part 1: the labor and not so intellectual part. Carboy is a big glass jar contained 10-15-30 litters or 3.5 gallons that the one I used. I have to autoclave or pretty boiling the growth medium in 2 hours. In one nice afternoon, I broke one carboy because a cardboard I used to separate each carboy drop. The card hit a ditch in front of PSF building and "bang", a $50, 3gal-carboy broke with about ~80*C medium filling the top of the cart. That is my version of preparing experimental task.

I recalled the event vividly because that was the first time I broke a big carboy in front the public view. Transporting experimental materials in American universities is not just bring one stuff in one place to to another one. If students saw something like the color of blood, something that moved, they can call of the campus police and you got into trouble quickly if the precaution protocol not in place. When I broke the carboy, my colleague named JM, an Alabama native, saw it, and said "You broke carboy?", I might explain what happened and he said "it is all right". My supervisor named R said something like "it is okay" which surprised me because I were prepared to be reprimanded.

6. Citation, citation, citation!

This is another can of worms. One citation in a scientific research is one instance that other peer-reviewed paper cited, referred a piece of information of your paper and point to origins of the topic, describe applied methods, supplement details, collaborate on observation, to contrast on difference not often but possible, contradict on findings or conclusion. A citation from police has different connotation. It means you has been cited for violated federal codes or an equivalence.

As a reader, I first started off with Google Scholar, entered keywords and made a quick glance on the screen. Google Scholar has become popular around 2010 or 2011. Before that, Web of Science or a search computer in the library was where a search was started. If you are wondering what kinds of paper often cited. Look at this post from the Nature.

Source: www.nature.com

Deciding which paper should I click to read the abstract and then download the whole PDF, the matching keywords is the number 1 and the number that paper has been cited is number 2 by my quick judge. For the number 2, if a paper has been published 10 years and got less than 5 citations, I will ignore that paper and move on.

Why a citation is a big deal for the researchers? To put it simply, it means your work has been recognized by your colleagues, by your peers. It means your paper finally made it the light that other can seen and some would like to mention it. The cynical of my work is not worth doing while experiment is a silent killer, and when one citation popped up on Google Scholar or ResearchGate, the hope and the pride contributing to the human knowledge springs back.

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