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Getting Published in Science:
First-Time Authors Share Their Stories
Matthew Lamanna was a 25-year-old graduate student, eating lunch outside in Spring 2001 when his research partner, Joshua Smith, shouted from a nearby window: "It's in! We're in Science!" Lamanna shouted back: "Oh man, wow!"
Graduate Student Matthew Lamanna of the University of Pennsylvania excavating the left humerus of Paralititian. This discovery led to a paper published in Science.
Credit: Joshua B. Smith/University of
Their Science odyssey had begun when Smith was 29, and his head was hanging from a different window¾a Land Cruiser lost in Egypt's Bahariya Oasis, where he was collaborating with researcher Attia Yousry of the Egyptian Geological Museum. "Hey," Smith recalls saying, after spotting something in the sand, "that looks like a bone." It was a fossilized bone, in fact, from one of the largest dinosaurs ever discovered.
Like Lamanna and Smith, Frank Heppner¾now four years from retirement at the University of Rhode Island¾also recalls being elated when, as a 27-year-old graduate student in 1967, his first paper was accepted by Science. "Are you kiddin' me?" he jokes, when asked if the publication helped propel his career. "A grad student with a paper in Science? It was worth gold. My memory isn't that good, but I imagine I did handsprings, screams of joy, whatever we did before high-fives."
First-time Science author, Cindy Van Dover, an assistant professor at the College of William & Mary, recalls watching the outline for two companion manuscripts emerge on a ship's blackboard, while she was completing field research in the Indian Ocean. "We knew we wanted to try for a Science type of manuscript¾a discovery paper," Van Dover says of her research on hydrothermal vent organisms. Her manuscript was ultimately delivered by satellite e-mail to the journal's online submission system, on 19 July 2001. It was accepted 30 working days later, on 31 August, and published online Science Express two weeks later, appearing in print on 26 October (vol. 294, issue 5543, pp. 818-823).
Van Dover considered other journals, but selected Science after talking with an editor about the journal's readership (more than one million people worldwide); illustration options; and print and online article word-counts. At about 4,400 words, including some 65 references and notes, her manuscript was submitted as a research article, which can include up to 4,500 words¾rather than a report, which puts the cap at 2,500 words, or a Brevia of fewer than 1,000 words.
Manuscript preparation meant a long stretch of all-nighters for Lamanna, Smith, and co-authors-supervised by veteran paleontologist Peter Dodson at the University of Pennsylvania. Because they were in Egypt, the two young scientists had a friend submit their work online, through the web submissions site, the method most preferred by Science editors, on 9 March 2001. Their paper was submitted in the category for research reports, running about 1,500 words, with 47 references and notes.
One of more than 7,000 manuscripts submitted to Science each year¾with 52 percent from countries beyond the United States¾the dinosaur paper was first evaluated by R. Brooks Hanson, Deputy Managing Editor in charge of physical sciences, who had talked with Smith by phone. Like about a third of all submissions, it got a preliminary pass from a manuscript editor¾in this case, Hanson, who felt it met Science's key conditions of acceptance, by revealing "a novel concept of broad importance to the scientific community," which had never previously been disclosed to the public. "We look initially for editorial and scientific integrity," Hanson explains. "We're looking for solid research that says something new."
Katrina Kelner, Deputy Managing Editor in charge of biological sciences, notes that many of the journal's finest papers have been "clever, elegant, basic biology," such as recent investigations of the structure of ribosome, the cellular protein factory. Roughly 60 percent of all published papers have historically fallen into the biological realm, she adds. "Not every paper makes it onto the front page of a major newspaper," she says. "But, they all must meet our criteria for originality, presenting a novel idea that's likely to stimulate further investigation or debate, maybe even a whole new way of thinking about an important question."
After determining that the sauropod paper met this standard, Hanson routed it to a Board of Reviewing Editors, assigned to assess the potential significance, quality and interest of submissions. One of about 100 leading, active scientists on the reviewing board again gave the paper a pass, noting that it revealed crucial new information about dinosaurs and where they lived in Africa.
Finally, the manuscript was assessed by anonymous peer reviewers, selected for their expertise in the field, who returned more good news.
On Friday, 1 June 2001, a report on Smith's discovery appeared in Science (vol. 292, issue 5522, pp. 1704-06), placing it among the 10 percent of all submissions annually accepted for publication. "I was really surprised with how fast the thing got turned around," Smith says of his experience, adding that "it was pretty bug-free, overall."
To ensure accurate news coverage, AAAS shared the research one week in advance with pre-registered journalists, but asked them to hold or "embargo" their stories until 2:00 pm Eastern Time on Thursday, 31 May. Thus, thousands of reporters worldwide had a week to understand the research and prepare their stories. Smith soon found himself wryly explaining to CNN correspondent Ann Kellan that Paralititan stromeri, the "tidal giant" he found fossilized in Egypt, was "a big boy."
As soon as the Science embargo lifted, news of Smith's find rapidly spread around the world. "I was completely stunned at the level of attention we got, and indeed, are continuing to get," he says. "We made something like 175 newspapers worldwide within the first 24 hours. I dealt with 30 to 35 calls a day for the week preceding the release of the story, and much of the week after. Matt and I were getting calls from every TV station in the country, it seemed. We learned very quickly how to deal with the media."
Because of the embargo system, most of the coverage was accurate, Smith says, although in hindsight, he wishes that his Egyptian collaborators had been featured more extensively in news reports.
Not all Science papers generate such broad news coverage. But, the AAAS provides journalists with a lay-language summary of every forthcoming research article¾not just the most easily accessible topics. And, information is disseminated to some 3,900 journalists registered to use the AAAS science news site, EurekAlert!
In keeping with the association's mission to enhance public understanding and appreciation of research, recent Science Press Packages have included, for example, a description of Marc Tatar's study of insulin-like receptors in fruit flies and their impacts on lifespan. For lay people, Tatar's research was complex, showing that flies with mutant receptors could live up to 85 percent longer. The work was covered by a half-dozen ambitious journalists, including one at The Financial Times of London, who reported on Tatar's "evidence of an ageing system that may promote long life."
Cindy Van Dover was preparing for the start of Fall classes when she got word of her paper's acceptance, following a review process that she describes as "extraordinarily professional." She was unprepared for the journal's new "just-in-time" rapid publishing schedule: "Who would expect to submit a major revision on a Friday afternoon, and learn on a Sunday morning that the manuscript was accepted!" she says. "Definitely a surprise."
Why are some papers published first on Science Express, appearing a few weeks later in print? Editors evaluate the work's importance and timeliness, Kelner says. The online venue makes it possible to publish, for example, hot papers likely to turn a long-standing theory on its head, or findings with immediate public-health impacts, such as recent articles on the hoof-and-mouth epidemic in Great Britain. When such issues exist, Kelner notes, papers can be reviewed within days, and certain papers are published within 10 days of acceptance¾though most appear about 4 to 6 weeks after getting the green light.
Like Van Dover, author Marc Tatar also reports a good review experience in publishing his study: "The review process was very timely and efficient," he says. "The reviewers helped clarify some of the conceptual places that were muddy and identified places that needed strengthening."
Tatar chose Science because, he says, "the paper crossed a lot of different disciplines, from aging research to insect physiology, and we wanted to reach a broad audience." He also appreciated the journal's editorially independent status within the nonprofit AAAS, founded in 1848.
Science's long-standing reputation, as a journal established in 1880 by Thomas A. Edison, was the key for veteran Frank Heppner, too, who says he went with AAAS some 34 years ago for "the prestige, snob value, and career enhancement!"
-- Ginger Pinholster