Lab meetings: the publication process


My lab meeting last week got totally derailed. In a good way.

One of my students mentioned the manuscript that she’s working on, and from all erupted a series of questions and questions about the publication process. Everyone wanted to know so much about that, we mostly ditched our original plans (to discuss the design of an experiment for the summer).

The social subtleties of how a paper gets published are entirely foreign to undergrads. Moreover, the basic mechanics of the process are also nothing of which they’re aware.

The meeting turned into a long clinic/tutorial about how the process goes. If I knew better, I would have been prepared with examples of cover letters, reviews, rejections, responses, and revisions.

Actually, I liked the way we went about it as an ad hoc conversation. I just answered their questions as they came in, rather than having prepared a little lesson about it. How do you pick a journal? How does an editor find reviewers? You mean they can just reject you without getting reviews? How often have you gotten rejected? How much do you get paid? You have to *pay* to publish? How much do you review? What happens when you say no? How long does it take for a paper to be published once you submit it? Can you submit to more than one at a time? What do you do when the reviewers don’t agree with one another? What does the university say when you publish a paper?

It’s important for my undergrads to be familiar with the how-we-do-things-on-a-daily-basis part of academia. They’ll be a lot more savvy as they gain more exposure and will be able to understand doctoral students, when they hang out and as they’re applying to grad school.

I’ve had this kind of conversation, informally, with students more times than I can remember. Little things get explained here and there, now and then. Lab meetings would be a good time to make this more formalized. There was a good discussion in an earlier post about what exactly we do and don’t do in lab meetings. So, here’s one thing you can dedicate a whole lab meeting to – the forensic analysis of the publication cycle of a couple manuscripts, explaining all the choices along the way.

My students are still surprised over the concept that it sometimes takes more work to publish a paper than it takes to collect the data, and even more surprised (or dismayed, perhaps) that it can take far longer to do so as well.

That’s a lesson that we need to reinforce, that much of science is about writing.

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