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The Black Hole

Four hours from submission to acceptance… come on, really?


Earlier this month, I was gobsmacked when a colleague told me of their paper’s afternoon journey from submission to acceptance in a peer-reviewed journal. Not only was this a lightning fast acceptance, but it was the paper’s first submission, i.e., it had never been through peer review. It was received by the editor, read by the editor and accepted by the editor all within a four-hour time frame – and now it’s online as a Letter to the Editor.

Just a letter to the editor

People make the argument that this report is merely a letter to the editor and therefore is simply a commentary or “useful tidbit” for the scientific community. However, this particular paper has two data figures, one of which has extensive cellular characterization that certainly represents data which could (in theory at least) be unfavourably received or criticized by peer review. So, in effect, data now sits in black and white on the website of an important “peer-reviewed” journal not having been peer-reviewed by anyone else other than the editor.

Still counts for the impact factor

The really alarming thing about this practice is that it will contribute to the artificial inflation of this journal’s impact factor. Letters to the Editor do not contribute to the denominator of the impact factor, but citations they receive can contribute to the numerator – it’s basically like giving away free impact factor points. One wonders if the speedy acceptance had anything to do with a world expert in a field at the University of Cambridge reporting a useful tool for others in the field – d’ya think? To me, this represents complete and utter professional misconduct – the editor should be ashamed to put his/her name to the journal’s editorial board.

So, what can be done?

Aside from the massive overhaul of the peer review and academic publishing system that Jonathan and I regularly bang on about, some simple steps can be taken: 1) Thomson could reform its impact factor calculation such that nothing that appears as a “citable” item can be excluded from the denominator; 2) professional editors in academic publishing could establish a professional ethics standard that discourages anything in a peer-reviewed journal from escaping proper peer review.

Perhaps this is a one-off exception and this is the only journal that permits such practices. Perhaps, but considering I’m still at a relatively junior career stage and I’ve heard about this, I’m willing to bet our readers can share a story or two about similar practices in their own field.

At the end of the day, scientists need to step up and demand better from academic journals. If the industry is going to be run by professionals, then the least we can do is demand better standards.

David Kent
Dr. David Kent is a principal investigator at the York Biomedical Research Institute at the University of York, York, UK. He trained at Western University and the University of British Columbia before spending 10 years at the University of Cambridge, UK where he ran his research group until 2019. His laboratory's research focuses on the fundamental biology of blood stem cells and how changes in their regulation lead to cancers. David has a long history of public engagement and outreach including the creation of The Black Hole in 2009.
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