Publishing a research article is a multi-stage endeavor. Most researchers are aware of the early stages when they identify an important question in their scientific field, design experiments and methods to address the question, gather data, develop interpretations, and write up their findings for publication. The next stage is quite familiar too: A review process unfolds once a paper is submitted with a goal of assessing the quality of the experiments and determining if the conclusions are compelling (
- Guengerich F.P.
- Gierasch L.M.
What happens when you submit a paper to JBC?.
). But, there are later stages that are crucial to the publication workflow at JBC! We want the content of JBC to meet the highest standards of data quality. Consequently, we invest a great deal of time and energy to ensure that readers can trust the results reported in JBC. We are writing this editorial to describe these later and less familiar stages in the manuscript-handling process at JBC and to de-mystify the steps we take post-review to quality control our published content.
To ensure data integrity and to improve figure presentation when needed, the JBC has implemented image screening in all manuscripts accepted after the peer-review step as part of the publication process (
JBC's New Year's resolutions: Check them off!.
). One driving factor in adding the screening step was to enhance the author experience by having staff dedicated to helping authors prepare publication quality figures, with the added benefit of improving the overall figure quality. Moreover, we realized that we needed to be more proactive in scrutinizing the science we publish. First, correcting the published literature appropriately is a time-consuming process, and by screening images before final acceptance, we anticipated that we could drastically reduce the number of post-publication corrections, withdrawals, and retractions. More importantly, by including this step, we hoped to increase scientific reproducibility and maintain the integrity of the Journal. We want readers to trust the validity of the science published in the JBC. Finally, with this check, the JBC joined the ranks of other publishers who have been pioneers in data integrity, such as Rockefeller University Press, the American Physiological Society, the American Society for Microbiology, and EMBO Press.
With the above in mind, we have assembled a team consisting of the two of us and two other talented individuals John Kennan and Hugo Minera, with backgrounds in print production and illustration, respectively. Having a team comprising both scientists and graphic artists has created powerful synergy by combining technical skills of evaluating images and constructing usable figure files with strong scientific expertise.
So, what does this process look like in practice? After a manuscript is reviewed and the Associate Editor decides to accept a manuscript at the editorial level, authors are notified that their manuscript is “tentatively accepted for publication.” This e-mail signals that their manuscript will be sent for an image analysis check and that they may be contacted by an Image Analyst for revisions.
There are a number of checks the Image Analysts perform to ensure that the figures will convey the scientific message clearly and reproduce well when published. For example:
Do figures have the appropriate resolution?
Are there any imaging artifacts?
Do the figures adhere to our editorial guidelines?
Are there any other formatting issues?
We realize that authors may not be aware of all the aspects to consider when assembling figures, resulting in figures with poor resolution or imaging artifacts. As experts in image presentation, our Image Analysts can provide guidance on what authors can do to improve the quality of their figures so that they can be understood and appreciated by readers. We would also recommend that authors read the ASBMB series “Due Diligence” published in ASBMB Today
for our tips on figure assembly (http://www.asbmb.org/asbmbtoday/collections/DueDiligence/
). Much of what is described in this series are issues that the Image Analysts want to resolve.
Finally, our Analysts check for minor formatting issues. For example, we sometimes have come across figures with an errant arrow or mislabeled graph. At times we see that an inset does not match the low-magnification image or the source figure files do not match the version in the peer-reviewed manuscript. All of these errors would necessitate a correction after the final version of the article is published, so we are happy if we can resolve these issues before publication.
Manuscripts are initially analyzed within one to two business days. If no issues are identified, the final acceptance letter is sent, and the manuscript is posted online shortly thereafter as a Paper in Press. We find that most manuscripts, however, need some additional work on the figures, requiring on average 4–6 days to resolve. Sometimes we ask that authors revise their figures by declaring gel splices or improving figure quality. At times we need to review the original data to determine how to increase the quality of the figure or to authenticate a figure image. We may also ask how the figure was assembled or how the image was saved/exported in cases when a figure has signs of diminished quality. We strive to make this process as seamless as possible and to move the manuscript forward as soon as the figures are ready for publication.
Ultimately, we believe it is important that the articles we publish will stand the test of time. To this end, we have declined papers, ∼4% thus far, due to a failed image analysis check. There are a few reasons that could lead to a manuscript being declined, based on JBC guidelines for image manipulation (http://www.jbc.org/site/misc/edpolicy.xhtml#image_manipulation
). We work closely with the Associate Editor who handles the manuscript and the chair of JBC’s Data Policy Committee, Deputy Editor F. Peter Guengerich, to review any potential problems identified in the image analysis. They then render a decision based on our policies (http://www.jbc.org/site/misc/edpolicy.xhtml#ethics_policy
We have been performing these checks since September 2017, and we are very pleased with the overall positive feedback we have received from authors. Generally, the positive comments are of two types: those from authors who had their manuscript accepted and, perhaps surprisingly, those who had their manuscript declined. Authors are happy to learn how to properly assemble figures as they receive one-on-one guidance from our team to yield the best possible figures. We also receive grateful messages from authors of declined manuscripts, as declining the submission saved them from the embarrassment and repercussions of a potential withdrawal or retraction of a published paper. We want your research to be presented in the best light, so we are committed to do our part in supporting you to make the best figures possible. Overall, we believe that great value has been added to the Journal by implementing this step and hope that readers have also noticed the increased quality in our published figures. If you have any questions or comments, please contact JBC at [email protected]
Published online: March 22, 2019
© 2019 by The American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, Inc.