Memorandum from Nature
Nature receives over 10,000 submitted
papers per year, of which we publish about 1,000. Since we were
launched in 1869, we have had no editorial board of independent
scientists, as many journals do; we make our editorial decisions
on the basis of our own scientific judgment.
We reject about 60% of submissions without review.
The rest, including all papers that we end up publishing, are
sent out for peer review, to at least two and often more reviewers.
We have about 80 staff serving the whole of Nature's editorial
content, based internationally in half a dozen editorial offices
which we maintain, of whom 25 are editors who are responsible
for the assessment, peer review, selection and scientific improvement
of primary research papers. (We have other editors responsible
for sub-editing and production. Our selection processes also require
administrative and electronic systems support.)
These selecting editors are typically post-doctoral
level scientists from excellent laboratories with strong publication
track records. We select them not only for their academic abilities
but also for their abilities to focus quickly and critically on
key elements of scientific papers across a broad disciplinary
range, and to engage with leading researchers in their fields.
All editors are expected to travel internationally several times
a year to visit key laboratories and meetings in order to keep
abreast of their field and of the people in it.
Nature papers are selected for their
significant impact on a field. Here I use "impact" in
its broadest scientific sense, rather that the narrow sense of
indexes of scientific citations. The latter are high nevertheless
as a consequence of our selection criteria. We seek to publish
papers that significantly assist, enhance or, best of all, transform
scientific understanding. The scientific impact may be deep (if
a paper undermines or establishes a key scientific hypothesis
for example) and/or broad (if it touches on several disciplines).
We may exceptionally select papers because of
their policy relevance even though they may not represent major
new insights into the way the world works. Examples of this would
be studies of uncertainties in climate models or predictive epidemiology
of current disease outbreaks.
It is sometimes falsely asserted that we publish
papers to make headlines. It has always been my firm policy that
we do no such thing. The frequent headlines that we already attract
for our authors arise ultimately from the public's great interest
in outstanding science. There would be nothing to gain by steering
our selection towards the media in this way, and everything to
lose in the respect of researchers.
1. How do you ensure the integrity of the
peer review process? Do you review your reviewers and, if so,
by what process?
We pay great attention to the quality of the
peer reviewers that we use. Editors routinely track reviewers'
publication output, assess the quality of reports that they receive,
and explore the reputation of reviewers in conversations with
their peers. We use many thousands of peer-reviewers from a very
broad international base. I or senior colleagues will occasionally
review the collection of reviewers used over a period within a
particular field. We ask referees to disqualify themselves from
refereeing if they have conflicts of interest, whether financial
or competitive. We will also consider recommendations from authors
as to who might or should not review their papers, though we are
not bound by them.
2. What are your views on the impact that
a "pay-to-publish" business model would have on your
peer review process?
In principle, our process of peer review is
independent of the sources of revenue. However, there are several
considerations that, taken together, make me deeply uneasy about
moving to an author-pays model.
The first relates to editorial motivation, in
my experience editors are highly motivated by the challenge of
pleasing or stimulating readersand what better measure
of achievement than that individuals and institutions are willing
to pay for the results? My colleagues spend their working lives
adding value to the research processin finding peer reviewers
who will help authors improve a paper, in offering their own constructive
suggestions, in detailed editing, and in selecting for impact.
I do not welcome a system that removes the tangible reader-satisfaction
feedback loop on our performance and editorial motivation.
The second relates to economic power. I fully
appreciate that a high-quality author-pays model has an incentive
to maintain quality in the eyes of readers, but in the long run,
being paid by authors rather than readers shifts the balance of
economic power in a way that I would find extremely uncomfortable.
In no areas of publishing other than listings, vanity and contract
publishing do authors pay for publication. I do not maintain that
current open access publishers are operating vanity publishing,
because they too know that the reader is the ultimate judge. But
shifting the economic power to the author cannot be assumed to
be in the readers' best interests when it comes to the selection
and editing of content.
More objectively, our editorial process is expensive.
I will leave it for publishers to debate the consequences of moving
to author-pays, but there is absolutely no possibility in my view
that an online-only author-pays model could hope to maintain the
quality we achieve at numbers as small as $1,500 per paper.
Another consideration relates to the long-term
impacts on the selection process. Any publisher, whether commercial
or otherwise, has to seek to maximize and develop revenue in order
to develop as a service provider. If a publication cannot maximize
revenue from subscribers, and with online advertising not being
a strong revenue source, its publisher has little option but to
accept more papers from paying authors. Thus there will unquestionably
be a downward pressure on thresholds of acceptance, especially
in those journals lacking diverse sources of revenue. There will
also be a pressure implicitly to favour countries and scientists
who can afford to pay more. Of course there would be no explicit
discrimination, but one would have to be naive or disingenuous
to maintain that there would be no hidden or unconscious pressures
in these directions.
And we editors value our financial viability.
At Nature, I would far rather place my financial security
on our ability to find hundreds of thousands of readers who (directly
or through their institutions) will pay because we satisfy them,
rather than a few thousand authors who will pay whatever their
funding agencies will allow.
3. Does Nature take responsibility for the
papers that it publishes after publication? For example, in deciding
to publish a paper, what weight is attached to the possibility
that certain campaigners are likely to attach an exaggerated significance
to certain papers which support their view? What steps do you
take to respond to the distortion or misrepresentation of papers
published in your journal in cases of great public interest?
I have explained our fundamental criteria for
selection above. It would in my view be misguided, both in principle
and in practice, to treat anticipated misinterpretation or misappropriation
of results as an additional criterion of our selection of papers.
But we do take responsibility for the language used in papers
and in our press releases, and we do regularly publish accompanying
articles that explain the significance of the results and their
limitations. In my experience, many authors and referees are duly
sensitive to these concerns in assessing the presentation and
interpretation of the results in our papers. It is a key role
of editors to be on the alert for misrepresentations by authors,
or for statements that could be misinterpreted, and to advise
on rewriting if appropriate.
We know that there is little more we could do
to prevent the inevitable misinterpretation or misguided generalisations
arising from papers that we publish. In such circumstances we
tend not to get involved in the debate because (a) the authors
or their peers will often be better placed to do so, and (b) it
is important that we are, and are seen to be, impartial in our
consideration of the scientific value of papers. For example,
it is almost impossible to make any public statement about GM
crops in the context of a particular debate without being instantly
perceived as sympathetic to one side or another. It is of paramount
importance that Nature be seen to be publishing papers
on that topic for their intrinsic scientific or policy significance,
not in support of other parties' agendas.
All of that being said, whenever I see that
our papers or procedures have been misrepresented, I will always
consider responding to the media concerned. I or colleagues have
responded on occasions.
4. How does Nature implement the COPE guidelines
on good publishing practice?
Nature is not a member of COPE and therefore
was not party to drawing up the guidelines. However, we do actively
participate in, and sometimes stimulate, broader discussions about
editorial practice, and I have discussed policies with my counterparts
at journals such as Science and the Proceedings of the
National Academy of Sciences. (It is because of such contacts
and because we are a journal of basic research rather than medical
research that we do not participate in COPE, whose role we nevertheless
see as entirely positive.)
Having read the COPE guidelines, I can endorse
all of them and also state that we have been implementing them
for years. The code requires that editors:
Strive to meet the needs of readers and authors.
Our high circulation and online access rates suggest we succeed
in the former. Our Guide to Authors and recent innovations (see
editorial in 18 March issue) exemplify our continuing commitment
to author services;
Constantly improve the journal. I hope
that anyone comparing issues of Nature over the period
1996-2004 will see that this has been repeatedly happening;
Ensure the accuracy of material we publish.
As described elsewhere, we employ many staff to ensure this through
peer-review and in-depth sub-editing;
Maintain the integrity of the scientific
record. Nature has always had a policy of implementing
formal Corrections and Retractions promptly (see also Guide to
Authors and appendix below). This often involves extensive negotiation
with multiple authors, but we accept that burden. We also maintain
ethical integrity by insisting on adherence to institutional and
regulatory standards and having authors declare any competing
financial interests. We also see it as our duty to pursue any
accusations of author misconduct, and to bring established cases
to the attention of readers;
Ensure that business needs do not compromise
intellectual standards. We find that Nature's commercial
clientsadvertisers and sponsorsvalue their association
with us precisely because of our prestige, independence and integrity.
Editorial independence is a foundation stone of all Nature journals;
Always be willing to publish corrections,
clarifications, retractions and apologies when needed. As
demonstrated in comments above and below, we are indeed willing.
5. Can you outline your policy on retraction?
What is a partial retraction, and how is this covered by the COPE
In the Annex are the relevant extract from our
online Guide to Authors (see http://www.Nature.com/Nature/submit/Policies/index.html£9)
and also the Nature and the Nature research journals corrections
I have learned never to be too categorical about
retractions because, to paraphrase Tolstoy, every retraction is
unhappy in its own way, and one can lose sight of the needs of
the community in debating definitions or prescribing protocols.
Furthermore they are rare in our experience (about once per year
Bearing that preamble in mind, Nature's policy
is that a formal retraction by definition applies to a whole paper,
because its purpose is to remove the paper from the scientific
record. Anything less than a full retraction is a Correction.
If, say, authors had included in the original paper a speculative
discussion that was not directly based on the evidence presented
in that paper and that they subsequently wished to withdraw, they
could do so by means of a formal Correction, which would then
be linked to the original paper both electronically on our website
and also in indexes such as PubMed.