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Interview with Dr. Joseph Licciardi: A Behind-the-scenes Look at the Work of a Journal Editor

Dr. Joseph Licciardi
Dr. Joseph Licciardi is a Professor and Chair of the Department of Earth Sciences at the University of New Hampshire, and previously served as a journal editor for five years. Licciardi's primary fields of study include glacial geology, geomorphology, paleoclimatology, and volcanology, with the majority of his research focusing on the development and application of geochronological methods and understanding mechanisms of climate change. His work in the United States, Peru, Iceland, and Greenland has led to an internationally recognized research program. Licciardi's research has been published in numerous peer-reviewed journals, including Science and Nature Geoscience, accruing thousands of citations and numerous publications.

In this interview, Dr. Licciardi provides an editor’s perspective on the best paths for publishing your research, how to increase your chances of journal acceptance, and what really happens to your manuscript after you finally click submit.

LetPub: Thank you for joining us today, Dr. Licciardi. You have been successful as both a researcher publishing your own work and as an editor of a well-respected journal in the industry. Could you tell us a bit more about your roles and responsibilities?

Dr. Licciardi: I am currently a professor in the Department of Earth Sciences at the University of New Hampshire. My faculty position involves a balance of research, teaching, and service.My service load is currently on the heavier side as I’m in my second year as the chair of my department. Prior to stepping up as department chair, my single biggest service commitment was probably my editorial experience.

LetPub: Sounds busy! It would be great to hear about your tenure as a journal editor.

Dr. Licciardi: I served as an editor for a major disciplinary journal in my field for 5 years. The way it worked was that the Editor-in-Chief of the journal would field and distributesubmitted manuscripts among the three regional editors,all of whom essentially acted as the senior editor for manuscripts in their allotted regions.Once a manuscript had been assigned to me, I assumed full responsibility for all editorial duties and decisions, including invitation and selection of reviewers, evaluation of reviews, author invitations to resubmit for revision, delivering the final decision letters of acceptance or rejection, and approving galley proofs.

LetPub: Did you have anyone assisting you?

Dr. Licciardi: Oh no, we didn’t have associate or assistant editors helping us with any of that, although we could always reach out to the other regional editors or the journal’s advisory board for advice. I was actually grateful for the opportunity to take full responsibility, as I enjoyed working with authors and helping guide their submissions all the way through from start to finish.

LetPub: Sounds rewarding. I must ask…many researchers wonder what really happens behind the scenes after they submit their manuscript. When you received a new submission, what left a positive (or negative) impression?

Dr. Licciardi: When a new submission comes in that is poorly written, disorganized, and full of typos, that definitely leaves a bad first impression. This can be frustrating to deal with and willlikely add a considerable amount of time to the peer review process, but it doesn’t necessarily doom the manuscript. Shortcomings related to writing issues and overall structure are usually fixable with revisions, although I have dealt with some rare exceptions where after repeated rounds of revisions, the authors failed to bring the quality of the writing up to the standards of the journal and the manuscript could not be accepted.But generally speaking, if the paper contains valuable data and well-supported conclusions, it should eventually be published after appropriate revisions.

LetPub: That all makes sense. In the end, it’s the science that counts, right?

Dr. Licciardi: Absolutely. A manuscript can be exquisitely well-crafted in terms of technical writing style,eloquent composition, logical organization, eye-catching figures, and a focus on a hot topic of wide interest. From an editor’s standpoint—and also from a reviewer’s—it certainly helps to create a positive first impression with a well put together document. But none of that matters if the science isn’t sound.If that’s the case, the paper will be rejected

LetPub: So, what happens if a manuscript is highly disorganized, but the science is sound? Can journal editors see through that veneer?

Dr. Licciardi: Journal editors should be able to identify manuscripts that are worthy of publication. I would receive some rough manuscripts that clearly needed major overhauling, but if I thought a paper contained valuable findings and had potential to be brought up to an acceptable standard without requiring the authors to essentially conduct a new study or follow a drastically altered research approach, I would send it out for review. Of course, sending a manuscript out for review doesn’t guarantee its eventual acceptance. The authors still need to properly address valid criticisms raised by reviewers and bring their paper up to the standards of the journal.

LetPub: Of course. Did you ever reject a paper without review?

Dr. Licciardi: Yes, but I would reject a paper without review only if it was fundamentally flawed in some way. Probably the most fundamental issue that leads to rejection without review is if the data do not support the conclusions of the paper. But also, some new submissions can face outright rejection if the manuscript is on a topic that falls far outside the journal’s disciplinary focus, or if the topic is quite narrow and only of very local or limited interest.

LetPub: You just led me to my next question. A common cause of rejection is that a manuscript is “outside the journal’s aim and scope.” In your opinion, what does this phrase mean?

Dr. Licciardi: I think it’s critical for authors to consider which journal(s) would be an appropriate forum for their manuscript. Most disciplinary journals have a clearly defined mission to cover certain topics, timescales, or themes—these missions can usually be found on the journal’s web page. If not, it can help to browse previous issues to see the types of papers that have been recently published. It’s often a good strategy to submit a paper to a journal known to be a common forum for papers in your subdiscipline or topic.

LetPub: What about authors with goals to publish in high-impact or interdisciplinary journals? Any advice?

Dr. Licciardi: Getting a paper published in any top-tier high-impact journal, such as Natureor Science,is extremely competitive. The acceptance rates for these journals are exceedingly low across all subdisciplines. The papers that get accepted are generally the ones that contribute to a hot topic, employ novel techniques, report groundbreaking advances in their field, or otherwise stand out from the crowd in a unique way.

LetPub: I’m sure editors of top-tier journals such as those deal with frustrated authors all the time. In your opinion,what is the best way for a researcher to address rejection?

Dr. Licciardi: I’ve also dealt with plenty of push-back from frustrated authors of rejected papers. This tactic rarely works, and in fact can have the opposite effect that the authors had hoped for—such as eliciting a more strongly-worded restatement of why the paper was rejected by the editor. However, in a few selected cases, authors have made compelling rebuttals with what I thought were valid reasons to reconsider their submission, and I have done so, with some of those culminating in eventual acceptance.

LetPub: That’s good to hear. What if a reviewer rejects the manuscript with limited feedback or suggestions?

Dr. Licciardi: If I received a peer review recommending rejection that appeared to be cursory and/or lacking in constructive feedback, I would treat it with a grain of salt and not weigh it very heavily in my editorial decision. Authors deserve to know specific reasons for why their paper was recommended for rejection, so that they can be given the opportunity to carefully consider the criticism and decide what their next steps should be.

LetPub: On the topic of peer review, I’ve heard that it is difficult to secure reviewers for manuscripts. Is this true?

Dr. Licciardi: Oh yes, it’s true that it can be very difficult to find willing reviewers. It seems that nearly everyone in academia is overcommitted, and reviewing papers is a voluntary and very time-consuming job. Reviewers typically do not get paid for their efforts, and it is not always straightforward to determine how this professional service activity is viewed and evaluated by promotion and tenure committees. So,it’s a fair question to ask: what’s the incentive for taking the time to write a thoughtful, constructive review of someone else’s paper?

LetPub: Well, you posed your own question. What do you think?

Dr. Licciardi: I think most folks who do so are motivated by the recognition that their efforts ultimately lead to stronger, well-vetted contributions to the literature, and that they are therefore doing an invaluable service to the community. Not only that, but many (including myself) would argue that it is our professional responsibility to participate in the peer review process.You can look at it this way: if you expect your own manuscripts to benefit from a thorough and thoughtful peer review process and emerge as a stronger piece of work with a greater likelihood of being an impactful contribution, then it’s only fair that you do your part by reviewing the work of others in a similarly careful and constructive way.

LetPub: Well said. When you were an editor, how did you choose reviewers?

Dr. Licciardi: Ah, good question. Choosingimpartial reviewers can be tricky. Most journals, including the one I worked for, ask authors to provide lists of suggested reviewers and also note people who should not be asked to review due to conflicts of interest. Authors will generally do their best to steer clear of conflicts with their suggested reviewers, but many specialized scientific communities are small enough that it can be very difficult to find suitable reviewers with appropriate expertise while completely avoiding any professional connections to the authors. The other issue is that potential conflicts of interest may be unknown to the editor, especially if the manuscript focus is outside their field. Of course, an editor is under no obligation to select the suggested reviewers, and it’s not advisable to give an editor a long list of peers who should not be asked to review your work…that’s a red flag.

LetPub: Most researchers wish the peer review process was faster. Can you provide any insight into what causes delays post-submission?

Dr. Licciardi: In my experience, the most common cause of post-submission delays was chasing down late reviewers. Like I said earlier, most folks in academia are overcommitted. When invited reviewers agree to evaluate a manuscript, they generally do so with the best of intentions to submit their reviews well before the deadline, but then they get swamped with other responsibilities. That’s definitely happened to me, so I can understand that! Most journals will send automated reminders to reviewers to submit their reviews, and in many cases I would end up sending pestering personal reminders directly to the reviewers. That usually did the trick, but still, some submissions would get held up for much longer than they really should have before I had all the reviews in hand and could then make a decision.

LetPub: It sounds like the community needs more reviewers. Having been on both sides of publishing, what’s your take on the traditional peer review process?

Dr. Licciardi: Honestly, it’s complicated. In an ideal world where: (a) highly qualified referees are easy to find and willing to devote ample time on thoroughand constructive reviews of manuscripts; (b) authors make a concerted effort to respond to the feedback they receive and revise/strengthen their papers accordingly; and (c) journal editors carefully evaluate the reviews, author responses, and resultant manuscript revisions, as well as their own assessments;thenthe traditional peer review process would be very effective in ensuring that only the most rigorously vetted papers enter the literature. But that doesn’t always happen, which can be frustrating for all involved.

LetPub: Thank you for your candid answer. I have two more questions. First, what are the most significant changes you’ve observed in scholarly publishing over the years?

Dr. Licciardi: I’m not really sure how to answer this question, although I have been amazed by the proliferation of new journals recently, especially within my field of geosciences. It used to be fairly straightforward to identify which journal would be the best choice for a particular manuscript, since there were fewer to choose from. But now, it can be bewildering.

LetPub: I absolutely agree.

Dr. Licciardi: It’s also a new phenomenon for some of these brand-new journals to aggressively solicit submissions from authors via emails and social media. I now regularly get emails from publishers saying they “noticed” one of my recent publications, and that they would like to invite me to publish my future work in their journal. Many of these solicitations are from disciplinary journals far outside my field, so that’s obviously suspicious and likely a predatory journal.

LetPub: Okay, last question. Publishing is considered the “currency” for success in academia. Do you believe this is true?

Dr. Licciardi: It’s undoubtedly true that publications are one of the most important currencies for success in academia. However, they are not the only metric. Aside from getting papers out, the other measures of success that matter the most will depend on what sort of academic position you hold and what is valued the most by your institution, center, or university.

LetPub: Such as? Any examples?

Dr. Licciardi: Well, if you hold a primarily research-oriented appointment at a top university, these other metrics could include generating research revenue, establishing new instrumentation and facilities, developing new techniques, training and graduating students, mentoring postdocs,launching new collaborations and projects, and probably a lot of other things I’m not thinking of right now. Researchers have other options to demonstrate success, but papers always help.

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