What’s there to gain from a well explained presubmission enquiry?

Like many journals, PLoS Biology has seen the number of presubmission enquiries/ inquiries increase steadily over time. Sometimes these enquiries genuinely serve to allow authors and editors to have a preliminary dialogue about a particular article’s suitability for the journal – for example, if the article is on the margins of the journal’s areas of interest or if there are special circumstances that must be taken into account. They also allow authors to consult several journals at once – something they are prohibited from doing with full submissions. But all too often presubmission enquiries do not yield enough of the right type of information to allow editors to assess whether the proposed article is suitable for the journal, with the result that the article is ultimately rejected on grounds that could, and ideally should, have been identified at the presubmission stage – to the frustration of both authors and editors. Some authors may choose to deliberately mislead editors at a presubmission enquiry stage, believing (wrongly) that if they ‘spin’ their story well enough it will slide into a review process and then publication. But on the assumption that most authors would like to provide an honest and open summary of their work that will allow editors to judge its significance, is there a way for authors to write more useful presubmission enquiries, answering the questions editors would like them to address and so facilitating the provision of thoughtful, prompt advice from the editors?

Is the journal interested in my subject area?

The question most often asked by authors, and an important one for journals of restricted scope, is whether the journal is interested in the general subject area covered by the manuscript. Even a journal as broad as PLoS Biology is sometimes offered articles that are at the fringes of biological enquiry and so this question can be a useful one. But most often authors who ask this question are responding to some perceived bias on the part of editors, or ask because they haven’t seen an article in precisely their area recently. In these cases the answer at PLoS Biology is very straightforward: we are interested in principle in all of biology, including areas that are right at the boundaries of what is traditionally considered to be biology. If you haven’t seen us publish an article in your part of biology recently, that is simply a reflection of the submissions we’ve received in this area, and one could argue that we might be even more interested in areas that have been poorly represented in the journal’s pages.

So, what else do editors want to know in assessing a presubmission enquiry?

Breadth and depth of interest

PLoS Biology aims to publish rigorous original science of importance to researchers in its field and of broad interest to the scientific community. But in assessing whether one particular contribution meets these criteria, we do not simply take a head count of the number of people, or the number of different fields, who might find it interesting. We don’t automatically consider something favourably because it is about cancer, neurodegeneration, stem cells, the environment, or some other topic of current broad interest to the general community. We want to know the size of contribution this particular article makes: what new insights do we, as biologists, gain from reading an article that we didn’t have before?

In terms of breadth of interest to biologists, there is of course a question to be asked about the generality of the conclusions: are they unique to one developing tissue, pathogen, or cell type, or are they describing a phenomenon that is important across fields?

The nature of the evidence

When editors consider a presubmission enquiry they are inevitably looking at the work more superficially than peer-reviewers, so we do not ask for full details of all experiments, but it is very helpful to have some idea of the type of evidence provided: were these observations made once or repeatedly, in one cell type, organism, or geographical location or many, using several different methods or only one? Are the results descriptive, correlative or mechanistic in nature?

We are very often consulted at a stage when authors have one intriguing observation – a hint of something important, in a ‘hot’ area – but in our experience reviewers are much more likely to be convinced by a more in-depth study providing several distinct lines of evidence. If authors can address head-on in a presubmission enquiry the question “how definitive are these conclusions?” they are likely to avoid frustration later on in the editorial process.

What has previous work shown?

Once the question of what is the strength of the evidence that supports the conclusions has been addressed, the second biggest omission we editors perceive in presubmission enquiries is a failure to address properly what previous work has shown and so what contribution this particular study makes. It is surely in the best interests of authors’ to explain clearly that, for example, this finding had previously been made in bacteria and now is extended to eukaryotes, or has been studied in vitro and is now taken in vivo, or whatever. Similarly, if a highly related article has just been published elsewhere, there is nothing to be gained by failing to mention it at the presubmission stage.

In conclusion, PLoS Biology’s editors ask authors of presubmission enquiries to provide information in the following categories: Background; Methodology and Principle Findings; and Conclusions/Significance (for more information see our Presubmission enquiry guidelines online). This post aims to provide a little more background to the rationale for each of those, and to emphasise that simply providing the abstract of the finished article is unlikely to provide all the information needed for a detailed and considered assessment of your article.

We would also be glad to hear from authors your feedback on what you think could make the process of presubmission enquiries more productive.  Please leave a comment below or email biologue@plos.org

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