Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Who Wants To Write A Review Article?

Yes, this is a solicitation.  I'm on the Editorial Board of the journal Briefings in Bioinformatics,.  I'm looking for authors who would like to write high-quality, compact reviews.  If you are interested, or you want a little back-story, then keep reading.


The guy who first hired me at Millennium later decided to compound his mistake by suggesting me for the Editorial Board at Briefings in Bioinformatics.  Seriously, I appreciated the opportunity.  On the other hand, I've only episodically really done much.  Early on I didn't know what was entailed, and just waited for someone to tell me, which never quite happened.  Eventually I started feeling guilty about it, but even then not much stirred.

Then I got the idea of writing a piece for the journal myself, and around the same time the journal asked its Editorial Board members to step up and try to get more submissions.  So a bold idea occurred to me: what if I edited a special issue?  Or maybe they asked me  -- the first memory is more heroic, but the second is probably closer to reality.  So I decided to try to solicit reviews specifically on the topic on Second Generation Sequencing.

That was an interesting experience; I'm not eager to dive into again, but I don't regret it at all.  There were parts I really did enjoy, such as looking through the referee comments on the well-written pieces.  On the flip side, a few entries came in that I thought weren't great but I sent them for review anyway -- and they did not fare well.  That wasn't any fun.  

Nor was I particularly good at any of these solicitations.  Not my forte; I really don't like asking people to do things.  I had been warned in advance what sort of attrition to plan for and the journal's target for the minimum size of a special issue, which I ended up just squeaking under (I think they even let me go a review short).  But I was very proud of the final result and my two contributions, one was a very comprehensive review of the application of second generation sequencing to oncogenomics.  There was no way I could have written that in the length much later, as the field was about to explode.  My other piece was an Editorial at the beginning of the issue surveying all the published entries.  That was fun -- something like a very focused, very polished blog post but also celebrating the whole endeavour.  From conception to physical print was about 9 months; the articles were online about 6 months after I initiated the project.


So now we are in March 2016, and the annual memo comes from the excellent editorial assistant at Briefings -- please check your affiliation information and can you suggest anyone for writing reviews.  A very polite way of saying "are you still slacking around and just using us as bling on your CV?"  So the annual guilt over my inaction fires up.  Actually, I successfully solicited either 1 or 2 reviews in the last year (I'd need to check dates), which is better than many years -- but zero is a really low bar.  I also still feel significant guilt over one review I successfully solicited and then it got shot down by the referees -- it was a solid review, if a little on the edge of the journal's scope and didn't deserve that fate.  But that's another area I'm more than a little hesitant on -- once something is submitted, should I try to apply any pressures?

I did, about a year and a half ago, start going through my contacts list and soliciting reviews.  The yields was not great -- everyone has busy academic or industrial lives, and it would appear that having written a review isn't a high priority when junior academics are judged come tenure time.  I get all that, and again, I'm just categorically incapable of being pushy in such matters.  About the only time in my life I've successfully solicited a group of people was as an undergraduate: I wanted to take the Developmental Biology course and Dr. Francis said he'd only teach it if he had a quorum.  So I got a quorum, and it was a wonderful class.  Plus I learned a bunch about Dictyostelium (which he worked on), which has this fascinating single-cell to swarm to fruiting body transition that was just starting to be teased apart then at a molecular level.

Briefings in Bioinformatics is focused on review articles, though it does publish some novel papers (there was a whole debate about that; I favor reviews, but not being orthodox about it, which I guess is a spineless mugwump position).  

One somewhat strong inclination is to avoid repetition -- if you do have an idea, make sure that same topic hasn't been covered recently in the journal/  If you would like help identifying or shaping a topic, please don't hesitate to reach out to me (Gmail:keith.e.robison)-- that's something I enjoy doing.  In general, I'm willing to be as helpful as an author wishes -- and conversely as uninvolved as they wish.  Once a solid idea for a review is in mind, send a brief description or outline to me so I can run it by the editor -- this avoids colliding with an in-process review that is too similar and also get some feedback if the review is a bit on the edge of the scope of the journal.

Why write a review?  Again, I'm clueless as to what it is like to be an academic, so take all this with a grain of salt (below seems about the right size) and how such a publication fits into tenure schemes and such.

I see a review as a chance to plant a flag in a subject, a chance to comment on what is good and not-so-good in a field and/or a chance to suggest future directions.  Kind of like blogging, but with peer review (and much more respect!).  I also think that reviews offer all sorts of educational opportunities.  Researching or drafting the outline of a review is certainly a task that an early graduate student could take on to gain mastery of a field, and I'm even crazy enough to think a talented undergraduate might be challenged with laying out one section (a professor had mentioned the idea of publishing my senior year term paper on endosymbiotic theory, but we never pursued it).  Of course, one must fit the effort of writing into one's budget of time, which is a barrier to my going beyond the temptation to write one.

Salar de Uyuni, Chile Bolivia

(aargh, my stupid mistake, caught by a commenter)


Anonymous said...

My Bolivian fiance was upset that you said El Salar de Uyuni is in Chile. She says it is wholly in Bolivia.

Keith Robison said...

Anon: please extend my sincere apologies to your fiance and ask them to devise an appropriate penance for me -- that is the sort of geographical error for which I severely fault others, and I am now quite red-faced!

Keith Robison said...

I forgot to comment on the access policy. Briefings in Bioinformatics is published by Oxford University Press under a hybrid model -- authors can choose to pay for Open Access or choose to submit under a non-open model. I realize that many people have passionate feelings about Open Access, so I leave it to you to decide which of these models works for you -- or if a hybrid journal just isn't for you at all.