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Written by: Suzanna Clark


If it were a pair of boots, they would be worn thin from traveling to my office, the local coffee shop, multiple libraries, airplanes, and buses. If it were an animal, it would be a shapeshifter for the number of times it has completely reinvented itself. If it were a Netflix movie, I would’ve given up on waiting for it to load long ago. But this “it” is neither a pair of boots, nor a shapeshifter, nor a movie.


This “it” is my first lead-author scientific paper.


The Paper has taught me one of the most important skills I’ve learned in grad school: persistence. I thought I had this skill before, but never has my persistence been tested the way it has been over the past four years. Particularly with regards to The Paper. Each time I thought It was done, It popped up again, as if I were playing some twisted game of Whack-A-Mole. But I’ve realized that this is part of the scientific process.


In elementary school we’re taught the classic scientific process: observe, hypothesize, collect data, test the hypothesis, evaluate, repeat. Beyond an elementary school classroom, however, the science doesn’t end when you reach a conclusion. The other half of the battle is sharing the results with the world so that other scientists can learn from your work. And this process – the iterative, collaborative process that is scientific peer review – can be just as important as doing the work in the first place.


What is peer review, you ask?


Before a paper can be published, it goes through a series of checks. First, I would suggest using spellcheck before sending it to the other authors to read.


Then it has to be approved by the other scientists who are listed as co-authors, because rarely is science a one-person job. This second step is one form of peer review, and for me it took the longest. Consider trying to decorate your house with the input from five interior designers, all of whom are expert designers with slightly different styles, and you’ll have an idea of what this process is like. This collaborative process took about half a year, and it was when The Paper went through the majority of her identity crises. At one point I printed out a part of The Paper, cut it up into individual sentences, and played Tetris until I found the version that fit the best. In the end, I got the same satisfaction that I feel when I complete a particularly difficult puzzle, and The Paper was much better for it.


Once a paper has been approved by all of the scientists who contributed to it, it must be submitted to a journal for consideration by the editor. This is check number 3: the editor reads the paper (or its summary) to see if the research aligns with the journal’s research focus, and to determine if the results are important to the greater scientific community. To a young scientist, submitting a paper can feel a bit like entering Diagon Alley. Finding the right journal is like finding the right brick wall, and targeting your work to the journal’s standards is a bit like searching for the correct brick to tap. Be sure you don’t turn down Knockturn Alley.


If the editor thinks your paper is suitable for the journal, then it’s sent to other experts on the topic for them to read and review. This is the official peer review. This is when scientists will assess the quality of the work – Did you process the data correctly? Are your methods repeatable?  Are the conclusions logical? – and recommend whether the paper is ready for publication. Afterward, the editor returns the paper to the lead author with the reviewers’ recommendations for improvement. While we all hope that a paper will be accepted outright, anything other than a full rejection is considered a success.


I won’t bore you with what comes next. Applying the reviewers’ comments is a repeat of check #2, except now there are eight interior designers in the room instead of five.


So the next time you question why scientists don’t respond immediately to world events, the economy, or natural disasters, remember the part of the scientific process that you didn’t learn about in school: the peer review. For some papers, this is where the longest delays can happen, as editors wait for feedback from the reviewers. Wait times of several months are not uncommon, but patience is a virtue. A peer-reviewed paper is received with respect in the scientific community and is given more weight than written works such as company reports, newspaper articles, and PhD Theses. The peer review is a stamp of approval that says the scientific work presented in the paper is sound.


It’s not unusual for a paper to morph through dozens of drafts before being submitted for consideration, and then several more drafts before being approved for publication. This collaboration can feel painstaking and time-consuming, but it’s also what produces the best science. My paper is better today than it was a year ago, when I completed the first draft.


For now, The Paper and I are taking a break. Until I present her at a conference.