Lifting the curtain on editorial decisions (or why some things get published and some don’t)

Research Publishing
By: Magdalena Skipper, Mon Jun 14 2021

Author: Magdalena Skipper

Editor in Chief, Nature

Recent weeks have seen intense media attention at the position that the scientific community has taken with regards to the origins of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, the virus that causes COVID-19. Scholarly journals have been criticised also for their role in biasing the debate towards one hypothesis of how the virus has originated.   

We don’t publicly comment on reasons why a specific piece of research may have been rejected from our journals for the very simple reason that, in order to retain the trust of our community, it is important that the editorial and peer review processes are confidential between our editors, our authors and our peer reviewers.  For the same reason, we don’t even confirm whether a paper has been submitted to us for consideration. 

This makes it difficult for us to refute allegations in the media which we know to be untrue, but much of these criticisms have stemmed from misconceptions about how scholarly journals work and what their purpose is.  So, what is it that guides our editorial processes and how do we decide which of the many submissions to our journals to take through the editorial evaluation and expert peer review process and ultimately publish? The short answer is outstanding and robust research, no matter the conclusion. Stiil, it’s worth looking into the process in a little more detail. 

How is a paper accepted for publication at Nature or one of the Nature research journals?

When a paper is submitted it is first read and evaluated by our subject expert in-house editors, each of whom has first-hand research experience. At this point, our considerations focus on the degree of novelty and soundness of conclusions, the extent to which the evidence - including appropriate data and analyses - presented supports these conclusions.  Ethics, conflict of interest and other quality assurance checks are also undertaken at the same time by our editorial support team. 

If the editor concludes - based on the information provided - that the claims are not sufficiently robustly supported the paper will not be considered further.  

Those papers that pass our editorial threshold are then sent for external peer review by independent subject matter-expert researchers, typically to two to three reviewers (although complex, multidisciplinary papers require input from more reviewers). The editors select a spectrum of reviewers who can assess different aspects of the paper, including all aspects of methodology used as well as the scientific conclusions.  Research papers published in the Nature Portfolio journals typically go through multiple rounds of review, as authors’ revisions need to be re-evaluated by our reviewers and sometimes new questions will arise.

At each stage, the editors will re-consider the manuscript in the light of reviewers’ reports, having weighed up the arguments raised by each reviewer and by the authors. 

Using the advice and feedback provided by reviewers, the authors’ responses and their own experience and expertise, the editors then make a decision about whether to accept the paper for publication. 

Throughout the pandemic Nature and its sister titles like Nature Medicine and Nature Microbiology have been fully committed to accurately reflecting the evolving body of knowledge about the pandemic - and have done so in a fiercely independent manner.  Our editors and all other staff involved with the editing, production and communication of our content have dedicated themselves to evaluating and publishing SARS-CoV-2 and COVID-19 manuscripts at a greatly expedited rate - demanded by this global health emergency -, while still applying the same levels of rigour to ensure the robustness of the research and the validity of the claims. 

For SARS-CoV-2 and COVID-19 submissions, as with all submissions, decisions have been made based solely on whether research meets our criteria for publication – robust original scientific research (where conclusions are sufficiently supported by the available evidence), of outstanding scientific importance, which reaches a conclusion of interest to a multidisciplinary readership. All editors consider all submissions on their scientific merits alone and no subject is excluded from publication because the conclusions might be controversial or go against the established wisdom.  

We also are incredibly proud of our role as a science news journal, employing a global news team of reporters and news editors delivering exacting, timely journalism that reflects the weight of scientific evidence and major related developments.  This along with our podcasts, briefings, infographics and news explainers such as this one all aid and improve our understanding of the virus. Providing reliable, accurate news reporting that is grounded in robust science is of paramount importance at all times, but especially so during a global health emergency.

Nature and the Nature journals are and have always been open minded about all discoveries, this includes being open minded about the origins of SARS CoV-2.  But we are and always will be guided by robust scientific evidence; once robust evidence that demonstrates how the pandemic originated becomes available, we want to publish it and we want to report on it.


Author: Magdalena Skipper

Editor in Chief, Nature

Magdalena is a geneticist by training and has considerable editorial and publishing experience: having started in Nature Publishing Group in 2001, she was Chief Editor of Nature Reviews Genetics, Senior Editor for genetics and genomics at Nature, and more recently Executive Editor for the Nature Partner Journals. Before joining Nature as Editor in Chief she was Editor in Chief of Nature Communications. She studied sex determination at the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology, Cambridge, UK, and Notch signalling in the vertebrate gut epithelium at the ICRF Laboratories (CRUK today), London. She is passionate about mentorship, transparent science and positive research culture. She has a keen interest in innovation in science publishing.