During my first semester of my Master’s degree, I took an ichthyology course taught by the Master’s Program Advisor, Dr. Joshua Drew (http://labroides.org/). Being given considerable leeway for our final paper, I undertook a project Josh had long been meaning to pursue, assessing the gender disparity at marine conservation conferences. To do so, we compiled the names of symposia speakers and organizers from two major societies that hold annual and biannual conferences. From there, we analyzed how the number of female organizers influenced the number of female speakers. Not only does this project hold direct importance to me as a woman in science, but the imbalance of female role models in science is also a critical subject for the marine biology community as a whole to address.
The initial steps of writing were straightforward, in line with years of academic teachings; collect your data, fiddle with R, and report on statistically significant results (of course, I’m paraphrasing). I was impressed by the abundance of published scientific research that outlines the inequality in wages, job opportunities, citations, and awards given to men compared to women scientists in all STEM fields. Anticipating our results would demonstrate that an increase in male organizers would be connected to a decrease in female speakers, I couldn’t help but feel discouraged that the message is loud and clear but progress towards equality is slow moving.
As Josh and I hypothesized, our results indicated the number of female presenters increased as the number of female organizers did. This suggests that women organizers are not “pulling up the ladder” and preventing other women from following their paths to success, but are instead providing increased opportunities for both women and men to participate equally in conferences. Further, we did not find that the number of female organizers or female speakers had increased over the 15 years of our study, suggesting that despite the best efforts of the societies to balance the gender of their participants, little progress has been made.
The next step was the most daunting: prepare the piece for submission to editors. Until now, I had been taught that the world of publishing could be a harsh and scary place (based on the advice of an esteemed scientific journal editor and previous professor, who explained what not to do when applying for publication by showing us some horrific submissions he had encountered during his career) . For a less biased and more thorough history of the peer review process and why it is important, check out this article written by Spier (2002). With the proliferation of manuscripts and papers available online, producing quality and well-reviewed work is more important now than ever.
Despite my (albeit negative) understanding of the actual publication procedure, I definitely underestimated the amount of work that was involved with the preparation before peer review. Since papers are accepted into journals based on the validity and reproducibility of their methods, as well as the novelty and importance of their results, there is great benefit in preparing the manuscript for scrutiny with preliminary evaluations . Although there are online services that provide “pseudo” peer reviews of your work with the goal of strengthening your manuscript before initial submission, Josh has some well-rooted connections in the marine community and was able to send our research to some colleagues for evaluation. I am extremely grateful for their time, as well as their expertise that they shared with us, and will hopefully be able to extend the same services to others in the future. So, above all else, thank you to our pre-peer reviewers.
Herein lies arguably the most important lesson I have learned during the publication process (that will hopefully expedite my writing processes in the future!): Pre-Peer Reviewers are Astonishingly Valuable and Thorough.
There it is, folks, plain and simple. The pre-peer review step provides you with a venue for thoughtful, constructive criticism, helping to enrich your paper and increase the chances of acceptance with revisions as opposed to straight rejections. But let me tell you, this pre-peer review was by no means just a “proof-read”, addressing grammar and asking for more citations (which they still did, thankfully). Instead, the reviewers who helped us asked the more dominating questions we needed to consider (without getting into specifics): was there error in our sample methods? Did we explain our results clearly? Are our results truly indicative of the concepts we broach in our discussion? More than anything, an outside perspective brought forward additional interpretations and applications of our results.
These were all questions that Josh and I would have likely had to address had we submitted our original draft, but because of our pre-peer reviewers’ feedback, we were able to solidify our research even before submission (although I am not naïve to the fact that our manuscript will still go through many drafts yet). As a first-time publisher and a new graduate student, I cannot stress enough how much that support aids my confidence as a scientist moving forward. I have learned the value of engaging collaborators and building a stronger paper based on the interpretations of other scientists.
And so, Josh and I are moving forward with our paper, which has been restructured, re-mastered and revitalized, and we hope for publication to start our 2016 calendar year off right! Knowing how much more taxing the publication process has been thus far (for the better, I assure you), I anticipate many more reforms in the near future when editors recommend revisions. Fingers crossed for a smooth process!
 If you have time on your hands and are looking for a chuckle, Meredith Carpenter and Lillian Fritz-Laylin, of the Molecular and Biology Department at the University of California Berkeley, run a blog compiling and review comical scientific publications. Their blog, called the National Center for Biotechnology Information, Rolling On the Floor Laughing, can be found here: http://www.ncbirofl.com/
 Voight et al., 2012. Publishing your work in a journal: understanding the peer review process. Int J Sports Phys Ther, 7(5): 452-460.
**As a resource for others, this paper also includes a list of questions reviewers may address regarding each section of a submitted manuscript, which can act as guidance during personal review.