Process behind a Nature Comment

Publishing a Comment in Nature involved a process unlike any I’ve experienced to date, so I figured I’d document it (Comment itself is here).   I wish more people would document the story behind their papers (and #OverlyHonestMethods :) ), and also the process behind their scientific communication to help us all peek behind the curtains.  Or, yknow, take down the curtains.


I received an email from a Nature editor on November 1:

[..] I’m an editor in the Comment section at Nature, which features opinions by scientists. [..] I’m writing because a few issues have popped up that we thought you might have some insights on [..]

We’re interested in exploring a piece about the NSF’s decision to change “papers” to “projects” in scientists’ list of achievements. [..]

Does this topic spark any interest? If so, let’s chat – we’d want to time something to the first of the year, when the NSF change goes into effect. [..]

(I won’t name the editor because I don’t want to catch her unaware…. I’m not sure if it is appropriate to name her, so I’ll err on not.  She was very skilled and pleasant to work with, fwiw!).

Needless to say, the proposed topic is of interest to me and a Comment in Nature seemed like a great way to reach a broad and “traditional” audience with my thoughts on where this is going.  We set up a phone call for later in November.

Writing and Editing

The editor and I had a 15 minute call about my thoughts on the topic, and also about how Comments work.

I mentioned that I’d recently given a brief talk about implications of the NSF Biosketch policy change.  She suggested I send that along to her, and she’d reply with a paragraph-by-paragraph suggestion on how I compose a first draft of the comment.

The editor sent me a reply that had a surprisingly detailed outline:

Starting with the text you sent about your talk is great – it’s a good tone and level for our readership. We can just build on that. [..]

First paragraph: “hook” the reader. Like feature and news stories, or even editorials in a newspaper (which is really our model here), we need something that will “grab” the reader, make them want to [..]

Next 1-2 paragraphs: Describe the NSF change in policy, for readers who aren’t familiar with it [..]

Third paragraph: Present the crux of your argument: I think this change in NSF policy, along with other examples mentioned, indicate X [..]

Background, 2-3 paragraphs: Present examples of the changes [..]

Next 2-3 paragraphs: Explain more why these changes are so significant for science. Here is where you’ll put [..]

Final paragraphs: Here, we present “solutions.” How should things change further? What direction would [..]

Wow!  ok, sure, if that is how it works, I can do that.  So I pulled together a first draft, which I’ve posted here.  That’s when it got intense.  I’ve never had anything so heavily edited.  In addition to emailing drafts back and forth, we had two (or three? I forget) quick phone calls where the editor asked me clarification questions, then she’d send me another draft.  It took five revisions till it was time for her to pass it to her boss and the subeditors.

The subeditor was also great.  The subeditor sent me a revised version, and at this point it was layed out as a PDF.  I had a list of changes to maintain accuracy given the new edits.  There were about 3-4 more versions after this, with small changes.

Overall, I’d say this whole process made the resulting paper much more readable than it started.  It also changed the focus a bit, to having a stronger altmetrics focus, rather than being primarily about the alternative products.  I’m ok with that, though I do mourn some of the details in the original draft that didn’t make it into the final version.  I do kinda feel like the editor should be a coauthor, for what it is worth…. I think we’ve all had coauthors who did less than she did!  Feels a little strange that there is so much behind-the-scenes help in crafting these articles and that isn’t transparent at all.

One area I had no clear say was the title and subheading.  It went through 2-3 titles and 4-5 subheading phrases and locations in the versions I saw.  I did object to one of the versions (“creeping changes”), but in general it wasn’t clear that the title was my decision.  I didn’t know that the title in the HTML version and CrossRef was going to be prefixed with “Altmetrics:” because the title on the PDF copy I saw was simply titled “Value all research products”.  I’m a little unhappy about the leading “Altmetrics:” because I think it complicates the main thrust of the piece and makes it easy for people to get tangled, for example about whether blog posts are alt-products or sources of altmetrics (answer:both).  oh well, that’s ok: altmetrics is sexy, it makes sense to lead with it, and I’m certainly a big believer!


Because the article was due out just after the holiday break, with a fixed publication date to coincide with the new policy implementation on Jan 14, the turn-around time I had for many of these revisions was very short (10 days for the initial draft, a few days for revisions, near the end less than a day for final revisions).  This was fine with me, I just note it so that others will know what you are getting into.

Copyright and Paywall

The other point I want to mention here is how Copyright works with Comments.   I admire Nature’s policy for copyright for research articles, given that they are a non open-access journal:  they do not require that authors sign away their copyright, instead they ask that authors grant Nature an exclusive license to publish.

Nature has a different policy for Comments.  You have to sign away your Copyright to Nature.  As a huge proponent of Open Access, I thought long and hard about whether I was ok with this.  I decided for this editorial content I was.  Happy to discuss :)

Here is the form that I signed. UK Comment CA  I upload it because I did not sign an NDA, and I know that I would have liked to find it online when I was first contacted by them to help me understand details of the agreement I’d be entering.

The first editor who contacted me knew that I am a strong supporter of OA.  Though she said that it would not be possible to make this comment OA, she said that we could nominate it to be one of the “free” articles.  I held fast to this, and in mid December requested with her that we do indeed make this request if she hadn’t already done so.  She was happy to do so, and asked me for a once sentence justification for why this paper should be freely available, because that is used by the group who makes the decisions.  Not sure I knocked this out of the park , but fwiw here’s what I sent:

People will likely circulate this article outside academia, since altmetrics is about valuing broad contributions to science, and broad interactions with science — high school viewers of wetlab YouTube videos, silicon valley dotcom contributors to science source code repositories, etc.

The good news is that they did decide to make my article free for “at least a week.”  It wasn’t free when it first went up, interestingly, but the paywall page stopped appearing within 12 hours.

One more thing for completeness.  I’ve heard some people are paid small amount for Comments?  I’m not sure if that is true or not.  In any event:  money was never mentioned to me, I wasn’t paid anything.

So there ya go.  Now you know everything I know about how Nature Comments work.