Is science like interrogation?

Yes, it is. (In the sense that doing science is like being interrogated.)

While the Journal of the Acoustical Society of America is – technically – a fine journal and I trust the papers that get published there much more than most language-related journals, I have to say that their editorial office should be the first ones up against the wall when the revolution comes.

Let me set the scene a bit.    A scientific paper represents a lot of work and effort.  This particular one has been in the works since 2006.  It has been reviewed five times (three times at the Journal of Phonetics and twice times at J. Acoustical Society of America).  Each time, I’ve made changes to improve it and to make the reviewers happy.   Finally, it is accepted.   I’ve invested a lot of work in it, and more than a few midnight hours.

Publishing is important to any academic.   Personally, it is important because it is confirmation that you aren’t wasting your life.  It means you’ve done something that no-one else has done before, something that’s worth preserving for posterity and passing onto other scientists.   Even more, it means I’ve managed to put my stamp on the field and tell people the right way to do research.  It matters financially, too.   I have kids approaching college age and publications are an important part of staying employable.    So, I should be happy, and I was, when I clicked the button to send the final version to the publisher.

Well, I say “happy”, but I perhaps should be more precise and say “annoyed, frustrated, stressed, exhausted and (in the background) happy.”   It’s not really a question of “clicking a button.”  Somehow it turns into a four-hour struggle with an online editorial system which is not at all designed with my convenience in mind.  You split the paper up into parts (body here, figures there, captions in a third chunk) upload all the parts of the paper, sort them into order, fill in the blanks, confirm that you didn’t harm any animals, wait for the system to assemble your paper, download the PDF, and read it.  Only to find that something doesn’t look the same as it did on your own computer, so you do it again.

Anyway, eventually, sometime after midnight the final button is clicked.  ERROR MESSAGE! Oh, whew!  I just forgot to tick the little box that confirms that I am not just pretending to submit this paper but really submitting this paper.   (Why does that box need to be there?  Who knows.)  And finally, I check the box and click the button one more time and, in a rather drained and emotionally mixed condition, go to bed.

The next morning I see a welcome little e-mail in my in box:

Dear Greg Kochanski,                           

Thank you for submitting a revision to the manuscript referenced
below:         

Title:  "Prosodic Peak Estimation under Segmental Perturbations"
Author: Greg Kochanski
Manuscript Number:  MS #08-05660R       

It was received on October 07, 2008, and it is now in the process
of being considered for possible publication in the Journal of the
Acoustical Society of America.      

We will contact you as soon as this revision has been evaluated. ...

Sincerely yours,
Elaine Moran
JASA Editorial Office
Acoustical Society of America

Done!   The frustration of the editorial system has faded, and I bask in the satisfaction of a job well done.   Off to my next conquest!

But, the Journal of the Acoustical Society of America has strict editorial standards, as it should, since it is indeed a good journal.   I, mere mortal that I am, don’t live up to their standards as I find out three months later:

Dear Greg Kochanski,

In references that contain URLs add the date that the URL was last
viewed, e.g., www.aip.org(date last viewed 4/21/08).

In the list of references, provide the locations of publishers.
Publishers' names must be spelled out.

Your paper has been placed back in the Author Approval Folder
where you may access it at  the following URL:
<http://jasa.peerx-press.org/cgi-bin/main.plex?el=aaaaaaaaaaaaaa

Please resubmit your paper following the same steps as before.

Sincerely yours,     

Elaine Moran
JASA Editorial Office
Acoustical Society of America

This seems polite enough, but it is an infuriating letter.  First of all, they have been sitting on my damned paper for months before they noticed any problems.  Second, think about what is missing: any helpful hints about what is wrong.  Someone read it, and someone presumably put a red-pencil circle on the print-out, but did anyone think to pass the information on to me?   No.  Not even page numbers.

And this is not a small paper.  It’s 50 pages and about 100 references, so while I should be able to find the problems, a few pointers would certainly make my life easier.

A good publisher would have helped me.  They can probably look up the publisher’s address as easily (or more easily) than I can.  They could even check that the web pages were actually still visible and add the dates.    Before you say “That’s not their job”, I should point out that I have gotten service like that from some publishers, back in the not-so-distant past where corrections arrived in pencil on paper.

So, my hopes have been dashed.  It’s the classic build-them-up-then-tear-them-down interrogation technique.  But I don’t break so easily.  I re-submit.  Faster this time: only two hours.  And the editorial office is faster this time, too: just a little over a month.

Dear Greg Kochanski,

All URL's in the references must contain the date it was last viewed,
e.g., www.aip.org(date last viewed 4/21/08).

Your paper has been placed back in the Author Approval Folder where
you may access it at  the following URL:
<http://jasa.peerx-press.org/cgi-bin/main.plex?el=aaaaaaaaaaaaaa

Please resubmit your paper following the same steps as before.

Sincerely yours,     

Elaine Moran
JASA Editorial Office
Acoustical Society of America

There’s one link I missed in the references and one in the body. I stick a date in for the one and a footnote with a date for the other. Then, sarcasm takes hold and I add an ironic acknowledgment.  Faster yet again: this time it takes only 40 minutes to click the button.

Stay tuned for the exciting conclusion of this epic.   If it comes back again, will Kochanski be an emotionally broken wreck?  Did he get all his references precisely right?  Would anyone outside the editorial office notice if he didn’t?  Is the progress of science well served by delaying papers from October to March?  Is there another good journal that actually helps its authors?

You know what?  It’s not like an interrogation.  No one is asking me any questions.