Trials and tribulations of a corresponding author

18 June 2014
By Yali Xue

Credit: Shutterstock

Credit: Shutterstock

Imagine this situation: it is your first big paper as corresponding author. You have spent a year or more combining the work of a diverse group of scientists into a great manuscript.

There has been teleconference after teleconference, draft after draft. Finally you send it off to a journal and, after a rather long time, this email comes back:

“apologies for the delay in replying … manuscript has been carefully considered … central findings do not represent a sufficient strength of advance … returning the manuscript so you can submit it to another journal”

The question is, what do you do next? You have three options:

1) Throw the manuscript away and decide you never want to be corresponding author again
2) Wait for an apology email, since it is a really good piece of work, saying that they have obviously made a mistake
3) Moan to your co-authors and send the manuscript straight off to another journal

Probably, you will choose option three. At least, that’s what I did. But, in this case, option two was the right one since there was a follow-up email saying:

“apologize for issuing what was a premature decision … additional editorial comments have come in … willing to send the full manuscript out for review”

Another round of discussions with co-authors followed and we decided to stick with the new journal. At first glance the review seemed to ask for simple revision and we were all quite pleased. However, the comment “I strongly encourage the authors to homogenise their analyses and use a single database”, meant in reality that we had to redo almost all of the project. This was no bad thing, in the end, as we actually uncovered a bug in our calculations.

Eventually, after six months, we sent in a corrected and revised version. Plain sailing then? Not quite, there was something special about this manuscript. To our surprise, we received an email saying:

“Thank you for sending your revised manuscript … We sent the paper to Reviewer #2 for further comment, and I am happy to say that he/she is not very supportive of its publication …”

Happy that the reviewer is NOT supportive? What kind of editor is this, taking perverse pleasure in upsetting their authors? I was almost going to revert to option one from the list above when I discovered, on closer reading that this rejection didn’t quite match the reviewer’s comment, which said:

“… authors have done a good job in addressing my previous concerns. The manuscript is much more clear and robust …”

As it turned out, there was a typo in the email and the reviewer was NOW supportive. So, there was a happy ending after all and I learned two valuable lessons: it is not always simple to be a corresponding author and you should always check your emails to make sure there aren’t any misplaced ts and ws.

Yali Xue is a senior staff scientist in the Human Evolution group at The Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute.

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