Thursday, March 22, 2012

A case study in getting published

I was pleased to learn this week that my paper on hydrogen bonding has been accepted for publication in Chemical Physics Letters. I believe this may be one of the most significant papers I have written. Time will tell...

The paper has an "interesting" history. Six months ago I sent the paper with the title Unified description of hydrogen bonding and proton transfer by a two-state effective Hamiltonian to Physical Review Letters. I chose PRL because I thought the paper was significant and it approached the problem from a physicist's point of view, putting simplicity and physical insight before chemical detail. However, based on one brief referee report, an Adjunct Associate Editor rejected the paper. I wrote a rebuttal and resubmitted it. You may find the rebuttal interesting reading as it highlights what I consider to be some fundamental issues about what is good and novel science, particularly of complex chemical systems.

I was optimistic because I thought my rebuttal was persuasive [what do you think?] and I have a long track record of publishing in PRL. A few times with PRL I have received two negative reports, rebutted them, and eventually got the paper into PRL. However, the Adjunct Associate Editor would not give the paper further consideration. I found this rather disappointing.

I then gave the paper the more modest, specific, and technical title A diabatic state model for donor-hydrogen vibrational frequency shifts in hydrogen bonded complexes and sent it to Chemical Physics Letters. It received two detailed, helpful, and positive referee reports. Although one of referees still thought along the lines of "this is so simple surely someone must have done it before."


  1. PRL can not reject an appeal request. This is against their official policy. Every author has the right for two rounds of refereeing plus one appeal. So the story sounds unusual.

  2. One of the biggest problems with PRL now is the lack of due process in the refereeing. Sometimes a paper goes to one referee, sometimes to 2, sometimes to 3. Sometimes after a reply is made, it goes back to different referees who have a different sent of concerns. Sometimes one round of reports is allowed. Sometimes multiple rounds. I had a paper published in PRL recently that had 3 rounds of replies written to almost all different sets of referees and the editor each time. Etc. etc. It's almost a completely random walk...

    Of course one is always going to get referee reports that one disagrees, but with PRL now, it is the complete lack of feeling that there are standard procedures being followed that is starting to frustrate people.

  3. I think it's amusing (and disappointing) that the referee found the results sufficiently simple and interesting that they'd go well in a textbook, but not PRL. Don't textbooks take the cream? You have done well to write something new which can be described as such.

    I agree with Peter, the lack of consistency with PRL can be very frustrating, and is so time consuming.

  4. Sir, below also may seem noteworthy to read.