Firsts: Submitting and revising a journal paper

This post contains the history of my first journal paper, “Multiple Instance Learning with Bag Dissimilarities” (also available via my Research page).  Recently I shared some examples of cover letters and responses to reviewers with people on Twitter, so I thought it would be informative to put it all together in one place, including a timeline of the process and take-home messages. Note that this is not a guide how to write a paper or how to respond to reviewers – but if you are looking for that Dr. Raul Pachego-Vega has lots of resources for this.

On with the story of the paper. The files (draft, original and revised submissions, cover letter, reviewer response) are all  here (.zip), but the post should be readable without them.

Draft to first submission

In my PhD years 1 and 2, I had a few workshop publications which were exploring different aspects of one idea, and it was time to put these results together into a journal paper. I made a first attempt to organize all my ideas in November 2012. This first draft then went through several iterations of discussions and comments with my supervisors. Finally, on the 25th of March 2013 I submitted to TPAMI. I think the plan might have actually been to submit to Pattern Recognition. But as I understood at the time, TPAMI was more impressive to have, and had a faster review process, so it was worth a shot.

When submitting, I did not consider anything else I would need other than the paper, like a cover letter! Therefore my cover letter was very short and uninformative. I only mentioned that the journal paper was based on earlier conference submissions, but not what the differences were. It seemed obvious to me that the journal paper was so different, that I didn’t need to explain this. Of course, after a few days I received an email (I remember having this stomach sinking feeling) that I needed to provide a summary of changes, which I did. It seemed my paper was still under submission – crisis averted!

Take-away: if the paper is based on any conference publications, explain the differences in the cover letter, even if you also do this in the paper

Rejection and another submission

The part about the fast review process was true. On the 5th of June 2013 I received the decision that the contribution was not significant enough for TPAMI. Since my paper wasn’t immediately rejected after submission and actually went to reviewers, I was quite satisfied with this result.

After updating the paper according to the useful comments I could extract from the reviews, on the 26th of June 2013 I submitted the paper to Pattern Recognition. Once again, the submission system caught me by surprise! While I now had a better cover letter, I now also needed to provide a “graphical abstract” and “highlights”.

Take-away: go through the submission system of the intended journal before you actually want to submit there. Another surprise I’ve encountered in other journals is that I could suggest names of reviewers – it is good to think about this beforehand, while you are writing the paper.

Major revision and responding to reviewers

As expected, the review process at Pattern Recognition was a bit slower. On the 23rd December 2013 I received a “reject and resubmit” or “major revision” decision. This was a more hopeful situation than with TPAMI, so I started revising the paper and writing my response.

A useful structure for the response is:

  • reviewer comment (in bold)
  • your response
  • quote from the updated paper which shows your changes (in a different text color)

Take-away: simplify the life of the reviewer, they likely do not exactly remember your paper and do not want to go through the whole thing, switching between the document and the updated paper, to see if their proposed changes have been made.

What I did wrong the first time around, is that I would do the suggested change in the paper and in the response, then would discuss both the paper and response with my supervisors. This was not productive – since they proposed changes to my change, I would have to modify two files!

Take-away: write the response first, include proposed changes in the response, then discuss with supervisors, then add changes to the paper!

Another annoying thing was that in my response I was referring to section numbers and references in the original paper. But since these would get updated (due to new sections or references), I would have to keep changing these by hand in the response. But, it turns out there are LateX packages for this too! See this answer on Stackexchange.

Besides the responses, we added a “cover letter” to the beginning of the response, explaining that we prepared a revision and summarizing the changes made. After a month or so, I submitted the revised paper! I was confused about filling in a “cover letter” text field in the submission system – after all, I now had a whole response to reviewers, that was a cover letter in itself. But I think I just copy pasted “cover letter” from the response, with a comment that detailed responses can be found in response.pdf.

Minor revision and accept!

Then finally, a long-awaited email came on the 20th of June 2014 – “We would be happy to publish your manuscript […] in the journal provided that it is revised in accordance with the enclosed referee comments.”

A minor revision! I remember exactly where I was at the moment – on a camping in Sweden, getting ready to celebrate midsummer. I was walking back from the bathroom to our tent and decided to check my email on my phone, and there it was. I’m pretty sure I jumped and yelled “yes”, or something of the sort. But it was great that I was already at a party, so I could celebrate this event immediately 🙂

Take-away: don’t forget to celebrate!

I sent in the revised version a few days later, and on 21st of July 2014, the paper was accepted, and in early 2015, published. A nice detail is that at the moment the paper was published, it already had a couple of citations – because I uploaded a preprint to arXiV back in 2013. See my blog post about this and a great post by Niko Kriegeskorte if you are still unsure.

Take-away: upload your papers to arXiV

Share your experience

Have you had a very long, or perhaps a very short review process? Surprises you encountered during the submission process? Or do you have any other tips about submitting papers you could share? Please leave a comment below!

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