NIH Record - National Institutes of Health

‘Cell’ Editor Pulls Curtain Back on Journal's Inner Workings

Cell editor addresses crowd.
Cell editor-in-chief Dr. John Pham speaks at NIAMS.

Photo:  Credit Greg Lavine

As Cell editor-in-chief Dr. John Pham showed pictures of his editorial team on a screen, he asked the conference hall full of researchers to keep in mind that real people are behind the decisions to accept or reject a science paper.

Pham spoke recently at the National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases’ annual Intramural Research Program scientific retreat to offer a glimpse into how the journal Cell operates.    

“I think it is important for us to see each other as actual people and not just names on a manuscript or names on the masthead of a journal,” he noted, “or as ‘reviewer number three’ who has a very bad reputation—nobody seems to like them—but they are somebody I would not have chosen if I didn’t trust their judgement, if I didn’t respect them as a scientist and if I didn’t think they were trying to do something that benefited science.”

Pham joined Cell Press in 2008 as part of the Molecular Cell editorial team and became the publication’s editor-in-chief in 2012. In 2018, he was named the top editor for Cell.

“In our ecosystem, Cell is at the top, so we have a very high bar for what makes it into Cell,” he said. “We are interested in things that are broadly interesting that are not only going to impact the fields that the papers are about but that other people will find interesting.”

The Cell team begins the publication process with editors voting, based on the title and abstract for each incoming paper. Submissions of interest are then assigned to an editor for further evaluation of the full paper, he explained.

For Cell, a succinct title and a strong abstract can help improve a paper’s odds of being published, Pham said. These same factors come into play later when busy readers will spend time to read through a published paper.

“I know you think your work is important,” he said of the abstract, “but the reader has not been working on this for years, doesn’t know all the acronyms, doesn’t know all the background.”

A good cover letter can also boost the chances for a paper to be assigned for review. Pham stressed that authors should avoid repeating the abstract and instead focus on additional information. If your findings are competitive or controversial, mention this in the cover letter.

Cell editor Dr. John Pham speaks at meeting.
Pham says a succinct title and a strong abstract can help improve a paper's odds of being published.

Photo:  Greg Lavine

Papers of interest are assigned to external peer reviewers. Pham said he understands that the competitive world of science research can spark intense emotions as study authors deal with critical reviewer feedback and sometimes outright rejection.

While criticism is often hard to digest, Pham said he hopes authors can view this type of feedback as being potentially helpful.

“Try to see it as a gift, absorb it and try not to take offense,” he said.

For papers in need of work, Cell may send an “open door” rejection that invites significant revisions. Papers with conceptual or technical problems—or both—will receive a hard rejection.

Pham said authors have the right to appeal any type of rejection, but he recommended being judicious. If you think the editorial team or reviewers missed something, you can appeal. But he asked authors to go beyond just arguments.

“You have to add something, either a clarification or specific changes you’re going to add, improvements you’re going to make,” he said.

At the end of the process, papers are not simply judged by adding up the positive and negative reviews. Sometimes a lone reviewer can make or break a paper, even if that person holds the minority view.

“There may be mostly negative reviews and we consider what they say, but we may agree with the more positive review,” he said for some papers that have gone on to appear in Cell.

The NIH Record

The NIH Record, founded in 1949, is the biweekly newsletter for employees of the National Institutes of Health.

Published 25 times each year, it comes out on payday Fridays.

Assistant Editor: Eric Bock (link sends e-mail)

Staff Writer: Amber Snyder (link sends e-mail)