Submitting to PNAS as a commoner

As PNAS marches into its second century, debate about its idiosyncratic publishing mechanisms is sure to continue,

writes Peter Aldhous in a News Feature in the current issue of Nature. Most of the discussion seems to be about the ‘contributed’ publication track, which makes PNAS look like an old boys’ club:

[S]uccessive editors-in-chief have been dogged by the view that PNAS is a club for academy members. “We want to remove this perception,” says current editor-in-chief Inder Verma […]. The steady growth of direct submissions bears witness to efforts by Verma and his predecessors to make the journal attractive to scientists who are not academy members. (Aldhous 2014)

Hey, they are talking about me! I am not an academy member (not this one, not any other) and, yes, last year it somehow seemed like a good idea to submit a paper to PNAS.

So here is my experience with this journal (N=1 and won’t become larger any time soon):

Being ignored hurts more than being rejected

The sad story starts when the online submission systems asks me this:

Pick three Editorial Board Members you would suggest to examine your article (or see the masthead to identify an appropriate Member.)

Biophysics and Computational Biology is full of protein structure people completely unsuited to judge my work and Systems Biology had only a single editor: Wing Hung Wong.

So I ended up with proposing Wing Wong, Eric Lander and a third person of equal fame I can’t remember anymore.

I can imagine their reaction to seeing my manuscript: “Oh wow, this is so cool! Florian just submitted a paper! I am thrilled! Once I’ve finished jumping up and down I will stop directing broad institutes and make sure Florian’s paper gets the professional editorial service it deserves.”


Basically what happened is that I didn’t hear back from PNAS for weeks. The manuscript was stuck with a PNAS editor, who was trying to hand it over to one of the academic editors – and it seems the ones I had been forced to propose were not so interested after all.

After some weeks I started to send polite requests, whether they had gotten anywhere close to actually deciding whether or not they wanted to send my paper out to review.

I got copy-pasted ‘Sorry for the delay’ emails or was just ignored.

Paper rotting on the editor’s desk

Finally, I sent them an email with the subject “WITHDRAWAL!”:

This is to inform you that we WITHDRAW our submission from pnas.

Our manuscript spent 45 days on an editor’s desk without a decision.

Thus, we can no longer expect professional performance and timely editorial services from your journal.

We do no longer consider the manuscript submitted to pnas and will immediately submit it to another journal.

Very quickly I got a response back:

We secured an Editor for your manuscript over the weekend, and we have started to contact potential reviewers. Please let me know if you would still like to proceed with withdrawing your manuscript.

But I don’t make empty threats. The paper was already submitted somewhere else.

You call that professional ?!?

My papers have been rejected by the best journals, the very best! And I am slowly getting used to it. What I learned from this episode is: being ignored enrages me even more!

The problem is that PNAS chooses to pick editors from their fancy-pants collection of academy members.

This constraint entails many problems: The PNAS members don’t cover all fields, especially new ones like computational biology (unless you mean structural biology), and these famous people are terribly busy.

Unless you are a famous person yourself they might just not bother to look at your stuff.

So it seems PNAS still has a long way to go until they are no longer an old boy’s club.



5 thoughts on “Submitting to PNAS as a commoner

  1. Hi Florian,

    This sounds like an appalling experience. It should not happen and I am far justifying it. However, I see it as a particular facet of a peer review system under a lot strain and with a lot of problems. Having to choose an editor from a limited set is an unfortunate constraint but common to all journals with academic editors, not just to PNAS. Having professional editors may have up-sides, i.e., they are supposed to dedicate all of their work time on handling papers, not running institutions and research groups. However, it also has its own set of downsides. For example, a professional editor is less likely to truly understand your paper or recognize an unsubstantiated comment from a competitor criticizing your paper for no good reason.

    Publishing a paper in a visible place nowadays involves more unfortunate contingencies and biases than it should. It is true that academy members can reduce some of these contingencies for their own papers and we all can think of examples of members who have abused this privilege. They have earned the right to make fools of themselves. However, I can think of many great papers that have been contributed, such as Kinetic proofreading and Sanger DNA sequencing.


    1. Hi Nikolai,

      I am completely fine with having academic editors. But don’t take the superstars, take some people who actually have the time to do the job.

      And I don’t really care if academy members abuse their privilege or not: time, citations and retractions will tell if the papers were good.



  2. Not surprised by your experience. For certain big-name labs, submitting a paper to PNAS is the last resort. That is, young scientists are told after being rejected from Science/Nature and highest-impact-in-field journal to submit to PNAS because papers were guaranteed to be published there. It is no secret that who you know matters immensely to publish in PNAS. At least the names of contributors are public so the world can witness the networks of authors/editors.


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