Q&A with editor Aisha Bradshaw about publishing in the journal Nature Human Behaviour (2023)

I’ve seen several papers recently in the journal Nature Human Behaviour that are likely to be of interest to our readers. A few such examples of papers published in 2022 include:

· The effects of cash transfer programmes on HIV-related outcomes in 42 countries from 1996 to 2019 – Richterman and Thirumurthy

· Socio-economic impacts of scaling back a massive payments for ecosystem services programme in China – Howell

· Experimental evidence on learning using low-tech when school is out – Angrist et al.

· The impacts of remote learning in secondary education during the pandemic in Brazil – Lichand et al.

· Mobile phone data reveal the effects of violence on internal displacement in Afghanistan – Tai et al.

· Exposure to a media intervention helps promote support for peace in Colombia – Bruneau et al.

· Adaptation mitigates the negative effect of temperature shocks on household consumption – Lai et al.

· A systematic review and meta-analysis of the impact of cash transfers on subjective well-being and mental health in low- and middle-income countries – McGuire et al.

I don’t know much about the journal, and so reached out to Aisha Bradshaw, one of the editors, who was kind enough to take part in a Q&A.

  1. Nature Human Behaviour is a young journal, launched in January 2017, and it is only the last couple of years that I really have noticed people tweeting about economics and political science papers published there. Can you tell us a little about your role at the journal, whether this impression of economic and political science work being relatively new at the journal is correct, and what Nature Human Behaviour is looking for in an article? I note for readers that articles have to be less than 5,000 words, which is shorter than many papers in economics and political science, but not that much shorter than the short paper category that many journals are now trying.

As a new journal, Nature Human Behaviour is still growing and evolving in our scope. From the start, we have considered economics and political science to be at the core of our scope. In the earlier years, these fields made up a relatively small portion of the papers we published, given the journal’s origin within the Nature family, which is well-established within the natural sciences but less known within the social sciences. My background is in political science with econometric methods, and since joining the journal in 2018, my main goal has been to expand the pool of high-quality papers we publish in these fields. My hope is that we’ll continue to grow our representation in economics and political science over the years to come!

In terms of what we are looking for in an article, we prioritize important questions of broad interest – research that represents a significant advance for its field and beyond, using strong evidence and robust scientific practices. We define a significant scientific advance in several ways, including both papers that are conceptually novel and papers that test established ideas but provide substantially more (or stronger) evidence than had previously been available. This editorial describes how we evaluate manuscripts in more detail.

Regarding length, our guidelines are likely deceptive regarding the actual length of our published articles. The limit of 5,000 words applies to very specific parts of a paper: those that a general reader would read (the introduction, main results and discussion). There are no word limits on the presentation of the methods, nor on the information included as Supplementary Information. For example, although in a typical economics paper robustness checks would be included within the main text, in our articles they are typically presented as Supplementary Information. The reason for this is to make our published papers accessible not just to economists, but to researchers from other disciplines. However, the overall length and amount of work presented in our papers is no different than the typical paper in economics or political science – it’s the ordering and distribution of information that differs.

Our published papers look very different from the typical paper published in disciplinary journals because of how the same information is presented and distributed among different parts of a paper and its supplementary information. One thing I would emphasize, however, is that we don’t have any formatting requirements for initial submissions. We recognize that submitting a paper comes with administrative burden, and we want to minimize this as much as possible. Please don’t let the word limit be a barrier to submission! We only ask for formatting changes when we invite a revision after peer review, and we do our best to provide clear guidance for how to fit within the constraints of our format (which we realize is quite different from the standard economics paper).

  1. Where do you see the main niche for the journal? That is, what types of economics and political science papers do you hope to attract, and how should authors view the journal compared to other journals in their disciplines?

As a multidisciplinary journal, we are particularly interested in interdisciplinary work and economics papers that address questions relevant to multiple fields. We also prioritize economics papers that address policy-relevant questions and papers that contribute to addressing social challenges, such as work relevant for the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. Although for many people “human behaviour” tends to be associated with individual-level data, we are equally interested in studies on collective behaviour, groups, and human systems. In all cases, we are looking for work that is highly rigorous and represents a substantial advance in knowledge for its field and beyond.

  1. Can you give us an idea of the review process? How many submissions does the journal get each year, what is the acceptance rate and typical time for review? One interesting feature I see is that you publish the peer reviewer comments and authors’ responses to them along with the published article, which I have not seen at other journals. Any thoughts on whether this changes the types of reviews and responses you get, with authors and referees knowing the comments will be public (although still anonymous for the reviewers?)

On average, we receive over 2,500 research manuscripts a year and send out to peer review approximately 10-15% of these manuscripts. Ultimately, over the past few years our acceptance rate has been 4-6%. Turnaround times are published annually on our metrics page.

Transparent Peer Review is a relatively new initiative (launched in December 2019), so we are still learning about its impacts on the review process. Overall, though, we have found it to be a positive step. Our aim is to increase transparency in the process and to highlight the contribution that the peer review process makes to the final form of the paper, while also respecting reviewer and author preferences. Reviewer reports are only published alongside the paper when the authors opt-in to the program (a decision made at the time of acceptance). When we invite reviewers, we inform them of the program and let them know that their comments may be published. This system means that the reviews we receive are likely coming from reviewers already happy with the increased transparency, and some reviewers may simply decline because they do not want their comments to be public. We do give reviewers the option to let us know if transparent peer review is why they are declining an invitation, but we have found that this response has been extremely rare. We do not require that reviewers sign their reviews, which means that, although their comments may become public, their anonymity is preserved. This is important for the candor and quality of the peer review process.

  1. Do you have any pet peeves that you regularly see in submissions or referee reports that you would like authors or reviewers to try to avoid?

In general, I find that authors and reviewers really engage with the process, and I know that each submission and referee report is the culmination of a substantial amount of work. I wouldn’t necessarily say I have any “peeves” about papers or reports, but there are some considerations that can be helpful to keep in mind.

We value research papers that really focus on sound, rigorous science and careful explanations. We tend to frown on stretching the interpretation beyond the results or over-claiming novelty. In fact, before we accept a paper, we ask authors to remove all explicit novelty claims or exaggerated self-evaluative comments from the paper, to let the evidence speak for itself. We described this policy and its rationale in a recent editorial.

In reviewer reports, it’s extremely helpful when reviewers explain why they reach the conclusions they do. Very short reports that simply say a paper is great, or terrible, or not novel, or cutting-edge, or some other general conclusion can be difficult to use editorially. As editors, we don’t simply count reviewer votes to reach a decision. Instead, we weigh up each point and consider how it fits with our editorial criteria and whether it could feasibly be addressed or represents a fundamental flaw. Having an explanation to support reviewer opinions helps us to do this. For instance, if a reviewer points to a specific paper they believe dents novelty, we can use this information to more carefully consider whether or not we feel the contribution is sufficient in light of both this prior paper and other considerations, such as the scale or rigour of the evidence involved.

  1. When should authors consider submitting the paper to Nature instead of Nature Human Behaviour?

Although Nature and Nature Human Behaviour are “sister” journals, each journal in the Nature portfolio is editorially independent. This means that I don’t have as much insider knowledge of their criteria as you might think. However, I can say that overall, Nature aims to publish the most significant advances across all fields of science, while Nature Human Behaviour aims to communicate to the broad, but more focused, disciplines that make up behavioural research. If your study is exceptionally cutting-edge and likely to be of interest to scholars not just in economics and the social sciences but also in the natural sciences, Nature is a great option. If your study is of broad interest within economics and social science, but not necessarily beyond, Nature Human Behaviour would be a strong fit.

I should mention that transfers between journals are also possible. If you submit to Nature, and the editors decide not to send your paper for peer review, they may include a recommendation to transfer to Nature Human Behaviour (or another journal). If you use the link provided, you can port the submission across without having to go through the full submission process again. Authors also have the option to allow (or to forbid) transfer consultations between journals. With author permission, the editors of Nature might consult with us about a paper they plan to reject, to see whether we might be interested in taking it on. In cases where we agree it would be a good fit for us, the editors of Nature can then include an offer of guaranteed peer review (or re-review after a revision) at Nature Human Behaviour.

  1. You also publish other types of content, such as resources (which I understand could be introducing a new large dataset), reviews, and perspectives. Do these tend to be largely solicited manuscripts, or mostly from unsolicited submissions. Any advice for people interested in publishing one of these types of content for economics or political science?

We do have several formats, and we’d encourage authors to explore options beyond standard research articles. As you noticed, Resource Articles are papers that introduce very large datasets or other tools that would allow other scholars to address a variety of research questions. Examples would be the Oxford COVID-19 Government Response Tracker and CoronaNet datasets, which systematically code government policy responses to the pandemic to allow application to a wide variety of research questions. Resources are part of our “back half” section, and we consider them to be primary research. Any interested researcher is welcome to submit a Resource manuscript for consideration for publication in the same way as other research papers.

In our “front half”, or magazine section, we feature content types that don’t present primary research results, but instead discuss topics of interest to our audience. This section includes narrative Reviews, long-form Perspectives, shorter Comments, and more personal-perspective World Views and Correspondences. The large majority of pieces in this section are editorially commissioned. However, we welcome unsolicited submissions. If you already have a full manuscript prepared, we would recommend simply submitting via our online submission system, as this will allow us to carefully consider the work without adding delays. However, if you have not yet written the paper and would like to discuss an idea, you can email us at [emailprotected] with a presubmission enquiry, and we can provide guidance as to whether we feel that the full piece would be likely to meet our criteria for further consideration.

7. What is the journal’s stance on working papers? Are authors allowed to release working papers before submission? Is there an embargo at all?

Nature Human Behaviour supports preprints/working papers, and we are happy for authors to post working papers prior to submission. In keeping with our embargo policy, we ask that authors do not discuss their accepted contribution with the media prior to the confirmation of a publication date. Of course, preprints are often covered in the media, and we do not prohibit this. Coverage in the media also does not affect editorial decisions to publish or not. However, we discourage authors from directly soliciting media coverage of preprints while their work is under consideration at Nature Human Behaviour, and we may take prior coverage into account when deciding whether or not to press release a paper.

8. Anything else you’d like potential authors to know?

I’d just like to emphasize that we are keen to grow our economics content, including in development economics. We’re always very happy to answer questions, so please do feel free to get in touch! You can find contact information for myself and all the editors on our website.

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