Behind the scenes at Nature Reviews Psychology: Synopsis Edition

Think of the synopsis as the architectural plans for the paper: it is easier to correct the plans so that a house is built with the kitchen in a great location than it is to move the location of the kitchen after the house is built.

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Nature Reviews editors are more hands-on than editors at other journals. Before reviewers even lay eyes on the paper the editor will have provided multiple rounds of detailed feedback. In fact, that’s what most of us love about our jobs: working collaboratively with authors to produce the best possible paper on a topic that will be accessible to the broadest possible segment of the journal’s readership. 

However, for most of our authors this will be a new experience. So we want to shed a little light on our process, what we do, and why we believe it helps us publish great papers, in a series of posts that take you behind the scenes of Nature Reviews Psychology.

Today’s installment: synopses 

The most important way we make our articles more accessible is to pay close attention to their structure -- what is the story the article is trying to tell, and how are the authors walking the readers through that story from start to finish? 

Because structure and overall narrative is so important, the first step if an author agrees to write for us is to submit a synopsis, which is basically an outline of the paper: the major headings of the article, with a few sentences/bullet list outlining the key points to be covered and an estimated word count for each section. We also ask for a list of possible display items (figures, tables, text boxes), and in which section they will be cited.

We then provide feedback:

  • Is the presentation logical?
  • Is there anything else that needs to be included?
  • Is there tangential material that should be excluded?
  • Do the display items support and/or enhance the text?

Think of the synopsis as the architectural plans for the paper: it is easier to correct the plans so that a house is built with the kitchen in a great location than it is to move the location of the kitchen after the house is built.

As part of the synopsis, we ask authors to provide a short paragraph that sets out the rationale, scope and structure of the article: Why would the article appeal to a broad readership? What insight will the article offer? The purpose here is not to convince us that we should publish a paper on the topic (we’ve already invited the paper at this point!). Rather, this helps us understand the authors’ perspective on the topic, the angle they think is important, and the key message they want to emphasize.

We can then ask ourselves if the proposed article outline best serves that message. 

For instance, if the aim is to compare two concepts in a literature, is the organization emphasizing that comparison, and making it easy for the reader to extract key similarities and differences? If the main message is that the field needs to do X to make progress understanding Y, is the argument logical, and is it clear how it will be supported by the literature?

Because Nature Reviews Psychology papers are relatively short (~6000 words), we also look at the synopsis with an eye toward streamlining content so that the article remains focused and suited to the scope of the journal. There is obviously A LOT that could be said about depression or attention or moral judgments. But if the aim of the article is to, for example, synthesize the literature on the mechanisms underlying memory deficits in older adults, it’s probably not a good use of space to spend 1000 words describing how memory processes develop in children. Similarly, although there is a great deal of neural evidence that can be brought to bear on the topic of memory deficits, and this material should certainly be included where relevant, we are a psychology not neuroscience journal; we would want to ensure at this point that the balance of coverage of psychological vs. neural mechanisms reflects that.

A skeptical author might question the depth of our involvement at this point. After all, they are the expert on the topic, what do we know? But remember, we aren’t making suggestions about whether the description of the literature is accurate, whether citations are balanced and reflective of the field, or how the results of a particular study should be interpreted -- we leave that to the actual subject experts, the reviewers. Our goal at the synopsis stage is to ensure you have the best possible scaffolding to present the material to those expert reviewers (and, ultimately, the general readership) in the most convincing and compelling way. 

TL;DR: What we are thinking about at the synopsis stage is how the narrative will unfold from the reader’s perspective, where greater clarification or explanation might be needed for non-expert readers, and how the main points could be supported by visuals like schematic illustrations or tables. 

Jenn Richler

Chief Editor, Nature Reviews Psychology

Jenn completed her PhD at Vanderbilt University where her research focused on face and object perception and recognition, learning, attention, and memory. She continued at Vanderbilt as a post-doctoral research associate, during which time she also served as an Associate Editor for Journal of Experimental: Psychology: General and a writer for the American Psychological Association. Jenn joined Nature Climate Change and Nature Energy in 2016 as a Senior Editor handling manuscripts that spanned the behavioral and social sciences. Jenn returned to her psychology roots as the launch Chief Editor of Nature Reviews Psychology in 2021.