Friday 3 January 2014

A New Year's letter to academic publishers

My relationships with journals are rather like a bad marriage: a mixture of dependency and hatred. Part of the problem is that journal editors and academics often have a rather different view of the process. Scientific journals could not survive without academics. We do the research, often spending several years of our lives to produce a piece of work that is then distilled into one short paper, which the fond author invariably regards as a fascinating contribution to the field. But when we try to place our work in a journal, we find that it's a buyer's market: most journals are overwhelmed with more submitted papers than they can cope with, and rejection rates are high. So there is a total mismatch: we set out naively dreaming of journals leaping at the opportunity to secure our best work, only to be met with coldness and rejection.  As in the best Barbara Cartland novels, for a lucky few, persistence is ultimately rewarded, and the stony-hearted editor is won over. But many potential authors fall by the wayside long before that point.

But times are changing. We are moving from a traditional "dead tree technology" model, where journals have to be expensively printed and distributed, to electronic-only media. These not only cost less to produce, but also avoid the length limits that traditionally have forced journals to be so highly selective. Alongside the technological changes, there has been rapid growth of the Open Access movement. The main motivations behind this movement were idealistic (making science available to all) and economic (escaping the stranglehold of expensive library subscriptions to closed-access journals). It's early days, but I am starting to sense that there's another consequence of the shift, which is that, as the field opens up, publishers are starting to change how they approach authors: less as supplicants, and more as customers.

In the past, the top journals had no incentive to be accommodating to authors. There were too many of us chasing scarce page space. But there are now some new boys on the open access block, and some of them have recognised that if they want to attract people to publish with them, they should listen to what authors want. And if they want academics to continue to referee papers for no reward, then they had better treat them well too.

This really is not too hard to do. I have two main gripes with journals, a big one and a little one. The big one concerns my time. The older I get, the less patient I am with organizations that behave as if I have all the time in the world to do the small bureaucratic chores that they wish to impose on me. For instance, many journals specify pointless formatting requirements for an initial submission. I really, really resent jumping through arbitrary hoops when the world is full of interesting things I could be doing. And cutting my toenails is considerably more interesting than reformatting references.

I recently encountered a journal whose website required you to enter details (name/address/email) of all authors in order to submit a pre-submission enquiry. Surely the whole point of a pre-submission enquiry is to save time, so you can get a quick decision on whether it's likely to be worth your while battling with the submission portal! There's also the horror of journals that require signatures from all authors at the point when you submit a manuscript: seems a harmless enough requirement, except that authors are often widely dispersed - on maternity leave or sailing the Atlantic - by the time the paper is submitted. The idea is to avoid fraud, of course, but like so many ethics regulations, the main effect of this requirement is to encourage honest, law-abiding people to take up forgery.

Oh, and then there are the 'invitations to review' (makes it sound so enticing, like being invited to a party), which require you to login in order to register your response – which for me invariably means selecting the option that I have forgotten my password, then looking at email to find how to update the password, meanwhile getting distracted by other email messages so I forget what I was doing, and eventually returning to the site to find it wants me now to change the password and enter mandatory contact details before it will accept my response. Well, no.  I'm usually a good citizen but I'm afraid I've just stopped responding to those.

You'd think the advent of electronic submission would make life easier, but in fact it can just open up a whole new world of tiny, fiddly things that you are required to do before your paper is submitted. Each individual thing is usually fairly trivial, but they do add up. So, for instance, if you'd like your authors to suggest referees, please allow them to paste in a list. DO NOT require them to cut and paste title, forename, initial, surname, email and institution into your horrible little boxes for each of six potential referees.  It all takes TIME. And we have more important things in life to be getting on with. Including doing the science that allows us to get the point of writing a paper.

Even worse, some of the requirements of journals are just historical artefacts with no more rationale than male nipples.  Here's a splendid post by Kate Jeffery which in fact was the impetus for this blogpost. I thought of Kate when, having carefully constructed a single manuscript document including figures, as instructed by the Instructions for Authors, I got to the submission portal to be strictly told that ON NO ACCOUNT must the figures be included in the main manuscript. Instead, they had to be separated, not only from the manuscript, but also from their captions (which had to be put as a list at the end of the manuscript). This makes sense ONCE THE PAPER IS ACCEPTED, when it needs to be typeset.  But not at the point of initial submission, when the paper's fate is undecided: it may well be rejected, and if not, it will certainly require revision. And meanwhile, you have referees tearing their hair out trying to link up the text, the Figures and their captions.

The smaller gripe is just about treating people with respect. I do have a preference for journal editors whose correspondence indicates that they are a human being and not an automaton. I've moaned about this before, in an old post describing a taxonomy of journal editors, but my feeling is that in the three years since I wrote that, things have got worse rather than better. Publishers and editors may think they make their referees happy by writing and telling them how useful their review of a paper has been – but the opposite effect is created if it is clear that this is a form letter that goes to all referees, however hopeless.It is really better to be ignored than to be sent an insincere, meaningless email - it just implies that the sender thinks you are stupid enough to be taken in by it.

So my message to publishers in 2014 is really very simple. The market is getting competitive and if you want to attract authors to send their best work to you, and referees to keep reviewing for you, you need to become more sensitive to our needs.  Two journals that appear to be trying hard are eLife and PeerJ, who avoid most of the bad practices I have outlined. I am hoping their example will cause others to up their game. We are mostly very simple souls who are not hard to please, but we hate having our time wasted, and we do like being treated like human beings.


  1. I couldn't agree more.

    You are right that newer open access publishers do MUCH better. My recent experience as an author with and has been excellent. A simple, streamlined submission process that only required simple author details, a single document manuscript and straightforward referee recommendation process. In both cases it was over so quickly that i was left in a daze wondering if had missed a dozen steps somewhere.

    Just highlights how unfriendly, inefficient and anachronistic the traditional process is.

  2. Elsevier’s David Tempest explaining subscription-contract confidentiality clauses makes interesting viewing - check:

  3. This makes sense ONCE THE PAPER IS ACCEPTED, when it needs to be typeset. But not at the point of initial submission, when the paper's fate is undecided: it may well be rejected, and if not, it will certainly require revision. And meanwhile, you have referees tearing their hair out trying to link up the text, the Figures and their captions. academic journal

  4. I invite you to also take a look at F1000Research. We launched early 2013 and have a scientist-friendly submission system, and a unique peer review model where referee comments and names are published alongside the article as they come in (and papers are published prior to passing peer review)

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