On publications

 It can’t have escaped the notice of most readers that there is currently a rather major rumble going on in the world of scientific publishing. Huge numbers of blog posts, editorials, tweets, and more are going on about quite what researchers should and shouldn’t do with their work and with regards to their interactions with various publishing houses and the knock-on effects of access to research for the reader.

If you’ve not been keeping up or are not familiar with the general set-up for publishing papers I’ll try and give this the briefest of introductions. In short as a researcher once you have completed your work, you’ll need to get it published in a journal if people are going to read it. That means submitting it to a journal where an editor will read it and select referees. They’ll report back to the editor who’ll sift the results and send them to you. You’ll make corrections and send it back and hopefully it’ll go to publication if it’s deemed good enough for the journal.

So much so simple (well, over simplified). What is causing the stir is that in most cases when you give your work to the journal, they aren’t just publishing it for you, but you sign the copyright of the work over to them. In short, you do all the work and they then sell the papers onto people who want to read it, potentially including the university or museum you’re already working for… This to many doesn’t seem right or fair and in the internet age researchers are in a position to complain and organise and do something about it.

The battle, such as it is, is ongoing. I’ve not been drawn on this before as, while I do have some strong opinions, it’s largely not the kind of thing I want to blog about on here. What is relevant to this blog however is the process involved from the perspective of the academic. While I have written a couple of posts before about the mechanics of writing and reviewing papers, I wanted to provide more of a summary of everything that a researcher can end up doing in the chain to publication.

Obviously I’ve published my fair share of papers both as a lead or sole author and co-author across a variety of platforms. I’ve also been an editor for volumes of papers produced by museum journals, and I’m an editor for a ‘mainstream’ palaeo journal with one of the big publishers. I’ve also reviewed dozens of papers over the years for all kinds of books and journals, at least 50 or so and probably much more though I’ve never kept a close count. In short, I’ve seen things from all sides a good few times each. What I’m putting down here is purely from my own experiences and while it therefore certainly anecdotal, I don’t think it’s anything other than entirely normal. I’m not complaining or criticising it, just saying what I have done and experienced. I think that’s worth adding to the mix.

As a researcher I come up with the ideas for papers. I do the research. At the moment that includes doing things on my own time and money, though before it’s been (mostly but not always) covered by a grant or my employers. I do the work, write the paper, format it, create the figures and the rest. I don’t get any help with any of this from the journal at any point. Indeed oddly enough quite a lot of effort can go into formatting and arranging things to the very exacting specifics they require, even if the paper is later rejected or even if the journal itself doesn’t print things in that format (yes, really, they make you format things to a standard for them to read them but which they will change later if they ever do print it). The odd journal still requires you to submit multiple hardcopies which are not necessarily cheap to print or post. I get no pay for this and typically (but no, not always) hand over the copyright of the work. One journal did send me free issues for a year for publishing with them, but in a lot of cases I don’t even get access to my own paper at the journal and in more than a few cases I’ve never even gotten a free PDF of my own work. Rarely am I even informed if something has been printed, and on more than one occasion things have been done against my express wishes (e.g. publication of advanced un-proofed copies of papers).

As an editor I take papers submitted, read them, check them and pick referees. I send the papers to the referees and ask for their comments, hassling them where necessary. When the reviews are back I collate them and make a decision and send them comments out to the authors. There may be further dialogue with the authors, referees or other editors. When the corrections come back I need to check them again against the referee’s comments before making a decision. Speaking for myself, I don’t get paid for any of this, and nor have I had any training or received any benefit from doing the job (like access to other journals in the care of the publishers) or copies of the journal itself.

As a referee I take on papers to read and review. Some can be very long, or complex or just badly written and require a lot of time devoted to them (one I recently reviewed twice was about 150 manuscript pages with about 50 figures as well). I might even have to read other papers too and check analyses etc. in addition to writing the actual report. I don’t get paid for this. I don’t get free copies of the paper when it comes out or (most of the time) even notification it’s been published.

Those are all the things I do with regards to publishing a paper and are therefore in the main what I think happens to a typical palaeontology paper with regards to the input from academics. The main thing the journal does is actually format and arrange the words and images into their own format and to proofread it. Don’t forget though that I’ve already formatted much of the manuscript (titles, numbered headings, reference formatting) and scaled images etc. according to their layouts and I often have to correct errors introduced by the journal (generic names have a nasty habit of becoming un-italicised). Oh yeah, and they will eventually publish it and of course send it out to subscribing libraries, museums, universities, societies and individuals and sticking it up online so people can find it.

So what do I generally get out of this? Well as an author, a paper in a journal, hopefully a good one that will (theoretically at least) enhance my reputation, and with luck a free PDF. As a referee, I get to see things in advance of publication (assuming the get published of course) and I know I’m doing a job of helping keep science on an even keel (however small the role). As an editor I see what’s going on and can generally get access to these and other papers in the journal, and hopefully influence and improve the devlopment of the journal. That is, however, about it. Certainly a good paper in a good journal will help my profile and can count for things in research reviews and the like and it can be worth a lot, but it’s still no guarantee that the people who need to see my paper will or even can.

The trade off does therefore vary enormously from journal to journal with the prestige of the journal, the access it grants to others, the promotion it gets, and the ease and help that can accompany the submission and review process (some are far more tortuous than others, some are blessed with excellent editors, others cursed). However, I think most would note that for many journals it does seem like they get an awful lot (all my time, efforts, the actual science itself since I give them the copyright) for not a huge amount in return (it gets published and many, but not all people can see it). Of course how this affects individuals and institutes can only really be talked about in a case-by-case basis (what is this paper worth in this journal?) but based on my own experiences I can’t help thinking that in the future I should be more selective about what I do with my work once it is finished and before I formally hand it over. In my mind the trade off is certainly worth it in some cases, but far from all.

4 Responses to “On publications”


  1. 1 Robert A. Sloan 23/03/2012 at 4:30 am

    This is an interesting point.

    Respectable journals offer oversight and fact checking. I guess that’s their value to readers.

    I didn’t understand the way all this publication is going unpaid. I thought that authors who published in major journals got their rights back after first serial rights and got a good First Serial Rights payment for their work.

    I can see why there’s such a big controversy. Life’s simpler for a science fiction writer – I just have to be consistent with myself and try to stay abreast of the facts. I’ll get paid or decide to support a publication that can’t afford to pay for my own personal reasons.

    This explains a lot of my father’s job and why he needed to teach for a living when he was doing so much important work.

  2. 2 Mark Robinson 23/03/2012 at 3:17 pm

    Frankly, Dave, I don’t envy you one bit in this regard. I don’t have anything to do with academic publishing but I still find myself to be slightly annoyed by the gross unfairness, nay, immorality of it all. Don’t get me started on companies like Evilseer lobbying members of US congress to tip the balance even further in their favour.

    I think that biol. people could prob benefit from something like what the maths & physics guys have in arXiv. In the meantime you could try only publishing in open access journals and limiting how much free work you do for these transnational conglomerates (or you could charge them for your time!).

    • 3 David Hone 23/03/2012 at 3:24 pm

      Which is nice *in theory* but (and it’s a related but somewhat independent problem) grants bodies, universites etc. do want to see you publish in high profile journals. No matter what you think of them, a paper in Nature or Science will do more for you than say Vertebrate Palasiatica.

      So as I said, for me *personally* I have to try and be more selective, but I can’t afford to rule out anything that’s not OA. It could (only in theory admittedly, but why take the chance) be career suicide.

      • 4 Mark Robinson 24/03/2012 at 3:24 am

        I know, it’s a toughie. I understand the potential career implications – that’s why I don’t envy your position. It’s fine to burn all your bridges if you’re happy to remain on that side of the river and deal with whatever comes.

        There is considerable inertia in academia so things won’t change any time soon, but hopefully those who are in a position to be more “radical” can move the goalposts sufficiently to start the ball rolling towards publishing utopia (whatever that may mean).


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