04 June 2014

1,017 days: when publishing the paper takes longer than the project

At. Last.

Long ago, in a distant land, I, Zen, a sand crab biologist, unleashed an NSF grant for undergraduate research upon my department. And students applied to this.

In the third REU cohort, Jessica Murph (pictured) ended up working with me. Jessica was looking for a project that involved field work. She asked just at the right time, because I’d been digging up the local sand crab species (Lepidopa benedicti) for a while. I realized how little we knew about the basic biology. People would ask me things like, “How long to they live? What do they eat?” And I’d say, “No idea.”

Because I wasn’t trained as an ecologist, I couldn’t quite figure out how to go about studying the basics of a little animal that was completely concealed in the sand. Ultimately, my former colleague Anita Davelos Baines gave me the idea of digging transects. As long as we did it consistently, we might be able to get some meaningful information.

I asked Jessica to start collecting sand crabs for her REU project. She did, and between her efforts and mine, we got a year’s worth of data, which took her out to the end of her time with the REU program.

I compiled all her data, and was getting ready to write it up and submit it... but I balked. It’s that gut instinct you have to develop as a researcher about whether your own papers are ready. I knew that if I was reviewing this paper, I would say, “One year of data is not enough.” So I continued making monthly trips and collecting sand crabs myself for another year.

Then, I submitted the manuscript to what I thought would be an appropriate journal. This was regional natural history kind of stuff, and fortunately, there is exactly a regional journal dedicated to just such research: The Southwestern Naturalist.

When I mentioned this to one of my colleagues, he groaned a little and said, “They take forever.” I sort of shrugged and said, “I’m not in a hurry.” It’s not as though I am worried about getting scooped on this project: ecology of an obscure species of digging crustacean? Not exactly a “hot” research field. But in retrospect, I wish I had checked the “submitted” and “accepted” dates in a recent issue more closely.

I submitted the paper on 22 August 2011. No, that is not a typo.

When I finally got the page proofs, it chafed my chaps to see the “submitted” date at the end of the paper: “26 September 2011.” Apparently, nobody even looked at this manuscript for over a month.

I got my reviews back on 24 May 2012. That’s nine months there. I sent back the revision one week later, and I hadn’t thought the revisions were that major.

Time passes. Sound of crickets chirping.

My patience ran out around the ten month mark (we’re at February 2013 now). I emailed the associate editor about the status of my manuscript. He emailed me back to say:

I am no longer an editor for the Southwestern Naturalist.

I was gobsmacked. It seemed to me that a logical thing to do when an editor leaves would be to email the authors for correspondence to say, “This person is leaving; please direct your inquiries on your manuscript to this editor.”

I finally heard back that the article has been recommended for publication, and should appear in the December 2013 issue of the journal. This made me happy, because I thought it would be out by the end of the year, and I hadn’t had a lot of papers out in 2013.

In early November, I get an email that I should get page proofs for my article in January... which is already after December, dashing that hope that the article would be out before the end of the year.

With all that’s happened so far, I suppose I should not have been surprised that, having been told to expect proofs in January, I actually get them mid March. I sent them back quickly, in hope that the December, 2013 issue might be out around the end of March, 2014.

In the waiting time between when the paper was supposed to be published and when it actually was published alone, I submitted articles to three other journals, had them accepted, and proofed. I’m not trying to boast here, just contrasting my experience with this journal with others.

The paper has finally seen the light, and it has taken substantially longer to get this article through the editorial and production process (2.75 years) than it did to collect the data and write the paper (two years). I should have seen this coming, because the journal does list the initial submission and acceptance dates. But even those dates underestimate the publication time. My “received” date was a month after I submitted, and the publication date on the cover of the issue, December 2013, was months before the issue actually hit the web.

And, by the way, did I mention that there was a $320 page charge for all of this? And it’s a paywalled subscription journal, with no open access options?

Speaking of costs, I got an email on 19 May 2014 allowing me to order reprints. The paper still wasn’t available on the journal website, but I thought it was at least a promising sign that it hadn’t been forgotten. I clicked on the link, and was stunned to see this part of the ordering form:

They wanted $69.68 from me so that I could have a PDF of my own paper. I had never had a journal want to charge me for a PDF before.

I was also stunned to see that a copy on CD would be more than another $10, when the cost of a blank CD from Staples can be as little as 18 cents. It feels like a money grab. And I can’t remember the last PDF I needed or wanted in CD format. And why would you need a DVD (another $13) for a single journal article PDF?

The paper was finally available online on 4 June 2014. That’s 1,017 days – or two years, nine months, and thirteen days from submission to publication.

This whole process has soured me on submitting to some of these niche journals. That is a shame.

I submitted this article to The Southwestern Naturalist because it seemed to be the most appropriate journal for the paper. I see value in topical journals; it makes things easier to find. I think many researchers have certain journals they check regularly. But after this experience, I think I would have been much better off submitting this paper to PLOS ONE or PeerJ or a similar venue.

Except... wait, PeerJ didn’t exist when I submitted this paper. With publications like PeerJ, journals like The Southwestern Naturalist are going to be in trouble soon.

I feel bad for the staff at The Southwestern Naturalist. They clearly don’t have enough resources. I don’t know whether they don’t have enough people, enough pages, or something else, but these time frames are not signs of a healthy scientific journal. And, as I said, I do think journals like this can serve an important purpose! I want to support the journal. I do.

I’m pleased that the paper is out. Because of this paper, my co-author, Jessica, is more excited and positive looking back on her research experience now than she was when she was doing the work, I think. It gaves me a chance to add another UTPA success story to the REU Bio website. And it is the first to provide any sort of basic ecology for any species in this family. It’s a cute little paper. I love it for what it is: a little natural history on organisms that only a few people in the world care about.

But it’ll be a long time before I think more about the science in the paper than the frustrations and delays in publishing the paper.

Additional, 11 June 2014: The printed copy of the journal arrived today, which is reasonably quickly following the online publication.

Additional, 28 April 2016: I got an email today from the president of Southwestern Naturalists:

On the publication front, [the editors] are well on their way to getting The Southwestern Naturalist back on track. It is anticipated that by the end of 2016, we will be back to our normal publication schedule of 4 issues a year mailed in March, June, September, and December. HOWEVER, we need your help. It seems that some authors have shied away from submitting manuscripts to The Southwestern Naturalist over the past year or so because it was behind in publication. This is no longer the case, so I encourage you to consider submitting to the SWAN and I hope you will pass that word that The Southwestern Naturalist is back!


Murph JH, Faulkes Z. 2013. Abundance and size of sand crabs, Lepidopa benedicti (Decapoda: Albuneidae), in South Texas. The Southwestern Naturalist 58(4): 431-434. http://dx.doi.org/10.1894/0038-4909-58.4.431

(And yes, I’m annoyed to have to put that 2013 date in the citation when we’re months into 2014.)

External links

Never go against your gut
Some Things Last A Long Time


Jessica Murph said...

I know you did the bulk of the work when it comes to the publishing, writing, and well just about everything. But I do not regret the experience at all and I really don't think you do either. I have a whole new respect for the species and for the area or research so lightly called "field work". If I could go back I would do it all over again.

Zen Faulkes said...

No, of course I don't regret the work! While I'm not happy with how long it took, I am pleased with the result.