09 June 2011

The Crustacean Society 2011: Day 3

Today was a short day at The Crustacean Society meeting. Maybe it was so everyone could celebrate World Oceans Day by going to the Waikiki beach?

The morning saw a panel titled, "The Future of Scientific Publishing." Panel members included the editors of Raffles Bulletin of Zoology, Invertebrate Systematics, Journal of Crustacean Biology, Crustaceana Monographs, and a representative from Brill, the publisher of Crustaceana.

All five panelists gave about a 5 minute blurb about changes at the journal. The common features for all of them were:

  • The adoption of going electronic for all stages of the production, though some journals are adopting this more rapidly than others.
  • Fretting about their Impact Factors. One editor mentioned that they were even receiving pressure from libraries to have a high Impact Factor.

That took up almost half the allotted time. This was somewhat unfortunate, given there were lots of questions and comments from the floor. This panel was scheduled for an hour, but could have easily gone twice that.

A little background may help place some of the particular concerns brought up in this panel in context. Many of the people publishing in these journals do taxonomy and systematics and things that often involve naming new species. Thus, they have rules set down by the International Committee on Zoological Nomenclature they have to follow. One of those rules is that a species name must appear on printed paper to be valid. This has probably been a major factor in the slow progress of some of these journals to move to electronic publishing. Shane Ahyong, editor of Raffles Bulletin of Zoology, noted that this rule was up for debate and possible revision. But that doesn't mean the rule will change.

Ahyong said that electronic publication created three main problems. While he was speaking of these particularly in the context of species names, these are obviously concerns across all academic publishing.

  • Anyone can create a journal now. There are concerns that this will mean there will be no assurance of quality control and that “chaos will reign.” (Er, how ordered are things now? Not very.)
  • The long term stability of electronic formats still has to be proven. It is not clear whether PDFs will exist in, say, 2030. (The audience later got a horror story of a long gestating book that has been slowed by repeated changes in word processing formats.)
  • There is a need for texts to be completely unchangeable. People doing naming want to keep want to have a single, definitive record that cannot be altered at any point.

After that, much of the discussion revolved around speed. Speed of review. Speed of the editorial decision. Speed of publication after acceptance. One editor noted that people used to wait a year from acceptance to publication, but that nobody would stand for that now.

Crustacean Society program officer Chris Boyko asked if this emphasis on speed meant that it was possible for a paper to have a decision too rapidly. I mentioned that I didn’t want my paper rejected in eight minutes. (Much laughter to this anecdote.) Chris’s implication was that a good paper and good review couldn’t be knocked out in a few days.

At this point, a graduate student expressed her dislike of PLoS ONE. She said that in her experience, about half the papers in the journal were poor. This surprised me, and I wasn't sure what she meant. I brought up papers like the arsenic life (Wolfe-Simon et al. in Science) and kin selection (Nowak et al. in Nature) which had people saying, “These are flawed and should not have been published.” I thought she might have meant PLoS ONE papers were small or trite, but she said she thought many were not well done on the experimental design end. She apparently thought that there needed to be much stronger filtering and quality control.

Fred Schram, the editor of The Journal of Crustacean Biology, had perhaps an unusual take on the matter. He said, “Don't blame the journal for a bad paper. Don't blame the editor for a bad paper. Don't blame the reviewers for a bad paper. Blame the authors for having the temerity to put up bad research for publication.” (This brought some applause from the audience.) Ultimately, he emphasized, the authors have to take full responsibility for the material. (Of course, this does raise the question of what value reviewers and editors are adding to the process.)

Open access did, of course, come up, but closer to the end of the session, and didn’t get perhaps the airing it deserved. The Brill representative said (which I predicted he would say) that open access articles are downloaded more often, but not cited more. Ahyong said he didn't have any hard data, but did note that his journal's impact factor started going up around the time the journal went to open access.

Related to open access were questions about costs. An audience member asked, “Where does all the money for journals go?” Fred Schram replied that it would take an afternoon to discuss this. (Another indication, perhaps, that the panel session was too short.) The representative from Brill claimed that the average cost to publish a single scientific article was $3,000. This included costs of servers, production staff, and the like. He also pointed out that “for profit” does not mean “no open access.”

This was not a bad panel, but I did not feel I got the glimpse into the future of scientific publishing that the session’s title advertised. It may be that journals in this field are moving particularly slow, because they is being held back somewhat by the rules on species naming. There are bolder, more innovative ideas out there.

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