22 November 2012

Academic publishers need better defenders

A new article by Alexander Brown in The Guardian tries to argue that scientific publishers do add value to research manuscripts. But Brown does not help the publishers’ cause.

Let’s see what he lists as services that scientific publishers provide to authors.

Editors help “ensure that research can be universally understood.” By that criteria, editors are failing miserably. I’m a working scientist, and I have problems reading many journal articles in my own field. I have never had a journal editor who has recommended, or made, substantial changes to the text of one of my articles for readability, and particularly not to the point where it could be understood by someone who was not a professional scientist. Any suggestions for improving my manuscripts have come from reviewers, not editors.

Editors help “to recognise emerging fields.” Researchers can do that themselves.

Publishers “create new journals.” That is valuable to publishers, not to authors. There is no shortage of venues to publish in.

Publishers “build and maintain the brands and reputations of journals.” The “brand” of a journal is more valuable to a publisher than an author.

“Developing systems and platforms” to “get the right research into the hands of those who need it most.” And the platforms that I hear most researchers in biology use to find their research are Google Scholar and PubMed, neither of which was created by publishers. arXiv wasn’t created by publishers, either.

Adding metadata, XML generation, and tagging. I’ll spot Brown that one. I love DOI numbers, for instance. But he may be overstating the value. My impression is that if you have machine readable text, just the number of times key words are used in the text will accomplish much of what tags are supposed to accomplish.

Bringing old print archives online. Yes, I’m glad publishers have made their “back catalogue” available. But that is a mainly benefit to scientific readers, not current and future authors.

Depositing works into institutional archives. No publisher has ever even offered to do that for me. I don’t doubt that it happens, but how much does that matter for how many authors?

It’s kind of astonishing that Brown’s listing of ways publishers add value miss almost every major thing that I, as an author, value.

Organizing peer review and fact checking. But there is so little difference in how journals do this, that I think no journal can brag about how much better its reviewing process is. Many entries in Retraction Watch show that journal reviews are often not very thorough. I would love it if there were journals that boasted of having a dedicated fact-checking staff, or advertised that they checked every manuscript for plagiarism, or that routinely sent papers to five authors instead of two, or that guaranteed a 48 hour review turnaround.

Professional typesetting
. Journals do make things prettier than I can do on my own.

Promotion. I have never had a paper that a journal decided was sexy enough to promote. But I see what happens when a Glamour Mag gets behind promoting an article and pushing it to the press. It’s like watching a lion take down a zebra: a display of unfettered power. Seeing a hot article appear again and again over the course of a few weeks shows that this is something that publishers are supremely good at.

Archiving. Institutions do a better job of this than individuals, and publishers have a decent record of this (see “Bringing old print archives online” above). But the fact remains that for profit publishers are not guaranteed to be around forever. Many publishers have been bought up by other companies. Publishers could go bankrupt. Publishers are certainly not the only ones interested in, or charged with, archiving. Google Scholar, PubMed, and university libraries all do this. I am not sure publishers are doing a better job than those entities.

Publishers, if Brown’s giving the best arguments in your favour... you’re in worse trouble than you think.

Lion picture from here.


Ross Mounce said...

Agreed. I read the Guardian piece and thought - is that the best they can do?

It's a supremely weak argument...

Ross Mounce said...

PS Specifically I call bullshit on one of those points:

"Depositing works into institutional archives"

I have it as fact that BMC (owned by Springer) only do this for a select few UK institutions. For my recent co-authored BMC Research Notes paper (I won't plug bother plugging it here), I assumed they would deposit a copy in my institutional repository for me.

They did not and say they cannot for my institution (University of Bath)

So I had to do this *myself*


Only BMC 'members' and 'Open Repository customers' get this service provided for them: http://www.openrepository.com/customers/universities

Bjoern Brembs said...

This is just one in a row of articles where academic publishers try to justify their existence. Every single time they fail like this. This can only mean there is no justification for their existence.

Carl said...

A brilliant commentary. I agree that what is most surprising is the things not listed. It is clear that at least the "top" journals spend significant funds and talent on pimping your pubs to the media, other scientists, etc. And given the resulting uptake in citations, etc that those papers receive relative to an equivalent paper in another journal, the "added value" is quite significant.

But the great irony of the things that are listed is that they could be done so much better. I mean, I have better metadata on my blog than is provided by most publishers. (http://www.carlboettiger.info/2012/10/23/semantic-markup-examples-for-the-lab-notebook.html) Services such as figshare and arxiv give me a permanent doi without giving me a headache about converting my pdf graphs to eps just so they can be rendered into lower-quality pdfs again.

Personally I think publishers could say a lot for their existence that most of the scientific community would agree with, instead of this Guardian piece.

Ed said...

Hi - BMJ and other publishers do check some/all manuscripts for plagiarism - http://blogs.bmj.com/bmj-journals-development-blog/2012/06/12/plagiarism-detection-crossref-crosscheck-and-ithenticate/

I'm from CrossRef so in the "publishers add value" camp and officially neutral about business models - we have all types of publishers - eLife, PeerJ, PLoS, Elsevier - over 3,500 of them. It's an interesting idea that none of them add value but I agree publishers usually don't make the case for what they do very well.

But - if what they do is of so little value then why submit a paper to a journal?

Zen Faulkes said...

Ed, surely you know that the answer to, “Why publish a paper in a journal?” is “Because I want to get tenure, and institutions are too conservative to accept new ways of doing things.”

The answer to “Why submit a paper to a journal?” is like the answer to “Why is there no channel 1 on TV in North America?” The answers to both questions are the results of contingent decisions made in the past.

As science became professionalized in the twentieth century, journals became the standard measure for productivity for achievement, for good reasons that were completely sensible at the time. But how scientists can share information has changed faster than how we measure success for tenure and promotion.

Natural said...

You are right on, as is Mike Taylor in the comments section of the Guardian piece.

I work in the editorial office of a journal published by Springer, and I have a few points about your post.

One is about editors asking for rewrites.

When people say editors - do they mean editors for the publisher - who don't really do editing - or editors as in academics, who do edit. Our handling (expert) editors do make rewriting suggestions as we are based in Japan and have many non native authors. Before they get the papers though, the staff make rewriting suggestions for good but poorly written papers.

What the publisher contributes is copy editing and reference checking once the paper is already revised accepted and submitted. So they actually have little or no say on content of papers.

Regarding depositing a copy in authors institutional repository - Springer may do this for OA journals, meaning you (or your funder) pay a big chunk of the publishing cost.

Thirdly, the last commented asks - "why submit to a journal?" -- its because big publishers have been able to create exclusivity whereby they own and restrict content, top journals. They have lots of market sway in terms of negotiating deals and promotion, so if you want to have an impact you almost need to play by these rules.

One can say that is the benefit they provide but it is really a benefit to themselves.