March highlights from the world of scientific publishing

An update on what I learnt from Twitter last month: dodgy citation metrics, mislabelled papers and journals and more.

Metrics

A wonderful Perspective piece appeared in the open access journal mBio entitled Causes for the Persistence of Impact Factor Mania. Here, Arturo Casadevall (Editor in Chief of the journal) and Ferric C. Fang treat the misuse of the journal impact factor as if it were a disease and suggest possible causes and treatments. They diagnose the main problem as: “Publication in prestigious journals has a disproportionately high payoff that translates into a greater likelihood of academic success” and that these disproportionate rewards “create compelling incentives for investigators to have their work published in such journals. ” Their solutions are not new but worth reading. (via @PeppeGanga)

A less useful post was a widely shared news feature in the Pacific Standard: Killing Pigs and Weed Maps: The Mostly Unread World of Academic Papers. This gave an interesting look at citation analysis, but it started with a rather dodgy statistic:

A study at Indiana University found that “as many as 50% of papers are never read by anyone other than their authors, referees and journal editors.” That same study concluded that “some 90% of papers that have been published in academic journals are never cited.”

This ‘study’ turns out to be a feature in Physics World from 2007 by Indiana University Librarian Lokman I Meho, in which these numbers are simply asserted, with no citation and no data to back them up. Yoni Appelbaum (@YAppelbaum) pointed out a paper by Vincent Larivière and Yves Gingras on arXiv that effectively debunks these numbers. I also found a paper from 2008 whose Discussion section cites various studies on the proportion of uncited papers – which ranges from 15% to 26% for scientific and mathematical research papers, but was much higher in the social sciences (48% uncited) and humanities (93% uncited). So the situation isn’t as bad as the Pacific Standard made out, unless you are in the humanities.

Open access

The Wellcome Trust, the UK’s largest provider of non-governmental funding for scientific research, released a dataset on Figshare of the fees paid in the 2012-13 financial year for open access publication (APCs). @ernestopriego posted an initial analysis, @CameronNeylon posted a tidied up version of the dataset and @petermurrayrust and Michelle Brook (@MLBrook) initiated a crowdsourced attempt to check whether all the articles paid for were actually made open access by their publishers. The resulting spreadsheet will continue to be used for checking whether any paid open access papers are being wrongly marked as copyright of the publisher, or being put behind a paywall, or being given a link to payment for a licence to reproduce or reuse (anyone can help with this if they wish). Peter Murray-Rust has identified some examples where these errors have been made, which seem to be mostly from Elsevier, and this prompted Elsevier to post an explanation of why this is taking so long to fix (they were alerted the problem two years ago, as Mike Taylor has explained). 

Richard Poynder (@RickyPo) pointed me to a post on Google+ by David Roberts about changes in the APCs of Elsevier maths journals. Some have been pegged to small annual increases, others have gone up 6-8%, while one has had its APC reduced by 30%. The latter just happens to be the journal for which the editorial board threatened to quit in protest at Elsevier’s continuing lack of sufficient support for open access. The APCs are generally between US$500 and US$5000. In response to this, Ross Mounce (@rmounce) pointed out that Ubiquity Press (@ubiquitypress), whose APCs are US$390, have given a full breakdown of what the APC pays for. @HansZauner asked why all publishers can’t do the same, but this seems unlikely to happen.

It was also Richard Poynder who tweeted a very useful guide to choosing an open access journal, produced by Ryerson University Library & Archives in Canada. This gives a series of tests to see whether a journal is likely to be reputable rather than a ‘predatory’ journal, including membership of OASPA, journal metrics, peer review procedure and editorial board membership. @BMJ_Open pointed out that the page implied that double blind peer review was the most widely accepted standard. The page has now been changed, perhaps in response to this comment, to say “Take into consideration that blind peer review and open peer review are both considered a credible standard for scientific publishing.”

Other open access and open data news:

  • @WoWter posted an analysis of how much it would cost the Netherlands to convert completely to gold open access.
  • The Directory of Open Access Journals (@DOAJplus) published a new application form that all journals must fill in to apply to be in the database. This includes a ‘DOAJ Seal’ that indicates the openness, indexability and discoverability of the journal. (via @MikeTaylor).
  • PLOS published an update and clarification of their open data policy, following the debates that I covered last month.
  • David Crotty wrote a good summary of the debate about PLOS’s open data policy for the @ScholarlyKitchn.
  • A new service called JournalClick was announced, which gives recommendations for open access papers to read based on what you have read (via @RickyPo).
  • A German court has ruled that the Creative Commons non-commercial (CC:NC) clause means that the material is only for personal use, so even state-owned radio stations with no advertisements, for examples, are not permitted to use CC:NC material without permission (via @petermurrayrust).
  • Duke University
    Scholarly Communications Officer, Kevin Smith

    Scholarly Communications Officer Kevin Smith (@klsmith4906) posted about two problems with Nature Publishing Group licencing: they have recently started to require Duke authors to request a formal waiver of their faculty open access policy, and their licence to publish requires the author to waive or agree not to assert their moral rights.  @grace_baynes of Nature responded in a comment.

  • @damianpattinson of PLOS posted a report of an interesting talk entitled ‘The future is open: opportunities for publishers and institutions’ that he and his colleague Catriona MacCallum (@catmacOA) gave at the UKSG conference ‘Open Access Realities’ in London in November 2013.

New journals

The IEEE launched its new journal, IEEE Access, which claims to be an open access megajournal and was listed as one that was ‘coming soon’ in Pete Binfield (@p_binfield)’s December 2013 post on megajournals. However, the FAQ makes clear that in fact the authors are required to sign over copyright to the publisher, and reuse is not allowed, although the papers are free to read online. A discussion with @MattJHodgkinson and @BenMudrak clarified the situation for me. Matt pointed out that the Budapest Open Access Initiative FAQ says “Open access journals will either let authors retain copyright or ask authors to transfer copyright to the publisher”. So copyright transfer is allowed within open access, but restricting all reuse means that this journal should not be called an open access journal. IEEE Access also doesn’t conform to the standard definition of a megajournal, as the FAQ states “IEEE Access will publish articles that are of high interest to readers, original, technically correct, and clearly presented.” Megajournals do not select on the basis of perceived ‘interest’, so this is not a megajournal.

Other developments

  • I haven’t kept up fully with the controversy surrounding the publication of a new method (called STAP) to produce stem cells that was published in Nature in January. Paul Knoepfler’s stem cell blog (and @pknoepfler) is the place to go for full updates, but I was concerned to read that Nature has declined to publish a ‘Brief Communication Arising’ reporting that the method does not work. It seems important to me that such follow-ups should be published in the same journal as the original paper.
  • Jocelyn Sze (@jocelynesze) pointed me to a series of 2012 articles in Frontiers in Computational Neuroscience on visions for the future of scientific publishing. This editorial by Nikolaus Kriegeskorte introduces the series.

February highlights from the world of scientific publishing

Some of what I learned about scientific publishing last month from Twitter: new open access journals, data release debates, paper writing tips, and lots more

New journals

Two important announcements this month, both of open access sister journals to well established ones.

First, at the AAAS meeting it was announced that Science is going to have an online-only open access sister journal, called Science Advances, from early 2015. This will be selective (not a megajournal), will publish original research and review articles in science, engineering, technology, mathematics and social sciences, and will be edited by academic editors. The journal will use a Creative Commons license, which generally allows for free use, but hasn’t decided whether to allow commercial reuse, according to AAAS spokeswoman Ginger Pinholster. The author publishing charge hasn’t yet been announced.

Second, the Royal Society announced that, in addition to their selective open access journal Open Biology, they will be launching a megajournal, Royal Society Open Science, late in 2014. It will cover the entire range of science and mathematics, will offer open peer review as an option, and will also be edited by academic editors. Its criteria for what it will publish include “all articles which are scientifically sound, leaving any judgement of importance or potential impact to the reader” and “all high quality science including articles which may usually be difficult to publish elsewhere, for example, those that include negative findings”; it thus fits the usual criteria for a megajournal in that it will not select for ‘significance’ or potential impact.

These two announcements show that publishers without an open access, less selective journal in its stable are now unusual. Publishers are seeing that there is a demand for these journals and that they can make money. Publishers also see that they can gain a reputation for being friendly to open access by setting up such a journal. This also means that papers rejected by their more selective journals can stay within the publisher (via cascading peer review), which, while saving time for the authors by avoiding the need to start the submission process from scratch, also turn a potential negative for the publisher (editorial time spent on papers that are not published) into a positive (author charges). The AAAS has been particularly slow to join this particular bandwagon; let’s see if the strong brand of Science is enough to persuade authors to publish in Science Advances rather than the increasingly large number of other megajournals.

PLOS data release policy

On 24 February, PLOS posted an updated version of the announcement about data release that they made in December (and which I covered last month). I didn’t pay much attention as the change had already been trailed, but then I had to sit up and take notice because I started seeing posts and tweets strongly criticising the policy. The first to appear was an angry and (in my opinion) over-the-top post by @DrugMonkeyblog entitled “PLoS is letting the inmates run the asylum and this will kill them”.  A more positive view was given by Michigan State University evolutionary geneticist @IanDworkin, and another by New Hampshire genomics researcher Matt MacManes (@PeroMHC). Some problems that the policy could cause small, underfunded labs were pointed out by Mexico-based neuroscience researcher Erin McKiernan (@emckiernan13). The debate got wider, reaching Ars Technica and Reddit – as of 3 March there have been 1045 comments on Reddit!

So what is the big problem? The main objections raised seem to me to fall into six categories:

  1. Some datasets would take too much work to get into a format that others could understand
  2. It isn’t always clear what kind of data should be published with a paper
  3. Some data files are too large to be easily hosted
  4. The concern that others might publish reanalyses that the originators of the data were intending to publish, so they would lose the credit from that further research
  5. Some datasets contain confidential information
  6. Some datasets are proprietary

I won’t discuss these issues in detail here, but if you’re interested it’s worth reading the comments on the posts linked above. But it does appear (particularly from the update on their 24 February post and the FAQ posted on 28 February) that PLOS is very happy to discuss many of these issues with authors that have concerns, but analyses of proprietary data may have to be published elsewhere from now on.

I tend to agree with the more positive views of this new policy, who argue that data publication will help increase reproducibility, help researchers to build on each other’s work and prevent fraud. In any case, researcher who disagree are free to publish in other journals with less progressive policies. PLOS is a non-profit publisher who say that access to research results, immediately and without restriction, has always been at the heart of their mission, so they are being consistent in applying this strict policy.

Writing a paper

Miscellaneous news

  • Science writer @CarlZimmer explained eloquently at the AAAS meeting why open access to research, including open peer review and preprint posting, benefit science journalists and their readers.
  • Impactstory profiles now show proportion of a researcher’s articles that are open access and gives gold, silver and bronze badges, as well as showing how highly accessed, discussed and cited their papers are.
  • A new site has appeared where authors can review their experience with journals: Journalysis. It looks promising but needs reviews before it can become a really useful resource – go add one!
  • An interesting example of post-publication peer review starting on Twitter and continuing in a journal was described by @lakens here and his coauthor @TimSmitsTim here.
  • Cuban researcher Yasset Perez-Riverol (@ypriverol) explained why researchers need Twitter and a professional blog.
  • I realised when looking at an Elsevier journal website that many Elsevier journals now have very informative journal metrics, such as impact factors, Eigenfactor, SNIP and SJR for several years and average times from submission to first decision and from acceptance to publication. An example is here.
  • PeerJ founder @P_Binfield posted a Google Docs list of standalone peer review platforms.

January highlights from the world of scientific publishing

Some of what I learned last month from Twitter: new journals, new policies and post-publication reviews at PLOS, and some suggestions for how journals should work.

New journals

Three new journals have been announced that find new and very different ways to publish research. The most conventional is the Journal of Biomedical Publishing, a journal aiming to publish articles about publishing. It will be open access (with a low fee of 100 Euros) and promises only 2-4 days between acceptance and online publication. The journal has been set up by four Danish researchers and is published by the Danish Medical Association. One of them, Jacob Rosenberg, will present a study of where articles about publishing were published in 2012 at the forthcoming conference of the European Association of Science Editors.

A journal that goes further from the conventional model is Proceedings of Peerage of Science, a journal for commentaries associated with the journal-independent peer review service Peerage of Science. The journal will publish commentaries on published research, mostly based on open reviews of papers that have been generated as part of Peerage of Science. These will be free to read [edited from 'open access' following comments below], but there is no fee to the author – on the contrary, the authors of these commentaries will potentially receive royalties! Anyone who values a particular commentary or the journal as a whole can become a ‘public patron‘ and donate money, some of which will go to the author of that commentary. I will be watching this innovative business model with interest.

Finally, it is difficult to tell whether @TwournalOf will be a serious journal, but it certainly claims to be: a journal in which the papers each consist of a single tweet. ‘Papers’ are submitted by direct message, and the journal is run by Andy Miah (@andymiah), professor in ethics and emerging technologies at the University of the West of Scotland. I wondered (on Twitter of course) how this would work given that you can only send someone a direct message if they follow you. The answer came immediately: the journal will follow everyone who follows it. One to watch!

Developments at PLOS

Two announcements by Public Library of Science caught my eye this month. The first was actually in December but I missed it at the time and was alerted to it recently by @Alexis_Verger: PLOS have released a revised data policy (coming into effect in March) in which authors will be required to include a ‘data availability statement’ in all research articles published by PLOS journals. This statement will describe the paper’s compliance with the PLOS data policy, which will mean making all data underlying the findings described in their article fully available without restriction (though exceptions will be made, for example when patient confidentiality is an issue). This is another step in the movement towards all journals requiring the full dataset to be available. I hope other journals will follow suit.

The other announcement was about a post-publication review system called PLOS Open Evaluation. This is currently in a closed pilot stage, but it sounds like it will finally provide the evaluation of impact that the founders promised when they set up PLOS ONE to publish all scientifically sound research. Users will be able to rate an article by their interest in it, it’s article’s significance, the quality of the research, and the clarity of the writing. There is also the opportunity to go into more detail about any of these aspects.

How journals should work

The New Year started off with an open letter from Oxford psychology professor Dorothy Bishop (@deevybee) to academic publishers. She points out a big change that has happened because of open access:

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.

Bishop urges journal publishers to make things easier for authors and reviewers, such as by not forcing them through pointless hoops when submitting a paper that might still be rejected (a choice quote: “…cutting my toenails is considerably more interesting than reformatting references”). She calls out eLife and PeerJ as two new journals that are doing well at avoiding most of the bad practices she outlines.

Later in the month Jure Triglav (@juretriglav), the creator of ScienceGist, showed what amazing things can be done with scientific figures using modern internet tools. He shows a ‘living figure’ based on tweets about the weather, and the figure continuously updates as it receives new data. Just imagine what journals would be like if this kind of thing was widely used!

Finally, this month’s big hashtag in science was #SixWordPeerReview. Researchers posted short versions of peer reviews they have received (or perhaps imagined). Most of the tweets were a caricature of what people think peer review involves (perhaps understandably for a humorous hashtag), and a few people (such as @clathrin) pointed out that real peer review can be very constructive.

F1000Research did a Storify of a selection, taking the opportunity to point out the advantages of open peer review at the same time. Some of my favourites were:

@paulcoxon: “Please checked Engilsh and grammar thoroughly” (actually happened)

@girlscientist: Didn’t even get journal name right. #SixWordEditorReview

@McDawg: Data not shown? No thank you

December highlights from the world of scientific publishing

Some of what I learned last month from Twitter: takedowns, luxury journals, moves in peer review services and more.

‘Luxury journals’

A big talking point on my Twitter feed in December was the provocative comments about journal publishing made by Randy Sheckman as he received his Nobel Prize for Physiology and Medicine. Writing in the Guardian on 9 December, he criticised the culture of science that rewards publications in ‘luxury journals’ (which he identified as Nature, Cell and Science). He said “I have now committed my lab to avoiding luxury journals, and I encourage others to do likewise.” Although many applauded this, some pointed out that more junior researchers may not have the freedom to do likewise, and also mentioned Schekman’s potential conflict of interest as Editor-in-Chief of the new, highly selective journal eLife, which aims to compete for the best research with these journals (some responses are summarized by Stephen Curry). Schekman responded to the criticisms in a post on The Conversation, and suggested four ways in which the research community could improve the situation.

Elsevier steps up takedown notices

Subscription journals generally require the author to sign a copyright transfer agreement that, among other things, commits them not to share their paper widely before any embargo period has passed. It appears that in December Elsevier decided to increase their enforcement of this by sending takedown notices to sites where Elsevier papers were posted. Guy Leonard described what happened to him and the reaction on Twitter and elsewhere.

Various peer review developments

Jeremy Fox (@DynamicEcology), a population ecologist at the University of Calgary, explained why he likes the journal-independent peer review service Axios Review (and is joining their editorial board).

Publons, which gives researchers credit for post-publication peer review, announced that researchers can now also get credit for their pre-publication peer reviews for journals.

Wiley announced a pilot of transferable peer review for their neuroscience journals, in which reviews for papers rejected from one journal can be transferred to another journal in the scheme, thus saving time.

F1000Research announced that its peer reviewed articles are now visible in PubMed and PubMed Central, together with their peer reviews and datasets. Articles on F1000Research are published after a quick check and then peer reviewed, and indexing by PubMed and PubMed Central happens once an article has a sufficient number of positive reviews.

Jennifer Raff, an Anthropology Research Fellow at the University of Texas at Austin, published “How to become good at peer review: A guide for young scientists“, a very useful and comprehensive guide that she intends to keep updated as she receives comment on it.

Miscellaneous news

Jeffrey Beall, a librarian who has been curating a useful list of ‘predatory’ open access journals for several years, revealed his antagonism to open access as a whole in an article that surprised many with its misconceptions about the motivations of open access advocates. PLOS founder Mike Eisen has rebutted the article point by point. Although I feel that Beall’s list is still useful for checking out a new journal, it should be taken only as a starting point, together with a detailed look at the journal’s website, what it has already published, and its membership of the Open Access Scholarly Publishers Association (OASPA).

James Hayton (@JamesHaytonPhD) wrote a great post on his 3 Month Thesis blog on the seven deadly sins of thesis writing, which should also all be avoided in paper writing: lies, bullshit, plagiarism, misrepresentation, getting the basics wrong, ignorance and lack of insight.

Finally, I was alerted (by @sciencegoddess) to a new site called Lolmythesis, where students summarize their thesis in one (not always serious) sentence. Worth a look for a laugh – why not add your own?

November highlights from the world of scientific publishing

Some of what I learned this month from Twitter: new preprint server, Google Scholar Library, papers on citations and p-values, and the most networked science conference ever

BioRxiv

In what could be a major development in the culture of publishing, a preprint server for biology, BioRxiv, was launched this month. It is based on the long-running arXiv preprint server used by physicists (and increasingly quantitative biologists). Nature News had a good summary.

Google Scholar Library

Google Scholar have launched a new service, Google Scholar Library (h/t @phylogenomics). This is meant to be a way to organize papers you read or cite, so it could be a competitor to reference managers such as Mendeley and Zotero. However, it doesn’t seem to be fully set up for citing papers yet: you can import into BibTeX, EndNote, RefMan and RefWorks (but not Mendeley or Zotero) or get a single citation in just MLA, APA or Chicago style.

“Top researchers” and their citations

Two papers of particular interest this month: the first actually came out in late October and is entitled “A list of highly influential biomedical researchers, 1996–2011” (European Journal of Clinical Investigation; h/t @TheWinnower). The paper, by  John Ioannidis and colleagues (who also published the influential “Why Most Published Research Findings Are False” paper), sorted biomedical authors in Scopus by their h-index and total citations and listed various pieces of information for the top 400 by this measure. I found this interesting for several reasons, including:
  • It gives a feeling for what makes a high h-index: of over 15 million authors, about 1% had an h-index of over 20, about 5000 over 50 and only 281 over 80.
  • It shows how different sources of citation data can give different h-indices for the same author (see Table 3 in the paper; as pointed out by @girlscientist)

The paper is limited by its reliance on citation data and the h-index alone, so should not be taken too seriously, but it is worth a look if you haven’t already seen it.

p-values vs Bayes factors

The second is a paper in PNAS by Valen Johnson (covered by Erika Check Hayden in Nature News) suggested that the commonly used statistical standard of a p-value less than 0.05 is not good enough – in fact, around a quarter of findings that are significant at that level may be false. This conclusion was reached by developing a method to make the p-value directly comparable with the Bayes factor, which many statisticians prefer. As I’m not a statistician I’m not in a position to comment on the Bayesian/frequentist debate, but it is worth noting that this paper recommends a p-value threshold of less than 0.005 to be really sure of a result. A critical comment by a statistician is here (via @hildabast).

SpotOn London

Finally,  the main event of November for me was SpotOn London (#solo13), a two-day conference on science communication: policy, outreach and tools. This is one of the most connected conferences you can imagine: every session was live-streamed, the Twitter backchat was a major part of the proceedings, and many people followed along and joined in from afar. The session videos can all be viewed here.
For me four sessions were particular highlights:
  • The keynote talk by Salvatore Mele of CERN. This was not only an accessible explanation of the search for the Higgs Boson, and of the importance of open access and preprint publishing in high energy physics, but also a masterclass in giving an entertaining and informative presentation.
  • The discussion session Open, Portable, Decoupled – How should Peer Review change? (Storify of the tweets here)
  • The discussion session Altmetrics – The Opportunities and the Challenges (summary and some related links from Martin Fenner here)
  • A workshop I helped with, on rewriting scientific text using only the thousand mostly commonly used words in the English language (report by the organiser, Alex Brown, here)

Highlights from the scientific publishing world in October

A summary of the key things I have learned this month via Twitter: stings, harrassment and post-publication peer review.

You may have noticed that this blog is not updated very often, but that my Twitter feed is updated several (sometimes many) times a day. I have decided to to bring some highlights of this Twitter activity to my blog, so that those of you who (for some strange reason) aren’t on Twitter can get the benefit of all the interesting things I learn there every day. Of course, this summary will focus on scientific publishing and related fields. This may become a regular blog feature.

The biggest news early in October was the ‘sting’ published in Science by John Bohannon, which showed that some disreputable journals will accept even an obviously bad fake paper. There have been many, many posts and articles about this, which are listed in Zen Faulkes (@doctorzen)’s list. A few I found most insightful are:

  • A pair of two posts by @neurobonkers, the first giving a good overview and the second classifying the journals included in the sting into those that accepted or rejected the fake paper with or without peer review.
  • This post by journal editor Gunther Eysenbach, who rejected the paper. He says “It is foolish to extrapolate these findings of a few black sheep publishers and scammers… to an entire industry. This would be as logical as concluding from Nigerian wire fraud emails that all lawyers who take a fee-for-service are scammers!”
  • The suggestion by Zen Faulkes that the fake paper could be a good resource for teaching how to write a paper.

Then there was the big scandal around sexual harassment in the science writing community, which has now led to the resignation of Scientific American’s blog editor, Bora Zivovic. An overview in the Guardian science blog by Alice Bell (@alicebell) gives the low-down and this post by Jennifer Ouellette (@JenLucPiquant) is one of the more insightful on the issues.

And then PubMed launched a commenting system, PubMed Commons. This is so important that I am going to blog about it separately.

A few other interesting things:

  • The Economist published a special series of articles on science, including a long overview of the issues, including the problem of reproducing results and publishing replications, important statistical issues, fraud, retractions and peer review (including the Science sting).
  • This post by Pat Thomson (@thomsonpat) drives home the importance of the ‘take home message’ in your paper.
  • I was directed to this amazing comprehensive guide to making a conference poster, by Colin Purrington, by @deevybee and others.
  • Open Access Week ran from 21 to 27 October. The most notable related article was in the Guardian by Peter Suber: Open access: six myths to put to rest.
  • The Chemistry journal ACS Nano published an editorial suggesting that allegations of fraud in a paper should be dealt with in private by the journal concerned, not discussed openly on blogs. Blogger Paul Bracher (@ChemBark) disagrees.

Submission to first decision time

Having written previously about journal acceptance to publication times, it is high time I looked at the other important time that affects publication speed: submission to first decision time. As I explained in the previous post, the time from submission to publication in a peer reviewed journal can be split into three phases, the two discussed previously and here and also the time needed for the authors to revise, which the journal can’t control.

A survey of submission to first decision times

I have trawled through the instructions to authors pages of the journals in the MRC frequently used journal list, which I have used in several previous posts as a handy list of relatively high-impact and well known biomedical journals. I’ve used the list as downloaded in 2012, and there may be new journals added to it now. I’ve omitted the review journals, which leaves 96.

From these pages I have tried to find any indication of the actual or intended speed to first decision for each journal. For many journals, no information was provided on the journal website about average or promised submission to first decision times. For example, no Nature Publishing Group, Lancet, Springer or Oxford University Press journals in this data set provide any information.

However, of these 96 journals 37 did provide usable information. I have put this information in a spreadsheet on my website.

20 promised a first decision within 28 or 30 days of submission. 12 others promised 20-25 days. Of the rest, two are particularly fast, Circulation Research (13 days in 2012) and Cellular Microbiology (14 days); and one is particularly slow, Molecular and Cellular Biology (4 to 6 weeks, though they may just be more cautious in their promises than other journals). JAMA and Genetics are also relatively slow, with 34 and 35 days, respectively. (Note that the links here are to the page that states the time, which is generally the information for authors.)

A few journals promise a particularly fast for selected (‘expedited’) papers but I have only considered the speed promised for all papers here.

I conclude from this analysis that, for relatively high-impact biomedical journals, a first decision within a month of submission is the norm. Anything faster than 3 weeks is fast, and anything slower than 5 weeks is slow.

Newer journals

But what about the newer journals? PeerJ has recently been boasting on its blog about authors who are happy with their fast decision times. The decision times given on this post are 17, 18 and 19 days. These are not necessarily typical of all PeerJ authors, though, and are likely to be biased towards the shorter times, as those whose decisions took longer won’t have tweeted about it and PeerJ won’t have included them in their post.

PLOS One gives no current information on its website about decision times. However, in a comment on a PLOS One blog post in 2009, the then Publisher Pete Binfield stated that “of the 1,520 papers which received a first decision in the second quarter of 2009 (April – June), the mean time from QC completion to first decision was 33.4 days, the median was 30 days and the SD was 18.” He didn’t say how long it took from submission to ‘QC completion’, which is presumably an initial check; I expect this would be only a few days.

Kent Anderson of the Scholarly Kitchen asked last year “Is PLOS ONE Slowing Down?“. This post only looked at the time between the submission and acceptance dates that are displayed on all published papers, and it included no data on decision dates, so the data tell us nothing about decision times. In a series of comments below the post David Solomon of Michigan State University gives more data, which shows that the submission to acceptance time went up only slightly between early 2010 and September 2011.

The star of journals in terms of decision time is undoubtedly Biology Open. It posts the average decision time in the previous month on its front page, and the figure currently given for February 2013 is 8 days. They say they aim to give a first decision within 10 days, and their tweets seem to bear this out: in June 2012 they tweeted that the average decision time in May 2012 had been 6 days, and similarly the time for April 2012 had been 9 days.

Other megajournals vary similarly to ordinary journals. Open Biology reports an average of 24 days, Cell Reports aims for 21 days, and G3 and Scientific Reports aim for 30 days. Springer Plus, the BMC series, the Frontiers journals, BMJ Open and FEBS Open Bio provided no information, though all boast of being fast.

What affects review speed?

If newer journals are faster, why might that be? One possible reason is that as the number of submitted papers goes up, the number of editors doesn’t always go up quickly enough, so the editors get overworked – whereas when a journal is new the number of papers to handle per editor may be lower.

It is important to remember that the speed of review is mainly down to the reviewers, as Andy Farke pointed out in a recent PLOS blog post. Editors can affect this by setting deadlines and chasing late reviewers, but they only have a limited amount of control over when reviewers send their reports.

But given this limitation, there could be reasons for variations in the average speed of review between journals. Reviewers might be excited by the prospect of reviewing for newer journals, so they are more likely to be fast. This could equally be true for the highest impact journals, of course, and also for open access journals if the reviewer is an open access fan. Enthusiastic reviewers not only mean that the reviewers who have agreed send their reports in more quickly, but also that it will be easier to get someone to agree to review in the first place. As Bob O’Hara pointed out in a comment on Andy Farke’s post, “If lots of people decline, you’re not going to have a short review time”.

A logical conclusion from this might be that the best way in which a journal could speed up its time to first decision would be to cultivate enthusiasm for their journal among the pool of potential reviewers. Building a community around the journal, using social media, conferences,  mascots or even free gifts might help. PeerJ seem to be aiming to build such a community with their membership scheme, not to mention their active Twitter presence and their monkey mascot. Biology Open‘s speed might be related to its sponsorship of meetings and its aim to “reduce reviewer fatigue in the community”.

Another less positive possible reason for shorter review times could be that reviewers are not being careful enough. This hypothesis was tested and refuted by the editors of Acta Neuropathologica in a 2008 editorial. (Incidentally, this journal had an average time from submission to first decision of around 17 days between 2005 and 2007, which is pretty fast.) The editorial says “Because in this journal all reviews are rated from 0 (worst) to 100 (best), we plotted speed versus quality. As reflected in Fig. 1, there is no indication that review time is related to the quality of a review.”

Your experience

I would love to find (or even do) some research into the actual submission to first decision times between different journals. Unfortunately that would mean getting the data from each publisher, and it might be difficult to persuade them to release it. (And I don’t have time to do this, alas.) Does anyone know of any research on this?

And have you experienced particularly fast or slow peer review at a particular journal? Are you a journal editor who can tell us about the actual submission to first decision times in your journal? Or do you have other theories for why some journals are quicker than others in this respect?

SpotOn London session: The journal is dead, long live the journal

I’m co-hosting a workshop at SpotOn London next week on the future of journals.

It’s time to end a long blogging hiatus to tell you about an exciting event coming up on Sunday 11 and Monday 12 November. SpotOn London (formerly called Science Online London) is a community event hosted by Nature Publishing Group for the discussion of how science is carried out and communicated online. There will be workshops on three broad topic areas – science communication and outreach, online tools and digital publishing, and science policy – and I am involved in one of the ‘online tools and digital publishing’ ones. This has the title ‘The journal is dead, long live the journal‘ and it will focus on current and future innovations in journal publishing. If you’re interested in how journals could or should change to better meet the needs of science, this is for you!

In this one-hour session we will have very short introductions from four representatives from different parts of the journal publishing world:

  • Matias Piipari (@mz2), part of the team behind Papers software for finding an organising academic papers
  • Damian Pattinson (@damianpattinson), Executive Editor of PLOS ONE
  • Davina Quarterman, Web Publishing Manager at Wiley-Blackwell
  • Ethan Perlstein (@eperlste) of Princeton University

We will then open the floor to contributions from participants, both in the room and online. We hope to cover three themes:

  1. Megajournals; their impact on the journal and on how papers are going to be organised into journals. Will megajournals lead to a two tier marketplace of high end journals and a few megajournals, with mid-tier journals disappearing from the market altogether?
  2. How do we find the papers of interest, in a world where journal brand doesn’t help? In a world where issues disappear, and researchers’ main point of contact with the literature is through aggregation points such as Google Scholar and Pubmed, what are the signifiers that we can build or support that will enable researchers to find the content that they need?
  3. Once you get down to the paper, are there any innovations that we should be using now, at the individual paper level, and what are the barriers to us doing this?

Science Online events have a tradition of being more than just conferences – they aim to involve lots of people outside the room via the SpotOn website and Twitter as well as those in the room. So although the conference itself is sold out (though there is a waiting list for tickets), you can still follow along and get involved before, during and after the event itself. This session is at 4.30pm on Sunday 11 November, so look out on the Twitter hashtag #solo12journals around then. Beforehand, you can comment on co-host Ian Mulvany’s blog post introducing the session, look at the Google Doc that shows the thought processes the organisers went through in planning the session, check for tweets on the hashtag, and follow me (@sharmanedit), Ian (@ianmulvany) and co-host Bob O’Hara (@bobohara) and/or the speakers on Twitter for updates.

One the day, comments from Twitter will be moderated and introduced into the discussion in the room by Bob, who will be doing this remotely from Germany. The whole session (and all other SpotOn London session) will be live-streamed (probably here) and the video will be available afterwards; there will also be a Storify page collecting tweets using the #solo12journals hashtag.

This interaction with those outside the room is important because with only an hour there is a limit to the depth with which we will be able to cover the range of issues around journals. With online discussion as well we hope that more points can be discussed in more detail than would otherwise be possible. It might get a little confusing! I am new to this format, so I am slightly apprehensive but also excited about the possibilities.

Thoughts on megajournals

I am particularly interested in the aspect of the session on megajournals and how they are changing journal publishing. By megajournals we mean all the journals that have been set up to publish papers after peer review that assesses whether the research is sound but doesn’t attempt to second-guess the potential impact of the work. Some, like PLOS ONE, are truly mega – they published over 13,000 papers in 2011. Others, like the BMC series from BioMed Central, probably publish a similar number of papers but divided into many journals in different subject areas. Others have been set up to be sister journals to better known selective journals – for example, Scientific Reports from Nature Publishing Group and BioOpen from The Company of Biologists. All are open access and online only.

Some of these journals are now showing themselves not to be the dumping ground for boring, incremental research that they might have been expected. When PLOS ONE’s first impact factor was revealed to be over 4, there was surprise among many commentators. The question is now whether papers that are unlikely to be accepted by the top journals (roughly speaking, those with impact factors over about 10, though I know that impact factor is a flawed measure) will gradually be submitted not to specialist journals but to megajournals. The opportunity to get your paper seen by many people, which open access publishing provides, could often outweigh the benefits of publishing in a journal specific to your specialist community where your paper will be seen by only that community. I will be very interested to hear people’s thoughts on this issue raised by this session.

Get involved

So do comment using one of the channels mentioned above. Have you recently made a decision about where to send a paper that you knew wasn’t one for the top-flight journals, and did you decide on a specialist journal, a megajournal or some other route to publication? Regarding the other two themes of the session, how do you find papers in your field, and what do you want research papers to look like?

Crowdsourcing information about journals

Crowdsourced surveys of the experience of authors with journals are useful, but I have found only a few. For now, I propose a simpler survey of information gleaned from journal websites.

I was recently alerted by @melchivers (via @thesiswhisperer) to the existence of a blog by SUNY philosopher Andrew Cullison (@andycullison) that includes a set of journal surveys for the field. As Cullison explains in an overview post, the surveys consist of Google Docs spreadsheets, one for each journal, and a form interface that academics fill in with data on their experience of submitting to that journal. The information requested includes:

  • the time taken for initial review
  • the initial verdict of the journal (acceptance, rejection, revise and resubmit, conditional acceptance, withdrawn)
  • the number of reviewers whose comments were provided
  • an assessment of the quality of the reviewers’ comments
  • the final verdict if the paper was revised
  • the time from acceptance to publication
  • an overall rating of the experience with the editors
  • Some basic demographic data

This survey covers 180 journals in philosophy. The data is collated and various statistics are calculated, such as the average review time and acceptance to publication time and the average acceptance rate. Here are couple of examples: the British Journal of Philosophy of Science and Philosophy of Science.

This kind of survey could be a valuable resource for authors in a particular field who are trying to choose a journal. They are crowdsourced, so they do not rely on only one or a few people to gather data. They also provide real data on how fast journals are in practice, which might differ from the statistics or promises provided on journal websites. However, they have limitations: as pointed out in comments below one of Cullison’s posts, they suffer from reporting bias. This is important given that for many of the journals surveyed there are fewer than ten responses.

I haven’t seen any surveys like this in any other field of academia, and certainly none in biology or medicine. I would be very interested to hear if others have seen any. In biology a similar survey would probably only be useful if divided up into smaller fields, such as plant cell biology or cardiovascular medicine. Or it could focus only on the general journals that cover large areas of science, biology or medicine.

A simpler journal survey

Alternatively, or as a first step towards full surveys of journals in biomedicine, a crowdsourced survey of the information presented on journal websites could be useful. This could include information such as the promised submission to first decision time and acceptance to publication time, licensing details (copyright, Creative Commons and so on), charges, article types and length limits. This would involve only one small dataset per journal, which could fit on a single line of a spreadsheet rather than data for individual papers, so would be more manageable than Cullison’s surveys.

I have made a start on such a survey, and you can find it on Google Docs here. I have used the same set of 98 journals, derived from the UK Medical Research Council  list of journals popular with MRC authors, that I used for my open access charges spreadsheet. For every journal, the spreadsheet now contains the name of the publisher, the main journal URL, the URL for the instructions for authors, whether the entire journal is open access or not, and whether there is an open access option. There are also columns for the following information: what the website says about acceptance to publication time; whether the accepted, non-edited manuscript is published online, and what the website says about submission to first decision time. I have filled in some of these fields but haven’t yet checked all the websites for all this information.

The spreadsheet is editable by anyone. I realise that this risks someone messing up the data or adding spam text. For the columns that I don’t want you to change, I have included a partial safeguard: these columns are pulled in from a hidden, locked sheet of the spreadsheet. Please try not to delete data in any cells – just add data in empty cells. If you have any other suggestions for how to allow information to be added but not deleted, or otherwise to avoid problems, please add a comment below.

Now it’s your turn

Would you like to contribute information to this survey? If so, please go ahead and edit the spreadsheet.

If you could publicise it that would be great too.

And do you have any comments on this process, suggestions for improvement and so on?

Other questions

Have you used Cullison’s surveys and found them useful (or less useful)? Have you come across any surveys like the philosophy one for other fields? Or like my survey?

New peer review platforms

A quick post this week. I have been thinking of writing about the various companies that have sprung up offering peer review for scientific papers that are independent of journals. But I don’t need to: Jason Priem (@jasonpriem) has done it already.

He has posted a Google document with a list of these services, which anyone can edit. I have added two that I have come across: Sympoze and PaperRater, in addition to the ones already listed (PubUp, The Third Reviewer, Arxiliv, PaperCritic, Peerage of Science,TiNYARM,annotatr, Peer Evaluation and Faculty of 1000).

Jason has also included a list of publishing portals built around post-publication review, which currently includes just F1000 Research and WebMed Central.

Why not have a look at the document, and edit it if you know any more about these services or any similar ones?

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