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

How to read journal instructions for authors

Journal editors often complain that few authors seem to read their instructions for authors. But journals don’t make it easy to read these instructions. Every publisher has its own way of displaying the instructions, with differences in the wording for the same thing, in the order in which information is presented and in how the information is split over web pages.

I’m going to attempt to bring some order to the chaos by picking out the points that really matter. These are:

  • Subject areas
  • Threshold for significance
  • Article types
  • Policies
  • Length limits
  • Article format for submission

There are also some things that nearly all journals require, which I’ll summarise at the end.

Scope

The most important thing to read when you are considering whether to submit to a particular journal is what subject areas it covers. This aspect is pretty straightforward, although it is the only area covered by most commercially available tools for choosing a journal, such as Edanz’s Journal Selector and JANE.

One important aspect to consider, however, is how broad a subject area you would like the journal to cover. If your study will be of interest to readers in more than one field, you will probably want an interdisciplinary journal that covers both fields.

Threshold

There is generally some statement in the instructions for authors or elsewhere in the journal information about the impact, significance or interest threshold. This can be written in all sorts of ways. For example:

  • Nature requires that articles “are of outstanding scientific importance” and “reach a conclusion of interest to an interdisciplinary readership”
  • Blood takes into account “the originality and importance of the observations or investigations, the quality of the work and validity of the evidence”
  • Cell says “The basic criterion for considering papers is whether the results provide significant conceptual advances into, or raise provocative questions and hypotheses regarding, an interesting biological question.”

‘Megajournals’ include a statement that the journal does not select on the basis of perceived impact or significance. For example:

  • PLOS ONE says “PLOS ONE will rigorously peer-review your submissions and publish all papers that are judged to be technically sound. Judgments about the importance of any particular paper are then made after publication by the readership”
  • Frontiers says “Review editors focus on certifying the accuracy and validity of articles, not on evaluating their significance”
  • Scientific Reports says “Referees and Editorial Board Members will determine whether a paper is scientifically sound, rather than making judgements on novelty or whether the paper represents a conceptual advance.”
  • Biology Open focuses on “publication of good-quality sound research without a requirement for perceived impact”.

If you choose a selective journal rather than a megajournal, it is important to consider carefully whether your study is likely to reach their stated threshold. Get a colleague in another field to read your title and abstract and give an honest view of how groundbreaking they think it is compared with papers in various possible target journals.

You are likely to be biased towards finding your own work fascinating; never forget that editors and reviewers won’t share this view.

Article types

The instructions always include a list of the types of article that the journal publishes. Your paper must fit one of the article types and must follow the instructions for that type (especially regarding length limits).

What I call a research paper can be called by a variety of different names:

  • Original article
  • Original research
  • Research report
  • Primary research
  • Article
  • Letter

The word ‘Letter’ is used for a full (short) research paper in some journals (such as Nature journals) but for something much shorter in others, akin to the more colloquial meaning of the word letter.

Journals have a variety of criteria to distinguish between different article types. Sometimes the main difference is simply length, but often there is a difference in ‘significance’ or ‘completeness of the story’. These can be rather subjective judgements. Read a range of papers in the journal to get a feeling for the differences.

If your article isn’t a research paper, it is equally important to check whether the journal publishes articles like it. Usually journals invite review and comment articles, but some also accept unsolicited offers. Always send an email first describing your proposed review or comment, rather than just submitting it.

Policies

The policies section will vary a lot depending on the field. It will cover things like:

  • requirements for making data, software and materials available
  • ethics for animal experiments or human studies
  • adherence to subject-specific guidelines such as MIAME or CONSORT
  • adherence to authorship criteria, such as regarding ghostwriting and guest authorship (see the criteria laid out by the ICMJE)
  • whether they will accept papers that have previously been published on a preprint server or presented at a conference
  • policies on discussing the research with the media before publication.

It is crucial that your research follows all the guidelines for the journal. Violations can lead to immediate rejection.

Journals vary in how strict they are. However, if your study follows the highest possible ethical standards you are unlikely to find major differences between them. The exception to this is in journal policies on previous publication; newer journals are often less strict on this, and there is ongoing debate about the issue so instructions might change.

Format for submission

Some instructions aren’t to do with the manuscript contents itself but rather its file format and other things to do with how it is uploaded to the journal’s submission system. Publishers vary in what they require in terms of:

  • File formats allowed (commonly allowed formats for text are doc, docx, odt and rtf; TeX files may or may not be accepted)
  • Whether the text and figures should be in a single file or separate files
  • Whether the figure legends should be under each figure or at the end of the text
  • Whether a cover letter is required and what it should contain
  • Whether page or line numbers should be included
  • Whether the manuscript should be double spaced
  • Whether suggestions or exclusions of reviewers are allowed or encouraged
  • Whether submission has to be through the online system or whether post or email is allowed

Following these instructions is advisable, as online submissions systems can be inflexible. If you don’t follow the instructions there may be a delay before the manuscript is looked at by the editors or sent to review.

Length limits

All print journals and many online-only journals have length limits. It is best to keep to them at first submission, if only to avoid annoying the editors and reviewers and to avoid having to shorten your paper later if it is accepted. Some journals will reject any paper that is too long without considering it.

There are usually also length limits on the title and abstract, and sometimes on other sections too. Limits on the numbers of figures, tables and references are also common.

Formatting within the manuscript

Then there are the details of how the manuscript is laid out. In general these instructions are not quite as important at the submission stage as those listed above, as any problems can be fixed once the article is accepted. However, some journals are strict about this kind of thing being done properly on first submission. And it isn’t always clear from the instructions to authors how strict they are. See my previous post about formatting for initial submission for more.

The kind of thing that journals care about in this category are:

  • Whether the abstract is subdivided into sections
  • What sections are required in the main text (usually Introduction, Methods, Results, Discussion or similar)
  • What order the sections should be in (whether the Methods come before the Results or after the Discussion)
  • Whether citations are allowed in the abstract
  • Whether the reference citations should be numbered in order or given in the form “(Author et al., 2009)”

Non-varying instructions

Finally, there are the requirements that practically all journals have, although they can be worded in a variety of ways. These include:

  • Use SI units
  • Define all abbreviations and special symbols on first use
  • Cite all figures, tables and references in the text
  • Gene symbols should be italic; protein names should be Roman.

For more on what most journals tend to have in their instructions, see the generic set of instructions provided by the International Committee of Medical Journal Editors (ICJME).

There are companies and freelance editors, including me, who can help you to comply with instructions for authors for your target journal.

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?

Acceptance to publication time

Journals vary a lot in how long they take to publish accepted papers.

Publication speed is one factor that many authors take into account when choosing a journal. The time from submission to publication in a peer reviewed journal can be split into three phases:

  1. The time from submission from the first decision
  2. The time needed for the authors to revise
  3. The time from acceptance to publication

The second of these cannot generally be controlled by the journal, because different papers need different amounts of time to revise and the personal circumstances of the authors can affect the time needed. So only the first and third phases should be used to judge the journal. I will cover submission to first decision time in a future post and will focus on post-acceptance speed here. By ‘publication’ I mean the first time the paper is made publicly available, whether online or in print.

What happens after a paper is accepted?

Most journals have variations on a standard procedure: copyediting, typesetting, sending proofs to the authors, checking the proofs, and conversion to various formats (such as XML, HTML and pdf). For print journals, there are extra steps of compiling the pdf files into an issue and preparing them for printing – these steps don’t usually affect the time to online publication, but see below for exceptions to this.

Copyediting involves a professional editor (sometimes employed by the journal, but very often a freelancer like me), who reads the paper carefully and ensures that it is accurate, clear, readable, in correct English and in the journal’s house style. Typesetting involves laying out the paper in the journal’s format for print or pdf, with the correct fonts and symbols and with the figures at their final sizes. Some journals use the figures as the authors provide them, others edit or even redraw, and most at least check that the figures fit with the accompanying text.

After typesetting (or sometimes before), the author is sent the proof to check, along with any queries from the copyeditor. Some journals use professional proofreaders to check the proofs after typesetting and after the author has sent their corrections, but nowadays this step is skipped by many journals. But someone still needs to incorporate the author’s corrections into the article and do final checks before publication.

In my experience copyediting, typesetting and proof checking a typical research paper usually takes a few weeks. So, if the process starts immediately after acceptance and isn’t delayed, and if there is no delay from a paper gaining its final form and being published, a corrected paper can be published online a few weeks after acceptance. However, delays can occur at any stage.

Some journals display a typical or promised time from acceptance to publication on their websites. I have trawled through lots, and below is a selection. If you find more, please do add them in a comment. Note that these times are neither maximum nor minimum times – they are probably what the editors feel is a typical time, allowing for some papers to be published more quickly and some more slowly.

You can see from this list that journals from the same publisher vary in their promised times and even in whether they promise a time or not.

Factors that affect publication speed

There are many things that can affect how quickly papers are published once they are accepted.

Publication in issues

Scheduling of issues is one of the commonest reasons for delays. Although most journals now publish articles online before print, there are still some that hold accepted papers in a queue until there is space for them in an issue. Elsevier changed to article-based publication in 2010, and their press release at the time claimed that this could shorten acceptance to publication time by up to seven weeks, to only a few weeks.

Some journals have backlogs of accepted papers that lead to delays in publication of months or even years. Others have got rid of these backlogs by changing to publishing online as soon as possible after acceptance and only later assembling papers into issues (I have been involved in helping one publisher with this transition).

Journals that publish only in issues can also delay particular papers for other reasons than space: if they aim for a balance of article types in each issue they may hold a paper over if there are too many of that type in the current issue; or if they want to publicise several papers on the same topic together, they may hold some of them until all are ready.

It is difficult to work out from journal websites whether they publish in issues or not. The best way to check for any particular journal is probably to look at the acceptance dates for articles in a particular issue and see whether they are spread out (in which case publication probably happens by article) or whether they are all a similar time before the issue date (in which case publication is probably by issue).

Copyediting first or later

The most common system is to copyedit, typeset, send proofs to the authors and perhaps proofread before online publication. Some journals, however, now publish the accepted version almost immediately after acceptance, and do any copyediting and typesetting later, replacing the accepted version when the edited and typeset version is ready. The latter journals can therefore boast acceptance to publication times of a few days or even hours rather than weeks.

I have been able to establish that the following publishers post accepted articles online before editing or typesetting for some or all journals:

  • Wiley (‘OnlineAccepted’ option offered by some journals)
  • Elsevier (Gastroenterology, publication within 5-7 business days)
  • American Chemical Society (all journals, ‘usually within 30 minutes to 24 hours of acceptance’)
  • Genetics Society of America (Genetics)
  • BioMed Central (all journals, ‘publication occurs at the moment of acceptance’)

Fast track articles

Some journals have a fast track that offers faster publication for selected articles. This can speed up publication of these articles, but it can result in slower publication for all the non-fast-track articles if staff time is taken up with the fast-track ones. The editors make the decision on which papers are fast-tracked, but authors can usually request it and their request may be honoured if their reasons are judged to be good enough.

The following publishers offer fast-track publication for some or all journals:

Acceptance date issues

When looking at journal acceptance to publication times, it is worth bearing in mind that the acceptance date is the date when the final formal letter of acceptance is sent to the author. In reality, the decision to publish in principle is often made earlier, and the authors receive an email saying that the paper will be accepted as long as they make some final minor changes. Authors often feel at this point that the paper has been accepted, and it is usually safe to celebrate at this point. But it is not a final acceptance, and acceptance to publication times are measured only from the formal acceptance date.

How to estimate how fast a journal will publish after acceptance

I suggest following these steps to work out how fast your target journal is likely to publish your accepted paper.

1. Check if it publishes accepted versions before any editing or typesetting. If so, publication time is likely to be 0–3 days.

2. Check if it publishes papers online as soon as possible after acceptance, rather than waiting for an issue (print or online). Check whether this happens to all papers or just when the author requests, and request it if needed. If your paper is in this system, publication time is likely to be about 3–8 weeks.

3. Check what the journal’s website says about the acceptance to publication times they aim for, and multiply by about 1.5 to get a maximum probable time. If this time has elapsed after acceptance, you can justifiably email the editors requesting an update.

4. Look at some recent papers: most journals give the dates of acceptance and online publication on the paper, and often on the page containing the online abstract, so you can get a feel for how much time elapses between these events.

5. If it publishes only in print, be prepared for a long wait!

Your experience

Researchers, how important is publication speed after acceptance to you? Do you know some particularly fast journals or publishers, or can you recommend avoiding others that are very slow? Or can you point us to journal websites that promise a certain time to publication?

Journal editors, could you tell us how quickly your journal publishes papers after acceptance? Have you considered publishing your target times on the journal website, and why did you decide to do this or not?

A comparison of open access publication charges

Having covered submission fees and other charges, it is about time I covered the main event, isn’t it? I’m talking about open access publication fees, also known as author publishing charges (APCs) and many other names. This is a fee for making your article free for readers to read, and usually for them to download, distribute and do whatever they like with as well.

What do you get for your money?

Before agreeing to pay a fee to make your article open access, make sure you check the licence. True open access (as defined by the Budapest Open Access Initiative) means that it should be equivalent to the Creative Commons Attribution licence (CC:BY), which allows others to copy, distribute and make derivative works, including for commercial purposes, as long as they attribute it to you. Some publishers have a similar licence but with a non-commercial clause (CC:BY-NC) – there is debate about whether the NC clause stops something being open access. Others allow reading for free but restrict other uses, which really can’t be called open access at all. If the rights of readers and re-users are restricted, you are getting less open access for your APC than if there is a CC:BY licence.

Surveys of APCs

To find journal open access charges you usually need to look on the website of the individual journal. However, several organisations have usefully put together summaries of licences and charges. The Wellcome Trust and the UK Medical Research Council (MRC) both have mandates that all research they fund must be made freely available within 6 months of publication, and they both have lists on their websites of journals that do and don’t comply with this mandate. The following lists are available:

  • The MRC has a downloadable spreadsheet listing licences and charges of the most popular couple of hundred journals in which their authors publish
  • The Wellcome Trust has a list of the top 200 journals used by their authors showing which are compliant with their mandate, but not including charges
  • BioMed Central has a page comparing their APCs and licence with those of other publishers
  • The University of California, Berkeley library collections have a similar comparison page covering many subject areas
  • The Directory of Open Access Journals (DOAJ) provides information on charges, but this doesn’t seem to be searchable
  • SHERPA/RoMEO has a list of charges by publisher

I have taken the MRC spreadsheet, converted the currencies and calculated some statistics, and the result is in a Google Docs spreadsheet here. Some journals have two different fees depending on whether the author is a member of the society that runs the journal (or has a discount for some other reason). Of the 209 journals that allowed open access publication of some kind (ie gold open access, not just allowing deposition in a repository, which is called green open access), the mean fee was US$2845.08 (£1793.60) for members or US$2881.93 (£1816.21) for non-members. The standard deviation of the fee was $729.17 (£459.71) for members or $687.09 (£438.60) for non-members. The median is $3000 (£1891.33).

Some notes on these figures. Firstly, they are from the MRC document last updated April 2011, with currencies converted using xe.com on 23 March 2012. Secondly, they cover journals in medicine and related fields, particularly biology. Thirdly, they include 8 BioMed Central journals, 10 BMJ journals, 52 Elsevier journals (including 11 Cell Press journals), 14 Nature Publishing Group journals, 17 OUP journals, 4 PLoS journals, 12 Springer journals and 48 Wiley/Wiley-Blackwell journals. The median charge is $3000 because non-Cell-Press Elsevier journals charge this amount and there are lots of Elsevier journals in the list.

The MRC list also includes journals in the Lancet stable (The Lancet, The Lancet Neurology and The Lancet Oncology, published by Elsevier ), which charge £400 ($634.47) per page. I’m not sure how many pages the average research paper is, but at 6 pages this would be £2400 ($3808.46) and at 10 pages it would be £4000 ($6344.70).

Waivers

These fees may seem very high to some. Don’t forget that many publishers have waivers for those who cannot afford to pay the APC. PLoS offers a waiver for anyone who does not have funds to cover the fee (and I’ve heard informally that they ask no questions). BioMed Central gives an automatic waiver to authors from a WHO list of developing countries, and also considers waivers and discounts on a case by case basis. I haven’t researched all publishers to find out their policy on waivers – perhaps that’s for a future post! If you can’t afford the APC for a journal to which you would like to submit your paper, I suggest explaining this when you submit and asking for a waiver or discount.

Your experience

Do you know of other sources of information on APCs for different journals or on average APCs? Have you spotted any errors in my spreadsheet?

Journal submission fees: why are they so rare?

In a previous post I discussed fees that journals charge for colour printing, per page or for supplementary material. All those fees are charged only to authors whose papers are accepted. Here I’ll look at fees that are charged to the authors of all submissions, included those that are rejected.

In 2010 a report on submission fees by Mark Ware was published by the Knowledge Exchange, a collaboration of the UK Joint Information Systems Committee (JISC) with similar organisations in Denmark, Germany and the Netherlands. This followed a study investigating whether submission fees could play a role in a business model for open access journals. They concluded that for journals with a high rejection rate in particular, submission fees can help to make the open access publication fee more reasonable and could thus make the transition to open access easier.

Although the report focuses on submission fees in the transition to open access, they also noted:

In certain disciplines, notably economic and finance journals and in some areas of the experimental life sciences, submission fees are already common.

Which journals charge a submission fee?

The Knowledge Exchange report includes a table of journals that already charge a submission fee. For biology journals, these fees are listed as mostly being around US$50-75.

I’ve checked on the journal websites for a selection of those listed in this report, and some seem to no longer charge for submission – in particular, the US$400 submission fee that Ideas in Ecology & Evolution charged when it launched in 2008 seems to have now been dropped, and I can’t find any mention of submission fees on the websites of Journal of Biological Chemistry or FASEB Journal.

The journals that I could verify as charging submission fees are:

  • Journal of Neuroscience (Society for Neuroscience) has a submission fee of US$125 (as well as the page charges and colour printing charges mentioned in the previous post)
  • Hereditas (an open access Wiley-Blackwell journal) charges 100 euros (US$133)
  • Stem Cells (Wiley-Blackwell, with an open access option) charges $90
  • Journal of Clinical Investigation (American Society for Clinical Investigation) and Cancer Research (American Association for Cancer Research) charge US$75
  • several other journals mentioned in the Knowledge Exchange report charge around US$50.

Elsevier say in their FAQ that you need to look in each journal’s guide to authors to find out if they charge submission fees (as with other charges).

All the above except Hereditas are subscription journals.

Why submission fees, or why not?

The Knowledge Exchange report interviewed publishers about the pros and cons of submission fees. Unfortunately, they don’t give any details of who was interviewed, except that they were ‘stakeholders including publishers, libraries, research funders, research institutions and individual researchers’, or the text of the interviews, so it is difficult to interpret the results. However, from these interviews the report identified the following advantages:

  • The costs of publication are spread over more authors
  • The fee may put off authors from submitting ‘on spec’ to a journal where they know their paper has only a tiny chance of getting accepted, thus saving work for the journal.

The disadvantages mentioned included:

  • The fee might put off authors and thus make the journal less competitive
  • It was unclear whether funders would cover the charge (though interviews with funders for the study suggested that they would)
  • It would require administration.

Given the findings of this report, I’m surprised that more journals don’t charge a submission fee. I would be surprised if it put off speculative submissions (the time it takes for a paper to be reviewed is surely a bigger cost to the authors than a charge at the level of US$50-100). But for  open access journals with high rejection rates, as the report says, it seems particularly appropriate. Is the risk of seeming uncompetitive with other journals the only reason why these fees aren’t being widely tried?

This is interesting in the context of the statements by Nature Publishing Group that Nature couldn’t go open access because they would have to charge a very high publication fee. I’ve heard this most recently from Alison Mitchell at the debate ‘Evolution of Science’ in Oxford in February: she said that the publication fee would need to be about £10,000 (US$15,850) for Nature research journals and £30,000 (US$47,550) for Nature (see the video of the debate – this statement is at 17 minutes 30 seconds).

A conversation on Twitter with Heather Piwowar (@researchremix, a postdoc with Dryad studying data use among researchers) and Ethan Perlstein (@eperlste, an evolutionary pharmacologist at Princeton University) about this NPG statement led me to Jan Velterop (@Villavelius, a director of Aqcknowledge.com and a former colleague of mine at BioMed Central), who has written on submission fees several times on his blog. He kindly emailed me with further thoughts.

Jan’s most recent blog post summarises his reasons for liking submission fees:

The basic reason I am in favour of submission fees is that it makes scientific publishing really the service industry that it is, its main task nowadays having nothing to do with publishing per se, but mainly with arranging peer review and quality assurance of one sort or another.

Of course, this might not be what publishers want their main task to be…

Another argument for them that he lists is:

It removes the suspicion that OA journals might be tempted to accept more than they should just because of the money that accepted articles bring

And what about the disadvantages? Jan tells me that journal publishers are wary of introducing new fees that other journals don’t charge (see the ‘competitiveness’ point above). They are particularly wary because of a bit of history I didn’t know about:

One of the reasons why commercial journals dominate STM these days is the fact that society journals, still mostly independent in the 1960′s, charged page charges. Commercial journals made much of the fact that (then) they didn’t, and so attracted a growing percentage of authors, who could publish with them for free…

Among the reasons publishers are not too keen are:

1) The risk that authors ‘defect’ to journals without charges. After all, that happened before.

I can see that given this history, journals might be more cautious than otherwise.

Jan goes on to mention a reason I hadn’t heard before:

2) The risk that authors might expect transparency with regard to the speed, peer-review, and acceptance/rejection procedure. If you only have to pay when accepted (as is the case for the current author-side payment OA journals), you may not care too much about the speed, quality of the peer review, and acceptance processes, but if you have to pay even if you are rejected, then that becomes a very different story. Publishers know that they cannot guarantee any quality in that regard – with a few exceptions, perhaps – and fear the pressure of quality requirements on them if they were to move in that direction.

This is a very good point. It is certainly difficult to give guarantees about the speed or quality of peer review, which relies on voluntary work by researchers. It is related to a disadvantage listed in Jan’s recent blog post:

The need to be able to justify rejections properly, particularly if challenged (after all, submitters have paid for an assessment)

Jan also gives a third reason that intrigues me: that the level of submission fees might reveal information about a journal’s rejection rate that they would rather be kept quiet:

if they reject only about a tenth of the submissions, then obviously the submission charge cannot be very much lower than 9/10th of the publication charge for the same revenue to be achieved

So a journal might want to be seen as very selective, rejecting a high proportion of submitted articles, but they might actually have a lot lower rejection rate than this. For example say a journal with a rejection rate of 90% was considering a submission fee of $50 and a publication fee of $1000 (and all authors pay the submission fee, whether accepted or not). Then for every 9 articles accepted, the journal would receive $9000 in publication fees, plus $4500 for the 90 articles submitted, making $13500. But if the same fees were applied to a journal that rejects only about 10%, then for every 9 articles accepted, they would get only $9000 plus $500 for the 10 submitted articles ($9500). The number of articles accepted is public, whereas the number rejected isn’t. To get the level of fees they would receive if they had a 90% rejection rate they would need to charge a submission fee of ($13500 – $9000)/10 = $450. This level of submission fee is unlikely to be acceptable to authors.

(My calculation comes out with a submission fee half what Jan estimates, which I think is because I am assuming both a submission fee and a publication fee are charged, whereas he is assuming only a submission fee.)

In conclusion, the main advantage of submission fees is also their main advantage in other circumstances: that they would reduce the number of submissions. So if a journal has a high rejection rate, it makes sense to charge a submission fee, but otherwise it doesn’t. This actually applies to subscription and open access journals equally – in both cases a submission fee provides extra revenue, which could be used to reduce other charges, included subscriptions, page charges or publication fees (or to increase profits of course). The main reason why high-rejection-rate journals aren’t currently charging submission fees seems to be because it would make them less competitive, but given that these journals are by definition the place that people want to be published, this doesn’t seem a very strong argument. I wouldn’t be surprised if one journal tries submission fees and other then followed suit in the next few years.

Your experience

Have you paid a submission fee to a journal? Would you consider it if it meant a lower level of other charges, such as page charges or fees for open access publication?

Journal editors: has your journal considered a submission fee? If you don’t have one, why not? If you do, why?

Journals that charge authors (and not for open access publication)

Among the discussion of open access recently, there have been a few comments about the level of charges for open access publication. But of course many journals charge authors even without making their articles freely available. I think these charges are worth highlighting so that you can make an informed choice of journal.

Frequently these charges are to cover the cost of colour printing, which seems reasonable given that nowadays printed journal articles are a bonus not standard. But not all: some journals have submission fees (which I’ll cover in a future post), others have page charges, and I found two that even charge for supplementary material.

I’m not going to comment here on whether I think these charges are justified. But I suggest you take the charges into account when choosing a journal, and think about whether they represent value for money. If they go towards supporting a scientific society that you would like to donate to, for example, or if you feel that your paper will have its full impact only if printed in colour, you might be happy to pay. Also, if you can afford these charges, why not consider spending the money on making your article freely available instead?

Colour charges

In the past, print journals often charged authors for printing their article in colour, as colour printing was (and still is) more expensive than printing in black and white. With online publication there is no difference in cost, so it doesn’t make sense for journals to charge authors for colour for the online version of an article. But some journals are still charging for colour printing.

A few examples (with links to the relevant page) are:

  • The Journal of Neuroscience (Society for Neuroscience) charges US$1000 per colour figure, but offers free colour when it is judged essential by the editors and when the first and last authors are members of the society.
  • J Biol Chem charges US$150 per colour figure (with discounts for society members).
  • Evolution (Wiley-Blackwell) charges $500.00 per printed figure. FEMS Microbiology Letters (also Wiley-Blackwell) offers free colour provided that the colour is deemed essential for interpretation of the figure, whereas another Wiley-Blackwell journal, Proteomics, charges €500 for one colour figure up to €1664 for four.
  • FASEB Journal charges US$350 per colour figure.
  • BMJ Journals all seem to charge £250 per article for colour printing, but the BMJ itself (pdf) does not.
  • Of Oxford University Press journals, Bioinformatics and Human Molecular Genetics charge £350/US$600/€525 per colour figure, whereas Journal of Experimental Botany charges £100/US$190/€150.
  • Some Springer journals charge for colour printing, but I wasn’t able to find out which ones.
  • Similarly, some Nature Publishing Group journals charge for colour printing, but I wasn’t able to find out which ones. As far as I can tell, Nature and its sister journals with the word ‘Nature’ in the title have no charges.
  • Elsevier’s author site seems to imply that all their journals have colour charges.

Journals that do not charge for colour printing include:

Page charges

Page charges seem to be almost as common as colour charges, but there isn’t much logic as to which journals charge for what. Only one journal that I could find, Journal of Neuroscience, has publication fees per article (US$980, or US$490 for Brief Communications) – all others charge per page, sometimes over a certain limit. For example:

  • FASEB Journal charges US$80 per printed page for the first 8 pages and $160 per page thereafter. Articles containing eight or more figures and/or tables cost an additional $150 per figure or table.
  • J Biol Chem charges US$80 per page for the first nine pages and $160 per page thereafter (with discounts for society members).

The charges don’t seem to be consistent within each publisher.

One publisher is consistent – none of the BMJ Journals or BMJ (pdf) have any page charges.

Fees for supplementary material

I had never heard of the idea of charges for supplementary material until I was researching for this post. But FASEB Journal charges for supplemental ‘units’ (presumably files) at $160 each (up to four units are allowed), and Proc Natl Acad Sci USA charges US$250 per article for up to five pages of SI (US$500 over six pages). I haven’t come across any other journal that does this.

Your experience

Have I missed any important biomedical journals that have particularly striking charging policies (not including open access charges)? What do you think about these fees? Journal editors, what is the rationale for how much your journal charges for what? Do also let me know if can expand on any of the incomplete parts of in this post.

The Research Works Act, open access and publisher boycotts

The open access movement has been around for decades, gradually building up, but this month there seems to have been an acceleration in the pace of change. I will try in this post to summarise the current situation as I see it.

The initial driver of this recent change was theResearch Works Act (RWA), a draft law proposed in the US that would prohibit federal bodies from mandating that taxpayer-funded research be made freely accessible online (as the NIH currently does). The two Representatives who are sponsoring the RWA, Darrell Issa and Carolyn Maloney, have received considerable amounts of money from the publisher Elsevier, which publishes many journals and is against open access (as reported on Michael Eisen’s blog).

The second important event was the decision of Cambridge mathematics professor and Fields Medal winner Timothy Gowers to publish a blog post on 21 January entitled ‘Elsevier — my part in its downfall‘ (after the late Spike Milligan’s book ‘Adolf Hitler: My Part in his Downfall‘. (Gowers was the initiator of the Polymath Project, an experiment in open collaboration online between thousands of mathematicians, which Michael Nielsen lauded highly in his TED talk on open science.) Gowers summarised the criticisms of Elsevier:

  1. Their very high prices
  2. Their practice of ‘bundling’ journals into collections that libraries have to subscribe to together
  3. Their ‘ruthless’ negotiation tactics with libraries
  4. Their support of the RWA, and of the related acts SOPA and PIPA (both now postponed).

He was already quietly avoiding publishing in Elsevier journals and avoiding reviewing for them. But he decided that this quiet approach wasn’t enough: he called for coordinated action by academics. He comments that ‘Elsevier is not the only publisher to behave in an objectionable way. However, it seems to be the worst’.

This led mathematician Tyler Neylon to set up ‘The cost of knowledge‘, a page where researchers could publicly declare that they ‘will not support any Elsevier journal unless they radically change how they operate’. As of writing, this has over 2300 signatures.

In the past week the usual trickle of blog posts about open access and Elsevier has turned into a flood. I’ll pick out a few here:

Elsevier and their allies have responded:

But The Lancet, which is published by Elsevier, has said it ‘strongly opposes‘ the RWA, saying: ‘This short and hastily put together legislation is not in the interests of either science or the public’.

and others have criticised these responses (e.g. Mike Eisen, Drug Monkey).

The coverage is now reaching the mainstream:

It will be interesting to see what Elsevier says in a statement that was expected today, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education.

*  *  *  *

So, where do I stand? I am a freelance editor, working directly or indirectly for scientists and for publishers, on both open access and closed access journals. I worked for two years for Elsevier and then five years for BioMed Central, one of the leading open access publishers, and part of my job at BMC was to advocate for open access. I’m not a great fan of Elsevier, partly for the reasons that others give as described above, and partly because I think they (like many other publishers) are too keen on cutting costs and not keen enough on ensuring quality in their publications.

All this means that I am sympathetic to the open access movement but am not an active advocate of it. I’m not currently in a position to refuse to work for closed access publishers, nor would that have much effect on their policies. When helping scientists choose where to submit their papers, I try to dispassionately present the arguments for different types of journals and encourage them to investigate open-access options, but the decision is up to them.

What I’d like to do is think through what effect a boycott would have on each affected journal. The first people to suffer will be the editors who handle manuscripts. Usually they have to ask several people before they get two reviewers to agree to look at a paper – with the boycott, they will get more noes before they get enough yeses.  If the editors are in-house staff, will this filter up to their managers, and to their managers’ managers, up to the top of the company? Maybe, but only if the proportion of people saying no to reviewing for the journal is big enough. And in the mean time the editors, who have no say in the policies of their company, will be having a hard time.

One way the boycott could perhaps be more effective would be if it focused on a few journals in well-defined, small fields where there is a limited pool of potential reviewers. In a small field, it might be possible for a sizeable proportion of researchers to refuse to review for a particular journal, so this would have a bigger effect.

I would hope that those refusing make their reasons clear (as in this example letter) so that in-house staff aren’t left wondering what is going on. The boycotters will also need to make it clear to the staff that it is their employers they have a problem with, not the editors and editorial assistants themselves. Extreme politeness and chocolate might go down well!

I hope everyone will also remember that there are many researchers who need to publish to keep their jobs or get funding and tenure. Not everyone has a free choice of where to submit their paper. Those who do not join the boycott should not be assumed to be enemies of it.

So if you are boycotting any particular publisher, spare a thought for both the in-house staff who have to put up with it and for the researchers who can’t join in.

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