June highlights from the world of scientific publishing

2nd Jul 2014

The launch of Cofactor and what I learnt from Twitter in June: an unusual journal, a very large journal, a new journal and a very slow journal, plus accusations of publisher censorship and more.

The biggest highlight of the month for me was (of course) the launch Cofactor, my company that aims to help researchers publish their work more effectively. The launch event in London was a great success – over 50 people from science and publishing came to hear about the company and from four speakers on the theme ‘What difference will changes in peer review make to authors and journals?’. Do have a look at the Cofactor website and see if we can help you improve your papers, learn about scientific publishing or decide on your publishing strategy.

On Twitter there was lots of news too!

Journals

Nature published a feature by Peter Aldhous (@paldhous) on ‘contributed’ papers in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA (PNAS). Members of the National Academy of Sciences can submit up to four papers per year using this track, and they are not peer reviewed after submission – rather, authors must obtain reviews themselves and submit them along with the paper, and the paper and reviews are assessed by members of the editorial board. In 2013, more than 98% of contributed papers were published, compared with only 18% of direct submissions (for which the review process is like that of most conventional journals).

Aldhous analysed papers from the contributed and directly submitted track and compared their citation rates:

…the difference between citation rates for directly submitted and contributed papers was not large — controlling for other factors such as discipline, contributed papers garnered about 4.5% fewer citations — but it was statistically significant. Nature‘s analysis also suggests that the gap in citation rates between directly submitted and contributed papers has been narrowing, and this does not seem to be because more-recent papers have yet to acquire enough citations for the difference to show.

The analysis is described in a supplementary information file, but the full dataset is available only on request. I questioned whether it would be better to release the full dataset so that others can reanalyse it. Others agreed, and I have collated the resulting Twitter discussion using Storify. In response, Peter Aldhous kindly put the full dataset on his website. This is a great example of the power of Twitter to get rapid responses to questions.

Meanwhile, a new journal was launching and another was celebrating an incredible milestone. The new journal is The Winnower (@TheWinnower), which describes itself as an open access online science publishing platform that uses open post-publication peer review. There is a charge of US$100 to publish an article, which is not editorially checked but is published straight away, after which anyone can add a review. There aren’t many papers there at the moment but The Winnower is an interesting experiment. It differs from the recently launched ScienceOpen (@Science_Open) in that the latter has editorial checks and only scientists can review papers.

The largest journal in the world is of course PLOS One, and this month it published its 100,000th article. There is no doubt that this megajournal is changing scientific publishing and will continue to do so.

Finally, Texas biologist Zen Faulkes (@DoctorZen) posted his experience of publishing in a small regional journal, The Southwestern Naturalist. He submitted the paper in 2011, got reviews back 9 months later, submitted a revised version within a week and it was finally accepted for the December 2013 issue… which actually came out in early June 2014. Although Zen wasn’t in a hurry, he says

But after this experience, I think I would have been much better off submitting this paper to PLOS ONE or PeerJ or a similar venue.
Except… wait, PeerJ didn’t exist when I submitted this paper. With publications like PeerJ, journals like The Southwestern Naturalist are going to be in trouble soon.

I too wonder why authors would choose a small journal like this, especially if it is closed access, over one that can reach a much broader audience.

Difficulties with publishing criticism of the publishing industry

In late May an article entitled ‘Publisher, be damned! From price gouging to the open road‘ was published by four Leicester University management researchers in a fairly obscure Taylor & Francis journal, Prometheus: Critical Studies in Innovation. I would not have noticed it had it not been for coverage by Paul Jump (@PaulJump) in Times Higher Education telling the extraordinary story behind the publication of the article. A senior manager at the publisher demanded that the article be cut, the issue containing it was delayed by 8 months, and the editorial board threatened to resign in protest at the publisher’s actions. There is more detail and analysis in this Library Journal article. Eventually it was published with the names of particular publishers removed. It seems to me that the publishers’ attempt at suppressing the article had the opposite effect and is a good example of the Streisand Effect. (Via @LSEImpactBlog, @RickyPo and @Stephen_Curry)

Paper writing resources

Two very useful resources came to my attention this month. The first (via @digiwonk) was a blog post on The Chronicle of Higher Education’s Careers hub by Kirsten Bell, a research associate from the University of British Columbia. The post, entitled ‘The Really Obvious (but All-Too-Often-Ignored) Guide to Getting Published‘, gives five simple tips for getting your article published. They are

  1. Familiarize yourself with the journal you want to submit to
  2. Make sure you nominate reviewers, if the journal gives you the option to do so
  3. Don’t make it glaringly obvious that your paper has been rejected by another journal
  4. Learn how to write a paper before actually submitting one
  5. Be persistent (when it’s warranted)

The second was actually a guide to reading a scientific paper, but it is well worth reading when you are writing too, so as to understand how it is likely to be read. The article was in the Huffington Post by @JenniferRaff, a postdoc at the University of Texas, entitled ‘How to Read and Understand a Scientific Paper: A Step-by-Step Guide for Non-Scientists‘. She tells readers to identify the ‘big question’ and the ‘specific question’ that the authors are trying to answer with their research, and then by reading the methods and results determine whether the results answer the specific question. If your paper is written so that the specific question and the answer to it are easy to find, you will get more readers and probably more citations. (Via @kirkenglehardt)

Altmetrics

You’ve seen the Altmetric donut – now here’s the Plum Analytics PlumPrint! (via @PlumAnalytics).

ImpactStory (@ImpactStory) have a good roundup of news about altmetrics from June, mentioning the PlumPrint, responses to a UK Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) consultation on the use of metrics in assessment, and highlights from a recent altmetrics conference.

Miscellany

A post by Manchester University computational biologist Casey Bergman (@CaseyBergman) was popular among the scientists I follow: ‘The Logistics of Scientific Growth in the 21st Century‘ argued that the exponential growth in academic research is over, and explored what that might mean for those at different stages in their careers.

On the BioMed Central blog, David Stern describes his unsuccessful efforts to replicate a published effect and the realisation that it was an artefact of data binning. He recommends not just providing the full data but displaying it too. (Via @emckiernan13 and @mbeisen)

There was a great post on blog ‘The Rest of the Iceberg’ (@ECRPublishing) entitled ‘What To Do When You Are Rejected‘, focusing on what you can learn from receiving peer reviews.

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Comments on “June highlights from the world of scientific publishing

“I too wonder why authors would choose a small journal like this, especially if it is closed access, over one that can reach a much broader audience.”

I tried to address that in the post.

“I submitted this article to The Southwestern Naturalist because it seemed to be the most appropriate journal for the paper. I see value in topical journals; it makes things easier to find.”

It’s not clear to me whether I have a better chance of reaching my audience with a targeted journal or a broad one. While a megajournal like PLOS ONE has many virtues, trying to find articles in it is a pain. Arguably, an article like mine might have gotten just a “buried” in either kind of journal.

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