Give authors what they want and end the serials crisis

by | Jun 1, 2018 | 0 comments

Editor’s Note: This article is part of an ATG Special Issue on author support

Brian Cody

By: Brian Cody, Co-Founder and CEO of Scholastica

Can better academic journal management technology both improve the experience of authors submitting to journals and accelerate the move to open access publishing, where content is free to read and not garrisoned behind expensive paywalls?

I know that the connection between improving the experience of authors submitting to academic journals and reducing the ever-increasing price of journals may not be obvious. And to be clear from the outset, I am not arguing that better software alone is a direct path to creating a low-cost, academic-led open access future. The predominant corporate journal publishing model needs to change, with examples of suggested alternatives like Stevan Harnad’s call for universal green OA or projects like MathOA working to ‘flip’ journals from corporate-controlled to academic-led open access models serving as possible approaches. Though the connection between better journal management software and lowering the cost of research might be indirect, I do see quite a bit of overlap between the kinds of publishing models and tools that can break the corporate publisher stranglehold on academic journals and the kinds of publishing models and tools that will give authors the experience they want during peer review, production, and publishing their article.

To flesh out what authors want from the journal publishing process and why taking a more author-oriented approach to journal publishing could help lower the cost of research, I’ll start by sharing frustrations and wants that I’ve heard from authors over the years. At Scholastica, we’ve worked with tens of thousands of authors of academic journal articles throughout the publishing process (peer review, typesetting, and final publication), and many authors have shared with us the challenges they have experienced using different journal management systems across a variety of discipline. I will draw on those experiences to outline the three main themes in what authors want when working with academic journals: transparency, speed, and low cost. I will then explain how using technology to achieve these aims can also greatly reduce the cost of journals.

Authors don’t want to feel like a cog in a machine

One of the most frequent questions we hear from authors is “Did the journal actually receive my paper?” After submitting a manuscript through a journal’s peer review software, authors often don’t know if a notification email is being sent to a specific editor or an infrequently-checked shared journal email account. And without some sort of human confirmation, many are left wondering if their manuscript could have been overlooked or have been caught in a SPAM filter never to be seen by the editors.

Why are authors left feeling this way? Often it is because the software systems journals use to receive submissions do not provide an intuitive or human submission experience. Authors often struggle to create accounts within complex multi-step software. And, once in a submission system, they may struggle to figure out if they’re in the right place to check on the status of their manuscript. Complex software can also make it more difficult for editors to communicate with authors directly; systems that only allow for automated emails without a mechanism for one-to-one communication can be highly frustrating for all actors involved, with editors having to send automated emails and then later sift through a journal email inbox to look for responses from authors. In this scenario author emails can often fall through the cracks, and when emails go unanswered it puts a bad taste in authors’ mouths making them question if any emails they send via automated journal systems will be seen at all. These types of scenarios can cause many authors to experience a sense of anxiety around the accuracy of submission systems.

In addition to publishing snafus that stem from software systems lacking adequate communication channels, like the previous example of author replies to automated emails falling through the cracks, there are other common causes of author anxiety. Some authors worry that the data they see in a peer review management system (e.g. “your manuscript has been successfully submitted”) could be disconnected from what the editor sees – maybe the software the journal uses has the article but isn’t actually showing it to the editors? A third and oft-overlooked cause of this author concern is that what actually happens after articles are submitted is truly a black box to many authors – and this lack of transparency can breed uncertainty.

Anxiety surrounding the accuracy of automated submission updates often holds true for authors throughout the peer review process and, should their manuscript be accepted, throughout publishing. For example, I’ve heard authors express concerns following their article’s acceptance because they received an automated email months ago saying that their manuscript was being copyedited but are yet to get an update. In this case the author is led to question whether the journal has actually begun copyedits, because months of lag time seem out of proportion to the work supposedly being done (“How long could it possibly take to copy edit my 20 page article?!?”). I’ve seen first-hand that authors appreciate software that combines the benefits of automation with ample avenues for human interaction because it enables them to stay connected with editors and get answers to these types of questions rather than just waiting on another automated email they may or may not be able to trust.

Submission software that allows for human communication without limiting editor and author interactions to automated or templated emails can make a big difference. Personal communication mixed throughout the publishing process builds faith that automated updates are in fact accurately reflecting the journals’ workflow. Editors sending a simple “Thank you for the feedback, I took a look at your manuscript and everything looks good-to-go!” email goes a long way to assuage author concerns that their article might be lost in the mire. For years I’ve heard from authors and editors that a personal email thanking an author for submitting their proof edits or informing the author that the journal is waiting for the last reviewer makes a world of difference in an author’s anxiety levels, improves the standing of the journal in the eyes of the author, and helps the author have faith that when they receive automatic updates saying that things are moving along they actually ARE moving along.

Another source of frustration for authors is when the only “human” contact method they are given to reach journal editors is a generic contact form or a generic journal email address that they worry isn’t being actively monitored. I’ve heard authors be very pleased when journals explicitly addressed this concern with language like “The journal’s email account is monitored by both the managing editor (John Anderson) and the editor-in-chief (Lilly Hamline).”

Separate from struggles with editor communication, I’ve also heard from authors that a frequent area of confusion is around exactly how authors are supposed to complete their production tasks. While the next steps are clear to the editors or publishers who deal with production processes every day, these steps are much more opaque and foreign to authors. For example, authors are not always sure whether to give feedback as PDF comments, or to type out notes into an email, or to put feedback somewhere in the publisher’s production management system. Sometimes the production side of software can be confusing to authors, and I’ve heard authors ask why the journal doesn’t switch to something better – but often the journal editors can’t choose software that’s a better fit for the journal because their publisher dictates the software the journal uses so that all the publisher’s journals use the same enterprise software system.

Speed: authors want their papers to be published and citable as quickly as possible

Throughout the journal publishing process, especially once the manuscript is accepted and goes into the production phase, authors want to see their article processed as quickly as possible at every stage so that the article is ultimately published as soon as possible. Authors have a professional and personal desire for other scholars to read and cite their articles, and when publication is delayed, especially for reasons that seem corporate-centric rather than scholarship-centric, authors get VERY frustrated.

One of the happiest exchanges I’ve seen between an academic journal and an author was when the journal surprised the author by letting them know their article was published ahead of schedule and available online that same day – a far cry from the all-too-common situation where an author is told their paper will be published 5 issues (1.25 years) hence. In this specific instance, the journal practiced ‘rolling publication’ where each article is published as it is completed, rather than the usual process of only publishing articles as part of an entire issue,and thus delaying the publication of each individual article until every other article in the issue is selected, copyedited, typeset, proofed, and marked as ready for publication. A combination of software and services can make rolling publication possible and can even be a preferred workflow over processing entire issues at once.

I’ll note that when this practice of rolling publishing, which authors appreciate because their article is published outside of an existing publication schedule, is paired with the journal being open access, from an author perspective this is the best possible outcome. The author’s article is available to be read and cited as soon as possible, and the article is available to everyone across the world and not limited to those with institutional subscriptions to the journal or the funds to pay for individual articles. My experience with authors is that they care about rapid dissemination of research, and authors are very frustrated when a journal’s financial model is not aligned with rapid online publication.

Authors don’t want to pay high fees to be published

Cost is one of the most frequent themes in questions authors send to journals. When a journal has implemented a submission fee, authors frequently ask if the journal offers fee waivers for students, due to financial hardship, based on geography or nationality, based on institutional affiliation, etc. I’ve seen authors be worried about asking journals about fee waivers for both submission fees and article processing charges (APCs), perhaps due to concern over stigma or rejection or starting their relationship with the journal off on the wrong foot. Instead, these authors might reach out to related third parties (like the software provider) to see if they know about the journal’s fee waiver policy or ask a librarian or institutional support person to contact the journal about fee waivers without mentioning the author’s name.

I’ve spoken with authors who are in a bind when their research isn’t grant-funded and their institution doesn’t have a dedicated fund to pay for APCs – and sometimes these authors have to decide not to submit a paper to a particular journal because they are either unable to pay the cost out of their own pocket or elect not to. For authors with financial hardships or without research resources to support APCs, which is more common in the developing world, almost any APC or submission fee is too high to afford. I’ve heard authors express frustration about journal APCs in the thousands of dollars, which seems exorbitant when scholars like Björn Brembs estimate publishing costs as being closer to $100.

From what authors want, to lowering the cost of knowledge

Some of the author desires I’ve described are related to using better software; others are related to editorial workflows; others are tied to communication practices. Journals of any size, working with any size publisher, can make adjustments to better deliver on what authors want.

That said, I would argue that large-scale corporate publishers have built-in barriers to delivering at least some of what academic authors want, based on the publishers’ historic business models and the incentives/challenges that appear at the scale of publishing thousands of journals at a time:

  1. Large corporate publishers have an incentive to process articles in batches to reduce their project management load by an order of magnitude (i.e. it is much easier to manage 1,000 issue-based projects a quarter rather than ~14,000 separate article projects ) – whereas authors would prefer their article go through the production process independently and without risk of their article’s publication being delayed when its fate is coupled with many other articles in the same issue.
  2. The subscription model (typically) contractually requires a set number of issues delivered each year in order for the publisher to get paid. To avoid penalties and make sure they get paid, large publishers have an incentive to create a backlog of issues to guarantee that exactly one issue, neither more nor less, goes out each quarter – whereas authors would prefer their individual article be published as soon as possible, regardless of any pre-established publication cadence.
  3. Large corporate publishers have overhead costs and hefty profit margins to cover, so they either rely on expensive paywalls or very high APC fees – whereas authors would prefer anyone be able to read and cite their content without needing to pay such high costs.

Looking at academic-led journals like Discrete Analysis, you often see some of the best communication practices and shortest time to publication because these kinds of journals are often a labor of love. For these academic-led journals, editors are donating their time and energy as a service to their field of study, and the editors are generally focusing their energies on producing one single journal well rather than managing a large portfolio of potentially thousands of journals, and so the editors are very sensitive to the experiences of authors. The journal’s interests are also better aligned with authors: the journal wants to publish efficiently and quickly without high fees or costs.

In the white paper “Democratizing Academic Journals: Technology, Services, and Open Access”, open access luminaries such as Björn Brembs and Dan Morgan point to this sort of small, independent, academic-led journal as the future of journal publishing, in direct contrast to the current status quo of centralized, specialized journal publishing. The white paper predicts that in the future journals will operate using services and software creating a more robust and competitive publishing landscape where an academic journal can mix and match products/services to provide the best experience for their authors and readers. In this model, if authors do not receive a submission and peer review experience that the journal is happy with, the journal can easily port over to another service or software without multi-year contractual requirements from a large corporate publisher strong arming the journal into continuing to use services the editors aren’t happy with.

The white paper concludes that “Democratization of journal publishing via new technologies, a move to service-based journal publishing models, and de-specialization of the publishing process will allow for rapid development of alternatives to the current corporate-driven journals model.” I would argue that in this landscape, author wants will be more directly incorporated into the journal management selection process than they are now. When a single journal can easily switch software or service providers (because their publisher does not dictate all of these terms), providers will be incentivized to better address the author experience as a competitive advantage.

Right now, the competitive landscape for journals is focused on revenue, and decisions are made at the corporate level. In the future, the competitive landscape for journals will focus on readers and authors, and decisions will be made on the journal level – and in this future, authors stand a better chance of having a more transparent and speedy article publishing experience.


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