Choosing scholarly journals: peer review, time and rejection rates

This post is part of a mini-series that I’m creating, about choosing where to publish, aimed at early career researchers. If you haven’t got time to read it all, then maybe just scan for the most useful stuff in bold text!

I started this series with alternatives/additions to journal articles. Then I looked at the first two criteria, general reputation and suitability or relevance. And now I’m moving on to consider peer review, which of course influences reputation and is usually considered a sign of scholarly quality. We know that peer review is important and that journals which are not peer reviewed are often less highly regarded among scholars.

Connected to this is the time to publication, and rejection or acceptance rates at a journal, but these two aren’t easy pieces of information to find, to understand or to use in decision making about where to publish. In fact, I think they largely have little to contribute to that decision because they are so murky, except see the section on “when is it published?” because that is crucial for some authors.

These criteria are important for authors to understand and they also illustrate how useful it is to get to know journal editors. Should you ever find yourself in conversation with an editor, reviewer or author from the journal at the top of your wishlist, you might want to be prepared, so I’ve listed some questions towards the end of this post that could be helpful.

two silhouetted heads face each other, covered in colourful question marks
Ask an editor, if you can!

Peer review

If the journal is peer reviewed (sometimes also known as “refereed”) then this will weigh heavily in its favour, in terms of its reputation among the scholarly community. Peer review is used as a validation and polishing process, thus assuring the quality of research that you will find in a journal.

How do I find peer reviewed journals?

Directories of journals like Ulrich’s or Cabell’s will tell you whether a journal is peer reviewed or not (among other information) – if your institution has a subscription to one of these sources. And of course, you can check out journal home pages, for journals that you’re already aware of.

Note that Cabell have both a whitelist and a blacklist. The whitelist has lots more useful information for an author choosing where to publish than Ulrich’s does. But it has two major disciplinary gaps: Medicine and Engineering. Cabell’s blacklist covers all disciplines, and attempts to take over where Beall’s list left off: they consulted with Jeffrey Beall when deciding how to go about their blacklist, but didn’t just copy his list. I’m not covering so-called “predatory journals” in this blogpost (it’s coming soon!), but I thought it worth a mention at this stage.

Ulrich’s directory was historically designed for librarians choosing journals for a collection and covers way more titles than Cabell’s, so the two sources are rather different. Some years ago now, I asked Ulrich’s about journals that appear not to be refereed/peer reviewed (they use a little referee’s shirt symbol), and they told me that journals which have no symbol may in fact be refereed, but their data did not indicate it. So the directory is a starting point but you do need to check details yourself. (The University of Toronto have a video on how to use Ulrich’s if you’re interested in this.)

What do you mean “peer reviewed”?

The phrase “peer review” is not used to describe a standardised process: there are many different kinds of peer review, and some might appeal more to you as an author. A more rigorous process with more steps and more people might take more time, but result in a better quality article.

Some variations include:

  • Blind, double blind or open? This is about whether the authors and reviewers are aware of one another’s identity. Maybe you’re comfortable with not knowing who your reviewers are (blind): some argue that this frees reviewers to be more critical and therefore add to the quality of the article. Maybe you’d rather that they also didn’t know who you are (double blind). Or maybe you’d rather that everything was out in the open so that you each know who the other parties are: some argue that this makes reviewers more helpful and less off-hand or confrontational. Further, with some types of open peer review, the readers can also see attributed reviews and responses: this is both transparent and open peer review.
  • Transparent peer review. An article in the Scholarly Kitchen highlights the importance of transparency, where the content of the review process is available for all to read. It also describes more how transparent peer review works, including publication of author responses to peer review. The difference to open peer review lies in anonymity for reviewers.
  • Number of reviewers per article: there may be only two reviewers plus the editor, or some journals will use more reviewers. More people reviewing could also result in more requirements for you to polish your article since they could all bring different perspectives, some of which may be difficult for you reconcile. However some editors may help to consolidate reviewer comments: this is why it’s so worthwhile contacting someone already published with your journal of choice, to learn from their experience. If it’s your first journal article then a helpful editor is a real argument in favour of a journal! It is perhaps also a good sign (and useful information) if a journal has clear guidelines for peer reviewers on its website.
  • Stages of peer review: sometimes it’s not only about the number of people, but also the stages through which your article will pass. Maybe a third reviewer will be consulted only if the first two disagree about whether the article should be accepted or not. Or maybe the editor takes that decision. In some journals, an additional reviewer will be used to check for spelling, grammar, etc. A helpful diagram and explanation from Elsevier explains their system further.

At some journals, you may be asked to suggest suitable peer reviewers: my earlier blogpost about impressing editors has further discussion of peer review possibilities.

For more information on peer review, a recent post on the LSE Impact of Social Science blog discusses problems with traditional peer review and opportunities to improve it, and my round-up of 2016’s Peer Review week offers a light-hearted look at some of the main topics in this area.

Responding to peer review is beyond the scope of this post, but I’ve linked to a video clip from the excellent “Publish and prosper” wikispace tutorial, where you can hear a voice of experience. Basic, sensible advice is to make sure you respond to all of the peer reviewers’ comments.

Time to publication

This is not simple! See especially the section “When is it actually ‘published’ because there are pitfalls to avoid if you need not only publication but also citations within a tight time-frame.

open day planner
Time flies…

How long does it take?

The time from submission of your article, until it eventually appears in print (or is rejected) can vary a great deal from one journal to another, and across disciplines. For many journals, you’re looking at a full calendar year – at least. As explored in my post about impressing journal editors, time to publication can be influenced by authors getting their submission right at the outset, saving on the need for the article to travel backwards and forwards for re-submission or onwards to a new target journal. We often hear of tales like the student who submitted an article to the wrong section of a journal, resulting in delays (THE article on getting published, mentioned in my first post in this series). I’ve blogged about the loss of time at journals too, where you can find more discussion of journal processes which might lead to delays.

Some authors are most interested in the time before the acceptance/rejection decision is made, so that they can move on to submit to another journal or already advertise the accepted article. Some journals make that decision relatively quickly and they will usually advertise this if they do: Nature News reports a median of 100 days for such decisions among journals in PubMed, but read that piece for all the caveats. (See also below, where I reference the same piece again in relation to “resetting the clock”.)

How do you know, how long it will take?

There is no one handy source of information here: you must look on journal websites and ask around. Some publishers, like MLA will describe the process, including typical timeframes and what the outcomes of decision making will be. Note that their journals use editorial board meetings, so one question you could ask is, how often does the board meet? Maybe two different journals that you are comparing use the same process, but one has a board that meets twice a year, and another has a board that meets three times a year. You might think that the journal which has 3 editorial board meetings a year will process yours faster, but the volume of submissions can be difficult to estimate too: maybe there is a reason they have more meetings.

Journal websites and journal editors sometimes provide information, but (as with rejection rates see below), you should be very careful in interpreting this.

This is why I keep coming back to finding someone who knows your journal of choice, who can tell you about their experience.  To find an author at your institution who has (recently) published in a particular journal, note that you can search by date, journal title and author affiliation on databases like Web of Science (WoS) and Scopus.

When is it actually “published”?

Some journals have a really helpful feature where your article goes online as soon as it is accepted for publication. They might also deem the article at this point to be “published”, as regards the timeframes that they give you on their journal information webpages. At this point, you can advertise that your article has been accepted by that journal on your CV and online profiles/publication lists, and scholars can read and benefit from your research findings. This is great, but a word of warning: Elizabeth Gadd has written about her experience of waiting for a paper from 2016 which will not be officially published as the “version of record” until March 2019. The “version of record” is the one that gets a volume, part and page number so that it can be indexed in databases like WoS and Scopus, and indeed so that citations can be tracked and counted towards her scholarly profile. Or her institution’s scholarly record.

To find out about the gap between online release and formal publication, you could look at the most recently released journal articles on the online platform for your choice of journal, where they might also display the year in which they are expected to appear in a volume of that journal. Or indeed you could approach an editor (see my section on this, below).

Rejection rates

We could also talk about acceptance rates: 80% rejection, 20% acceptance: which sounds better to you? Related to the time to publication, rejection/acceptance rates could theoretically help you to be strategic in choosing a journal where you have a higher chance of acceptance. Or you might see high rejection rates as a sign of quality and you can afford the time to re-submit to a new journal, so it’s worth the risk – especially if you know that the journal is quick to make this decision. However, rejection rates might not be as helpful as they sound.

Ink stamp with stars and the word ACCEPTED

What are my acceptance chances?

Sometimes journal websites have information for submission, where they advertise an acceptance or rejection rate. Some publishers might issue reports, for example the American Psychological Association make data available in their Journal Statistics and Operations Data. You can also find information about journals in some subscription resources, for example The Modern Language Association (MLA) International Bibliography or Cabells’s Directory. Such data is usually supplied by journal editors/editorial staff. So if you want to find out the rate for a journal that is not publicly advertised, then it is the editorial team that you need to find a way to make contact with.

Even when you find, or are given a rate, be aware that there are no standards for calculating it and it could be an estimate. Furthermore, editors won’t want to make their journals look too exclusive with high rejection rates, thus discouraging quality submissions. Nor will they want to make it look too inclusive and therefore not good enough for high quality submissions. So they might measure, tweak or estimate rejection rates according to what they think looks best for their journal, so you just can’t compare one journal to another. It is possible that this information can really only be used to prepare you for almost inevitable rejection, or else to understand your just cause for celebration if your paper is accepted!

I’m not covering how to handle rejection here, but if it happens then do remember to thank the editor and be gracious.

Note that I deliberately titled this section “acceptance chances” because I wanted to point to my post on impressing journal editors again: you can influence your chance beyond whatever the figures say. If more than 50% of articles are rejected for not following journal submission guidelines then you can make sure that your article is not one of those.

Revise and resubmit is not a rejection

It’s fairly common that all articles which get sent forward for peer review are included in acceptance counts, even though as an author you might feel that your paper has not been accepted when the reviewers want you to “revise and resubmit”. Some papers may never be resubmitted, or in fact are submitted to a different journal and so would seem to be rejected by the first journal in effect, if not in the statistics.

Note that when papers are re-submitted, then sometimes this date of re-submission is taken as the date of submission when calculating the time to publication at a journal. A Nature news feature talks about this as “resetting the clock“.

Summary of time to publication & rejection rates

Both time to publication and rejection rates rely on information from editorial teams, which you might find on journal websites. But if you can’t find what you want then maybe you can find a way to make contact with an editor, and ask. If you get in touch with an editor, then make sure you make a good impression: you can ask about information not publicly advertised, but perhaps it is best to do so as part of a broader conversation.

Conferences are an ideal place to look out journal editors, and talk to them about the conference as well in some way, before asking about the journal’s processes. Rosalia da Garcia from SAGE publishing suggests making friends with editors. (Part of the “Publish and Prosper” wikispaces tutorial.)

Ten questions to ask those in the know

Make sure you’ve read all info on the journal website and other available sources before you ask. And cherry pick: which of these questions are of most interest to you? You don’t want the editor to feel interrogated! Maybe you could ask an author from the journal some of these instead (especially no. 6!).

Don’t forget to strike up a general conversation first, full of admiration for the journal and wonder at the mysteries of the publication process. And if possible, show that you’re familiar the latest editorial piece they’ve written, or you attended their talk at the conference.

  1. Are there any changes likely in the near future, to the peer review or publishing process? (Maybe express your own views on open peer review, or similar.)
  2. How long does it take before a reject/accept decision is made?
  3. What is their “pet hate” in terms of mistakes that submitting authors make?
  4. How much of a back-log of articles are waiting to be processed? (This might affect future rejection rates / time to rejection, or indeed substitute for the rejection rate when one is not shared.)
  5. What is the official rejection rate and does it include articles where the outcome is “revise and submit”?
  6. Does the editor help to reconcile directly opposite peer review comments?
  7. How often does a third/extra peer reviewer get consulted?
  8. After acceptance, how long before an article typically appears online?
  9. When does the “version of record” with volume, part and page number, which can be indexed in citation tracking sources, get issued?
  10. What do you look for in a peer reviewer? (Maybe say that you’re willing to act as a peer reviewer yourself, and explain your expertise.)

If you’re able to strike up a friendship, then perhaps you could even ask if the journal has unusually high acceptance rates at the moment!

two dogs silhouetted against sunset
Best friends forever… maybe!

Final thoughts

As I said at the beginning, these three criteria are not the most important when choosing a journal to publish in. They are, however, fundamental to understanding the scholarly publishing process. The suitability or fit of your work to the journal is far more important, and so, perhaps are features like Open Access or impact factors (both coming soon in this series!). But if there are several journals that might suit your work, then maybe this sort of information, or even your impressions on meeting editors could help you to narrow down your wishlist.

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Choosing scholarly journals: first two criteria

This is my second post in a series that I’m building up, on choosing where to publish. Last time I looked at 10 alternatives/additions to the journal article. This post focuses more on journals themselves, and how you select the right one for your work. Remember that you should only submit to one journal at a time, and tailor your article to that journal.

A fairly recent piece in the THE “Want to be a successful academic? It’s all about getting published” focuses on 3 elements: impact factor, audience and rejection rates. But there are other elements to the decision that I don’t want to ignore. So I’m starting with a look at overall reputation and suitability, and then I’ll go on to look at rejection rates, among other topics in my next post.

Journal reputation

This is a really tricky topic! It is affected by other things which I’ll discuss in more detail in later posts, such as peer review processes and impact factors. However, you can also get a more instinctive feel or overall estimation for the reputation of a journal. It helps to read widely so that you can judge for yourself, and to be well networked and have lots of contacts whom you can ask. You may find review articles which rank journals in your field: do a literature search, and also see “Journal Quality Lists” in the St Johns University Library libguide. You can build a “wish list” of journals that you’d like to be published in. And then select the 3-5 most relevant to the research you want to publish now, to investigate further.

grape bunches hang from a vine
I heard it on the grapevine…

I also like Phil Davis’ Scholarly Kitchen discussion of a call for scientists to publish in journals that are linked to a scholarly society. His blogpost also points out that the journal brand matters to scientists and brands like “Nature, Science, The Lancet, JAMA, EMBO, PLOS, BioMed Central and many others” seem to function as a kind of recommendation for the work they present. So it matters which organisation(s) are behind the journal. You could start with an organisation that you know and trust, or if there’s a journal that you want to know more about then you could look at who is the publisher or commissioner, to see if you’re satisfied with their reputation and their approach. I found a lovely video on publishers that is part of the “Publish and Prosper” wikispaces tutorial.

Both societies and journal brands lend authority which is built from a long track record of quality. Longevity is a good sign, not only because quality processes and models that have developed through experience, but also because it means that the article stands a good chance of being available for posterity. However, longevity isn’t the only factor: innovation adds to quality too. Phil Davis calls for societies to learn from the commercial publishers and their journals. Being well-known and well-recognised is something that I think the commercial publishers have concentrated on. And if you already know of a journal then that will really help you to assess it’s suitability to your work. Which is why I started with the overall reputation of a journal.

Other signs of prestige include who is on the editorial panel, and who is already a published author with that journal: are these big names in your field? And of course, you should assess the quality of the articles published in a journal. I recommend my earlier overview blogpost with 12 questions to ask, if you’re not sure about the quality of a journal. The “Think. Check. Submit.” site has a great quick video, too.

Subject match/suitability

Also known as “relevance”, this is perhaps the most important criteria that you will consider! If your article isn’t a good match for the journal that you submit to, it will be rejected. And you don’t want to waste either your time waiting for that decision, or the journal editor’s time.

puzzle piece fits into the gap
Find the perfect fit

You know which journals you’re reading and citing yourself, and perhaps your contact network could also help, as I mentioned above. If you know someone who has already published with a journal that they recommend to you then they could be a source of really valuable advice about the publishing process.

If you know of key publishing houses for your discipline then it’s worth visiting their websites too: they often provide “journal finder” tools where you paste in your title and abstract, and their tool will suggest a journal or journals to you, which you can then investigate and consider.

Suitability is not always about the subject. It could be about the novelty of your work, or indeed that the journal specialises in negative findings or reproducibility studies, or some other kind of research. Sometimes suitability is about the style of your article in terms of the balance of words to diagrams, or the way you break down your work to fit in specific sections or headings. Don’t forget referencing style too: you need to be able to match the way that your journal of choice presents research articles. This is why familiarity with the journal can be an important critiera, because it will help you to match what they are looking for. You should at least read a journal’s aims & scope and descriptive materials, and preferably also any instructions for authors to be sure of what the journal’s expectations are.

A final thought on suitability

I’ve focussed on your work’s suitability to a journal, but you also need to think about the journal’s suitability to your research. This post doesn’t discuss open access (OA), but this is one criteria that could rule a journal out of consideration. If your research is funded then you may find that your funder, or even the institution where you’re based has a requirement for you to publish OA. So watch out for journals that can deliver the right kind of OA to match your funder or institutional requirements. More on that in a following blogpost, but for now I recommend the SherpaJuliet website to you.

Similarly, if there is a fee or cost to the author, for extra pages or for colour illustrations, or for open access, then you need to make sure that you can afford the fees.

The who factor

By now you will have noticed that I’ve bolded factors that are useful when you’re choosing a journal, and a few of these are to do with “who” is involved with a journal. While you’re busy checking them out on profile sites like ResearchGate and LinkedIn, why not try connecting with them? I can’t stress enough how useful contacts can be!  I wrote a quick and popular blogpost about 7 ways to make the first contact that you might also find helpful.

Also, look at where the researchers you admire are publishing, and which journals they are citing. After all, those are the researchers who you want to have read your article, so perhaps focus on journals that you know they read, based on their references lists.

In my next post, I’ll look more at peer review, rejection rates and time to publication.

Images: CC0 via Pixabay.

Choosing where to publish: not only journals

a wrench applied to a nail, and a hammer applied to a screw
Find the right tool for the job!

There are many factors that scholars will want to take into account, when choosing where they’d like to be published. I’ve blogged a simple list in the past, of 12 questions to ask when assessing the quality of a journal, but I want to provide a lot more detail (including a look at the impact factor which I deliberately left out in my questions – coming soon!). So I’m building a little series here, starting with a look at some alternatives to the journal article. Just because you have something to say or share with the scholarly community, doesn’t always mean that you have a journal article.

Co-authors: who chooses?

I have seen a tweet from an established academic who said that since he’d got tenure, the un-tenured co-authors on his papers got final say in where their articles were published. (Sorry, I didn’t record the tweet – bad librarian!) That sounds rather chivalrous: early career researchers have a very urgent need to build up their publication lists in a strategic way, while the senior academics might have different agendas.

I also know anecdotally that for many researchers, the opposite is true, and the senior authors choose. If there is even a little bit of influence that an early career researcher (ECR) can exert, then no doubt that ECR will want to make such influence count. So let’s start looking at the factors that could be of interest.

Is a journal article even the right output?

Maybe you’re not sure if you’ve got a scholarly journal article in the pipeline. Or maybe you’ve already got a journal article out and just have a little bit more to add to what you said back then: these channels are not always mutually exclusive, so it’s not always a case of “either/or”, but you may need to be careful of copyright.  With the right author agreements between you and your publisher, you could use many channels for the same piece of research, depending on which audiences you want to reach. My list is not comprehensive but it’s designed to give you ideas for other valuable communication channels.

Ten other places to consider

  1. Conference papers – this is a fairly traditional route to sharing research with other scholars, and some conference proceedings are just like journals. There are disciplinary differences: some disciplines take already published research to conferences, while others take unpublished ideas to conferences and use the conference rather like a first round of peer review, polishing the work afterwards for journal publication. There are many types of conference and they need evaluating. I’ve blogged about choosing conferences before.
  2. Poster /Infographic – posters might be presented at a conference, and could perhaps incorporate or indeed be an infographic, could be more widely shared online, for example embedded into a blogpost or on Instagram.
  3. Books – there are many options here, from the academic monograph to popular non-fiction and indeed fiction itself, which could be based on real science. Not forgetting the vital textbook for your field, but the key here is to think of who your audience is, and the appropriate type of book will become apparent. There are many pitfalls on the monograph route, but you can read of 7 mistakes from Laura Portwood-Stacer, who has been there & done it. And I found a very comprehensive look at self publishing for academics.
  4. Book chapters – maybe you’ve only got one chapter but you could draw on contributions from others, and so could pull together an edited book. This isn’t easy but I found some sensible advice on managing authors. Or perhaps you could keep your eye out for a “call for contributions” from other editors. Pat Thomson outlined the different work that a book chapter does, compared to a journal article.
  5. Guest blogposts – as a guest on someone else’s blog, your content might get a polishing by them, and you benefit from all the work they do to bring audience to your work. You might need to convince successful blogs as to why they should use your post though so I found a great blogpost on what makes a good guest blogger.
  6. Your own blog – this could be all your own work, or a group blog if you have a natural team to contribute to it. Emma Cragg has good advice on starting a blog. And I’ve also written about closing a blog, in case it’s a short-term undertaking for you!
  7. Data deposit – sometimes you have to do this anyway, alongside your journal article but it could be that your data can be deposited without the article. Here there are enormous disciplinary differences, but it’s worth noting that data can be cited.
  8. Practitioner journals – this is a great way to share your research findings among a community where it can have real world impact. Look out for professional associations linked to your field: they may have suitable publications.
  9. Slidedeck / teaching materials – if you’re at an institution where research-led teaching is expected, then maybe research findings can be incorporated into teaching materials – and perhaps shared in a learning objects repository or slidedeck sharing site.
  10. Wikipedia entry – you could become one of the many participants of the digital commons, and share your expertise through Wikipedia.

Having explored these alternatives, maybe you’re sure that you really do have a journal article. Or maybe you would prefer to use one of these channels, but your research funder or institute is only interested in journal articles. So my next post will start to look at aspects of journals that you can evaluate.

Image credit: CC0, via Pixabay

Openness, not only Open Access

An interesting thread appeared on Twitter, during this Open Access (OA) Week, October 2017:

I believe that Erin might have been reacting to claims like those on the SPARC site “Open in order to” which focuses on the benefits that researchers are working towards, and which open access could definitely contribute to.

There were many sensible responses to Erin’s sensible perspective, but in particular Jon Tennant’s perspective rang bells for me.

I’m teaching Masters students Information Ethics again this semester, at Humboldt Universitaet zu Berlin and this reminded me of the way we make our students think about the changes that the digital world has brought about, and about OA and the principles it stands on.

I’ve always remembered meeting Brian Kelly  and his attitude towards and enthusiasm for openness in general made an impression on me. I understood that Brian saw social media was a great way in which to be open. By sharing research ideas openly on blogs and by being open to opportunities, he was able to progress his research and make connections with other researchers. Brian’s openness included (but was not limited to) making sure that his papers were all available on open access in his institutional repository, and you can read more in his scholarly work, via Brian’s profile at the University of Bath.

If you’re going to be open, you have to have something worth sharing, but researchers have lots of valuable ideas and findings worth sharing. If you want to share something then you have to choose the right channels to do so. I chose the plural “channels” quite deliberately here, because I don’t think it’s quite enough to only get your work into an academic journal (I know “only” sounds strange, given how difficult it can be!), not if your goal is to achieve real world impact. And for some researchers’ work, an academic journal is not the right channel anyway. The function of sharing and promoting research findings was once done by publishers and societies, with many disciplines relying on journals but in the world of the Internet, scholarly communication can and should be done by others too, and that’s part of why we need OA.

There is no need for researchers to limit their work to only one location and one communication channel. In the digital world there is even an argument that it should be in multiple locations, perhaps in different formats so that it suits different audiences. Change is happening in the digital world and scholarly communication needs to change too.

For me, scholarly communication is ultimately about reaching the right readers at the right time, with the right information.

As a librarian and information professional, I’ve always been glad to be a part of that process. The process is changing and new roles are being formed. (Aside: You can see how I keep coming back to Ranganathan’s laws of librarianship.) OA is not the only ingredient needed in order to achieve what I see as the ultimate goal, but it is a very helpful part of our toolkit. (And yes, I will be exploring with the students what else we need!)

If OA can be part of the foundations of the academic culture then so much the better, but I’d like to go one step further. I’d like the foundations to be openness in general. Openness to receiving criticism is necessary in academia, as well as openness to others’ entitlement to different views – although they must be prepared to defend them! Openness to improvements in methodologies, to collaborations, to sharing one’s data and findings: these are all ideals that I find among many academics, but I’m not sure that all scholars practice them at all times. It’s a tall order, but if we keep openness as the core principle then OA  and indeed Open Science practices would be as natural as a visit to the library would have been, for an academic of centuries gone by.

Not enough time for reading in academia: can we measure it?

I wanted to explore a topic which has been popular on Twitter, at least amongst the tweets I saw over the summer: that of academics struggling to find the time to read. I’ve written this blogpost in something of a “summer exploration” spirit, since I connected this topic with my interest in bibliometrics.

During the summer there were many  mentions of the importance of reading in academia, on Twitter. Reading of any kind is important for training our minds to think. It’s important for training our own ability with words, our writing skills. And it’s important for keeping uptodate with academic discoveries and developments in fields of interest, to name but a few advantages of reading. Pat Thomson is eloquent on the matter.

As a librarian by background, of course I’m a big fan of reading! But I see how pressure on scholars and researchers to publish, to bring in research grants and to contribute to other activities that are measured in performance evaluations and university rankings might actually be causing them to read less. I may be doing researchers a disservice to suggest that they are reading less, but I’m being sympathetic. Carol Tenopir’s 2014 research into reading via questionnaires and academics’ self-reporting is outlined on the Scholarly Kitchen blog: at first it did look like there was a decline in reading, but in the end the research might only indicate that a plateau was reached, at a time when the volume of content being published is increasing. This might make some scholars feel that they are unable to keep up with their field.

My provocative thought goes like this: If focussing on publication outputs and measuring them via bibliometrics has led to a lack of reading time (which I’m a long way off proving), then perhaps the solution is to also measure (and give credit for) time invested in reading!

Disciplinary differences are at the core of academic reading habits, evidenced by studies of library impact on students, among others. Such studies have involved attempts to correlate student grades with library accesses, as explored in this 2015 paper :

Here there is some correlation of “quality” academic performance and library accesses, although the main conclusion seems to be the importance of the library when it comes to student retention. I also remember reading Graham Stone’s earlier work (cited in the paper above), and the importance of data protection issues. These studies identify cohorts of students rather than individuals and their grades due to ethical (and legal) concerns which apply when it comes to researchers, too.

We must also remember that much content is not digital, or not in the library, whether physical or online. Increasingly, scholarly content is available online via open access, so we don’t need to be identifiably logged in to read it. And indeed, Tenopir’s later work reminds us that content once downloaded can be re-read or shared, outside of the publisher or library platforms. Automatically measuring reading to any degree of accuracy becomes possible only if you dictate how and where academic reading is to be done. Ethical concerns abound!

Instead of measuring time spent reading or volumes of content downloaded or accessed by researchers, perhaps we could give credit to researchers who cite more. After all, citations are an indication that the authors have read a paper, aren’t they? OK, I am being prococative again: how do we know which co-authors have read which of the cited papers? How do we know that a cited paper is one that has been read in full: what if the pre-print has been read rather than the version of record, or only the abstract? Such doubts about what it means to read a paper are expressed in the comments of the Scholarly Kitchen post mentioned earlier.

Actually, we could say that reading and citations are already indirectly assessed, because we evaluate written outputs and publications, and their quality reflects the amount and quality of reading behind them. I think that’ll have to do, because the more I read about academic reading, the more I think we can’t know! How we evaluate the outputs is another matter, of course. I’ve blogged about peer review, but not article level metrics – yet.

I tried to track down Tenopir’s published paper, based on the self-reported questionnaire research critiqued on the Scholarly Kitchen. I think it must be the paper entitled “Scholarly article seeking, reading, and use: a continuing evolution from print to electronic in the sciences and social sciences” The critiquing all occurred before the paper was published, so direct links weren’t provided. Research into how much researchers are reading, whether based on downloads or questionnaires can illustrate disciplinary differences, or signal changes in research practice over time. Tenopir and her co-authors shed light on this, and opened more questions to be answered. I wonder whether researchers could be persuaded to allow tracking software to spy on their reading habits for a limited period… there is much more to be explored in this area but I’m sure that we won’t gain trust by suggesting reading metrics!

Image credit: CC0 Pixabay.

 

Learning about Swiss libraries

pretty spire and buildings, with blue sky in Zurich

Last week I was privileged to be a speaker at the Library Connect event in Zurich. I was talking about research impact metrics and presented the handy cards/poster that I worked on, but my brief was to run a workshop so I didn’t talk too much! I said why I think that bibliometrics are part of the librarian’s domain and summarised the FWCI: then it was on to our workshop discussions. I was really glad to hear more from the attendees about their experiences, and I think it was a real strength of the event that librarians got to talk to each other.

participants around a coffee table, with lots of paperson it.
Workshopping!

I’ve been to the Nordic Library Connect event in the past, but what was really nice about the Swiss one, was that we had researchers as well as librarians there, and the setting was nice and informal so we had lots of conversations in the breaks, as well as in the workshop itself. Whereas most of the Scandinavian librarians were from large central university libraries, at Zurich there were more librarians from smaller departmental and embedded libraries. I get the impression that in the German speaking areas in general, the departmental libraries are more common than in the UK and Scandinavia.

Departmental librarians have slightly different concerns, reflecting the needs of the particular subject community they serve. I chatted (in my clunky German!) with two librarians from the University of Zurich Economics department library, who reminded me of the importance of working papers amongst their community. And it was interesting to hear perspectives from CERN, where they have excellent data about their publications and of course the arXiv resource. I’ve also learnt that ETH Zurich has a library service called “Lib4RI” that serves four scientific research institutes.

I was really pleased to see Dr Oliver Renn of again, who had been a speaker at the Stockholm event. His library (or “Infozentrum“) really seems to have good links with his department, and I can highly recommend a special edition of their newsletter, which presents various attitudes towards bibliometrics. The ETH Department of Chemistry and Applied Biosciences use the Altmetric donut so that their researchers can see who is giving their outputs attention, and they are working with Kudos for promotion of their science.

Charon stands before a projected slide, with notes in hand - smiling!
Charon in action!

A highlight of the day for me, was Charon Duermeijer talking about research ethics and prompting us all to think about our role in supporting researchers with such matters. I highly recommend her as a speaker because she interacts with the audience, asking us questions, and her slides have real substance. I’m sure that she’ll be sharing her slides, so you can get something of  a feel for her talk, but her passion and anecdotes will be missing so catch her if you can, at another event.

And if you get a chance to visit Zurich, then I highly recommend it!

blue lake with blue sky above and a jetty protruding into the lake. On the horizon are mountains, some capped with snow.

Bibliometrics and the academic librarian

Next week I’m going to be at another Elsevier Connect event, this time in Zurich (you can still register if you want to join in!). These events are usually attended by librarians who are not bibliometricians, and often there are bibliometric specialists elsewhere in their libraries or universities. But I think that there’s a need for librarians of many kinds to develop an understanding of bibliometrics and I look forward to discussing more with attendees about bibliometrics use they’ve come across, and what they think that librarians can contribute to the bibliometrics community. Here are some of my thoughts on the topic.

The field of bibliometrics seems to me to be growing: there are ever more studies being published. The knowledge and skills of these academic experts often seems intimidating to me as a practitioner and librarian. There are new developments all the time, which can make it seem hard to keep uptodate, such as a recent initiative to open citation data, via Crossref.

Meanwhile, I notice ever more job advertisements for new kinds of roles in library services or university administration, such as: “Bibliometric specialist”, “Bibliometrician” or perhaps a role related to research impact, which involves using bibliometric (as well as altmetric) data and tools. These are jobs for people who are used to handling huge amounts of data and applying sophisticated analysis techniques to create reports. Expertise with mathematical and statistical methods is required: such was never a part of my training and I feel left behind, but I don’t see that as a problem.

I’ve come to bibliometrics through a rather winding route and I’m interested in a lot more than just bibliometrics: I like watching many developments in the world of scholarly communication such as open access and open science, but also developments in peer review and so on: if you browse this blog you’ll get a flavour!

I have no intention of specialising in bibliometrics nor of spending my days producing bibliometric analyses: I’m simply not the best person to be doing that kind of work. Is there a role for someone like me (an ordinary librarian rather than specialist bibliometrician), within the bibliometrics community? I think so…

In my view, great librarians are able to connect people with the information that they need: I take this, of course, from Ranganathan’s laws. We might do this behind the scenes through collection management which enables independent discovery, or in person, through a traditional enquiry or reference interview. (For illustration and entertainment, if you haven’t seen this helpdesk video then I highly recommend it!)

In the university setting, the resources that we offer as part of the library collection are being used to generate and to provide bibliometric data and measures. It has sometimes been part of libraries’ collection management decisions, which sources of such data are added to the collection. And indeed bibliometric scores like the impact factor might influence journal acquisition or cancellation decisions – although there are many factors to be used for evaluating journals.

Library users include researchers and scholars who are increasingly aware of and concerned about bibliometric scores, and in my view many could use some support. Of course, some researchers will find an interest in bibliometric research and learn way more than I ever could about it all. However, other researchers, while perfectly able to understand bibliometrics research simply have other priorities, and yet others will not have had mathematics and statistics training and so will find bibliometric scores no easier to understand than a librarian like myself.

And this is why I think that the ordinary librarian should remain involved in the bibliometrics scene: if we can understand bibliometric measures and significant developments in the field then not only will we be able to pass knowledge on to our user community, but it is also a sign that such measures can be understood by all academics who might need to understand them.

A scholarly field grows when the experts develop ever more sophisticated methods, and I am no scholar of bibliometrics so it’s fine that I am left behind. But bibliometrics are being used in the real world, as part of national research evaluation exercises, in university ranking schemes and indeed within author online profiles. Academic librarians know both the people involved and the people affected by such developments: we are central to universities, and can act as links, bridging the specialists who do bibliometric analyses for a university and the scholars whose careers are affected.

So the intelligent lay person, the library practitioner’s perspective is a valuable one for the bibliometrics community: if we understand the measures then others will be able to, and we can help to spread the message about how such measures are being used.

I look forward to discussing more with the librarians who are coming to Zurich…

 

OCLC EMEARC in Berlin: conference reflections

A few weeks ago, I was at the OCLC EMEA Regional Council Meeting in Berlin and I’ve just had a notification that the presentations are online, so it makes sense to blog about it this week! It was my first time at such an OCLC event*, and it was great to be able to hear from librarians from such a broad range of nations, libraries and cultures. “EMEA” by the way, stands for Europe, Middle East and Africa. The cultural mix was a real strength of this event, and one that I haven’t experienced in the same way before at any other library conference.

Here is a picture that I took of the stained glass window at the venue:

stained glass window with staircase in front of it

The building was rather special: the meeting was held at the ESMT Berlin, a business school located in the former GDR National Council building. There were little clues everywhere to the building’s former life, from the colourful window to the ball shaped lights which I recognised from reading about the former GDR people’s palace, to the tiny little crossed Meissen swords on one of the wall tiles in the large lobby.**

I learnt lots about the way that OCLC operates, of course, as well as about the member libraries represented by speakers and attendees. You can read about OCLC’s governance structure online anyway, but it was different to hear about it from the people who are actually involved. The meeting showed a great emphasis on accountability to- and involvement of- its members. I was also rather taken by the phrase which we saw everywhere in marketing materials:

Because what is known must be shared

It is a phrase so apt for librarians, and also for OCLC itself, who are all about supporting the community with sharing. From the sharing of metadata records and sharing resources through cloud systems and inter-library loan schemes, to sharing ideas and good practice at events like the very one I was attending, OCLC is definitely about sharing.

My highlights

Keynote

The plenary speakers were inspiring, in the way that plenary speakers are supposed to be, and Skip Pritchard’s keynote which was all about cultural differences definitely got me thinking. The point that I took was that in the modern era we cross cultures so quickly and easily that we don’t always notice, and the potential for misunderstanding is huge. There are so many gaps that we need to try and bridge, across languages and scripts, but more than this, in interpretation, and OCLC as an international organisation obviously faces these challenges fairly regularly. I liked how passionate he sounded about working for OCLC.

Lightning struck twice

Beyond this, the lightning talks were a real highlight for me.  Of the lightning talks, Katrin Kropf of Chemnitz Public Library later won the prize, for her presentation that was all about games and the library: board games, computer games consoles with a projector screen, table football and a (sturdy) interactive table all featured. I also felt inspired by her approach that the library, with its games and books, could get out into the community, appearing at youth clubs and shopping malls and other places where the library’s target audience could be found. It was a very practical lesson in how to take the library to the user, rather than waiting for the users to come to the library.

And another lightning talk that impressed me was from Daniel Tepe of Bremen Public Library. He pointed out that some library visitors don’t spend long in the library because they already know what they want, whilst others come to the library to seek inspiration, and it’s the latter group that library digital services could serve better. The (German language) website that he pointed us to, Stabi24.de looks to me like it does a good job of making e-book and digital content not just discoverable but also visible, and presented in an inspirational way.

Breaking out

Of the parallel member sessions that I attended, I very much enjoyed a presentation from Lars Binau of DTU Denmark. He explained how, 12 years ago the library had had approximately 125,000 visits a year, and now it has roughly 555,000 visits a year. This clearly signalled big changes! And the innovative approach that he described was not just about moving books into the basement to make space for more students, but the whole building needed refurbishing. The library had to provide adequate lighting, suitable accoustics and sound dampening, and indeed air exchange, because of the heat rising off so many more people in the space. And since they were refurbishing, and since the Internet of Things was right around the corner, and it’s a technical university, well they got involved with creating what seemed like a technological playground in the library. Lars described lots of experimentation with sensors and services that meant that students were getting to personalise their environments in the library and staff were fast becoming data scientists. When asked whether students resented being “lab rats” in such an environment, Lars answered that the students get to do experiments themselves, so if it’s helping them to learn and to improve their experience of the library then they don’t seem to mind.

So those are just a handful of my highlights. I daresay I’ll continue to digest this event’s very rich fare for some time to come!

*OCLC are one of my clients
**Hours of watching the BBC’s Antiques Roadshow are apparently paying off!

 

Catching up and concentrating on clients: the life of a freelancer

I’m looong overdue a blogpost: last time I wrote here it was about an Elsevier event in November! I’ve not been quiet exactly, just busy working for my clients. So I thought I’d share a quick look at some of my recent/current work.

Next week, I’m excited to be going to the OCLC EMEA Regional meeting. It happens to be in Berlin and OCLC are a relatively new client. I’m going along to listen for soundbites by the speakers and we’ll see what I write about, based on the inspiring talks in the programme.

I’m always busy working on the social media output for piirus.ac.uk, based at the University of Warwick alongside the more famous jobs.ac.uk. We’ve got a great team of correspondents who share the role of “tweeter” each day, and our blogposts cover a lot of themes relevant to the early career researcher, from time management and networking, to career paths and academic consultancy. We’ve got more good stuff in the pipeline, so if you’re looking for a blog to read then keep an eye out over there.

A hand with a pen, writing on paper at a desk

Since I became freelance, I’ve been regularly writing book back covers and unique selling points for SpringerNature: this is fascinating work as the books come from across the disciplines, from maths and philosophy to physics and health sciences. I get a little insight into some of the excellent research that is being published and learn something new with every book that I write for.

And I’ve been teaching the Information Ethics & Legal Aspects module at Humboldt University again, this last semester. I really like teaching it as I can see how it gives the students food for thought. And it’s so topical: we always find stories in the news to illustrate our themes. The students had their oral exam last week and I’m pleased to say that they all passed!

Well, those have been the main, big projects recently. Those and the tax reporting 😉

Image credit: CC0, via Pixabay

Snowy Stockholm and Nordic Librarians!

Picture from Twitter
Picture from Twitter @Micha2508

Last week I attended Elsevier’s Nordic Library Connect event in Stockholm, Sweden. I presented the metrics poster / card and slide set that I researched for Elsevier already. It’s a great poster but the entire set of metrics take some digesting. Presenting them all as slides in around 30 minutes was not my best idea, even for an audience of librarians! The poster itself was popular though, as it is useful to keep on the wall somewhere to refer to, to refresh your knowledge of certain metrics:

https://libraryconnect.elsevier.com/sites/default/files/ELS_LC_metrics_poster_V2.0_researcher_2016.pdf

I reflected after my talk that I should probably have chosen a few of the metrics to present, and then added more information and context, such as screen captures of where to find these metrics in the wild. It was a very useful experience, not least because it gave me this idea, but also because I got to meet some lovely folks who work in libraries in the Scandinavian countries.

UPDATE 23 Nov 2016: now you can watch a video of my talk (or one of the others) online.

I met these guys... but also real people!
I met these guys… but also real people!

I particularly valued a presentation from fellow speaker, Oliver Renn of ETH, Zurich. He has obviously built up a fantastic relationship with the departments that his library serves. I thought that the menus he offered were inspired. These are explained in the magazine that he also produces for his departments: see p8 of this 2015 edition.

See tweets from the event by clicking on the hashtag in this tweet: