Choosing scholarly journals: reaching the (right) audience

Reaching the right audience is important to authors, and when you check out a journal’s ability to do this, you may come across other clues as to quality along the way.

cardboard silhouettes of people in black, and shades of grey

This blogpost is part of a mini-series I’ve been writing about choosing academic journals to publish in – or at least to send your manuscripts to because of course it’s not only author choice. As a librarian, I know about assessing journals for quality, and also about sources of information about journals, and working with both authors and publishers has also informed me. This post is not about defining the right audience (perhaps my piece about alternatives to scholarly journals might help in that arena), but this post focuses more on the question: How do you know what audience a journal has?

Below you will find out about some of the promotional activities that journals and journal publishers may do, but also things you can do yourself, whichever journal publishes your work.

Draft your article – with title & abstract

This is something of a chicken-and-egg thing, because of course you will want to write specifically for your journal of choice. However, your first draft could be revealing, about what sort of audience may be interested in your article. Have you written for an audience from within your own field, or do you think that it has an appeal beyond your own discipline?

Having a title and abstract (see below my tip about fitting keywords into these) may also help as you can use them in publisher tools that suggest journals to you, like these two:

I’ve not personally used either of these, so I don’t know how helpful they are: what do you think?

Read the journal: does it speak to you?

I am repeating one of my earliest tips here, and it is pretty obvious, but reading the journal is possibly the most important thing you could do, before submitting your manuscript (along with reading the instructions for authors). You will find out whether the journal speaks to scholars like you (or the audience you wish to reach), in a language that you understand and find helpful – or not.

I recently came across a great listing of “The shortest papers ever published“. I love the example of the co-authors who apparently deliberately set out to write the shortest maths paper ever, with two words and two figures. It makes little sense to me, but I wonder if it could also be of interest to fans of patchwork and other crafts. Perhaps this paper has some more accessible material written about it as well, but the presentation of this article makes me think that the journal is intended for scholars rather than crafters.

Don’t just read, however: dig around on the journal website. Familiarise yourself with the journal(s) on your shortlist and how they present and promote their articles. This will give you a good idea of how your own paper could be presented or promoted to others. If there is an “editors highlights” section then your article could be promoted in this sort of way.

Also, if you want to know the “market share” or readership of a journal that includes advertisements: you can sometimes find this out by looking at their information for advertisers.

Standards used

This will vary across the disciplines, but does the journal use standards which are common for your discipline, in the way that it presents article content? This might be about particular scripts, language or terms, display of formulae, diagrams or even referencing formats. These are all things which will speak to the expected audience of the journal.

Instructions or information for authors will also help you to see how rigorous a journal is in applying standards.

planet earth opened out flat, with blue ocean and white landmass

Who subscribes?

Journal home pages may boast of how many subscribers they have, and whether these are individual members or institutions. If this information isn’t on the home page, look out for annual reports. Such data might help you to compare two or more journals, in terms of the width of audience they can reach. Maybe you might want to be a bit more narrow and strategic, however. If there are certain researchers or research groups in your field, who you know you definitely would like to have read your article:

  • Search their library’s catalogue or journal listing: Will your target scholars have access?

You can also search union catalogues like WorldCat for your journal title, to see for yourself how many academic libraries provide access to the journal.

Open Access

If a journal is Open Access (OA), it won’t have any subscribers: instead, it may boast of website visits and download or citation metrics. Theoretically, the OA journal can reach a bigger, unlimited audience, but in practice you may want to dig around a bit more. (Open Access has its own entry in my mini-series, because it might be more important to you than other criteria.)

If the journal is not OA, you can also check out its policy about green OA deposit, on the SherpaRomeo site, so that you can see whether there is anything that you as the author can do, to broaden readership and promote your article through repositories and their communities.

Journal’s promotion to readers / discoverability

Whether the journal is a subscription or OA one, it’s worth digging a little deeper to find out more than just such numbers. In a way, this is about asking, what is the journal publisher doing with your content: are they offering a real service to their authors, making it discoverable? My bullet points below talk through some clues you could look for, but in order to know what is particularly important to your target audience, I recommend reading “How readers discover content in scholarly publications” – or at least look at the figures which are very revealing, by discipline and by high/low income countries. Figure 28, about how researchers discovered the last article they read is particularly interesting!

    • Where is the journal indexed? By this, I mean can you find it on abstracting and indexing or citation databases where scholars in your field search for literature? Is the journal “search engine optimised” for academic search engines? Check this out by visiting the databases and places where you search for information, and either:
        1. look at their list of journal titles/search for your journal by title
        2. or try to find one or two of the articles that you’ve read, from your journal of choice (try this on Google Scholar, for instance)
    • Promotional campaigns. You might not know if a journal does this sort of promotion, but if they don’t tell you on their website, or you didn’t find out about them through promotional activity then some clues include:
        1. Publisher website: what are they promising to new journals that want to join their publishing house, in terms of marketing for journals?
        2. Conferences: do they sponsor or are they present at/associated with any particularly important meetings for your field?
        3. Social media channels: if the journal uses Twitter, Instagram or Facebook, take a look at how they are using it. Do they tweet about topical world events and use this to promote articles to wider audiences, for instance? Do they use well-known hashtags for your discipline or field and appeal to academic audiences?
        4. Google searching: if you do a search for content in a journal, do you get a sponsored result? Keep an eye out for this!
        5. Call for papers / journal news /press releases : these things aren’t all going to promote your article exactly, but if they are handled well then they will raise the profile of the journal. The journal may also boast of press or media interest in their articles, which might broaden the audience of your article – if your article attracts media attention.
        6. Perhaps the journal has a way of making articles free to read once they have surpassed a certain number of downloads, as a promotional tool.

      stretched out globe with contintents in dark blue and the oceans full of radiating white arrows to indicate a network

  • Table of Content notifications /RSS feeds/ Search alerts are supported. If your journal offers a range of options for people to be told about their latest articles, then this will help to boost the number of visitors to their site – and therefore possible readership for your article when it appears in their notification.
    1. A Table of Contents (ToC) might be offered to visitors to a journal site, as an email update. Also, if your journal is listed on the JournalTocs site then this is a good sign in my view: it means that their ToC is accessible to discovery tools.
    2. I’m a bit old-fashioned in my use of the web, apparently: my RSS feed reader is now called “The Old Reader“!
    3. Search alerts are most likely supported on the indexing databases and academic search engines anyway, but some publisher platforms also offer search alerts.
  • Are Digital Object Identifiers (DOIs) issued for articles? These help by:
    1. providing a permanent link to your article so that readers can share it with others
    2. making it easier for others to cite your work: they enable data importing into reference management tools & DOIs are even required in some citation styles (eg APA).
    3. enabling tracking of links to your article, so that readership & altmetrics for your own article can be calculated… among other benefits.

Which reminds me: does the journal make it easy for others to cite your work, for example by including a “how to cite this article” link or formatted reference?

Society members

Like the math journal I mentioned earlier which featured one of the shortest ever papers, journals which are published by membership organisations and societies will presumably bring a readership to your paper from among their members. If so, you might want to consider:

  • How many members do they have, and do all members get copies of or notifications with ToCs from the journal?
  • Are you yourself a subscriber/recipient of the journal – and are your peers? (Do YOU read it?!)
  • Does the journal come in print as well as electronic format? (See below for why I think this matters)

Print runs or e-only?

Most journals are available online, as e-Journals. Fewer are available in print as well, but journals which do have print runs will probably have been around for longer, so they have had time to establish good reputations. Journals with print runs may be more strict than other journals in their instructions to authors, due to page space and the cost of colour printing, etc. However, the print version is an opportunity for your article to reach audiences that the e-version is less likely to reach.

Advantages of print include:

  • Some readers prefer paper
  • Print journals can be very attractive items
  • They may reach general readers at the newsagents on the high street/at the airport, etc
  • Paper can be taken anywhere (OK, so can a tablet, but paper needs no battery and it’s less costly if your paper item gets wet!)
  • Those without reliable and fast Internet access, such as in third world countries (and remote areas of first world countries: but does the print copy reach them?)

For many researchers the ideal would be a journal with both print and electronic versions. But others find print too restrictive and the electronic journals do support new functions, so this is something for you to consider: what suits your research best?

Promote your article yourself

I usually finish my training sessions with this thought, but I’m going to mention it here instead this time. I know that publishers should be doing this for you, but even best selling authors do promotion of their work: so think about what you might be prepared to do yourself. Perhaps choose something from my list below – or read what advice your journal gives to authors, for promoting their articles. I like the advice on Nature’s website for authors.

  1. When you write the article, in the title & abstract, try to use all keywords which researchers with an interest in this topic might type in a search engine.
  2. Deposit your article into a Green OA repository: they will probably promote your article as well, such as on social media or their “latest additions” page.
  3. Put a citation for your latest journal article (or output) into your email signature
  4. Update academic profile sites: doing this through ORCID will make it easier, with one site to update & other profile sites can draw on that.
  5. Promote your article through social media: maybe you don’t have your own Twitter account or blog, but does someone in your department or institution have one? They will probably be glad to have content to send out! If you do use academic profile sites and social media channels yourself, then I recommend IFTTT as a place to tie them all together and optimise your posting to one channel so that it gets spread into other channels too.
  6. Create slides explaining/summarising your paper: these can be uploaded to slide sharing sites, also promoted through social media channels and perhaps also used in teaching or speaking opportunities. You don’t have to stop at slides: you could do a video clip or a podcast, or whatever suits your skills.
  7. Send links or actual print copies to colleagues who are working in similar areas. I personally find it harder to ignore paper on my desk, so for a really key contact, I might use the old-fashioned print option!

Finally, one of the ways you can ensure discovery of your article, is to do everything possible to make sure that it is cited. This is not so easy, it is slightly frowned upon as “gaming” the system, and my blogpost here is not about how to get cited. However, if you come across advice that might tip the odds (such as clearly stating “how to cite this article”, or choosing OA publishing), or if you are not sure about whether or not to self-cite, do bear in mind Figure 28 from that report I mentioned earlier! In the Humanities at least, following a citation is the second highest discovery route, after searching for articles.

A final thought

cardboard cutout silhouettes of people in grey and black, but one figure is bright green, standing out

I’m going to play devil’s advocate: perhaps it’s enough if your article is read by your co-authors, proof-readers you call on, the journal editor and their peer reviewers. It might depend on how specialist your research is, and how important to your field (and influential to your career) those co-authors and peer reviewers are! Perhaps you have bigger plans for your next article anyway: a good strategy is probably to publish in different types of journals. An article from earlier this year on InsideHigherEd urges scholars to broaden their focus, in terms of target audiences.  Just another reason why I’ve left impact factors and bibliometrics for last, in my mini-series. Watch this blog in the New Year for the next installment!

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Choosing scholarly journals: The influence of open access, and journals to avoid

This post is part of a mini-series on my blog, where I’m tying together all my ideas about choosing where to publish. You can look back through previous posts where I start with the most important factors, but this post is about Open Access (OA) and it discusses how to achieve OA, useful sources and journals to perhaps avoid. Concepts of academic freedom and funder/institutional mandates as well as predatory journals are discussed below. A couple of quick tips if you’re in a rush though: check what your journals of choice allow regarding OA on the SherpaRomeo site (& compare this with your research funder’s OA mandate). Or look for an OA journal on DOAJ.

open access logo (opened padlock)

What is Open Access?

Open Access, as defined by the Berlin declaration has two main characteristics:

  1. Content or information is free of cost to the reader – price barrier removed
  2. Content can be freely copied – permission barrier removed

However, people have interpreted the concept of OA fairly widely and not everyone signs up to the Berlin declaration: some “open access” content is not shared in a way that enables free copying, especially from the early days of the OA movement. The Berlin declaration is, for me, the ideal type of OA, since the ability to copy enables text and data mining research techniques, as well as document sharing among readers. SPARC have a helpful post about libre and gratis OA, which might help if you’ve come across these terms to describe different interpretations of the OA concept.

There are also different ways to make your journal article open access, whether libre or gratis: the two main routes are:

  1. Green OA, or repository deposit (often of an early version, but possibly the route giving authors most freedom of choice about journals: read on!)
  2. Gold OA, or choosing a journal where you can either:
    1. pay a fee to “unlock” the article, also known as an Article Processing Charge (APC)
    2. publish for free because the journal is subsidised in some way

More about these two routes follows below.

Why do we want it?

Motivations vary but the reasons why an author might want their article to be OA include:

  1. It is mandated/required by your research funder / institution (more on mandates & policies, below)
  2. You think it’s a good thing that publicly funded research should be available to the public, free of charge
  3. You believe that OA results in your work being shared more quickly and more widely, and enables further research in your field
  4. You think that there is a career advantage to OA, based on a “citation advantage” (this is discussed further below)

It’s also worth noting of course, that some scholars don’t feel motivated to publish their research OA, for example because they believe that subscription/readers fees are reasonable and support their scholarly societies and thus their discipline. However, even non-OA journals may leave the “Green OA” route open to you.

Unlocking content: Green OA

The “green” route to open access is, in principle, suitable for all journal articles (but see below why it might not be, in practice). It involves authors depositing a copy of their journal article into an OA repository, perhaps an institutional repository or a subject repository. So you can theoretically submit to whichever journal suits your work best (discussed earlier in this mini-series) and at the same time deposit your submitted version to your institutional repository, safe in the knowledge that you have now made your work:

  1. available for all to read
  2. visible in new channels online, brought to new audiences
  3. more likely to get cited (although the citation advantage for Green OA isn’t huge. I like this balanced view of the citation advantage for deposited articles)
  4. archived as a back-up to the published “version of record” and for future generations
  5. available for others to copy and use – among other benefits of OA

However, it’s not that easy being green…

puzzled green cartoon frog

There is one major hurdle to achieving Green OA: your authors’ agreement that you signed with the publisher of that journal. This is sometimes called an Exclusive Licence to Publish, or a Copyright Transfer Agreement. So, if you are an author then read what you sign, and keep a copy along with your journal article drafts so that you will know in future what is and is not likely to be allowed under copyright law. It helps to have a folder for draft versions of your article anyway, as these are the ones that may be suitable for deposit, and I’ve always been a fan of the Versions toolkit from LSE, when it comes to tracking your article versions. So add screenshots of whatever tick boxes or terms and conditions you’re agreeing to when you submit your article, into that folder.

Find out what mandates apply to your research

Many authors are aiming for Open Access in order to meet a policy or mandate from their funder or at their research institution, which requires them to publish their work in an Open Access way. Often these policies expect “gratis OA” where both price and permission barriers are removed. Not all journals’ policies will allow you to do this in the “green” way, although they may also offer a Gold OA route (see below). SherpaJuliet summarises the requirements of many research funders and attempts to help you match these to journal policies, as listed on SherpaRomeo and helping authors to choose journals which will meet everyone’s needs.

Publisher & journal policies

SherpaRomeo provides overviews of publisher restrictions that affect whether or not Green OA is possible. Don’t just rely on the overviews though: check out their links to publisher sites for more information and the most updated perspective. Note that SherpaRomeo don’t have historical data about what journals included in author agreements from the past, which is why it’s important to keep a copy of what you signed. Typical restrictions (which might clash with funder or institution OA policies) include:

  • early versions only: this assumes that you have kept clear records of which version was your submitted one, also known as the pre-print. And that you have a copy of the final version after peer review but before typesetting and formatting into the final version, sometimes known as the post-print but also confusingly sometimes also called a pre-print. These are also sometimes called your manuscript, and it is not uncommon for researchers to feel that their early versions should not be publicly available: this varies across disciplines and perhaps is affected at the individual article level by how much polish the peer review process has actually added.
  • you can only deposit in certain places: sometimes publishers have only allowed authors to put copies onto personal web pages and not allowed deposit in repositories.
  • after an embargo period: it’s fairly typical that even if you deposit immediately upon submission, an embargo period of 6, 12, 24 or 36 months (or more!) is required after the date of publication, before your repository version can go live to the public. Most institutional repositories can handle this, so when you make your submission of your manuscript, deposit to the repository and set an embargo countdown.
  • no further copying allowed: or restrictions on further copying of the repository version are to be applied, essentially restricting you to achieving “libre OA” where the price barriers are removed, but permission barriers remain in place.

Copying/re-use enabled by Creative Commons Licences

If you are able to make a Green OA deposit that allows “gratis OA” (so permission to copy is something that you can grant) then you will probably attach a “CC-BY” licence to your article in the repository. This is just one of many different types of licences that Creative Commons make available, and it basically means that others may use your content in any way, so long as they attribute it properly to you.

You can read lots more about Creative Commons licences on their website: they are behind images available for re-use on sites like Flickr and Pixabay, because not only are their licences legal documents with clear explanations for the lay person, but they also have a computer-readable layer. I’m a big fan!

If you’re attaching a licence to your own article, you will need to be careful of any third-party copyright content in your article. For example a photograph or illustration that someone else allowed you to use: what permissions can you now grant to others? If they used a CC-BY licence then it’s fine for you to use the same licence. However, if they used a CC-BY-SA or “share-alike” licence then you must also use CC-BY-SA. Anyway, do read more on the CC website!

Gold Open Access

golden coins, stacked & spread

This is where the author (or their institution, or funder) pays an Article Processing Charge (APC) in order to unlock the content so that it is free to read and available to copy and re-use. Nothing else needs to change for Gold OA to be achieved, and essentially this is about a new business model for the publisher: their income is achieved in a different way.

It may even be free for the author if the journal’s costs are sponsored in some way, for example journals published by a university or funder, or indeed traditional journals who want to support research from scholars in lower-income countries. Some journals are entirely Gold OA, and will be listed on the DOAJ which is perhaps the most comprehensive listing, but it’s not the only way to find OA titles:

Of the 21 500 journals tracked by Scopus, an abstract and citation database, around 3500 are gold OA titles.

This quote is from relatively recent article (May 2017) in Physics Today which discusses lots more about the business model and economics of Gold OA. Many abstract and indexing databases will support searches for OA journals. The Open Research site has some useful ideas, too, to help authors choose the right OA journal. (More on quality questions coming up, below!)

Hybrid journals & Gold OA

Some journals (often well established ones) allow authors to pay APCs to achieve Gold OA on an individual article basis, while other articles are locked only to subscribers: these journals are called “hybrid”. Sometimes funders might not want to pay Gold OA fees for hybrid journals: this is typical in Germany, and strictness over OA, price of APCs supported and type of journals supported could be construed as restriction of the right of academic freedom.

The fear with “hybrid” is that publishers make money twice (so-called “double dipping”): once from authors and then again from those who subscribe to journals. Offsetting schemes for subscribers with open pricing models help to remove such fears but openness and clarity are needed for this to work. In any case, some believe that if there is no progress towards a journal becoming wholly OA then the hybrid situation doesn’t help the academic community in the long term.

A very thorough discussion of the hybrid journal situation can be found on Cambridge University’s excellent “Unlocking research” blog, but part of the picture involves generally higher costs for APCs in hybrid journals than in OA journals – perhaps because the hybrid journals are those longer established and so claiming more prestige. Anyway, do read Cambridge’s blogpost for a fuller picture of the issues with hybrid journals and lots of further reading.

Lower quality?

One of my first criteria for authors when choosing where to submit articles, was journal reputation. It’s important that OA journals are not thought to be of lower quality, if your research publication is to enhance your CV. Indeed, it is important that OA journals are equally as good at improving and filtering for quality as traditional journals if scholarly communication is to continue in the known, tried and trusted way. (That said, there is room for improvement in the known, tried and trusted way – see earlier blogposts about peer review.)

More new OA journals are being launched all the time (although note that DOAJ’s steadily climbing total took a dive last year when they tightened their listing criteria), and new journals don’t have years of quality track-record or experience of quality filtering processes behind them. So authors may feel that a new and OA journal is less of a “safe bet” when it comes to gaining CV prestige. However, not all OA journals are new! And many have been launched by publishers with good track-records and experience. Many OA journals follow exactly the same peer review and editorial processes as traditional journals, although some OA journals and publishers are innovating too (PeerJ and F1000 spring to mind). Sometimes an “up-and-coming” journal that will process your article quickly and meet all your funder/institution requirements is just what you’re looking for…

Building a name: mega-journals

PLoS ONE is one of the longer-established OA journals (10 years). It is also a pioneer of the so-called “mega-journal”, an innovation where the journal publishes articles across many different fields and disciplines rather than specialising. With the mega-journal, usually there is no restriction in terms of page numbers, articles per issue or indeed any issues or volumes: in this type of journal, articles simply go live when they are ready. Peer review is based on soundness of the research only as there is no requirement to match the subject or more specific mission of the journal. This has advantages (speed!) but can make it harder for the journal to get known for quality across all the fields it covers, and perhaps that’s why PLoS have a suite of journals these days.

You can read lots more in a recent article with the title “Open Access mega-journals: The future of scholarly communication or academic dumping ground? A review.”

Cascading systems

I think that the large publishing houses’ cascading systems may have something to do with accusations of lower quality for OA journals. After all, if you’re told that your article is rejected from your journal of choice after peer review, but accepted to another journal (possibly a mega-journal) where you have to pay a fee, then you might feel that the journal that accepts the article is of lower quality. But it could just be a question of subject-match and relevance, and cascading systems do help authors to find a publication route more quickly.

In essence, quality isn’t really about OA or non-OA, but of course there are lower quality OA journals. I’ve written about identifying quality journals before, but read more below about predatory journals in this context. I think that because APCs are being paid by authors, you need to be able to identify the best place for your article and also for the public funding that is often behind OA funds that cover APCs. This is where libraries and librarians can help!

“Predatory” journals: journals to avoid

the beak and head of a hawk

There have been some more unscrupulous players who have seen Gold OA funds as a money-spinner, so that they can harvest APCs while providing little more than a website where an article sits. The unscrupulous players solicit submissions to their journal with not-very-well written e-mail invitations to authors, but of course non-native speakers of English might not find it easy to spot that the emails are badly written. And not all solicitations are necessarily from unscrupulous players – although it would make me check such a journal out very thoroughly indeed.

Such players have been called “predatory” publishers, or their journals labelled “predatory” journals. It’s a phrase that was used in Beall’s list, which was essentially a blacklist, and it was a convenient way to categorise publishers who offered little to the academic community, while making massive profits from APCs for Gold OA. Cabell’s blacklist takes over where Beall’s list left off, focussing on behaviours that might ring alarm bells. I think that the key to any blacklist is that it is clear about what has been investigated and found lacking – and how uptodate it is.

What makes a “predator”

I think it’s worth considering at this stage, what authors want from scholarly journals. I’d like to focus on 3 main criteria:

  • Quality assurance: polish the article and publish it alongside other high quality work.
  • Bring it to the attention of the right (scholarly & disciplinary) audiences (thus the field advances & the author(s) gain “intellectual territory”)
  • Do the above as quickly as possible !

Quality and speed aren’t always compatible elements: add in the publisher’s need to make money and manage costs, and you get some innovative journals which makes it difficult to spot the ones that are doing things that are not in the interests of the academic community.  The Think.Check.Submit. pages are a good place to explore if you want to check a journal out for yourself, but I would also want to ensure that a journal offers features like those listed below.

Predatory journals might lack:

  1. High quality website with other articles of high quality, perhaps from prestigious authors
  2. Articles are issued with DOIs (Digital Object Identifiers)
  3. Journal is indexed in important abstracting and indexing databases for my field, especially citation tracking tools (check this by searching those databases, don’t just take the journal website’s word for it!)
  4. Publisher is a member of industry good practice & standards organisations like COPE, OASPA and CrossRef
  5. Journal is listed on DOAJ and meets their transparency and best practice criteria.

In summary

Make sure that you know exactly what you want from your journal publisher, when choosing a journal to submit your manuscript to. This may or may not include Open Access, but I’m sure that it will include markers of quality, and that’s something that your subject expertise, reading and contacts can help you to identify, quite apart from the clues discussed in this blogpost.

Next in my mini-series: reaching the right audience.

Images credits: CC0 via Pixabay

 

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.

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

Reflections and a simple round-up of Peer Review Week 2016

It has been Peer Review Week this week: I’ve been watching the hashtag on Twitter with interest (and linked to it in a blogpost for piirus.ac.uk) and on Monday I attended a webinar called “Recognising Review – New and Future Approaches or acknowledging the Peer Review Process”.

I do like webinars, as I’ve blogged before: professional development/horizon scanning from my very own desktop! This week’s one featured talks from Paperhive and Publons, amongst others, both of which have been explored on this blog in the past. I was particularly interested to hear that Publons are interested in recording not only peer review effort, but also editorial contributions. (Right at the end of the week this year, there have been suggestions that editorial work be the focus of next year’s peer review week so it seems to me that we’ve come full circle.) A question from the audience raised the prospect of a new researcher metric based on peer review tracking. I guess that’s an interesting space to watch!

I wondered where Peer Review Week came from: it seems to be a publisher initiative if Twitter is anything to go by: the hashtag is dominated by their contributions. On Twitter at least, it attracted some publisher criticism: if you deliberately look at ways to recognise peer review then some academics are going to ask whether it is right for publishers to profit so hugely from their free work. Some criticisms were painful to read and some were also highly amusing:

There were plenty of link to useful videos, webpages and infographics about how to carry out peer review, both for those new to it and for those already experienced, such as:

(On this topic, I thought that an infographic from Elsevier about reasons why reviewers refused to peer review was intriguing.)

Advice was also offered on how / how not to respond to peer reviews. My favourite:

And there were glimpses of what happens at the publisher or editor level:

There wasn’t much discussion of the issue of open vs blind or double blind peer review, which I found interesting because recognition implies openness, at least to me. And there was some interesting research reported on in the THE earlier this month, about eliminating gender bias through double blind reviews, so openness in the context of peer review is an issue that I feel torn about. Discussion on Twitter seemed to focus mostly on incentives for peer review, and I suppose recognition facilitates that too.

Peer Review Week has also seen one of the juiciest stories in scholarly communication: fake peer reviews! We’ve been able to identify so much dodgy practice in the digital age, from fake papers and fake authors to fake email addresses so that you can be your own peer reviewer and citation rings. Some of this is, on one level, highly amusing: papers by Maggie Simpson, or a co-author who is, in fact your cat. But on another level it is also deeply concerning, and so it’s a space that will continue to fascinate me because it definitely looks like a broken system: how do we stick it all together?

Event reporting: An Open Science meet-up in Berlin

Last week I went along to an Open Science meet-up here in Berlin. It was hosted at the Centre for Entrepreneurship at the Technische Universitaet and the theme of the evening was

Academic Papers: collaboration, writing & discovery

There were presentations from two interesting, freshly developed collaboration tools for researchers:
  1. Paperhive –  About having conversations about a paper, such that if you don’t understand something you can ask a question and someone else will answer it.  It doesn’t create copies of papers but allows you to search for them and when you view the paper through their interface, you see the comments. Collaborative reading!
  2. Authorea –  Tool for co-authoring a paper, which apparently works with LATEX and Google docs and other formats besides. “puts emphasis on collaboration and structured, visual editing.” Collaborative writing!
Discussion at the meeting was interesting: it was led by Alex from Paperhive, who evoked the “spirit of open science”, i.e. collaboration and sharing. And we all did share: if you’re interested in such themes then take a look at Twitter conversations with the #openscience hashtag, as of course some folks tweeted at the event!
I chatted to fellow freelancers and to researchers including Franzi, who is involved in a citizen science project at Berlin’s Natural History Museum, and also Sebastian who works for an open access publisher – of great sounding digital books – Language Science Press.
I was left reflecting on how data sharing can be achieved, as opening access to papers is one thing, but opening your data and your whole science is another… being open at the beginning about methodologies can help people to join disparate studies together and share the same methodology to make the results of their research more powerful. But as ever, being open is just the start of the process because you also have to make yourself heard! What channels are there for doing this? And of course, we all of researchers who won’t release data because they want to get another 5 papers out of it themselves. Yet who can blame them in the publish or perish climate? What we measure and incentivise researchers for can have damaging effects, not least the salami slicing of research that would be far more meaningfully written up in a single paper, instead of across 6! How can we make open data itself the output? Well, such themes are big and not for me to worry about, thank goodness. Last week was also the LIBER conference in Helsinki and there the library mangers and repository and publishing folks were very busy discussing data related themes. Once again, Twitter gives a flavour of the kind of things discussed there.

Quality checks beyond peer review? Retractions, withdrawals, corrections, etc

I often find myself reading/writing things about whether peer review is working or not, the opportunities for post publication peer review and about the changes needed in scholarly communication. An article in the THE earlier this year described a “secret dossier on research fraud” and the concerns it expresses are familiar, although I balk at the word “fraud”.  The THE article/its source claims that:

scientists and journals are extremely reluctant to retract their papers, even in the face of damning evidence

Perhaps the scientists don’t completely understand the processes that publishers use, nor indeed feel able to influence the consequences to their reputations which they must maintain in order to stand a chance of winning the next research grant and remain employed. I used to give workshops to budding researchers on “how to get published”, when I would explain something of the publishing process to them, and my final slide was all about corrections, errata and retractions: what is the difference between them, and why and how do they occur? (Quick answers below!) Even if the reason for retraction should bring no shame, but honour for admitting a mistake, researchers still don’t want to have an article retracted.

Perhaps in the days of print there was even more reason for stringency in avoiding post-publication alterations: after all, the version of record, the print article, would have been impossible to correct and researchers could only be alerted to any retractions or corrections through metadata records and, perhaps if they were avid readers of a journal then they might spot notices in later editions. However, I do wonder if, in the digital world, there is more room for post-publication alterations without shame, in the name of improving science. This is why it is important for researchers and publishers to work together to define the different categories of such alterations and what do they mean for a researcher’s reputation? There is a lack of clarity, which I think stems partially from a variety of practice with different journals, publishers or even database providers in how they describe and handle the various circumstances in which post-publication alterations are needed.

Corrections, corrigenda and errata are used by journals for minor corrections to a published work, eg name of an author was mis-spelled, or a title not properly capitalised, or also for a minor error in an amount mentioned, eg dosage. These are published in later issues in print, added to metadata records in the digital sphere, and also usually visible in the digital full text with a note in brackets after the corrected item. As a librarian, I’m interested in how this sort of information is transferred in metadata records: the U.S. National Library of Medicine website describes how these are usually all referred to as Errata in PubMed, and their page about this goes on to explain and categorise many different types of t

For me, these are a very good reason to ensure that you read the final published version of an article that you intend to cite: the green OA pre-print version of an article is useful for you to understand the work, but not the one I recommend citing.

Retractions are when an article is withdrawn: this is something that you can do as the author, or indeed your institution could do it on your behalf (sometimes also called a withdrawal, see below), or the editor or publisher of a journal can retract an article. Reasons for retraction of an article include a pervasive (but honest) error in the work, or sometimes might be for unethical practice. I can’t recommend the RetractionWatch blog highly enough for examples and stories of retractions. Sometimes you also hear about a partial retraction which might occur when only one figure or part of the conclusions is withdrawn, whilst the rest of the paper is sound.

Withdrawals are when a paper is no longer included in a publication, often when it has accidentally been published twice. I am increasingly hearing of fees being charged to authors for a withdrawal. Publishers usually have policies about what they consider to be grounds for a withdrawal: see Elsevier’s explanation of withdrawals and retractions, for example.

My explanations are a very light-touch introduction to the subject: publishers’ guidance will give you more of an idea about what might happen to your own articles, but I do see a variety of terminology and practice. My advice to academics is to never make assumptions that work which has been corrected or retracted is necessarily suspect, nor that it should affect a researcher’s reputation unless the whole story is known. Just like the reason why we can’t take bibliometric or altmetric scores as the whole picture of an academic’s worth: we always need context. If we all did this, then there would be no reason for authors to resist retraction, but I know that that is an ideal. Hence the story in the THE which I began with…

 

 

How to speed up publication of your research – and impress journal editors

In my last blogpost I looked at the time it takes to get published, and this led to a brief Twitter chat about how editors’ time gets wasted. Of course there are things that researchers can do to help speed up the whole system, just as there are things that publishers are trying to do. If you’re interested in how to write a great journal article in the first place (which of course, is what will increase your chances of acceptance and therefore speed things up) then you could take a look at some great advice in the Guardian.cards

I’m not looking at writing in this blogpost, rather at the steps to publication that researchers can influence, sometimes for themselves and sometimes more altruistically. I imagine that a board game could be based on the academic publication process, whereby you get cards telling you that you must wait longer, or you get rejected, and sent to the start. Very occasionally you are told that a peer has sped things up for you in some way so that you (and your field) can move on.

Do what you’re told!
It sounds simple, but it’s amazing how many editors report that many authors appear to have not read guidelines before submitting. Wrong word counts, line spacing, no data supplied, wrong reference formats, etc could all result in a desk rejection, thus wasting everyone’s time. A good reference managing tool will ease and expedite reference style reformatting, but even so, matching each journal’s style is a lot of work if you submit the same article to many journals, so perhaps this begins with choosing the right journal (see below).

Also, authors who are re-submitting need to ensure that they respond to ALL the editor’s and reviewers’ recommendations. Otherwise, there might be another round of revisions… or a rejection, setting you back to square one.

Be brief and ‘to the point’ in your correspondence with journal editors
First question to authors: do you really need to write to the editor? Writing to check if their journal is a good match for your article is apparently annoying to journal editors, especially if your email looks like an automated one. If you have a question, be sure that you can’t find the answer on the journal’s website: this way you can save editors’ time so that they use it to make the right publishing decisions. If you want to make a good impression on an editor or seek their opinion then perhaps find a way to meet them personally at a conference. (Tip: if they are on Twitter then they might announce which conferences they are going to!)

Choose the right journal to submit to

I have no magic formula but these steps might help you to decide:

  1. Look for a good subject match. Then whether the type, scale and significance of your work fits the type of material usually published in that journal. In other words, read some of the content recently published in the journal you intend to submit to. Check their calls for papers and see if you match them. And read their guidelines (see above).
  2. Listen to experienced authors. If you know someone with experience of publishing in a particular journal, then perhaps ask them for advice: getting to know the journal you are submitting to is important in helping you to target the right one.
  3. Use bibliometric scores with caution. I have blogged here previously about 12 signs of quality for a journal, and note that I don’t mention the impact factor! My number 1 is about peer review, and I expand on that in this post, below. My number 5 is whether the journal is indexed on Web of Science or Scopus: this is not all about the impact factor either. What it means is that the journal you are considering has passed selection criteria in order to be indexed at all, that your article will be highly discoverable, and that it would contribute to your own h-index as an author. If you really want to use a bibliometric, you could look at the article influence scores, and since this blogpost is about speeding things up, then you could also consider the immediacy index, which indicates how quickly items are cited after publication.
  4. Can’t I just take a sneaky peak at the impact factors? I think this is a last resort! Some people see them as a proxy for a good reputation but after all I’ve read about bibliometrics, I’d rather use my twelve signs. In my last blogpost I reported on a Nature News item, which implied that middle-range impact factor journals are likely to have a faster turn around time, but you’ll have to dig a bit deeper to see if there’s anything in that idea for your discipline. In ny view, if everyone is targetting the top impact factor journals, you can be sure that these journals will have delays and high rejection rates. You might miss the chance to contribute to a “rising star” journal.

Choose a perfect peer reviewer!
At some journals, you may get an option to suggest peer reviewers. I don’t imagine that there are many experts in your field who are so good at time management that they can magically create time, and who already know about and value your work, so you will have to balance your needs with that is on offer. Once again, you should be careful to follow the journal’s directions in suggesting peer reviewers. For example, it’s no good suggesting an expert practitioner as a peer reviewer if the journal explicitly asks for a academics, and you probably can’t suggest your colleague either: read what the journal considers to be appropriate.

Is it the right peer review mechanism?
There are many variations of peer review, and some innovative practice might appeal to you if your main goal is speed of publication, so you could choose a journal that uses one of these modern methods.

Here is a list of some peer review innovations with acceleration in mind:

  1. You may have an option to pay for fast tracked peer review at your journal of choice.
  2. Seek an independent peer review yourself, before submission. The same type of company that journals might turn to if they offer a paid-for fast track peer review may also offer you a report that you can pay for directly. The example I know of is Rubriq.
    You can also ask colleagues or peers for a pre peer review, if you think that they might be willing.
  3. Take advantage of a cascading peer review” gold open access (OA) route, at a publisher which offers that. It’s a shame that OA often appears to be a lower quality option, because publishers say to authors the equivalent of “you’re rejected from this top journal but are invited to submit to our gold OA journal”. Such an invitation doesn’t reflect well the publishers either, because of course gold OA is the one where authors pay a fee or “Article Processing Charge”. However, if your research budget can cover the cost then this can be quicker.
  4. Open reviews: there is a possibility that reviewers will be more thorough if their reviews are publicly seen, so I’m not sure that this will necessarily speed the process up. But if you’re looking for explicit reasons why you’ve been rejected, then such a system could be helpful. PeerJ is a well known example of a journal that does this.
  5. Publish first and opt for post publication peer review. The example often given is F1000, which is really a publishing platform rather than a journal. Here, the research is published first, and labelled as “awaiting peer review”. It is indexed after peer review by places like Pubmed, Scopus, the British Library, etc. F1000 also has open peer review, so the reviews as well as the latest version can be seen. Authors can make revisions after peer review and at any time. An alternative to F1000 is that you can put your draft paper into an open access repository where it will at least be visible/available, and seek peer review through publication in a journal later. However, there are disciplinary differences as to whether this will be acceptable practice or not when you later submit to journals (is it a redundant publication because it’s in a repository?), and indeed whether your pre-print will be effective in claiming your “intellectual territory”. In some disciplines, the fear is that repository papers are not widely seen, so others might scoop you to reach recognised publication. In the sciences this is less likely, since access to equipment and lengthy experiments are not likely to be duplicated in time.

Be a peer reviewer, and be prompt with your responses
I have three steps you can follow, to accelerate even traditional peer review:

  1. When invited to carry out a peer review that you cannot find time for, or you are not the right person then you can quickly say “no”, and perhaps suggest someone else suitable. This will speed things up for your peers and make a good impression on an editor: one day this might be important.
  2. If you say “yes” then you can be prompt and clear: this will support your peers but may also enhance your reputation. Larger publishers may track peer reviewers’ work on a shared (internal only or publicly visible!) system, and you can claim credit yourself somewhere like Publons. (See an earlier blogpost that discusses credit for peer review.)
  3. Are you setting the bar too high? By raising standards ever higher, the time it takes for research to be shared is lengthened. Of course this is also about meeting the quality standards of the journal and thereby setting and maintaining the standards of your discipline. Not an easy balancing task!

Finally, remember that publication is only the beginning of the process: you also have to help your colleagues, peers and practitioners to find out about your article and your work. Some editors and publishers have advice on how to do that too, so I’m sure that it will impress them if you do this!

Rejections, revisions, journal shopping and time… more and more time

I read a great news item from Nature, called “Does it take too long to publish research?” and wanted to highlight it here. In  particular, I thought that early career researchers might relate to the stories of featured researchers’ multiple rejections: there is some consolation in hearing others’ experiences. (Recently rejected authors might also seek advice in a great piece from The Scientist in 2015: Riding out rejection.) Also, I wanted to write my reflections, identifying some reasons for rejection (these appear in bold, throughout, in case you want to scan for them).

Whilst I’m on the topic of rejection stories: a recent episode of Radio 4’s The Life Scientific featured Peter Piot, who described (if I understood correctly) how difficult it was to get his research on HIV published in the 1980s because it was so groundbreaking that reviewers could not accept it. He knew that his findings were important and he persevered. So that could be one reason for rejection: you’re ahead of your field!

(Peter Piot also described his time working for the United Nations, in what was essentially a break from his academic career: if you’re interested in academic career breaks then you could take a look at the Piirus blog!)

Anyway, back to the Nature news item, where I picked up particular themes:

  1. Authors will have been rejected a number of times before they are even peer reviewed: a “desk rejection”. One of the authors featured was glad to finally get revisions after so many rejections without explanation. Without explanation, we can’t know what the editors’ decisions were based on, but as I noted in an earlier post, editors might be basing their decisions on criteria like relevance to the journal’s readership, or compliance to the journal’s guidelines.
  2. Journals do report on time to publication, but that doesn’t always include the time you’ve spent on revisions. If you resubmit after making revisions then the clock is re-started at the resubmission date, at some journals. Likewise, I have read (or heard: sorry, I can’t find the link) elsewhere that the reported rejection/acceptance rates don’t count papers which are invited for re-submission with revisions, as a rejection. So you might feel rejected when you have to make so many revisions but in statistical terms your paper has not been rejected (yet!). There is still time for it to be rejected after you have resubmitted, of course, and that probably happens more often than you think. Some think that journals are not counting and reporting fairly and I think there is room for improvement but it’s a complex area.
  3. Top journals can afford to be more picky and so the bar seems to have been raised, in terms of requirements for publication (hence increased numbers of authors per paper, who bring more data between them). As the Nature news item says: “Scientists grumble about overzealous critics who always seem to want more, or different, experiments to nail a point.”
  4. Rejections could be as a result of the authors “journal shopping”, whereby they submit to top/high impact journals first and work down a list. This is possibly due to a reliance on the reputation and impact factor of the journal where an article is published by those who hire and fund researchers. Researchers who target journals in the middle range of impact factor seem to stand the best chance of a quick review turnaround, but it seems that researchers are taking the risk of rejection and slower publication in order to stand a chance of appearing in a top journal.
  5. Journal editors and publishers are trying to ensure that the publication process is not slowed down, wherever possible. I’d like to quote one nice example of such attempts: “In 2009, Cell also restricted the amount of supplemental material that could accompany papers as a way to keep requests for “additional, unrelated experiments” at bay.” However, the Nature News item also points out the increased volume of papers to be processed and additional checks that papers might go through these days, for example plagiarism screens, animal welfare reports, competing interest disclosures, etc. Plagiarism screens can be tough: I remember an author telling me about how his paper was rejected for what amounted to self-plagiarism.
  6. The peer review process does take time and at different journals this process might be quicker or slower, but even though (as I’ve previously blogged) there are pressures on peer review system, it is not taking longer than it used to, on average. Neither has the digital world sped it up. The News item goes on to recount some of the innovations around peer review that various journals and publishers are implementing.

This made me think that there’s got to be a project somewhere, for someone to classify the revisions asked for in peer review processes and then count which is the most common. Reasons in my list so far:

  • poorly/not succinctly written (i.e. not intelligible!)
  • too little explanation/text
  • abstract does’t reflect findings
  • ethical issues with the data presented
  • ethical issues with the method
  • method unsuited to question
  • conclusions are over-reaching
  • needs to be set in context of other (specific/non-specific) research & add citations

These could be areas to be revised or indeed, reasons for rejection. I’m sure that there are more issue types and that my list is not complete, so feel free to share some more in the comments.

I know that some authors take the revision suggestions and do not resubmit to the journal that reviewed their article, but withdraw their article from that journal and then submit to one lower on the prestige list, thereby perhaps side-stepping another rejection. And thereby apparently achieving publication more quickly, for the second (or fifth or fifteenth) choice journal could not know of the time that an article spent, awaiting the verdict of a different journal. Perhaps that is why journals prefer to count their publication time from the date of resubmission: they don’t know either, if an article will ever be resubmitted. And is it fair of an author to use a journal’s peer review process to polish their article, but not actually publish with that journal? A complex area, like I said already.

Well, if all this complexity has put you in need of cheering up, then I must recommend the Journal of Universal Rejection to you. If you don’t laugh then you might cry…