Last year I had a paper accepted to a relatively new journal. Normally that would be just about the end of the paper writing story. I’ve previously ranted about peer reviews that seemed unfair, inappropriate comments by an editor or final decisions that baffled me. But usually after a paper is accepted or rejected the story ends.
While last year’s paper had a relatively straightforward review journey, the production process was disappointing. The production assistant somehow couldn’t find the correct files and repeatedly emailed me requesting previously provided files.
When I eventually received typeset proofs, the manuscript had been botched. Figures from an initial submission were mashed together with the final version – the captions didn’t match the randomly inserted figures and there were appalling spelling errors throughout.
I made notes of the errors through the online proofing portal and included a note that given the substantive nature of the corrections required, I would like to see an updated versions prior to its early online publication. I followed up with an email to the assistant noting the poor editing and reiterating the request for a final check.
These were ignored and the paper went straight online. A flurry of emails requesting that the paper be removed and corrected went unanswered. The resulting version looked terrible and reflected very poorly on my co-author and me.
Eventually, I escalated the problem by emailing the production team, as well as the scientific editorial team. Interventions by the editor-in-chief were acknowledged by the production assistants, but the paper took several weeks to be removed. Several more weeks were required for it to be corrected, and several more again to be re-published.
Meanwhile, I was charged for publication prior to receiving proofs and there seemed to no issue with the journal’s financial processes. This seemed to be incredibly straightforward. Given the severity of the errors, the slow speed in response and the vast amounts of my time wasted in sorting out the problems, the editor suggested that it would be appropriate for a fee waiver to be applied. The publishers disagreed and the charge stood.
The journal is published by Elsevier, one of the world’s major providers of scientific and scholarly publication. Elsevier owns ~2,500 journals and publishes ~400,000 articles each year. In 2015 alone, it generated a 37% profit margin, with an annual revenue of $25.2 billion.
My salary – my research fuels – is paid for by the Australian taxpayer. I submitted my taxpayer-funded paper to Elsevier and signed ownership of my work to them. The reviewers who assessed the quality of my paper did so on a voluntary basis for the journal. The editors who stepped in to help resolve the production issues also did so on a voluntary basis for the journal.
My paper cost $US 1500 to publish, which encompasses the cost of production. This is the process that introduced a multitude of errors into my work and required ~20 emails to rectify. This was paid to Elsevier as part of their $25 billion revenue.
Around the same time I submitted this paper, I had a parallel paper in review in a society-based journal. This is journal is published by a not-for-profit scientific organisation that aims to advance, promote and disseminate research in the weather and climate sciences. This paper did not incur a page charge. Such societies provide an alternative to mega-publishers.
Like many individual researchers and organisations before me, I’ve had enough of exorbitant page charges for poor service. I’ve had enough of the expectation that I will volunteer my time as a reviewer for journals run for profit. And I’ve had enough of the market dominance of a small number of publishers.
As 2016 ticked over to 2017, I made a resolution to be more attentive to my publishing decisions. While I grumbled at the careless copy-editing applied to my paper by production staff, I was also responsible for this outcome by choosing a journal published by a corporation intent on squeezing profit from all points of scholarly work. While I don’t suggest that all for-profit publishing is evil or that all their production staff are mouth breathers, I can’t really rile at Elsevier while simultaneously handing them my credit card details.
This year, I’m planning to be more considered when I accept and decline reviewer requests and where I direct my research output. And of course, I’m planning to avoid supporting Elsevier and its obscene stranglehold on science, in favour of society-based journals.