Where the hell I publish now?

The scientific publishing system is hindering scientific progress. This is known and I won’t repeat myself or other more detailed analysis dissecting the problem of publishers making massive profits on our behalf without (almost) any value added (e.g. Edwards and Roy 2017, Racimo et al. 2022).

In the last years, cost-effective alternatives to publish our results have emerged and I don’t think technical aspects are an issue anymore. I think the problem is that when I publish something, I want to be read. I know that if I publish in certain journals, the day before the paper is published almost all researchers interested in that topic will see my paper. I also want to be evaluated. Most funding agencies still use where you publish as a quality indicator of your contribution (consciously or unconsciously), not to mention that the same paper published in a given journal will receive much more citations than if published elsewhere, if citations are what funding agencies will look at, bypassing the infamous IF. 

My approach so far has been trying to publish in Society Based Journals. Despite most of these journals still partnering with big publishers, I heard that most have a decent deal with publishers (but I also heard some got terrible deals). The advantages are obvious. Those are well read and evaluated, have no APC, and the money they make reverts to the societies. The drawback is that not all my papers are top papers that can find a home there, and that the papers are not open access (you pay to read). This is secondary for me in a world with SciHub, but still important. In addition, this model is getting slowly outdated, and some of those journals are already changing to pay to publish model. Paying high APC (anything > 200 EUR for the EU standard) is a bad replacement for the current system in my opinion.

I made a quick tally and in the last 5 years (2017-2021) I published:

  • 32 papers in Society Based Journals with no APC. Wow! These include BES, ESA, Nordic SE, AAAS, Am Nat, and other conservation and Behavioural societies.
  • 6 in Selective Journals that require APC (but about half of the time my co-authors paid for the APC), such as PNAS, Nature Communications, or Scientific advances, but also other less fancy. I try to minimize those because, despite their visibility, I prefer to invest money in salaries, then in publishers, but if I (or my lab group) can publish in e.g. PNAS, this is money well invested regarding career advance. Let’s be honest.
  • 5 in Non-Selective Journals with APC such as Plos, Open Science B, Sci Reports, PeerJ… Not always my decision, and while I support non-selective journals, especially if non-for-profit or with sustainable policies, their APCs are increasing in an unsustainable way.
  • 3 in For Profit Selective Journals without APC. Despite trying to convince my co-authors to avoid those, I do not always succeed. Yes, I had 1 paper published in Elsevier last year (sorry). The other two are high-impact journals whose visibility might compensate for the balance (TREE and Nature E&E). Everybody has a price.
  • 2 Free to publish – Free to read Journals. This is the way to go! One is in a Journal I did not know until recently. The other is the newly created Peer Community Journal, which I support. Other Journals in this list are Web Ecology, Journal of Pollination Biology, Ecologia Austral, and to be honest, not much more that I know (and Ecosistemas, despite it publishes mostly in Spanish). I am also looking forward to the new EU-Horizon Journal, but it’s closed to EU-Horizon projects, and I think it still costs quite a lot to the EU per article, so indirectly, we are still paying for it.

While I am happy with the last 5 years’ record regarding where I published, I think this is not enough. I want to publish more in free-to-publish – free-to-read journals, especially if I am the first author (I got tenure already). But I also want those to be read. Our Peer Community Journal paper has almost no citations despite being quite good (IMHO). I am sure that if it was published in Ecology Letters it will have now several more citations.

So how do we fix this? I have some ideas, but nothing clear. The next posts will explore those ideas.

Resources about Ecology Journals:

How to decide where to submit your paper (my two cents)

Following Jeremy Fox interesting blog post, and at least three other people follow-up (herehere and here).  Here are my thoughts on where to submit your paper. In a nutshell, I think times are changing. If you are in a strong position, you can bet for the model you think is best. But if you are not settled yet, I think is wise to have a compromise between publishing some old school papers based on journals prestige, but also make your bet by submitting other manuscripts to faster and open access Journals. That way you can defend your position in a variety of situations.

Following Jeremy’s points:

  • Aim as high as you reasonably can. Agreed, but “high” is a vague term. Impact factor is not a reliable measure and “prestige” is difficult to asses. I think like Jan, that the difference is between the 3 top interdisciplinary journals, the top journals of your field, and then everything else. Within this categories, I don’t worry anymore about the journal in terms of “high impact”. (OA discussed below)
  • Don’t just go by journal prestige; consider “fit”. I do think fit is important, but not in terms of people finding your paper (despite lots of researchers keep using TOC’s of a few well-known journals), but because having a type of journal (or reader) in mind helps you frame your article. For example, I’d expect different things from the same title in Am Nat, than in Ecology.
  • How much will it cost? Important only if you don’t have the money.
  • How likely is the journal to send your paper out for external review? I liked Ethan’s advice on the importance of the speed of the process. By maximizing your chances of being sent to review, not only you can accumulate citations faster but also it reduce the amount of frustration.
  • Is the journal open access? Ideally, Yes, is very important for me. In reality, well, my projects rarely have the money to pay for it, so I end up not making them open.
  • Does the journal evaluate papers only on technical soundness? I think this is a model that will substitute all low tier journals. I’m writing mainly three types of papers. Papers that I hope can make a great advance on Ecology and that I would like to see in a top journal. Papers that has an specific niche, and where I want to target people working on this niche. And good papers that I think can make its moderate contribution, and I want them out there fast for people to read. This papers are ideal for open access and evaluated on technical soundness.
  • Is the journal part of a review cascade? Again, completely agree with Ethan. In fact I would love a model where papers are valued on technical soundness and then there is an “editors choice” or something like that.
  • Is it a society journal? I value supporting Societies. But most important: Is the publisher making profit? Is Copyright retained to the author? Society journals or other organisational journals (i.e. PLOS) has the great advantage from my point of view that revert the benefits to the community, and usually they require a licence to publish, but not a copyright transfer. It’s important for me to avoid as much as possible making a business of science.
  • Have you had good experiences with the journal in the past? I don’t think that’s relevant.
  • Is there anyone on the editorial board who’d be a good person to handle your paper? I’ve never thought on that.

Extra stuff:

  • Publish in a diversity of journals: If you want to increase your readership, increase the spectrum of journals you publish. Publish in general ecology Journals, in more specialised journals, Plos ONE stile. That would help you gain experience with the system too.
  • Listen to your feelings: Is there any journal you like (rationally or irrationally) specially? Forget the pros and cons. Publishing is hard, and its also important to fulfil your whims.

More on editors (now that I am one of them)

I am excited to join Journal of Ecology as an associate editor. I argued previously here that communication should be better along the publishing process, and now I have the opportunity/pressure to apply that to myself, so If I am editing your paper, let’s have a constructive conversation!

Anyway, this is a good moment to revise my thinking on the publishing scene. Of course, all opinions are only mine, and I like my opinions to change overtime (if needed), because things are not static, and change is good (specially if change is not random, but with some directionality). Panta rei.

First of all, I am happy to be involved in the editorial process, because only by participating actively in a community you can help shaping that community. I learnt a lot about science from reviewing papers, and I hope to also learn a lot from editing papers. (Of course it will also look nice in my CV). There is a lot of conversation on how to reform academic publishing. I agree that some things need to change, but I don’t think we need a revolution of how we publish, but rather an evolution. Why throw away all we learned so far and start from zero with a totally different system? Is better if we build upon what is there. The more pleasant is the transition, the better. May be the differences on what actions revolutionary people and I would take are not that different, but conceptually is important for me to construct in positive. I am not saying I can do much to change things from my position now, but I certainly can try to move things step by step.

Second I want to support more consciously open journals and society based journals. That means thinking more where to publish and for who I am reviewing. J Ecol is good example of a society based journal, which benefits doesn’t goes to some investors, but to the society. Fernando Maestre has a good post on this point.

Third, after some thinking and reading I decided that we do need an editorial process. I think that several journal models are compatible, and I support the idea of PLOS ONE type of journal, but with thousands of articles being published every week, the role of an editor (post of pre peer review) selecting the most influential papers is needed. How to do that is debatable, but for now is good that different systems co-exists: Prestigious Journals selecting your article, F1000 prime post-evaluations, my colleague recommendations on twitter, etc..)

If you get that far, may be you want to know a few more good things about J Ecology: All papers accepted remain copyright of the authors, All papers have free access after two years of publication. So my 2010 paper is already free! And if you are interested on getting more visibility, J Ecol blog is a good place to explain your results in more informal format (videos, podcasts,…).

That’s it for today!

Treat editors as if they were human beings (Tip: helps when they behave like that)

Authors, editors and reviewers are people, why we don’t behave like that? When I receive an invitation to review a paper I can’t picture an editor writing it, but only a software program sending emails. The same nice program thanks me when I agree to review, and tells me how “the journal” appreciate my dedication when I complete my task. If I am lucky it also sends me the final decision (which should be a no-optional courtesy). Usually there is not a real communication, but just one direction speech.  In that situation, I feel no empathy, and that lowers my motivation. I argue that manually writing all communication emails would have a low cost, compared with the potential benefit on the overall satisfaction of authors, reviewers and editors.

After some years in the publishing game, I’m still surprised how impersonal the publication process is. Here are some ideas:

1) Engage people on the process

Being impersonal can save some minutes of writing, but it doesn’t speed up the process because anyone is engaged in the process. I am more likely to accept and do a fast review if I get a personal email, saying for example, that the authors suggested my name, or that the editor likes my work on the topic, or that the authors build upon a previous paper I authored. I know this things are implicit, but humans are weird animals, and need to be told things in the right way. I even got invitations from editors I know very well personally with a default template. But to be fair, I also had friendly correspondence with an editor I didn’t know personally, and that was after rejecting to do the revision. I am sure I will consider her future requests more positively, because I felt she cares.

2) Give feedback

Reviewers need feedback too. Especially in early career stages one needs to know if they are doing a good job. Editors can spend two minutes answering to your review briefly instead of the automated email. Do they thank you for a thoughtful review or for your short review? That clue would be enough for most people to understand, if they want to understand. I’d be also happy if editors asked me further what do I think about any missing point once in a while. Science should be more conversational.

3) Ask questions

I found editors to be always very happy to answer questions. Surprisingly, most people I know rarely ask anything, and I think this is because authors (and reviewers) have this feeling that they are talking with machines, instead than with people. I learnt that is ok to update the editor during the revision process “that we don’t plan to include the simulation proposed by Reviwer 1, because it would imply 5 extra pages of appendixes and no relevant new information” above hand. He completely agreed with us. That way you can have an early feedback before you point your work in one direction. Some editors are great on explaining what they feel important to amend, but others not. I recently got a two-lines “reject and resubmit” decision.  One reviewer was very positive and the other one only said “too narrow for that journal”. What do this mean? should I change a few things highlighting the novelty? or should I engage in a major rewriting of the focus of the paper? I still don’t know what the editor wanted. I didn’t ask this time.

4) Always sign your reviews

Feelings are going to interfere in your actions anyway, so is better if you are aware of that. Sign whatever you do makes you more aware of your biases. That’s why (after a lot of thoughts and advises not to do it) I decided to sign my reviews. That puts my suggestions in a context for the authors (i.e. a non-native english speaker, postdoc, with experience in temperate systems), but more importantly, as an author I take suggestions from a colleague way happier than from an unknown person. From the reviewer perspective, it forces you to write more carefully, and if you did a good job, authors will be happy (sometimes even if the paper is rejected), and they will know about your work. Once in a while an author will get pissed off, but I hope for each one, 100 will be pleased (or at least 10?).

This week I am reviewing your article, but next week I will be the author and you the reviewer. People behave different when they are into a rol, than when they are themselves (see extreme cases). Why not be more personal, then?