This is the third in my series of interviews inspired by the 2012 SSP session “Publishers! What Are They Good For?” If you’d like to learn more about why I’ve conducted these interviews you should read my previous conversation with Tom Reller of Elsevier and David Crotty of Oxford University Press. All interviewees were asked the same questions.
Our next STM professional is Kent Anderson, Editor-In-Chief of SSP’s “Scholarly Kitchen” blog, and the current SSP President-elect. Kent is a veteran of the scholarly publishing industry who received the SSP’s Distinguished Service Award in 2011, the organization’s highest honor. Kent has a BA in English and an MBA. He is currently CEO/Publisher for the Journal of Bone & Joint Surgery. Prior to this, he worked in the Massachusetts Medical Society’s Publishing Division in Product Development and International Business and as Publishing Director for the New England Journal of Medicine. He’s been a publisher, managing editor, copy editor, graphic designer, typesetter, editor, and author. He’s worked at the American Academy of Pediatrics, Medical Economics, and 3M.
ADAM ETKIN: Let’s start with the subject of Open Access vs. traditional publishing models. There was a lot of buzz recently due to Nature’s editor-in-chief Philip Campbell stating that open access to research “is inevitable.” However he also said:
“You hear it said that the public has paid for it, the public should have access to it for free,” said Campbell. “At that point, I draw back and say, what do you mean by ‘it’? You mean something that has got quality in it that has been selected and copy-edited. Somebody has got to do all that stuff, so the ‘it’ you want usually has involved somebody acting like a publisher to make it useable and comprehensible.”
Who, other than existing publishers, could or should “act like a publisher?” What are the pros/cons of some alternate “publisher” or self-publishers taking on this role?
KENT ANDERSON: I think Campbell is being coy here. Basically, he’s saying that what people want is what publishers provide. I think he’s right. He’s also demarcating the difference between the research report and the finished, peer-reviewed, edited, formatted, and published paper. There are major differences between the two, as far as both quality and relevance.
ADAM ETKIN: Continuing on this topic:
“If gold open access became the norm for the primary literature, Campbell said that the cost per article could be in excess of $10,000 to publish in highly selective journals such as Nature, Cell or Science.”
I think that it seems a safe assumption that no author or funding agency will be willing to pay publishing fees of $10k (or even $4-$5k) per article. In order to drive this fee down OA publishers such as PLoS have adopted a peer review “light” system and publish 65-70% of articles submitted to them. What is your opinion of this model?
KENT ANDERSON: PLoS has found a new niche with PLoS ONE, and I think it’s truly a new niche – the “light” peer-review is just for methodological review (did you do what you said you would?), and not for interest or novelty. This has led to an incredibly high acceptance rate as well as a robust financial model, one that may generate a surplus of PLoS in excess of the oft-criticized Elsevier 35% margin. I personally wonder if the PLoS ONE model is even competitive with traditional journals. With 12,000+ articles being published, you’d expect submissions to other journals to fall, but this hasn’t been the case. Most journals are seeing more submissions. Where are they coming from? I think PLoS ONE is publishing the equivalent of “B-sides,” for those of us who remember 45’s – songs that didn’t quite work but for which you still want some credit.
ADAM ETKIN: Do you think there is a business model where journals could maintain a selective acceptance rate (using more rigid peer review) which allows for the publication of the top research in the field while at the same time results in author fees which are reasonable?
KENT ANDERSON: That business model exists. It’s a subscription model with fees for authors who want special services, like more color than is usually allowed or extra pages. As for author fees paying the entire freight, I think Campbell is 2-3x low in his estimate of the full cost of publishing in a selective journal, because you also have to factor in the costs of all those rejections and a good amount of overhead. I’ve seen a per-article rate in a highly prestigious journal of $25-35K per article being batted around in scenario planning. I think that’s more like it. I personally think a selective acceptance rate is a reader-oriented stance, so if you start taking money from authors, you’re going to drift into becoming much more author-oriented, and that will make you want to please them, which will make it tempting to loosen your standards, especially if it increases your revenues.
ADAM ETKIN: The traditional peer review system seems to constantly be criticized, yet at the same time studies and surveys show the large majority of researchers view it as essential to any publication system. Do you agree with the criticism? How would you improve the current system?
KENT ANDERSON: I think peer-review always needs to be examined for flaws. People get lazy, systems get sloppy, standards slip. The same things can happen to a lab, a government agency, or a university. We all need to keep pushing to make things better. Peer-review has a limited role, but a vital role. It is not the be-all and end-all for the best journals, who use editorial judgment to sort out reviews and match their content to their audience. Actually, OA publishers who only rely on peer-review are doing less for their readers, which nobody seems to be cottoning to.
ADAM ETKIN: Another target of much criticism is Impact Factor. Do you foresee a time when IF is less important? If so, how soon do you think this might be the case?
KENT ANDERSON: The impact factor should be made less important, but I don’t see it leaving the stage any time soon. Thoughtful administrators know it’s only a data point, not the absolute measure of productivity or quality for tenure, grant, or faculty decisions. It needs to be kept in perspective. But since all the so-called new measure tend to mimic the effect of the impact factor, I’m not sure we’re seeing much improvement. Lots of heat, not a lot of light.
ADAM ETKIN: Related to IF, Academia has created a culture where in order for researchers to gain tenure, promotions, grants etc. they must publish in high IF journals. Do you see this changing any time soon?
KENT ANDERSON: See prior answer.
ADAM ETKIN: How important do you see social media measurements such as altmetrics being in the future? Are you concerned that such measurements have the potential to be “gamed” by purchasing tweets, likes and so on. How might those concerns be addressed?
KENT ANDERSON: I have a low opinion of alt-metrics. I think they measure broadcast, not receipt, and definitely not impact.
ADAM ETKIN: What are the services that scholarly publishers offer that are the most valuable? Are there services these publishers provide which are not easily replaceable due to cost, expertise, efficiency or other reasons?
KENT ANDERSON: I think the traditional services scholarly publishers have offered have been very valuable to researchers and academics. Many people are picking away at these, and often in ways that are downright misleading. For instance, copyright registration and monitoring is a service publishers offer authors, usually at no charge. New publishers drop this service in many cases, claiming the copyright is better being kept by the author. This is like a hotel asking me to reuse towels to save the environment – that’s not why they’re really asking; they want to cut their laundry costs. An unregistered copyright is very hard to protect, and authors can’t and won’t monitor abuses. They’re too busy doing more productive things. But I think services include rejection (yes, finding the right journal is a service), organizing good peer review, providing free statistical review, providing editorial services, formatting articles, selecting their priority, and so forth. Editorial work is not to be undervalued. We’ve had a hard time finding good editorial people lately, because everyone thinks it’s easy so nobody’s training for it. Basically, my view is that if researchers want to do badly what publishers do well, and to spend their time doing those things instead of research, fine. But that seems like a very inefficient and poor use of time.
ADAM ETKIN: Do you have anything else to mention regarding the scholarly publishing industry and what publishers in this field are “good for?”
KENT ANDERSON: As I said above, the package of services is huge and clearly taken for granted. Branding. Let’s start there. Why do you work so hard on a great experiment? Because you want to be published in Nature or Cell or any other of the dozen top titles you might have in mind. Are publishers good magnets and motivators? Their journals are, and publishers take care of those products and brands. It’s really kind of ridiculous that we’re put on the defensive, especially by people who ultimately want to be publishers themselves, and often end up doing a moderately good or moderately bad job of it. There really is no alternative being offered except service reductions tied to price and prestige reductions – but no really different approach to vetting, editing, and publishing. Even things like arXiv.org haven’t changed the journals environment for physics. Journals are excellent quality and relevance signaling vehicles. To do these things, they have to create an audience, set a standard, and consistently execute to that standard for that audience. Is that good for something? Of course.
So, what are publishers “good for?” As can be seen by the variety of responses given by each interviewee, they are good for quite a bit. Good publishers, regardless of whether they follow an open access or traditional model, act as curators or filters of quality for their academic community; they help researchers reach their target audience and in many ways act as a marketing team for authors; they oversee copy editing and quality control of graphics and tables for scientists; they protect copyright and invest in new technology will allows researchers to publish their work faster and increase the discoverability of their work. Perhaps most importantly, by providing and overseeing these services academic publishers allow researchers to do what they do best…..research.