Saturday, December 31, 2005

Scientific Publishing, Part I: Peer Review and Journal Basics

Around a week ago I was asked to review an article for a journal. For reasons that I'll explain subsequently, this request has prompted me to do some research about certain aspects of academic publishing. Rather than try to capture all my thoughts in one entry, I'll aim to write a series of shorter pieces. So, if all goes well, this will be the first in a continuing series.

I thought I should begin with some of the basic mechanics of academic journals. To those who have submitted work to peer-reviewed journals, I don't think this will be anything new. However I suspect that some undergraduates or prospective COA students read this blog, and I've found that many undergraduates -- quite understandably -- don't have that much awareness of the nuts and bolts of academic publishing. (Actually, I really have almost no idea who, if anyone, reads this blog.)

My experience with peer-reviewed journals is almost exclusively in physics and some interdisciplinary chaos/complexity type journals. I've submitted about a dozen papers to such journals, and I've refereed about twenty papers. (This hardly qualifies me as an expert referee or as a productive author.) I think that my comments apply to other fields of science, and much of the social sciences, as well.

Publishing articles in peer-reviewed journals is the standard way academic research results are communicated. The process works as follows. Let's say I have some results that I've written up as a paper. I choose a journal to submit my paper to, and I send a copy to the journal. Usually, this submission is done electronically. Over 90% of the papers sent to the Physical Review series of journals are submitted electronically, and I suspect that this figure is similar for other physics and math journals. I've never submitted a paper copy to a journal, nor do I know anyone who has done so recently.

Anyway, the editor or an associate editor of the journal gets the paper and likely gives it a quick read. Unless the editor deems the paper to be clearly unfit for publication, he or she chooses a few people to serve as referees for the submission. Often, authors will suggest referees when submitting their paper. The editor is under no obligation to choose the suggested referees, of course. The editor may choose other experts in the particular area that the paper is in, and/or may select referees from the list of references in the submission.

The paper then goes out to the referees who are asked to write a brief report and recommend publication, rejection, or something in between. The referees are anonymous to the authors of the submission. As a matter of practice, however, it is often not too hard to figure out who your referees are. In scientific fields, almost always the authors of the submission are known to the referees. In social sciences it is more common for the authors' names to be left off the copy of the manuscript that goes to the referees.

Once the editor has received the referee reports, he or she makes a decision regarding publication and communications this to the author, along with the referee reports. The author may be asked to make changes to the manuscript, in which case the referees may be asked to re-review the revised paper. The author also has an opportunity to respond to the referees comments. As one can imagine, this process can sometimes get a little messy. But eventually this process ends and the paper is either accepted or not.

Much could be said about the biases and problems inherent in the peer review process. It can be a nasty business and there is much room for abuse of the process. There are some good arguments that the peer review process doesn't work and should be done away with or radically modified. But this isn't my main concern here.

(For more about the review process, here are the editorial policies and description of the review process for Physical Review E and Chaos, two journals that I've published in. And wikipedia has a entry about peer review that seems pretty accurate to me.)

Moving on, then, let's assume that the article is accepted for publication. The editors and their staff may do some light editing of the manuscript. In my experience, they've done very little, but they have caught a few typos and formatting glitches. They've also introduced errors, but on balance they do more good than harm. The article is then formatted for publication. I don't think this requires much work, since almost all articles are submitted electronically and, in physics at least, most of these are submitted in LaTeX, which is a typesetting program that produces publication-quality formatting. There is some labor involved in making the articles look good enough for publishing, but not much.

Then, the journal is published and sent to subscribers. Most scientists don't subscribe to journals; we read them through our libraries. Some scientists might subscribe to journals directly relevant to their field, but I'd guess that few subscribe to more than one or two, if any at all. I subscribe to the American Journal of Physics and The Physics Teacher. But I'm interested in these journals because they discuss matters of interest to my teaching. I don't subscribe to any journals that publish papers I might be interested in because they related to my research.

In any event, the result is that a journal full of articles appears in the library, and/or a the new issue is made available online. What good is this system? What is the value of the journal? What services do the journal and its publisher provide the academic community? To this last question, I can think of several answers.

First, the publisher provides a nicely formatted, bound issue of a journal. This journal is a nice physical object; most journals have a pleasing heft to them, even if they do resemble telephone books at times. This physical object can be stored in libraries, or in offices or people's homes, and can be carried around and read. As for the formatting of individual articles, I'm not sure that the publisher is adding that much value. Without too much difficulty most physicists can format articles that look as good as those in a journal.

Second, the journal provides the service of peer review. Why is this important? Peer-reviewed publications are the coin of the realm in academic science. The number of publications in peer-reviewed journals is one of the first things looked at when evaluating a scientist. This is especially so for junior scientists who are up for promotion and/or tenure at universities that emphasize research and for graduate students and post-docs who are applying for jobs. The widespread practice of using a count of peer-reviewed publications as a proxy for scientific quality is, for better or worse, a fact of life. This isn't going to change anytime soon. So, peer review is an important service to the academic community.

It could also be argued that, through the peer-review process, journals maintain quality. Because all articles in a journal have been through peer review, they will be scientifically sound and more worth reading than just some random stuff someone might, say, post on a website. There is surely some truth to this, but I suspect not much. In areas that I work in, I feel pretty compentent to judge the value of an article; peer-reviewed or not, I think I can detect
garbage pretty well. Alas, I've read lots of really bad articles in peer-reviewed journals. Good journals, too. Peer review might be more valuable for areas I don't know much about. But again, I think most scientists develop their own critical eye pretty quickly; just because it's been peer-reviewed doesn't mean it's correct or interesting.

Third, through publication in journals articles are indexed in databases. If an article is published in most any journal, it will get picked up by the science citation index, INSPEC, and other databases. Researchers then use these databases to find articles.

Fourth, journals provide electronic access to papers. Individual researchers could do this, but not everyone has a webpage. And a publisher's website is likely much more permanent than any individual scientist's web page.

Before concluding, let's note some services that journals don't provide:

  1. Scientific research and writing. The journal doesn't do the research, and authors are not paid for their submissions. In fact, some journals charge authors to publish their work.

  2. Peer-review. Yes, the journal facilitates peer review, but the journal doesn't actually do the work. As I've lamented previously, referees are not paid for their work.

So, all this leads me to the main questions: How much should a journal cost? (Remember, authors and reviewers work for free.) What is reasonable to charge a library for a paper and/or online subscription to a monthly journal that contains, say, around thirty research articles each issue? Are there significant differences in journal prices? Have journal prices changed over time? Do better journals cost more?


Tony said...

For what it is worth, I read your blog.


Dave said...

Thanks for reading ... hopefully it's worthwhile.

Also, congratulations on being the first person not named Sarah to leave a comment here.

mathsophie said...

I'm not named Sarah either.

Interesting reflections on the value-added by publishers.

Not only do authors write for free, but an increasing number of journals in many disciplines charge "submission fees." I believe, though I'm not sure, that these submissions fees are used to pay honoraria to editors and referees?

Also, many journals charge the authors of accepted submissions "page fees" for publishing their articles.

So, in essense, authors are paid a "negative wage" by the journals.

Dave said...

You're right. Many journals charge a page fee for publications. I think that often this is waived if authors submit their work electronically in an approved format. But I'm not certain; there seems to be considerable variation across different journals. I've heard of a few journals that charge submission fees. Theoretical Economics is one. (They're a new, open-source journal that looks quite cool.)

My understanding is that editors of journals are paid. I'm not certain about associate editors; I've not heard of them getting paid, but I could be wrong. Alas, I've never heard of a stipend for refereeing journal articles. I've gotten paid ($200) for reviewing a few chapters of a calculus textbook once, and my wife has been paid similarly to review books for academic presses.

Anyway, the bottom line is that authors are indeed paid a negative wage by journals. I suppose that one could argue that the journals are providing a service to the authors, and hence it's reasonable to pay to publish. In fact, I think this argument might have some merit.

Sometime in the next few days I'm going to try and post a follow-up to my original entry in which I'll discuss the differences between for-profit and non-profit journals. They are run similarly and produce similar quality journals, but not surprisingly, they aren't priced similarly...

Marian said...
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