December 05, 2012

What do publishers do for authors?

Is there an advantage to setting up your own journal or publishing your work online yourself? What do journal publishers actually do for authors? Since RCUK funded authors are soon to be paying large sums of money for OA publication of their articles, where is the value for that spend? This piece explores a little bit of what publishers do.

The Finch report has highlighted the need for publishers to be able to continue to invest in publishing innovations. On page 51, it states that

Access on its own does not necessarily make for effective communication.

and on p95 it says that

Quality assurance through peer review coupled with the wide range of discovery, navigation, linking and related services provided by publishers... are of critical importance to both authors and users of research publications.

Back in 1997, Fytton Rowland described four functions of a scholarly journal:

  1. dissemination - publishing and marketing activity.
  2. quality - this is where editorial, peer review and quality assurance come in.
  3. canonical version - a work that others can refer to. Involves archiving, issuing DOIs and ISSNs, etc.
  4. recognition & credit for the authors.

In my view, the recognition authors want is quite often tied to the dissemination and quality activity. If your peers don't know about your article (the dissemination hasn't been good enough) then the recognition and credit can't follow. If the journal you are published in is not one of the high quality ones then it follows that the audience and recognition you might get for being published there might be less. Although if your work is of high quality itself then it might help to raise the perceived quality of a publication.

Authors have told me that they want the following things from a publisher:

  1. To edit and improve their work.
  2. Bestow prestige on their work.
  3. Publicise their work & bring them an audience. The audience they want might be scholars or a broader reach, leading to "impact".
  4. Protect their work against plagiarism.
  5. A perpetual record of their work.
  6. Money: probably more applicable to book deals but for journals, at least the author won't want it to cost them a huge amount to publish.
  7. Timeliness: some authors want their work published as soon as possible.

I daresay that the list could grow a lot longer for some and be shorter for others, but essentially authors often have to balance their needs when choosing where to publish.

Earlier this year (2012) Jason Priem described a "de-coupled" journal" and how the journal system could be reformed to provide essential functions of:

  • archiving : relates to "canonical version", in Rowland's list above.
  • registration : relates to "recognition", above.
  • dissemination : also mentioned above.
  • certification : relates to the quality function, above.

The concept of a de-coupled journal is one where there is more variety in how each of the different functions are provided, so that they might not all come from the publisher. Eg archiving might be shared with repositories which store a preservation copy. Dissemination activity can be carried out by authors themselves. The online environment brings a variety of channels and services that authors can use, beyond the traditional publishing system.

I wanted to explore more of what publishers do:

Filter for quality: co-ordinating the peer review process

Editors provide one layer of a quality filter, and then the peer reviewers provide the next level. Editors and peer reviewers refine and polish articles for publication, so they also enhance articles in terms of their quality.

Managing a journal and co-ordinating the quality process is no small task, even when the peer reviewers and editors work for free. The authors need instructions, the editors benefit from tracking tools to monitor where peer reviewers are at in the process and to chase peer reviewers. Copyediting and proof reading tasts need to be carried out. Digital media or associated data might also need corrections and modifications to the way they display.

There are lots of experiments with the peer review process:

Is there a role for more post-publication peer review? eg F1000 offers this. Accessible science might need to be more peer reviewed than science that is only for sharing within the academic sphere, where researchers are able to assess quality for themselves owing to their expertise, whilst members of the public and amateur experts might not be as well able to assess the quality of articles they find.

Many journals publish articles with a comments field at the bottom, rather like on blogs, but relatively few articles attract worthwhile comments. Journals (eg PLoSONE) sometimes publish information on downloads, "tweets" and "likes" for their articles, so that readers can use those measures as post-publication quality markers, too.

Alternatively, peer review could take place even before an author submits an article: American Journal Experts offer a pre-submission peer review service, for a fee. It could save you time if you have the money to spend and the process is indeed rigorous and helpful, since they promise turnaround times of days.

Dealing with ethical concerns

Pre-publication, the ethical concerns could be said to be a part of the quality filtering process. Before publication, publishers:

  • issue instructions to authors
  • use editors and peer review to screen articles,
  • require authors to sign agreements.

Editors need to be experienced and knowledgeable in their field to identify ethical concerns. Scientific "mis-conduct" is not defined in exact terms and practices might vary. Ethical considerations might include:

  • the work of others is properly acknowledged, credited and referenced.
  • data should be accurate and preserved and accessible - as appropriate.
  • the article should be complete and publication well timed (eg results not being shared prematurely).
  • co-authorship is properly attributed.
  • confidentiality is respected and maintained.

Publishers are not the only filter for ethical considerations, of course: such issues are included in grant proposals to research funders and the process by which they are reviewed. Institutions might have ethical review panels to approve grant proposals even before they are submitted to the research funders.

After publication, publishers might use retractions or corrections to deal with ethical concerns. This is perhaps more of a service to readers than to authors, but it does help to maintain a journal's prestige if ethical matters are dealt with professionally.

ALPSP's Learned Publishing journal from April 2011 features an article about ethical considerations. Advice from the Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE) is particularly useful and well presented, with flowcharts.

Dissemination & discoverability

An earlier guest post on this blog, by Yvonne Budden, describes the importance of metadata to resource discovery. By providing good quality metadata, publishers are bringing readers to the article you have written, and helping you to find articles that you should be reading.

Search Engine Optimisation seems to me a "dark art" but it is important for scholarly articles to be discoverable through Google and Google Scholar: that's where a lot of researchers will be looking for stuff.

Some publishers are huge and they build and market their own discovery platforms for scholarly articles. Other publishers ensure that their content is indexed in others' discovery environments. Most publishers offer table of contents alerts.

Publishers have staff dedicated to marketing and sales, helping to ensure that their work reaches key target audiences. Perhaps in an Author-pays OA world, sales staff will be selling the services on offer to authors rather than the services offered to subscribers and readers. Marketing staff will be building the prestige of the publisher and journal brands.

Journal publishers should monitor the audiences for their publications and ensure that their material is discoverable in the places where people are looking for it, in the way(s) that they like to search.

International copyright protection?

In my view, authors are concerned that others should not copy their work without attribution but this is more a question of plagiarism. I don't think they mind about the actual copying so long as they are credited. With the RCUK policy on Open Access, the articles that they pay Gold OA fees for should be made available for others to copy for any purpose, as long as the work is properly attributed, using the so-called CC-BY licence. With such a licence, the copyright is not something to be protected.

I'm also not sure to what extent publishers pursue copyright internationally when they own it and don't licence copying, and I expect a variety of practice between publishers and from one nation to the next. After all, copyright law must vary on an international scale. So I'm leaving my big question mark in the heading of this piece!

Awards schemes that they run or sponsor

See my earlier blog post on Journal awards for examples of the kinds of award schemes that publishers might offer... or indeed put their journals forward for.

Awards act as a route to recognition but also as a way of building prestige of a journal if at the title level and from an external and prestigious source.

Open Access repository deposit

Research which has been funded by the Wellcome Trust has to have outputs deposited into Pubmed Central: authors who pay a fee for the Gold Open Access route, which the Wellcome Trust will pay for, can have publishers make this deposit on their behalf.

Publishers sometimes also allow authors to make deposits. The Sherpa ROMEO tool makes it easy to look up publishers' policies on repository deposit by authors, although authors really ought to keep copies of the agreements they sign with publishers as these will be the legally binding expectations, rather than the publisher's latest policy.


In summary then, it seems to me that publishers should be doing the following things for authors:

  • co-ordinate the editorial and peer review process to filter for quality and also polish works.
  • provide instructions and support to authors, peer reviewers and editors.
  • build the reputation and prestige of their titles through professional handling of ethical concerns.
  • provide quality metadata to the right search tools.
  • ensure that their content is easily discoverable on the web via search engines.
  • measure downloads and activity around articles: this could be used to enhance their dissemination activity but could also be used as a further mark of quality if displayed to readers.
  • adapt to the OA and copyright needs of researchers as authors and readers.
  • provide authors with clear agreements and keep SherpaROMEO's records up to date.
  • offer awards and put their journals forward for awards, by way of offering recognition for authors and building prestige for their journals.
  • invest in publishing innovations... which could be around any of the themes above.

It's quite daunting to think of setting up a journal and doing all this yourself. Do leave a comment and let me know all the things I've missed out!

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