So anyone who knows me knows that I’m not the hugest fan of large, commercial publishers, and for a variety of reasons. I want to tell you of a recent experience though with Wiley, one of the most prominent (profiteering) research publishers out there. This experience, in combination with numerous other factors, was so infuriating, that I considered launching a ‘Cost of Knowledge‘ style boycott against them for it. Instead, I’m just going to lay out the account, make some suggestions, and let you all make your own decisions.
Recently, I published a large chunk of my PhD research with a Wiley journal, the Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society. Nothing too ground-breaking, but a loooot of work. It’s Open Access, of course, and I was charged $3600 for the privilege of them making a PDF for me, and a nice bit of journal branding. Thanks, Wiley. As Wiley make around a 40% profit margin, about $1440 of this fee went straight to their lucky shareholders, which must explain that nice, warm feeling you get when paying..
Here are the three main levels of frustration during the publication of this paper.
The peer review process
Peer review is designed to test the validity of your research and suggest ways in which it might be improved. In the case of this paper, it took around 3 months for me to receive about 5 lines of text from an single anonymous referee, that contributed extremely little to the content. It did not review my data, my analyses, my conclusions, my discussions. It was not what I expect of a thorough peer review process. I cannot publicise the review itself or my response, and realise I am sort of shooting myself in the foot by saying I don’t think my research was appropriately tested (read it and see for yourself though, all the data etc. is open), but this was not what I deem to be a sufficiently rigorous process. One can only imagine how often this is the case for published papers. My apologies here to the referee who I imagine did their best, but this is a problem when you have a closed, anonymous system, in which editorial decisions are based often on incomplete information. The paper was accepted almost exactly as it was originally submitted on January 19th.
After acceptance is when things get really bad. The proofing stage was a mess. I had to go through a series of tedious back and forths with the production team to simply resolve discrepancies in line spacing in a table. We’re building machines to recreate the fucking universe, and this publisher can’t figure out how to resolve a line spacing issue in a table. I mean, come on. All I could think of was why am I putting myself through this? What’s the point? What is this helping to accelerate? And why am I paying $3600 for this??
Now, this particular journal does ‘Early View’ publication, in which a paper is made available online before it is put into a bi-monthly issue. Which is great. But the weird thing about this journal is that it no longer prints issues, and is online only. So why do issues exist? I have no idea. To preserve some sense that the journal still matters, and has to hang on to its paper legacy in order to have any prestige?
Whatever the reason, this is actually very harmful to publication times. In our paper, we identify a new genus of extinct crocodyliform. The Production Editor informed me that because of this, the ‘Early View’ option would not be available because of the rules regarding the formal naming of new organisms. This is important, because when you give priority to a named species, it is usually the author followed by the date of naming. So, for example, it would be Sabresuchus (Tennant et al. 2016) in this case. But also this can create conflict if the early view version is published in 2016, but not formally put into an issue (remember, which is not needed for online only journals) until 2017. The production editor told me this conflict would probably not happen due to the length of the backlog (that again exists for no reason apart from the arbitrary division into digital only issues), but that the publication would still need to be delayed by at least 3 months just to be on the safe side.
Around 3 months after this decision was made, a colleague of mine published another paper in which the taxonomic changes he made were essentially of the same sort. The major difference though was that this was published in the ‘Early View’ format, so I was like what’s the deal with that? It was exactly the same as what I had done, with an old specimen being transferred to a new genus, and with that genus being given a new ZooBank LSID as is required by our profession (this was was clearly given in our paper too).
So why the difference in publishing times? Why had I waited 3 months, delaying release of this research, delaying re-use of this work, and my being able to take credit for it at a crucial time in my career (I submitted my thesis last week..). Well, I asked the Production Editor. They said that the difference was because I hadn’t provided an LSID in my paper. Which I had. And was pretty obviously right there where it should have been. Oops.
Most annoyingly, why wasn’t I told 3 months ago that this was the reason for the delay? I could have simply told them they’d made a mistake (although why this is my job is beyond me..), and I could have had a substantial piece of research published three months earlier. Do you know what I was told? Sorry, and here it is published. It took no time for the publication to happen (literally minutes), and took three months to delay it for no reason. It was finally published on July 13th. So almost 7 months after acceptance, and 11 months after submission. What did I get for this? A publication, a brand, and an impact factor, all of which add nothing to the research content. Some html, which I could have made myself in no time. Some xml, which is quite nice for machines. A PDF which would have taken 5 seconds to make in Word. Wiley got $3600 of taxpayers money for this. Do you think that is in any way a fair trade? I got a shit deal, zero value added, major delays to my work and career, and a dent in taxpayers funds in exchange for nothing but raw profiteering and inefficiency from Wiley.
Just put yourself in my shoes. I want to stay in academia. That’s why I’ve strived to publish as much as possible in order to give myself the best possible chance to remain, because I want to disrupt the system from within. This has set me back. By how much, I cannot tell, but it must have, because publications count.
So what next?
I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again now. There was no reason for me or any of my colleagues to choose this journal now over, for example, PeerJ. I knew this before submission, so sorry to Pete and Jason and the PeerJ team for not putting my trust in you again. And sorry to those who fund me for wasting your funds inefficiently. I made the wrong choice, and will learn from it, and hope others will too.
Some things you can do as researchers:
- Think carefully about which journal you are submitting to and why. This will rarely be a black and white choice, but think deeply about who it is you’re publishing for and why.
- Question publishers and their practices. Call them out for bad practices, and challenge them publicly. We’re paying literally billions every year for these services, and they constantly let us down, over and over again. It is unacceptable that we allow knowledge to be held ransom by corporate entities in exchange for this level of shoddiness.
Some things Wiley and the ZJLS can do:
- The ZJLS should cancel their contract with Wiley immediately. They are profiteering by providing poor quality and inefficient systems and delaying the publication of research. Please consider switching to a new, more efficient, and open publishing platform such as Ubiquity Press.
- The ZJLS should realise that by aiding Wiley in their mission to achieve 40% profit margins, this runs almost opposite to their mission as a learned society in making zoological and taxonomic research more of a public good.
- Wiley. Be more clear about your Editorial and production processes. Most of these issues could have been avoided with better communications, and more transparency about the process. I feel utterly let down, and will be advising my colleagues to avoid your journals in the future.
Does anyone else have a similar disaster story from a publisher? I’d gladly post it as a guest blog on this site, or just let us know in the comments. Thanks for making it all the way to the end!