Rethinking what I need in a journal and how I read papers

Last week I was invited at the behest of a major society (the ACS) that has lots of journals, to chat with a consultant – “The objective is to better understand the role scientific publications play in the research community.” – that piqued my interest so I agreed. The discussion happened today, and I felt like I would be pretty open and honest because, well that is how I am. What surprised me was that as my words came out I realized I had to remember as much as I could and put a post out. Perhaps other journals can benefit from these ideas?

The questions ranged from what I looked for in a journal..My answers included how well respected the journals were (not high impact but well respected by researchers – so I rely on my peers) with a reliable turnaround time  – I also tend to prefer those that have a good editorial quality to them, not too strict in terms of format etc but they might spot things I missed and improve on what I submitted.

I also mentioned I had pretty much resigned myself to never publishing in the highest impact journals, because after trying with some of what I thought were good ideas, and getting rejected it was just a waste of time. They were looking for papers from groups they knew, or from certain universities or the editorial staff just had no clue and were just hitting triage.

I was also asked what I would like to do to improve journals.. top of my list here was just standardizing within a publisher (even the ACS) on the formats between journals..For example why does a society have X journals and all have different formats so if you get rejected in one journal and need to resubmit elsewhere you basically have to reformat the paper every time. I also proposed that the publishers should just streamline the ability to share papers between journals so the emphasis was not on the author, for example when submitting to a publisher you could prioritize the journals 2nd, 3rd etc you would like to submit too. The more I think about it now there is probably a business model here to take a scientists paper and automatically be able to submit to journals and if rejected it keeps being submitted until accepted somewhere. Lets just take the human processing out of it which besides the reviews probably takes a similar amount of time.

The questions made me look at my own publication history and try to understand how its changed..When I started in the mid 90s my papers primarily went to ASPET journals even as I started doing modeling my papers never really veered from pharmacology journals. Then I started to publish in Pharmaceutical Research in 2005, another society journal (AAPS) then J Med Chem in 2006 (ACS) then in 2008 Chem Res Toxicol (ACS) and my first open access journal paper in BMC Evolutionary Biology with collaborators was published in 2008,  followed by one in PLoS Comput Biol in 2009. So from this point the papers start being published in many different journals both open access and closed. Its only in recent years with my increase in machine learning work that my options have narrowed substantially as to where I can submit these papers (computational journals including ACS journals).

For one thing the consultant kept asking questions about would I be interested or what did I think of ‘general multidisciplinary’ journals – he did not expand on this but immediately PLOS ONE came to mind as did Springer Plus and others – so my guess is yet another such journal is being proposed. Which really makes you wonder whether folks ever have any original ideas.

Then I started to mention how reading papers nowadays is so different from in the past when I read them in journals in the 90’s, now I get papers either sent to me by friends or others who think I might be interested in them or I see a link on a blog post or Twitter etc. I only really research papers when working on a new project and need to do a literature search. This is a pretty sad state of affairs because I barely have time to read or look out for things. And yet I used to be a voracious reader of papers and as an editorial board member I used to get paper copies of journals. That stopped happening a few years ago so I no longer read even those journals unless there is a paper published in there and I find it on PubMed or Google Scholar etc. Now that should be a nudge to these publishers if your journal editors do not even have time to read the journal and I am sure its not just me..!

In summary – this whole scenario points to a few things. For myself all the journals could be the same ‘vanilla’, as long as formats, references etc were identical. The big handful of highest impact journals do not interest me and I rarely read them unless I have to find a paper.  The Nature Reviews Journals maybe once in a while something of interest pops up but honestly they are not on my radar anymore. I do think publishers need to rethink, perhaps standardize on layout and formats so its easier for resubmissions across journals and even within publishers. Do I care if a journal is a single topic or multidisciplinary – NO, I only care about quality, how my colleagues think of the journal and if it processes submissions in a timely manner. Pretty basic  – perhaps almost utilitarian. The journals are just a means to get my ideas and research out there. If I can publish in an open access journal and have the money or opportunity I will.  The journals IMHO do little to get people to read them or the articles as that comes down to our social networks as authors. For me that is strongly brought home by recent experiences publishing in open access journals, tweeting, blog posts etc can have a remarkable impact in who looks at your papers. At some point all journals will need to have metrics for accesses and downloads so that authors can see how they are read or not. For me thats also reinforcing for publishing in the same journal again if I know it finds an audience for my work.

So these are my most recent rumblings, it will be interesting to see how this changes over the coming years. I do sense change over the past few years in my publishing and research strategy and part of it is from being overwhelmed by information but at the same time the challenges of research and publishing. A fresh disruptive wind needs to blow through academic publishing and I and many others will welcome it (if it has not already started).



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