Sunday, June 20, 2021

Scholarly Publications

The evolution of approaches to employment was discussed here.

Fifty years ago, a professor in the mathematics department at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH) was expected to publish a substantial paper every two years, at least one every 4 years. The paper was top quality and presented a true advance in the field. Once a year, the professor would also present at a conference. When the professor had come up with a lecture presenting a new field or a novel approach to an existing field, their Ph.D. students would sit in the front row of the auditorium and take extensive notes, which would be the basis for a new book.

Students were not expected to write papers. They would write reports and give seminar presentations to get the required credits.

The experimental physics departments was quite different: the American publish-or-perish way of life had taken over. By twenty years ago, also the mathematicians were living by the publish-or-perish paradigm. However, something else changed: the students would submit their reports to scholarly journals.

The flood of submissions required the editorial boards to change their criteria for reviewing manuscripts. Moreover, with the introduction thirty years ago of the World Wide Web by the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) in Geneva, a huge number of publications became easily available, making the editor's job of separating the wheat from the chaff more urgent, otherwise researchers just waste their time reading useless articles.

Certain measures were easy to implement, like eliminating unintelligible manuscripts, plagiarisms, and nothing-wrong-papers (papers well written but not advancing the field). More editorial work was required for papers where the authors did some valid research, but did not understand it well themselves—in principle, author's supervisor would be responsible, but for the past twenty years they have been increasingly remiss of this duty. The other editorial task is to identify salame papers and reject them; salame papers refers to when the result of a project is sliced up and submitted as a series of papers. While this is OK for conference papers, it is not for journal papers.

A form of plagiarism was also to submit a paper to multiple journals using variations of the author's names. This was solved by requiring a persistent digital identifier (ORCID iD) and using a Digital Object Identifier (DOI) for every reference.

When fifty years ago papers were well written, today they tend to be sloppy. When an editor accepts a manuscript for publication, the authors tend to ignore the orthography and grammar errors pointed out by the reviewers, even when good authoring tools are available. This sloppiness increases the publication cost because a copy editor has to rework the manuscript. When a sweatshop is used, producing a 12-page article typically costs about $1,500 while using professional copy editors doubles or triples the cost. Societies usually slightly increase the publishing fee to allow for discounts for members and to subsidize financially challenged authors.

Fifty years ago, a scholarly journal covered its production costs by charging a small page charge and with subscriptions by institutional libraries. With the flood of articles in the past twenty years, the number of journals has increased and with the higher required production costs, libraries have an issue affording journals. In the long term, scholarly journals are only viable with the open access approach, where the authors pay the full publication costs.

For a large institution, the publication costs are significant especially when the copy editing cost go up with the increasing sloppiness. This leads to a hybrid solution where institutions pay a fixed yearly price and get a certain number of submissions and downloads.

Usually institutions are not too sensitive to the publication costs, as long as the journal has a good impact factor. A journal builds its impact factor not with the work of the copy editors, but with the work of the editors. For scholarly journals, these are usually researchers who volunteer their work. The question is how does one find a good team of editors-in-chief and associate editors? For this we have to look at how research evolved in the last decades.

Before, let me point out that editors have to ensure that relevant references to articles in their own journal should not be omitted and the journal must be indexed. Last but not least, the most important words of the articles should be at the beginning of the title, otherwise citing authors will miss it in a Google Scholar search.

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