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English: Construction in Gibraltar. Français : Chantier de construction à Gibraltar. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

(Editor’s Note: This is a post that we could probably run every single week in response either to comments, Twitter or other channels, regularly asking about the “value” publishers add.  As an industry, we continue to do a poor job explaining just what it is that we do. Last year Kent Anderson took a stab at putting together a non-comprehensive list.  See also Alice Meadows follow-up post: And Another Thing–A Postscript to the Proposed List of 60 Things Publishers Do) (This list has now been updated: please see Updated–73 Things Publishers Do 2013 Edition)

Journal publishers have been under pressure to prove that they add any value beyond managing peer-review and doing some basic copy editing and formatting. Often, authors are the ones asserting that journal publishers do so little, which is understandable, as authors only experience a small part of the journal publishing process, and care about the editing and formatting bits the most, making those the most memorable. Recently at SSP’s Annual Meeting, a session titled, “Publishers! What Are They Good For?” was held, shedding light on why scientists outsource publishing work (it increases their productivity), why an objective system of quality and relevance ranking provides value, and why publishers are integral to scientific progress, providing efficient dissemination of information and often funding the societies and organizations at its backbone.

Recently, I was asked to flesh out a list of things publishers do. It was a list initially consisting of 11 items, offered by a non-publisher, but a well-informed non-publisher. The brevity of the list was revealing, and my inability to immediately identify what was missing was also revealing — in both cases, it’s clear we haven’t assessed or communicated what we do.

So I spent a little time fleshing out the list. The resulting list is below, and adds 49 items to the initial 11. It took me about 30 minutes total to add these items, with most of it spent typing. I’ll assign a rough estimate of the expense involved, and since it’s the tough day of this year’s Tour de France, I’ll describe each profile using something akin to cycling terminology.

  1. Audience/field detection and cultivation. This is why you start a journal, I think — there’s a new field emerging, a field splintering, or a field growing beyond the outputs currently available. Detecting and cultivating these forks and leaps in scientific progress is what a good publisher does. And it’s not just about new audiences, but new audience needs within fields. But we’ll count it as one thing. Expense level: $. Profile: Headwinds and hills, long ride.
  2. Journal launch and registration (ISSN and PubMed, for example). A small but detailed job, with follow-up being important. Luckily, PubMed is making their process more fluid, and ISSNs can be registered online now. Expense level: $. Profile: A few hard climbs, short ride.
  3. Create and establish a viable brand (including filing, protecting, and maintaining trademarks). This is a step many take for granted, but it’s potentially expensive and time-consuming. First, what is your brand? How do you decide? Some use consultants, some use internal brainstorming, some use individual inspiration. Once you have an idea, you have to express it visually. If you want to protect it, you have to register trademarks in many markets, and renew them every so often. The initial registration is usually the most time-consuming part. Failure to do so may limit your ability to own your brand. Defending a trademark is part of the deal. Expense level: $$. Profile: Rolling hills.
  4. Establish, cultivate, and maintain a good reputation (this is vital to attracting papers and conveying prestige to authors). A brand is a brand, but a reputation is even more important. You might say that Nature and Science are equivalent brands in some ways, but to many, they have slightly nuanced reputations. Reputations diverge significantly in some fields, and can take a hit before brands will. Keeping your reputation requires a lot of good management throughout the organization. Expense level: $$. Profile: Rolling hills.
  5. Initial funding (3-5 years typically before break-even, and even longer before payback). This is where risk becomes real — expenditures are made, financial projections activated, and staff hired. Without this stage, there is no new publishing initiative or journal. Expense level: $$$$$. Profile: Multi-stage event.
  6. Establishing and monitoring infrastructure systems and contracts, managing these ongoing. Establishing these systems involves a lot of choices, and is often repeated as the years go by. Expense level: $$. Profile: Flat.
  7. Solicitation of materials. How do you get those first papers? This is often the responsibility of a thought leader or a set of them. Expense: $. Profile: Individual time trial.
  8. Rejection of submissions (and in some cases multiple rejections). Some of the first papers will be rejected, and if you’re successful, you’ll attract more papers than you can use, papers that aren’t appropriate, and papers of low quality. These have to be rejected, sometimes more than once. Communications with authors, a fair system to determine what makes it through, and ways to know what you’ve seen before are all important. Expense: $-$$$. Profile: Stationary training sessions.
  9. Acceptance of submissions. Luckily, some submissions are really good, and they deserve more attention. That’s when a lot more work starts. But notice how much has gone on before even the first paper is accepted. Expense: $ (act of acceptance only). Profile: Stationary training session.
  10. Tracking of submissions throughout. This bears on the infrastructure, but systems and technologies aren’t enough. Authors need a lot of handholding, materials can spring surprises on you, new requests from editors can come in, and so forth. Expense: $. Profile: Flat.
  11. Plagiarism detection. A new activity thanks to new tools and expectations, comparing manuscripts using plagiarism detection software often ends with steps involving human judgment. Expense: $. Profile: Headwinds.
  12. Copyright registration and protection. While many publishers allow licenses to suffice, most still require copyright transfer. This is a highly valuable service for authors, I believe, as it alleviates them of monitoring something that loses its value to them once published and gives it to a trusted partner to monitor and protect on their behalf. Expense: $$. Profile: Unknown.
  13. Recruitment and retention of editors and reviewers. Editors and reviewers don’t grown on trees. They are usually busy people with a lot of demands on their time and professional options. How do you get them to head up a journal or provide expert review of submitted manuscripts? Expense: $-$$$. Profile: Mixed.
  14. Care and feeding of reviewers. A list of reviewers isn’t enough. They need to be acknowledged, communicated with, helped, and supported. Publishers are good at this, or try to be. Expense: $. Profile: Rolling hills.
  15. Training of peer reviewers. In addition to caring and feeding, peer reviewers have to be trained. They don’t arrive knowing how to use the systems, either technical or categorical, and they often deviate from one another in unhelpful ways within both systems. Expense: $$. Profile: Headwinds.
  16. Manage statistical reviewers and reviews. This varies by domain. Some don’t use statistical reviewers, especially when direct observations are possible. Others, like medicine and public health, use them all the time. They are often more integral than peer reviewers, and have more decision-making authority. Expense: $$$. Profile: Paceline.
  17. Manage technical reviewers and reviews. See above.
  18. Training of editors. It may be surprising, but a subject-matter expert needs to learn how to be a good editor. This comes naturally enough to some, but others struggle with it, and a few never quite get it. Staff provide a lot of training and monitoring, and this is an area of some confidentiality as to what actually goes on. After all, nobody wants to lose face. Expense: $$-$$$. Profile: Training wheels.
  19. Editorial meetings. Another level of editorial support, this often involves meetings that include selected high-level reviewers, a tier of editors, statisticians or technical reviewers, and editors. Staff have to plan, run, and manage these, along with editorial leaders. Expense: $-$$$$. Profile: Hills.
  20. Management of peer review process. The peer review process isn’t static. New elements come in — like new disclosure rules, new grading or evaluation approaches, and new media forms. How these are integrated matters a good deal, and it takes work. Expense: $. Profile: Rolling terrain.
  21. Conflicts of interest and disclosures. As noted above, conflicts of interest and disclosures are becoming more important in many fields (and should be very important in most). Keeping current with the state of the art, collecting and organizing the forms from dozens of authors, matching them with manuscripts, and following up with reluctant or forgetful authors all requires a lot of work. Expense: $. Profile: Headwinds.
  22. Author attestations. Scandals around fake or shadow authorship have made it necessary to get authors to attest that they indeed wrote, and were in a position to control the data and write freely, the paper submitted under their name. With growing author lists, this can involve a lot of attestations for the average paper. Expense: $. Terrain: Out and back.
  23. Editing of content. This is the one everyone is familiar with, but it’s also a complex one with a lot of variability possible. Some editing is cursory and done by outsourced editors with little domain expertise who just apply style guides. Some editing is intensive, done by lay editors with the training and experience to really push authors to be clear and precise, catching errors peer review and authors both failed to identify. Expense: $-$$$$. Terrain: Track pursuit.
  24. Illustration. Some high-end journals provide illustration staff to authors of selected papers, particularly review articles or review journals. Some improve the basic illustrations authors provide, for the sake of clarity and consistency. Expense: $$$. Terrain: Sprints.
  25. Art handling. Authors don’t always follow instructions, sometimes submit the wrong figures, sometimes submit too many figures, or need to supply new figures after review and editing have uncovered ways to improve their materials. Expense: $. Terrain: Flat.
  26. Multimedia handling. See above. A new area, so slightly different. Expense: $$. Terrain: Rolling hills.
  27. Layout and composition. Whether the journal in question is still printed, the PDF is still in high demand, and typesetting and layout still occur. Luckily, computers make this relatively easy, but it’s not automatic. Figure-sizing, pagination, and other factors demand knowledgeable human intervention and skills. Expense: $$-$$$. Terrain: Intervals.
  28. XML generation and DTD migration. Now, in addition to making pages, publishers spit out XML, and track DTD migrations as they occur. DTD migrations can be minor (new elements to reflect a change somewhere in the pipeline) or extreme (a new DTD requirement, like the NLM DTD was). Expense: $-$$$$. Terrain: Bike path mostly, but be prepared for a multi-week stage race.
  29. Tagging. To generate good metadata, articles and elements are often tagged using either semantic, custom taxonomies, or both. Sometimes, tagging is manual, sometimes automated, and sometimes a little of both. But it doesn’t happen all by itself. Expense: $-$$$. Terrain: Flat.
  30. DOI registration. A minor task usually, and easily accomplished. But a task. Expense: ¢. Terrain: Flat.
  31. Search engine optimization. Ah, Google, how you vex us! The black magic of SEO can drain teams and budgets, all to deal with the swamp light of search. But authors want their papers to be found. Expense: $$$. Terrain: Headwinds and hills.
  32. Rapid publication practices. More common than ever, most journals have a custom path for rapid publication. This often involves special staff and processes. Expense: $$. Terrain: Hilly.
  33. Publication. Ah, at last, we’re published! This involves more now than ever (the next few steps at least). Expense: $$$. Terrain: Paceline.
  34. Printing. Yes, many journals still print, and it’s not getting less complicated, as presses, paper mills, and mailing facilities adjust to a shrinking print world. Expense: $$-$$$$. Terrain: Paceline.
  35. Physical distribution. Mailing is more complex in some ways, because the mail streams are less robust. And reduced print runs have made postal expenses lumpy. Expense: $$-$$$$. Terrain: Hilly.
  36. Media relations. Press coverage drives awareness, and important authors of important studies expect to be in the mediasphere. Also, if there’s a scandal, you’d better know who to call and what to say. Expense: $$$. Terrain: Mountainous.
  37. Social distribution. Twitter and Facebook have created a new alerting expectation and outlet. Expense: $. Terrain: Paceline.
  38. On-site hosting and archiving. Hosting platforms can be expensive because they support many of the functions above. Expense: $$-$$$$. Terrain: Paceline.
  39. Platform upgrades and migrations. Ah, the fun of either upgrading your platform or moving to another provider. It’s a lot of work, and the fear of downtime makes it a delicate task. Expense: $$$$. Terrain: Mountainous.
  40. Comment moderation. Sure, nobody comments on articles — until they do. Then what? The publisher has to staff for it and establish policies around it. Expense: $. Terrain: Unpredictable.
  41. Supplement proposals. Some journals allow supplements. Dealing with proposals alone is a chore. Publishing supplements delves into many of the steps that precede and follow. But because these can come from core authors, they have to be handled delicately. Expense: $. Terrain: Unpredictable.
  42. Analytics and abuse monitoring. Is your site under attack? Has someone stolen a paper and reversed its meaning on a commercial site? A good publisher watches for these things, and has a network that will tremble when there’s a problem. And then there are the more mundane analytics editors and business units need. Expense: $$-$$$$. Terrain: Flats and hills.
  43. Managing and protecting financial records. Yes, publishers get hacked, and have to create firewalls, handle credit card transactions, maintain payroll records, and so forth. Expense: $$. Terrain: Flat.
  44. Managing and protecting subscriber records. If you have subscribers, you have to keep their records from prying eyes, or risk violating your privacy policy. Expense: $. Terrain: Flat.
  45. Managing and protecting editorial records. Peer reviews are confidential. Records showing which manuscripts you rejected are confidential and definitely touchy. Expense: $. Terrain: Flat.
  46. Responding to legal actions. Sometimes, authors are sued, and publishers get entangled. Then, things get interesting. Expense: $-$$$$. Terrain: Mountainous.
  47. Basic management functions. Publishers have to do HR, legal, corporate compliance, and so forth. Expense: $$-$$$. Terrain: Rolling.
  48. Create and maintain e-commerce systems. Whatever your revenue model, you have to take online orders. These systems can be simple or very complex, but they have to be robust. Expense: $$-$$$$. Terrain: Rolling.
  49. Manage sales forces. Whether you sell subscriptions, advertising, ancillary products, sponsorships, or licenses, you have either an internal, outside, or mixed sales force. Expense: $$. Terrain: Rolling.
  50. Provide reporting to oversight, governance, tax, and local authorities. The Journal of Machine Learning Research lost their non-profit status because they didn’t comply with this obligation. It’s part of the deal. Expense: $. Terrain: Intervals.
  51. Interact with agents for institutional and individual sales. In addition to direct sales forces, agents provide another layer of sales support, and often offer different services and approaches, from telemarketing to storefronts. Expense: $. Terrain: Rolling.
  52. Conduct financial projections and set prices accordingly. Publishers want to be around for a long time, and that requires planning. Expense: $. Terrain: Intervals.
  53. Maintain facilities. Publishers have to live somewhere, and often the expectation is that they have inspiring and impressive offices. It’s part of the prestige factor so important to the mutual aspirations of authors and editors as well. They should be at least as nice as the universities where so many work, or so it seems. Expense: $$-$$$$. Terrain: Flat.
  54. Engage in product development. Things change. Little changes like the Internet or the iPhone drive product changes. Expense: $$-$$$$. Terrain: Hills and mountains.
  55. Conduct market research. This informs so many aspects of editorial and business planning. Expense: $$-$$$. Terrain: Rolling.
  56. Do renewal and retention marketing. Marketing and sales go hand in hand. Renewals keep the audience in place for future authors to reach. Expense: $$. Terrain: Intervals.
  57. Do new customer marketing. Growing the audience is also important. Expense: $$$-$$$$. Terrain: Intervals.
  58. Buy and rent lists for various email and snail-mail marketing initiatives. To grow the audience, marketing experts have to source and secure lists of potential customers, and track results over time. Expense: $$-$$$. Terrain: Intervals.
  59. Comply with privacy, email CAN-SPAM, and other regulations affecting publishing. There are a lot of standards and rules about online advertising and marketing, and publishers know and live by these. Expense: $. Terrain: Rolling.
  60. Pay for and comply with terms of publisher insurance policies. Yes, authors can do things that make it even riskier for publishers presenting new findings to the world on their behalf, so we buy insurance. Expense: $$. Terrain: Intervals with mountains.

Of course, the big picture is that scientists and policymakers don’t have to do these things. There’s a set of trades and associated professionals who do all these things on their behalf.

Now, what did I miss? What do you think is no longer necessary?

Kent Anderson

Kent Anderson

Kent Anderson is the CEO of RedLink and RedLink Network, a past-President of SSP, and the founder of the Scholarly Kitchen. He has worked as Publisher at AAAS/Science, CEO/Publisher of JBJS, Inc., a publishing executive at the Massachusetts Medical Society, Publishing Director of the New England Journal of Medicine, and Director of Medical Journals at the American Academy of Pediatrics. Opinions on social media or blogs are his own.


16 Thoughts on "Stick to Your Ribs: A Proposed List — 60 Things Journal Publishers Do"

Thanks for reposting. I was able to cut and paste most of this into my overdue self evaluation. No, seriously, it gets more and more complicated and more and more expensive every single year.

Association publishers provide benefits to their members, including discounted prices as well as validating common professional interests and educational goals through peer review and publication.

Kent, this is a very good list and thanks for reposting.

Scanning through it again, I think “Sell advertising” could be added. It gets a brief mention under 49, “Manage sales forces”, but would merit its own place. Likewise reprint sales.

Another area would be “Third party licensing” – content aggregators, local editions, foreign language editions, etc.

Finally for those who publish journals owned by other societies, “Dealing with societies” is a topic in itself – reports, finances, negotiations, contracts, politics, etc!

Thanks, Peter. I kept it at “manage sales forces” because not all journals sell advertising, especially outside the medical space. But the point is well-taken — there is a lot of variety within the species.

Management is a huge benefit delivered by publishers across the spectrum. Professional management is not to be underestimated. Dealing with societies, dealing with authors, and dealing with readers in a professional manner — it all requires trained and experienced people who understand the subtleties and have the patience. It’s why hiring in our space is so particular, I think. There’s a dispositional aspect, almost.

So, lots of words, but it boils down to, “I agree!”

This is an excellent checklist for anyone exploring the development of a more efficient way to take care of these mostly essential tasks. The big question, of course, is why there are so many little shops (of horrors?) engaged in this work, each one re-inventing the same wheels, gears and cogs. It simply doesn’t seem to be sustainable in an environment under such intense price pressure.

It’s a big reason why scholarly publishing is in such a current state of consolidation. The big players, both commercial and non-commercial, are growing bigger as they take on more and more formerly independent publishing partners. The days of the small, independent publisher may be numbered due to the enormous advantages offered by economies of scale.

David, I’m not sure I agree that the days of small publishers are numbered, though maybe that’s just because I run one!

However it’s certainly true that societies that own publishing divisions are increasingly aware of the cash that a sale of those assets can yield to help fund their other activities – for a while, at least.

There will be more detailed discussion of this topic at an ALPSP Seminar on 24th September called “The Future for Smaller Publishers”, http://alpsp.org/Ebusiness/ProductCatalog/1309FSP.aspx?ID=352

Declaration of interest: I’m speaking!

I’m not sure their existence is threatened so much as their independence may become a thing of the past. The savings offered by economies of scale are hard to resist, and hard to compete against. I would suggest less a “sale” of assets than a growing tendency toward partnerships at varying levels with the larger publishing houses.


Thank you for accurately detailing publisher activities that add value to the MS word document after submission.

The author relations activities may be expanded due to the Sunshine Act’s effect on US physicians depending upon revenue models. Certain endeavors with medical communications firms, pharma and device companies, can result in Transfer of Value to the authors – something they would want to know prior to committing.

Discovering it in the CMS public database next March without their prior approval could be damaging to the relationship.

Thanks again – Tony

That is a great update, Tony. Even knowing about these things and taking the time to think through the effects and make the changes in response are vital and often undervalued and ignored.

Particularly since Applicable Manufacturers are considering allocating general payments for special projects – such as supplements – among all the authors, which could result in a 5 figure transfer of value.

I’m not talking about honoraria (which will be reported as a cash payment), but the actual publisher fees which compliance officers are translating into “in-kind” value for the physician authors.

Physicians will want to know ahead of time what they are signing up for.

Don’t forget about preservation. Scholarly publishers are ensuring that their electronic content will remain discoverable and usable well into the future by participating in preservation initiatives, such as Portico and CLOCKSS. More than 16,000 journals are being preserved in the Portico archive alone.

Very good point. Archiving has shifted to publishers with the transition to digital.

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