Sigmund Freud, founder of psychoanalysis, smoking cigar. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Sigmund Freud, founder of psychoanalysis, smoking cigar. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Editor’s Note: I spent much of the past week at a neuroimaging symposium, talking with former labmates and collaborators about the state of science publishing, and was struck by how accurately Joe Esposito’s post from last year described nearly everything I heard. I figured it was time to revisit the post as an exercise in remaining grounded in the real world needs of the scientific research community.

Freud’s notorious question–What does a woman want?–came to mind recently as I was pondering the disconnect between the prevailing wisdom about what scientists want and what they tell me.  Of course I don’t get to speak to all scientists and my own sample is too small to be representative of anything, but I do spend day after day talking with scientists about scholarly communications.  Do you belong to professional societies?  What journals are central to your work?  Do you attend conferences?  What is your view of open access?  If you could fix one thing about scholarly communications, what would it be?

Foreshadowing:  I am going to share with you the one near-universal opinion that scientists hold about fixing scholarly communications.  But you have to read to the end to find out

The phrase “prevailing wisdom” may smell like a straw man to the logically minded, and, yeah, it’s wrong to lump so many points of view together, but I’m going to do it anyway and let you decide how much straw there is in this argument.  The conventional view (the straw man) is that what scientists want is access.  They are working at institutions that simply cannot afford to subscribe to the publications they require for their work.  Roadblocks to access are put up everywhere by publishers that do not have the best interests of the scientific community at heart.

On top of that, publishers exploit volunteer labor and have made the academic community dependent on the impact factor metric, which serves to strengthen the incumbent avaricious publishers.   The editorial gatekeeping model of the publishers is managed by non-scientists and adds no value to the process and may even subtract from it.  And so on.

I bet there is a kernel of truth to some of these broad generalizations (e.g, reviewers of journals articles receive no or little compensation, though the editors of journals are compensated, in some cases quite handsomely), but in my experience what scientists really want is quite different.

To begin with, none of the scientists I have interviewed has ever begun a discussion of journals by talking about what they read.  They talk about where they publish, where they would like to publish, and the procedures (including obstacles) to get published where they want to.  That is, the scientists in my tiny unrepresentative sample think of themselves as authors first, not readers.  So how important is access?  The most common response is “I get everything from the library” or “You can always get what you need.”  There is indeed a problem with access, but it is access for authors, not for readers.  Have the gatekeepers slammed the gates too hard?  Well, that is debatable.  As one would expect, the gate is hard to kick open for the individual author, but not too difficult (so my interviewees tell me) for the community at large.   Everybody likes gatekeepers–at journals, at private clubs, at the admissions departments of elite universities–provided that they can get through the gate.

On the matter of open access, no scientist I have spoken to is unaware of it, but it is mostly a marginal matter.  I recently remarked to a colleague, with whom I conduct these interviews, that about 1 scientist in 30 seemed to favor open access strongly, to which she responded, “If that.”  Surely there is a disconnect here.  It’s hard to imagine any topic that occupies more bandwidth in academic publishing than open access, and I will be disappointed if Stevan HarnadMike Taylor, and Michael Eisen don’t chime in on the comments section of this blog to point out how I have the whole thing wrong.  But that’s what scientists tell me.

On the other hand, although few scientists expressed to me a strong interest in open access in their role as readers, they are keenly interested in it in their role as writers.  That is, they believe that there is an audience for their work that does indeed have access problems, even though they themselves (that is, the authors) for the most part do not.  Is this not the hope of all authors, all musicians, all movie-makers, that there is pent-up demand for their work if only the barriers to access could be torn down?  Even a lowly blogger at, say, The Scholarly Kitchen (to choose a site at random), may dream of having a post picked up by, yes, Michael Eisen or even more significantly by Tim O’Reilly or the folks who run the Freshly Pressed selection at   (Inside baseball:  this post will probably be read by between 2,000 and 3,000 people.  In the unlikely event that it “goes viral” and reaches 10,000 views, I will be celebrated by my fellow chefs even as they plot to assassinate me.)

On peer review opinions vary.  It’s good, it’s very good, it could be better, it used to be better, it’s good in some places but not in others, it’s hard to do well, people don’t make an effort to do it well, and so forth.  On the other hand, the more limited form of peer review practiced by PLoS ONE (and widely imitated) triggers some skepticism.  In my experience most scientists express a preference, somewhere between mild and modest, for hybrid publications, which employ traditional peer review, but also have a reasonably priced open access option.  Publishers that have not already done so may wish to attempt to attract the authors who now publish with PLoS ONE with a hybrid program, which would include rigorous peer review and an “author-pays” fee of no more than PLoS ONE’s ($1,350).  Some publishers that have put a program like this in place have seen significant revenues from the author fees.

What do almost all scientists agree about?  The manuscript management systems employed by most publishers.  Scientists detest these systems.  They find them to be cumbersome and they express real frustration and sometimes outright anger over them.  I will forebear naming names here, but some of the most prominent publishers and vendors of workflow management systems come under fire.

I am not surprised by this, having suffered through this experience myself.  Publishers should think about this.  A publisher’s equity is in its ability to attract the finest authors.  So how does an author first interact with the publisher? By going online and struggling to upload a paper.  For publishers who have never used their own systems (I think this is a very high percentage), consider how you feel trying to get a problem solved with Verizon or AT&T or (to take an extreme example) United Airlines.  Poorly designed software interfaces combine with a strategy of never having anybody to answer telephones.  If people had their blood pressure checked just before boarding a United flight, we would be reading articles about a mass epidemic of hypertension.  But where would that article be published if the author is so frustrated by the publisher’s Web site?

There are two exceptions to this near-universal contempt for workflow management systems.  One author complained to me about using them and then remarked that the system at PLoS is not that bad–not, he said, that it is in itself a reason to publish with PLoS ONE.  Oh?  Maybe it is part of the reason.  I speculate that traditional publishers, who spend much of their time trying to make librarians happy (even as they charge as much for their materials as they can get away with), are at a disadvantage with pure Gold open access publishers, whose only job is to make authors happy.

But the second exception is more amusing.  I was intrigued by a group of scientists who praised the submission system at one particular journal.  So I investigated.  That particular journal, beloved by all its authors, accepts submissions as email attachments.  The managing editor calls authors to answer questions.  It does not use workflow management software.  Limited automation, which is expensive, but it makes the authors happy.  What is this telling us about the limitations of technology in publishing?

I repeat:  my sample of scientists is not large enough to be representative of the scientifc enterprise as a whole.  But I do wonder about surveys whose findings are the complete opposite of mine.  Why aren’t they talking to any of my guys?

Joseph Esposito

Joseph Esposito

Joe Esposito is a management consultant for the publishing and digital services industries. Joe focuses on organizational strategy and new business development. He is active in both the for-profit and not-for-profit areas.


15 Thoughts on "Stick To Your Ribs: What Does A Scientist Want?"

Perhaps what scientists really want in this area is unknown and will remain unknown until someone shows it to them. Predicting when that might happen would seem to be a function of diversity and the pace of innovation and experimentation in scholarly communication.

Joe, I would agree with the observation that researchers are, on the whole, far more preoccupied with publishing than with reading. After all, the adage they live under is “Publish or Perish”, not “Read or Rot”. In the mid-1990s I called it “keeping the minutes of science”, and we all know what happens to minutes: they are recorded, written, filed, and hardly ever read except if there’s a problem. Many scientific articles are confirmatory in nature, and after a quick look at the abstract, taken as read. Literally. And, of course, for researchers, at least in the OECD world, access is often relatively wide and secure via their institutions (though they may be missing access to quite a lot and not be aware of it, which is a problem in itself for science). Open access is most relevant and important for those who rely on scientific information but aren’t themselves researchers, e.g. students and those in health care, or agriculture, or policy-making, and those making meta-analyses of the literature. Not all researchers care about the needs of these people, sadly. Open access is less a concern for researchers as it is for society at large and vicariously for those who provide the means for research, the funding bodies. Researchers who don’t want or need to be funded can afford to ignore society’s need and funders’ requirements in that regard.

I would also agree with your observation that submission systems are often considered infuriatingly frustrating (my words, of course, you’re more diplomatic). It prompted me to post on my blog a proposal I developed a while ago (no takers yet, so far):

Jan Velterop


It seems to me that students are at schools and schools have libraries and the student has access so the needs of a very large part of the audience is satisfied. One can believe that the audience for scientific material is large but it is not. Additionally, those in science seem to know where to go to get what they want.

I never met a scientist, (I was in STEM publishing for 40 years), who complained about not having enough to read. I did hear complaints that better indexing systems were needed. In the life sciences I learned that lots of material was needed to effectively carry out experiments. Things like rapid reference handbooks, methods books, searchable databases, lists of sources for supplies and the like.

For some reason I just cannot see one of my friends who is a wheat farmer in Montana (some 10,000 acres) seeking a scientific piece of literature to answer a question. He may ask a neighbor or the local ag agent but it would never occur to him to go to the library.

Submission systems are a mess and always have been. They are at best a patch work of legacy from print to fax to e delivery. I would think that by now someone would have figured out just what their authors do and how they want to submit materials. What publishers are doing is creating a submission system that meets their needs. But….

It would seem natural that most contributors to a journal want to send their manuscripts as a MS Word Doc attachment to an email, and thereafter deal with an Editor, reviewer commentaries, and copy-editors on a human level. That has always been my experience.

Systems like these were introduced to reduce costs. A fine aim. Another design would have been implemented if the goal were to increase usefulness.

Indeed. Very plausible that they were. Unfortunately these cost reductions didn’t often seem to lead to lower subscription fees, but rather to improved – already handsome – profits. Neither class of journal ‘users’, be they authors or readers, seem to have benefited. Your statement that “another design would have been implemented if the goal were to increase usefulness” is uncomfortably true.

Jan Velterop

Not sure I agree (and I think Joe may have been talking instead about systems where email is used rather than online web-based submission systems). But clearly both authors and publishers have benefited from the massive time and effort savings offered by online submission systems.

I go back to a time where you had to put together a stack of printouts of your manuscript, along with several sets of all figures, collate everything and Fedex them into the journal’s office. These would then be mailed out to peer reviewers, who would mail in their responses. The process was slow and incredibly annoying, particularly at a time when very few had color photo printers, so you had to go out to photo labs to get your images together. Then there was the collating, the mailing, etc. On the publisher end, you also had to collate, track and mail everything, keep filed copies of everything, etc.

I’ve done both, and I can say, without a doubt, that both sides are way better off than they were previously. While the systems in place could still be improved, they’re way better (and cheaper for everyone) than doing things by hand.

And for the record, not all publishers are reaping enormous profit margins. Some have used efficiencies like this to keep subscription prices down for readers.

I have personally contribued to detecting errors and problems in the online submission systems of many Elsevier and Springer journals. What is really infuriating is that not once did I ever receive a word of thanks for pointing out the problems which led to a more precise, accurate and thus professional submission system. In the past few years, I saw that Scholarhsip One was an independent entity, but that it is now owned by Thomson Reuters. While some consider this to be a great step forward, I consider it to be a dangerous step backwards.

When our journal went to a modern submission system, it knocked seven weeks off our time to first decision. No complaints about that! Also, it’s been a few years since I sent reviewer comments to the wrong author!

One of the keys to our successful change has been a managing editor willing to help authors through the process. Even though we modernized, there’s no substitute for the personal touch.

I haven’t submitted a paper there, but I believe that eLife requires only a simple single PDF for their initial decide-to-review assessment. Then if it is accepted for full review, you have to re-upload the documents (text, figures, etc.) separately. This seems like a good compromise solution to me, that minimizes the pain while retaining the benefits of an online submission system.

(And on this topic – surely in a modern electronic age, we no longer need to adhere to the old-fashioned model of a manuscript with double-spaced text pages, followed by figure legends, followed by the figures. Some publishers do a good job of providing readable manuscripts for review – for instance, ACS, when the authors choose to use their templates – although sadly they don’t mandate these.)

It is common for people to underestimate the complexity of human procedure systems when they try to automate them.

One extremely important aspect has not at all been taken into consideration: culture and geographic origin. Outside of traditional “Western” ideological publishing parameters, the reasons to publish are wide, and powerful. Some important centers where the reasons could differ considerably to those listed in the article include Brazil, Russia, Iran, China, Turkey, Pakistan, India, and broadly the African continent (removing the northern belt of countries). My experience over many years with scientists from these countries, as well as from developed countries, indicates that what a scientst wants is vastly different. But that would take many pages to explain in detail.

Sounds interesting. Can you at least summarize a few such reasons? The “Western” reasons are mostly recognition and communication. What else is there?

I have worked with scientists from these and other developing countries for over a decade. So even though my ideas cannot represent all or possibly even a majority, they do express a certain level of reality “on the ground”. In India, for example, where there are literally millions of scientists all fighting for a much smaller number of positions, the desire of a scientist is not that poetic. It is more instinctive, and very raw: of survival. This explains two things: a) why so many papers of such bad quality are being published in so many OA journals classified as “predatory” by Beall; b) why so many “suspect” publishers are blooming from India. India as a hub of this sudden exponential increase in scientific activity (aka publications) is not some wonderful surge in scientific desire to excel, but in a new-found freedom to express, which was, until the OA movement, tightly controlled by the traditional STM publishers. In some ways, the liberating expression of so much “poor” science that has diluted the very core of science integrity has been caused by the lack of sufficient regulation in the OA movement. I would say that Nigeria follows a similar path as India, and socio-economic factors play an integral part. These two hubs stand out only because of the sheer numbers of scientists. And to some extent, this is supported by the interactive map on the Bohannon sting paper. As for countries like Iran (more correctly, the Islamic Republic of Iran) and Pakistan, there is a very subtle anti-Western sentiment that underlies the drive to success. Even, dare I say, a fundamental religious one, but this latter aspect is extremely difficult (and dangerous) to prove in public for obvious reasons. But the economic ban imposed on Iran by the US, for example, has led to a very aggressively motivated Iranian science base (although you will not find many making this claim publically, for fear of the repercussions). The “anti-Western” position and sentiment is thus often well hidden, or masqueraded.

Egypt is simply in a hopeless state. The almost total degradation of democratic structures has seen a massive degradation in academic structures, and it’s like the wild-wild West of the Middle East. Lawlessness abounds, and quality is no longer an essential term in the academic lexicon. This can be witnessed by the massive number of papers published in journals under the Marsland Press title, such as Nature & Science. As for countries like Indonesia, Bangladesh, and in fact several other smaller SE Asian countries like Vietnam, the driving factor is also different. In these cases, there is a sense of national pride, but since there is no government-supported initiatives as exist in India or Nigeria, the impact is less subtle. Science is thus channeled into local journals, to suit local needs (e.g., agriculture and farmers). To some level, the same applies to Thailand, which has some of the most conservative scientists around. Tunisia finds itself in a quagmire. Following an earth-shaking revolution, it is trying to adjust its publishing values to suit a new political flavor. At least in plant pathology, the actions mirror the words, and the signs are positive, so the strive is of national pride. Brazil is a complex case. A highly politically corrupted landscape has led to an equally corrupted academia, with Fasep trying to clean up the mess in recent years. A divide in ethics is as deep as the socio-economic divide, and reams can be said about that country. As it hosts the 2015 symposium in Rio on publishing ethics (?), all eyes will be on this BRICS member.

Russia is complicated. Reforms there have pretty much been on paper only since the capacity to strive are not supported by equal support of state funds or an infrastructure that promotes the internal efforts for an international market. With the current political and economic crisis, I see the increased isolation of Russian Federation scientists. Isolation, however, is one way to spur change.

These perceptions are based, as I say, on my own personal professional and personal interaction in research and publishing, with many scientists from each of these countries. Very sadly, and very irritatingly, one common thread among the motivation in these countries is the Impact Factor. In that sense, the worst scenario is China, which financially remunerates scientists based on the IF score. China, in that sense, represents the core of the academic corruption that we do not want to be the spurring factor for the rest of the world. The fact that China has now overtaken the US in terms of number of papers published bodes negatively for the future of science.

In other words, it doesn’t matter what ribs are being eaten around the world. Finally, it is the sheer power of the numbers that is going to overshadow the integrity of science. Apologies for the euphemisms and the analogies.

Disclaimers: my reference to Beall’s lists are not a form of support of those lists since they are flawed in many ways. However, they serve as a “raw” reference point to support my statement, since no other lists exists on any other web-site. I also refer to the Bohannon paper, but I personally do not believe that that paper was built on an ethically sound foundation since he used false names, e-mails and institutions or addresses to submit his fake papers.

PS: I forgot to comment on a few countries whose scientists with which I have had a certain level of interaction. In Kazakhstan, there is a tremendous effort to meet the challenges and ideals of the West, and there are very active reforms in place with relatively large funding to reposition their scientists on the world stage of science and science publishing. They still have a long way to go, but thumbs up, anyway. Without a doubt, Kazakhstan represents also a strategic investment by the US to counter the Russians, politically and otherwise, so this chess move can be felt in science, too. Turkey is striving hard to expand, not unlike Serbia and Croatia, with a massive surge in OA journals, as witnessed by the exponential increase in ISSN numbers originating from primarily Turkey. The OA model provides a new source of revenue, and the government, TUBITAK, is actively promoting OA expansion by Turkish scientists, also fuelled by the IF-gambling system. But, it lies at an ideological divide, both historically, ethically culturally and geographically, so this will be challenging moving forward. In recent years, the economy has grown, funding has been plentiful, and scientists have been smiling. But with ISIS/ISIL on its doorstep, with Kurdish conflicts biting away at national pride and integration, and with a reticent EU not that willing to formally incorporate Turkey into its expanded borders, Turkey’s science golden era faces an uncertain future. My experience with Cuban scientists is that they are really laid back, so only the good papers in my field actually come out of commercial labs where there is a real green-back objective and motivation. If it were not for that, science would be gathering dust under the palm trees dotting its coastline. I am disappointed in the lack of motivation by some Belarussian and Romanian colleagues. They are often willing to sacrifice publishing ethics in the name of publishing numbers, but this is going to backfire seriously on them as post-publication peer review becomes an integral and certain part of the future of science publishing. Particularly for the Romanians. There are many shady OA journals with many suspect papers. Quite similarly, Serbia also suffered a national disgrace when the fraud in one of its nationally supported journals, Archives of Biological Science, was publically exposed [1].

So, going back to the original title of this article, I think the ribs that are being eaten are not always determined by the menu that is being read by scientists, but rather, in many cases, by the entity handing down that menu. I have long claimed that in science publishing, we are nothing more than the puppets in a play. Those scientists that realize this reality often have a fateful end. And it is those who are able to manipulate the scenes under the pressure from the overseeing “hand” that survive until the closing act (aka retirement).


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