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What isn’t commonly known about scholarly publishing? Every industry has its less well-known facts. What are ours?

This month we asked the Chefs: What’s your favorite ‘dirty little secret’ about scholarly publishing?

Kent Anderson: Like any industry, once you’ve been around enough and seen enough, there are plenty of “dirty little secrets” holding us together. They do function as a weird kind of glue and cohesion.

Two “dirty little secrets” come immediately to mind. The first is that not all libraries actually activate their subscriptions to content, and usually renew these same subscriptions despite this. I’ve seen this at multiple publishers, and it’s always surprising. They buy the content, but never activate their access, which means they aren’t measuring the value, delivering the value, or assessing the value.

The other “dirty little secret” is that despite being brilliant individuals, most scientists and physicians are very poor businesspeople. Most businesspeople in our industry spend a lot of time and effort (and patience) walking these individuals through the business on their short visits as board members, editorial board members, or executives. Because most of us are good at this, these visitors often feel they are the ones making sure things work well, but the dirty little secret is that most organizations expend a lot of effort to help them maintain this illusion.

Joe Esposito: I don’t think it’s dirty, it’s not little, and it should not be a secret, but the least appreciated aspect of scholarly communications is that it is part of the broader media industry and shares many characteristics with it.

It’s often said that science publishing is “about” science, but it’s truer to say that it is “about” publishing. This means that there is much to learn (as well as to discard) from other areas of publishing, and also from the other media that grew up centuries after publishing. A corollary to this is that business management in scholarly communications requires a horizontal analysis — knowing how deals are done and copyrights exploited in textbooks, movies, and radio. Students of the Big Deal should look at the models at Netflix and Spotify, workflow administrators should be aware of the rapid pace of financial publishing, and publishers struggling with Sci-Hub and its ilk would do well to consider that Apple dropped DRM from its music store. The business is bigger than the editorial department and its future direction has more to do with innovations in consumer media than with the high-minded talk that dominates conferences and mail groups.

Angela Cochran: There are a few gems that I think aren’t so much “dirty secrets” but unknown truths. Here are a few: 

  1. Turn-around time for a journal’s peer review process is 20% editor and 80% editorial coordinator/managing editor. Keeping papers moving through a system of volunteers requires constant nudging by journals staff. There are auto reminders built into the system, all of which can be easily ignored. Often it takes a few emails from a coordinator or managing editor to get everyone on track. In my experience, this is the case whether the editors are paid or not.
  2. There is actually a profession of scholarly publishing and we care very deeply about scholarship, quality of scholarship, and in helping the authors disseminate their work. It’s truly the core of what we do. We serve our particular community, which may have very different needs than other communities. There is no “one size, fits all” approach to this.
  3. Not all journals make money or even support themselves. Many times those niche journals that are vital to a small research community are entirely supported by larger journals with broad audiences. Starting a new journal is a loss for several years. If that journal is a niche journal, several years could turn into 8-10 years.

Robert Harington: An intriguing question. If I told a “dirty little secret about scholarly publishing” then it would no longer be a secret.

Seriously though, from where I sit the dirtiest secret of them all is that there are no secrets. Sometimes I wish there were. Perhaps there is a golden ticket to the publishing factory somewhere. In the end publishing is about common sense. Never was there a more practical field to work in. It combines the physical with the ephemeral. There are the nuts and bolts and the strategic innovation. There is nothing that beats the smell that wafts over your senses when cracking open a new book. And yes, the ability to see the work that you and your colleagues do, innovating for your academic communities, is immensely satisfying. If you are a politician then, yes, there is much here for you. If you are a salesperson, have at it. If you have one foot in the academic cloud and the other foot in business, then you are in the right place. The secret is that you should be open to everything and pragmatic to the core.

Karin Wulf: This is a secret that shouldn’t be — most scholarly publishing professionals are incredibly engaged with the implications of their work.  It’s probably a truism that people are dedicated to work when they envision their contributions as part of a greater whole. With very few exceptions, though, the people I encounter in all aspects of scholarly publishing are cognizant that their work plays an important part in knowledge production and dissemination, and they are both committed to that work and proud of its contribution. As authors and readers, researchers trying to make sense of the publishing business and the changes in access, licensing and costs should take heart, even when they find themselves disagreeing with scholarly communication professionals on one issue or another.

Charlie Rapple: A “dirty” little secret that’s been nagging at me ever since I started working in scholarly publishing is that such a high proportion of online content is never downloaded or read. No rigorous studies to quantify this exist, to my knowledge, but I have often quoted the questionable figure of 50%, and most publishers I speak to nod in rueful acknowledgement of this figure – it may not be scientifically calculated, but I don’t think it’s an order of magnitude away from the reality.

There are a lot of reasons for such a high proportion of content not being downloaded, such as the “publish or perish” imperative driving salami slicing, over-publication and information overload; the focus of (most) publishing business models on selling subscriptions to libraries, or services to authors, rather than individual articles to readers; the “offgrid” usage of this content, in institutional repositories, or author profile sites like ResearchGate; and of course the persistence of print.

Increasing the visibility and usage of “the unloved 50%” has become a vocation for me, and in an era of library budget cuts and metricization of impact, is a common goal for many research stakeholders. Current efforts include continual improvement of discovery approaches and tools, from expanded metadata (e.g. plain language descriptions), to improved “stickiness” (e.g. new-generation recommendation widgets), and increased promotion of work both by individual authors (growing use of social media) and by the organizations supporting them (publishers, institutions, societies, funders, etc all aligned in pursuit of impact).

David Smith: I don’t have a favorite ‘dirty little secret’  because it’s not (and shouldn’t be) anybody’s favorite…

I find myself increasingly looking at the infrastructure that underpins the scholarly world and thinking that it really needs a lot of work. Sci-Hub has shown us that our access infrastructure isn’t fit for purpose. I hear stories of the work that clients are having to put in to tackle security issues on the platforms they pay for. Scholarly identity is still at a nascent stage when one compares it to the efforts of Google, Facebook and Microsoft. You would perhaps be very surprised to find out just how fragile some fairly important information databases are in terms of their set-up. The list goes on. There’s a great article (one of a number actually) by Cameron Neylon et al. that talks about some of these issues.

We are in the information business. The plumbing is crucial to our futures.

Ann Michael: When this question was first raised, I didn’t think I had anything to add. Then it hit me, I do know a pretty significant dirty little secret (although I hesitate to call it a favorite)! It’s one that impacts content and product development all the time and is only spoken about in small groups, dark corners, and muted voices.

Editors in Chief, Editorial Board members, Chief Medical Officers, established academics, and other experts that get deeply involved in publishing often do not fully represent the audiences they seek to serve. These brilliant and driven professionals have separated themselves from the “average” person in their field simply by getting more deeply involved in the publishing process, yet many feel as though they can tell you exactly what someone in their field needs. While there is truth in this, their views are often skewed. That said, their views are also essential. Most organizations publishing scholarly content (especially in STM) are working hard to balance the expertise and insights of their editors, with the creation and dissemination of content that meets the average user’s needs. This is especially true in applied fields (medicine, engineering, finance, accounting, etc.).

The good news is that this balance is often achieved by getting regular and meaningful user input through a variety of methods. While we might still run the risk of bias in the interpretation of data, most experts adapt when evidence shows them they need to.

Now it’s your turn. What’s your favorite ‘dirty little secret’ about scholarly publishing?

We all know there are more secrets to share. Which ones have you seen in action?


Ann Michael

Ann Michael

Ann Michael is President of Delta Think, a business and technology consulting and advisory firm focused on innovation and growth in membership organizations, scholarly publishers, and professional information providers. Ann is Past-President of SSP.

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26 Thoughts on "Ask The Chefs: What’s Your Favorite ‘Dirty Little Secret’ About Scholarly Publishing?"

At the STM Conference in Frankfurt today, one other “dirty little secret” came out — that is, science policy makers don’t understand the current research community or the major factors shaping researcher behavior today. This leads to unrealistic policies geared to political expediency rather than the support of scientific endeavors and the researcher community.

My experience and observations have been rather the opposite. US science policy makers, in both the Congressional and Executive Branchs, have elaborate interactions with the research community. In fact some policy analysts argue that these elaborate, time consuming mechanisms are a drag on progress. Perhaps publishers are not aware of all that goes on.

David – I think the issue might be a small sample size – this morning’s speaker!

“Interactions” don’t equate to knowledge. It takes a disciplined approach to understand a group, more than just rubbing shoulders and talking with old friends. Careful study of researchers and trends in research reveal things that would suggest different policies than we’re undertaking, evidence that policymakers are out of touch.

As someone who does the science of science and trend analysis, in the context of policy, I would like to agree, but I am not sure that I can. We are already a pretty active and relatively large community in the science policy domain.

Science policy is dominated by the issue of what programs to fund. This is a very elaborate process, taking several years for each annual budget. The funded science community is heavily involved, but they do not have the last word, because this is democracy not technocracy.

A lot of studies are thrown into the pot along the way. For example I have been doing studies in favor of redirecting a major research program. These studies typically do not appear in journals, by the way, because that route takes far too long. So it is not clear what you want that is not already being done. Major science policy issues are usually awash with studies.

I found this article very important and timely. Also in the last paragraph you mentioned “regular and meaningful user input through a variety of methods.” I have been trying since February to conduct some sort of very short user poll or survey at our website and to this date it is still in the discussion stage. Sometimes too many egos get involved and little forward movement takes place.

Sorry to hear that.

Another dirty little secret (not sure it applies to your scenario, but it might) is that sometimes scholarly publishers trip over the fact that the same skills that make someone well-suited for certain critical roles, can cause delay in progress. An example is acute attention to detail (that is, attention that is beyond the point of diminishing returns!).

I second this Ann. For example, in peer review I like the principle “Do not ask how to make this article better, ask is it good enough to publish?” This may be a case of perfection being the enemy of the good.

1. Many of those who work in scholarly publishing do so because they failed as researchers and jumped over to publishing just because they needed a job.

2. The American Library Association and its members almost universally advocate that all other scholarly publishers transition to open-access, yet the Association earns millions of dollars annually from selling and licensing proprietary content.

3. Elsevier publishes a journal that is 100% pseudo-science: Homeopathy.

4. Aries Systems Corporation happily licenses its EditorialManager software to OMICS International, the most notorious of all the publishers on my list and the target of a U.S. Government lawsuit, and OMICS has used its email address ( for spamming and to make itself look legitimate and victimize researchers. Other industry firms are also profiting handsomely from predatory journals.

5. Scholarly publishing conferences are corporate-funded parties where old friends meet to exchange new business cards.

6. Many academic librarians demand universal open access, yet academic libraries happily and hypocritically pay a princely sum each year to OCLC, which copyrights and then re-sells taxpayer-funded metadata created by libraries back to libraries (the same model as subscription scholarly journals). Numerous OCLC executives draw salaries over USD $250,000. In return, librarians are rewarded with lavish parties and meals at conferences, other perks, and generous salaries for serving on the many OCLC boards and advisory groups.

7. Many academic libraries laugh at copyright law and freely and routinely reproduce proprietary content with impunity.

8. Two of the most aggressively OA-promoting universities, MIT and Cal, are viciously fighting each other over the IP rights to the Crispr-Cas9 editing technique. The schools are happy to force open-access on the rest of the world, as long as it’s not open-access to their own intellectual property.

Your comment number one is just wrong! Most of the folks I met in scholarly publishing in the sciences were liberal arts majors like myself! Of course I only met those involved in the business over the last 40 years.

Those scientists I met who decided to go into publishing just did not like having to deal with the pettiness of academia while others discovered after being in the lab that they just did not enjoy a life in the lab. Just like I met a few librarians who left the library because they just did not like doing the same thing day after day after day…

This seems like an overly negative view, especially items #1 and #5, which lack empirical support.

But the claim that “…industry firms are … profiting handsomely from predatory journals” is very interesting. I am curious as to who is doing this, although I also think that many of the journals on your list are not predatory, just low cost and therefore necessarily crude. They are, after all, estimated to be publishing something like half a million articles a year. Are you saying existing vendors should not serve this rapidly growing market? Someone will.

Let’s talk homeopathy. I am not a fan, but studying homeopathic treatments is not necessarily pseudo-science. With 200 million people using homeopathic treatments, understanding the possible risks, emerging trends, and emerging approaches can be important, especially to practitioners with patients using them. The worst thing is to stigmatize it, because then you drive it underground. Better to study it and at least acknowledge it and deal with the risks and trends in a scholarly and scientific manner.

Let’s talk meetings. I’m at one now (Frankfurt Book Fair). Not fun, not lavish. Basic hotel room, long flight in coach, tons of walking, long days, sore feet, jet lag, dehydration, and lots of business meetings that will help reshape the industry slightly as it continues to evolve. People make all this effort because we do have an industry in which personal trust and affinity remains important, and I think that’s a good thing. It’s worth the effort and time away from family.

Most libraries are scrupulous about honoring and protecting copyright. Aries is a business, not a moral arbiter of publishing practices. There is a world of difference between copyrights and patents. OA remains a small market force, which is why there is a lot of ambivalence reflected in business models. So on and so forth.

You make a few valid points in here. But I had to point out some other ways of looking at things, just to give some food for thought.

If no 7 is true and “many” libraries laugh at, and ignore copyright, please name and shame them. In my experience, the vast majority of libraries and librarians are extremely risk-averse on such matters.

It is impossible for me to name and shame libraries and librarians who deliberately flout copyright, for fear of legal action, but believe me they are legion. In particular, there is a younger generation of librarians, brought up on the magic clicks of the Internet, who believe that all books should be freely available to all. As just one example, here is an online article by a library sciences student – Its bizarre logic should send shivers up your spine. These are views widely shared by many librarians and, even more so, by the professoriat and graduate students. One of the sites mentioned in the article,, has 60,000 mostly scholarly books by academic presses and an equal number of “members”; both figures are growing by leaps and bounds. This is a big part of the future, indeed of the present: not so much the mere existence of pirated book sites, but the public embrace of same by leading figures in the scholarly and creative communities (department chairs, senior university administrators, museum directors, etc.).

This comment is typical of the sort of tripe that people employed by libraries have to offer on the subject of “open access.” It is unfortunate that Mr. Beal, a librarian, has no financial model that can support “open access.” This is a pay to play operation based on the notion that producers rather than consumers should be paying, which would have the effect of chocking off publication by people who are not employed in well funded institutions. In response to the offensive point 1, it would seem to me that what Mr. Beal is suggesting is that people become librarians because they have difficulty with economics.

“Many of those who work in scholarly publishing do so because they failed as researchers and jumped over to publishing just because they needed a job.”
So, you are a librarian because you failed as a researcher or carpenter? or because you needed a job?!
What is bad in searching jobs in publishing or library? and why and how “research” as a job would be superior to other jobs?
For you, researchers are more “respectable” than librarians, editors or publishers?
You seem disdaining yourself and your profession, and sanctifying researchers who could be fraudsters and cheaters like in any other profession. You contradict yourself but you ignore it.
A shepherded or plumber could serve society more than do many researchers or librarians.
Your list is worthless. Sitting down in your chair and saying that journal A or B or publisher C, are “predatory” is not more than a temperamental behavior.
You have a major conflict of interest by doing such a list, haven’t you?

I’m always struck at the proportion of industry scientists or medical clinicians who take little or notice of any scholarly activity. They believe they can accomplish 98% of what they need to do by relying on “good enough” information that they picked up years ago, and for the most part they’re right. Also, many of them can rely on corporate protocols, clinical guidelines, and the like that are developed by experts who do keep up, enabling rank-and-file people to simply follow along. Posting a new article online or publishing a new issue of a print journal is an event , but it may not register with as many professionals as we think.

I would add the lack of transparency in the pricing model, both as regards the content generator (what are the costs associated with the value being added in providing content facilitation, as expressed in APC/BPCs) as well as the content user side. It is my perception that no one has an issue with moderate profits and extra costs for extra services, but the relationship between pricing and value added has been somewhat opaque in academic publishing, which has lead to suspicion, anger and the search for more transparent models.

Kent Anderson wrote: “…despite being brilliant individuals, most scientists and physicians are very poor businesspeople. Most businesspeople in our industry spend a lot of time and effort (and patience) walking these individuals through the business on their short visits as board members, editorial board members, or executives. Because most of us are good at this, these visitors often feel they are the ones making sure things work well, but the dirty little secret is that most organizations expend a lot of effort to help them maintain this illusion.”

As a lifelong academic, I can attest that this is _absolutely_ true! My >10-years involvement in STM publishing has made me appreciate how much we (scientists, and esp. editors) _need_ publishing professionals.

Also, regarding Angela Cochran’s comment: “There is actually a profession of scholarly publishing and we care very deeply about scholarship, quality of scholarship, and in helping the authors disseminate their work” (echoed by Karin Wulf), I can attest to that. I’d be lost without the scholarly publishing professionals that support me (an amateur in this business).

Kudos to all of you! You are an essential part of the scientific ecosystem.

Mark Johnston
Editor-in-Chief, GENETICS (a peer-edited journal of the Genetics Society of America)

In my view, some journal editors are bedazzled by “big name” authors and treat them differently, e.g., playing down referee criticisms, from the way they treat authors with unknown names. That’s why I am in favour of authors’ names being withheld from referees and editors until a decision is made on the paper.

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