Editor’s Note: Today’s post is by Tony Ross-Hellauer, Samantha Hindle, Gary McDowell, and Jessica Polka, who are early-career researchers with backgrounds in information science (TRH) and biomedical sciences working at Know-Center, bioRxiv, Future of Research, and ASAPbio, respectively.

Scholarly Kitchen posts often serve up predictions of how technological, social, and political trends will affect the publishing industry and the researchers it serves. Sometimes these prognoses are negative, and a common theme is how researchers might be harmed by processes of change. As advocates of open practices, however, we believe that sometimes it is not the effects of new processes themselves that are the risk; rather, it is the uncertainty caused by unclear policies during periods of transition.

person staring into fog
Photo by Jakub Kriz on Unsplash.

TRANSPOSE is a grassroots initiative to build a crowdsourced database of journal policies to bring clarity to three areas: open peer review, co-reviewing, and detailed preprint policies. Our goal is to foster new practices while increasing awareness among authors, editors, and other stakeholders, and we seek to provide resources to assist journals in setting, sharing, and clarifying their policies. After getting started at the Mozilla Sprint earlier this year at the recent Triangle Scholarly Communications Institute in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, we’d like to invite everyone to contribute and, in particular, we are seeking verification input from journals and publishers.

Why is a resource like this needed?

Consider the case of a researcher wanting to publicly post a preprint of their manuscript. Given the relative newness of preprints in some fields (such as the life sciences), and the range of different preprint acceptance approaches adopted by journals, the authors would need to seek out each journal’s preprint policy to ensure that posting a preprint will not jeopardize the acceptance of their manuscript by any of the multitude of journals on their wish list. Thankfully, certain aspects of preprint archiving information can be easily found at SHERPA/RoMEO. But which preprint servers does the journal support? What licenses can be used? Which versions of the manuscript can be posted without compromising the journal’s publication process? And what types of blog or media coverage of the preprint would constitute an unacceptable breach of journal embargo? Varied and vague policies create a minefield that confounds author choices, and these constraints multiply with each additional journal considered.

The distributed, inconsistent way that journal policies are reported make it difficult for authors to find publishers with desirable practices, and even slows the appreciation among authors that different approaches are possible.

Furthermore, policies vary not only in their substance, but also in their location. Sometimes they are found in instructions to authors, other times in more obscure places on a journal’s website, and not unfrequently spread across multiple locations as well. The path of least risk and resistance to the researcher may simply be to not post a preprint at all.

The situation is worse if a researcher wants to select journals based on practices for which there are no databases, such as peer review (at least for journals that are not listed as partners with Publons). For example, if a graduate student is asked by their advisor to help with a peer review, they might want to know if the journal allows this and whether the review form enables them to be acknowledged (e.g., via a text box to name co-reviewers in the review submission form). At present, the only way to find this out is to either contact the journal directly or to find someone with experience reviewing there. Alternatively, our graduate student may wish to submit to a journal that will anonymously publish the content of peer reviews (believing that these will be more constructive, well-prepared, and professional) or to find a list of journals that publish peer reviews to read good and bad examples as a training exercise. The distributed, inconsistent way that journal policies are reported makes it difficult for authors to find publishers with desirable practices, and even slows the appreciation among authors that different approaches are possible.

Researchers are not the only ones who can benefit from taking a birds-eye view of journal policies.

Benefits to editors and publishers

It is difficult to track the prevalence of emerging policies. This muddies understanding of how common and well-accepted those policies are and can slow progress, even when the need for change is obvious. Journal editors or publishing staff might want to benchmark their journal’s peer review and preprint policies against others to best serve their research communities, as well as to remain competitive against other journals in their field. Additionally, crafting updates to journal policies is understandably not on the top of the priority list for many busy editors; having a handy single source of a range of journal preprint and peer review policies will lighten their load and help to streamline the process. Furthermore, schematizing policies can increase awareness among authors who sometimes find it difficult to sift through lengthy instructions to authors. Making this important information available in an easy-to-find, author-friendly format may increase submissions and, at the very least, will assist in author compliance. Moreover, the community as a whole will benefit from the ability to track trends and changes in policies over time.

A good example showing the value of such information for academia can be found outside of publishing: graduate programs in the life sciences dropping their requirement of the Graduate Research Examination (GRE). Preparing for the GRE can act as a financial barrier to graduate school. Despite a wealth of evidence that the GRE is powerless to predict a student’s future performance in graduate school, few programs seemed willing to drop it as an application requirement — until the past year. Joshua Hall, the Director of Graduate Admissions and PREP in the Office of Graduate Education at UNC Chapel Hill’s School of Medicine, created the #GRExit hashtag and began cataloging the schools and programs that had dropped the requirement for their applicants. This information about the actions of peer institutions — in a format that is easy to access and visualize — was used to encourage other programs to consider a change, and arguably accelerated the tide of #GRExit.

Moving this back to the publishing world, there are many researchers in the basic life sciences who assume that journals will not consider manuscripts that have been posted as preprints, and as a result, they are reticent to experiment with this medium. Right now, their resources for broadly understanding journal policies are limited. Wikipedia has an impressive list of journals’ preprint policies that can help correct inaccurate assumptions. The color-coded list is a fantastic resource, but it is far from comprehensive, and it is limited by a lack of structure and visibility among researchers. It’s helpful for authors who would not have the energy to sequentially look up policies on websites or SHERPA/RoMEO, but we believe we can take these efforts one step further.

Gathering more granular policies (for example, which versions can be posted as preprints, and how those preprints can be covered in the media) will also enable future exercises in gauging the growth or decline of such practices. Furthermore, a survey of existing policies can make sense of confusing, conflicting, or vague terminology. One of us (TRH) has undertaken a systematic study of the term “open peer review” and teased it apart into seven different dimensions. Similar efforts could be undertaken to create a taxonomy of other journal practices, too. That work could enable the emergence of more precise terminology that will facilitate further experimentation and change.

More pragmatically, making lists also enables actors to compare notes about the outcomes of policies. To continue the #GRExit case, faculty now have a list of programs to contact if they want first-hand reports of the effect of making a policy change. This is greatly expedited by collecting this information in one place. Similarly, a list of journal policies could help editors identify colleagues with experience in the practices they are considering implementing. For example, the experiences shared by signatories of a letter on publishing peer review can address common fears associated with making this transition.

Addressing concerns

Won’t writing policies down rigidify practices, and potentially slow change?

Some might argue that codifying policies could stifle rather than accelerate progress by either generating a herd mentality in which journals simply copy what others are doing or discouraging authors from pushing the envelope by breaking policies they don’t know exist. We acknowledge that both of these effects could occur but believe they will be more than outweighed by the greater visibility for new models and reduction of uncertainty caused by unclear policies, not to mention the increased conversation and attention that will ensue.

What if the listings go out of date?

TRANSPOSE is not intended as a stand-alone piece of infrastructure. Our interest is in fostering new practices while mitigating risks through provision of information. Our aim is hence to collect urgently-needed in-depth information, use it to define schema for categorizing journal policies, and maximize its potential for reuse. All original information collected will be released under the CC0 waiver, and in addition to being periodically archived (e.g., on Zenodo), we intend to eventually explore opportunities to merge it into more permanent initiatives.

What if a volunteer enters incorrect information about your journal?

While we expect that volunteers will act in good faith, we are happy to address quality concerns (please feel free to get in touch at transpose-publishing@googlegroups.com). However, the most expedient way to ensure accuracy may be for journal editors to contribute their own journal-verified record here. “Journal-verified” records will be displayed as such in public versions of the database, and links to edit those records will be hidden from public view. We will periodically monitor the records and notify the provided email addresses about the presence of the records to ensure that the information comes from a genuine source.

Requesting your help

TRANSPOSE uses Google Forms to allow anyone to update journal policy records stored in Google Sheets. This allows contributors to build a complete journal policy record from multiple submissions, giving us the potential to crowdsource information. To find a list of all existing journals or to add a new journal, please click here. It’s easy to create or verify records via Google Form — we estimate this will take between 5 and 15 minutes per journal. By making this process as easy as possible, we hope that users will find it trivial to update TRANSPOSE when submitting to (or reviewing for) a new journal. The TRANSPOSE team will periodically review and moderate these records.

The most valuable source of information is of course the journal editors themselves. Editors are most familiar with the policies and practices of their journal and are equally positioned to benefit from increased awareness of their forward-thinking policies. Therefore, we not only welcome contributions from journal staff but would be delighted to highlight these first-hand contributions. At the end of the form, you will be able to assert that you are a journal representative.

Scholarly publishers, as stewards of the scientific record, have a great deal of power to steer researcher behaviors. Unclear policies could unnecessarily limit uptake of new practices, hinder scientific progression, and deter authors from submitting to your journals. In contrast, increasing awareness of forward-looking, author-friendly policies could draw in new submissions. Please join us in making the submission process easier and rendering journal policy information more transparent to those who need it!

Thanks to Alison Mudditt and David Crotty for helpful feedback on drafts of this post.

Gary McDowell

Gary McDowell is an early-career researcher with a background in biomedical sciences working at Future of Research.

Jessica Polka

Jessica Polka is the Executive Director of ASAPbio, a researcher-driven nonprofit working to promote innovation and transparency in life sciences publishing. Jessica leads initiatives related to peer review and oversees the organization’s general administrative and strategic needs.


8 Thoughts on "Guest Post: Help TRANSPOSE Bring Journal Policies into the Open"

This is yet another step toward the commoditization of publishing. If that’s what you want, fine, but if you believe that editorial philosophy matters and that that philosophy is captured in a publisher’s brand, commoditization is to be avoided.

Thank you for your comment, Joseph. Thanks also for adding below that you are not opposed to the new service, since your comment makes it seem otherwise.

If I parse your comment (elaborated below in your response to Alison) correctly, it seems to boil down to this: (1) This initiative makes obscure information clearer (by “commoditising” it); (2) lack of information is in the interests of legacy publishers, whose brands (which rely on trust and “aura”) benefit from a landscape of information scarcity regarding policies; (3) TRANSPOSE will therefore work against the interests of glamour titles, who should hence be sceptical.

To this, I obviously agree with (1). Your point in (2) is an interesting perspective – people are creatures of habit after all, and as we say in the post, if novel routes have a high barrier to entry (for instance through obscure policies), people will be less likely to take them (sticking to the “trusted” brands they know). I think even if we take (2) to be true and (3) to follow, however, I would counter that this will still be a vanishingly small factor in author choices. People don’t want to get published in venues like Nature or Science because they are familiar with their policies – it’s because the whole scientific system of incentives and expectations tell them they should.

In addition, I think this ignores all the possible benefits for all publishers of having better informed authors and reviewers that we mention in the post.

Finally, sorry to climb onto my OA soapbox, but here I go … I think putting it in the terms you do reveals the true “commoditisation” in publishing. You are basically saying some publishers should keep information obscure from researchers because it’s in their business interests. I find this unedifying, if not unethical. Publishers are the stewards of the scholarly record. They add great value in performing vital services. But they also make benefit from content contributed by and quality-controlled by researchers. Given this, don’t publishers owe a duty of care to those authors and reviewers to be as transparent as possible in advising what they can and can’t do with that content, and under what conditions they contribute to this system? (Climbs off soapbox.)

Joe, I’m not quite sure I understand how this is commoditization? The goal is simply to provide a simple, one-stop source to help authors understand individual journal policies on a set of issues – policies that are sometimes hard to discover or unclear. To me as a publisher, this feels like a great opportunity to differentiate our brand by letting authors know what we can do for them.

Thank you for your comment, Alison. It is commoditization in that it takes information that was formerly in the orbit (and aura) of the established brands and makes it widely available. In the absence of that widespread dissemination, many people flock to established brands because they are perceived to be safe (and, of course, prestigious). This diminishes the influence of those brands, and that in turn leads to commoditization. Your own organization, especially your PLOS ONE service, will be a principal beneficiary of this new service as PONE does not have equity in determining originality or significance. The goal of the new service is irrelevant. Unanticipated consequences spring up all the time. I hasten to add that I am not opposed to the new service. In matters like this, where you stand depends on where you sit, as do most things in life. The service may undermine some organizations and enable others. The people responsible for those organizations have to make their own determinations based on their interests.

I think this is an important initiative, and having a database of journals’ detailed policies on various aspects of peer review and preprints will be very helpful. I agree with Alison that policies on these issues are sometimes (often?) hard to find or unclear. Sometimes policies don’t even exist. Some of the issues are new, and evolving, so hopefully the information being asked of journals will help stimulate editorial discussions and policy formulation.

This is a brilliant idea! Anything that makes it easier to navigate the many many different journal policies out there has got be worthwhile! There’s some overlap with Jason Roberts and Don Samulack’s proposal in this post: https://scholarlykitchen.sspnet.org/2018/09/11/guest-post-transparency-this-is-what-we-do-and-this-is-what-we-expect/ – maybe worth touching base with them?
Slightly tangentially, have you considered extending the project to include funder OA policies too in future? That’s another area of huge confusion for researchers…
Either way, good luck and I’ll be following your progress with interest!

Thanks Alice! I wasn’t familiar with Jason Roberts and Don Samulack’s proposal – we’ll make sure to look into it, thanks. I think our initiative chimes with quite a few others, in addition to the one you mention. For instance, the FAIRsharing (https://fairsharing.org/) database on data and reporting guidelines policies and the PEERE consortium’s (of which I’m part) work to foster data-sharing regarding peer review. In general I think its a natural next step to point out that the Open Science agenda is demanding ever increasing transparency from researchers and institutions, and that publishing (as an activity vital to shaping the scholarly record) can not be exempt from this.

As an aside, with a couple of others I’m editing a special journal issue (deadline March 2019) which addresses exactly this topic – we would really welcome perspectives from Scholarly Kitchen readers! https://www.mdpi.com/journal/publications/special_issues/openpub

Regarding OA funder policies, do you see a requirement for something beyond the scope of SHERPA/JULIET? http://v2.sherpa.ac.uk/view/funder_list/1.html

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