After hearing her keynote on How to make scholarly publishing better at this year’s Annual Editorial Manager User Group (EMUG) Meeting in Boston, MA, I invited Dr Milka Kostic* to share her thoughts with The Scholarly Kitchen’s readers. As a former scientist, turned publisher, turned research program director, Milka is uniquely placed to understand the needs — and constraints — of both publishers and researchers. And she has some strong views on the topic!

Please can you tell us a bit about yourself – your current role at the Dana Farber Cancer Institute in Boston, and your career before that?

First of all, thank you for inviting me to contribute to The Scholarly Kitchen. It’s an enormous pleasure and privilege to be asked to do this interview – posts and discussions on The Scholarly Kitchen have shaped my thinking about scholarly publishing over the last decade. I appreciate the efforts and thought that all the chefs have been putting into the content, and I also applaud everyone who has engaged via commenting. The Scholarly Kitchen is one of the essential resources for me, and I am grateful for the community that it nucleates!!!

I think of myself as a scholar with an intense interest in not only how discoveries are made, but also how they are communicated. In addition, I have been increasingly interested in the global wellbeing of science – how it is done, reported, and shared, and how scientists are treated at all stages of their careers, both by their immediate scientific community and beyond, including the publishing community. 

In my current role as the Program Director for Chemical Biology at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, I support a group of 100-120 researchers who are focused on using chemistry-based strategies and thinking to better understand different aspects of cancer biology, and more quickly translate that understanding into improved treatment options. My role is to provide structure, strategy and support for these researchers and their science. Before that, I had a wonderful opportunity to support broader chemical biology and structural biology communities by serving as the Editor of Structure and Cell Chemical Biology, two fantastic community-focused journals published by Cell Press, which is part of Elsevier. I’ve also served as an editor and writer for Cell’s CrossTalk, where my favorite topics revolved around easing people’s anxiety about the publishing process and peer review. For example, in support of Peer Review Week 2019 I shared some tips for scientists on how to secure high quality peer review for themselves and others.

Before that, a long, long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, I conducted research myself.

Two almost parallel winding roads in a mountain area

Having been both a researcher and a publisher, you’re in a great position to understand the needs and motivations of both. How would you sum those up?

This is a loaded question, and I have both a less cynical and a more cynical response to give. 

Since the sun is out today, and Boston is enjoying what can only be described as a picture-perfect autumn day, let me start with the less cynical version. Both researchers and publishers want to make a difference – they want to advance human health and wellbeing, the health of our planet, and of our society. Researchers want to help understand who we are, why we are, where we and the world around us came from, and where we are (or ought to be) going next. They want to create a better future for all. At the same time, researchers have an obligation to make what they’ve learned public – no ifs, ands, or buts about it! Because of this essential obligation to make research insights and discoveries public, publishers have been important partners of the scientific community. They help  organize published information in a way that makes it accessible and discoverable, they provide provenance for the ideas, and they are the keepers of our collective memory. For better or for worse, publishers have also institutionalized the evaluation and validation of science through peer review. 

But, even without taking my rose-tinted glasses off, it is plain to see that other factors drive behaviors of both the research and publishing communities. For example, how many journal articles you publish, and in which journals, is one of the most prominent metrics for scientific performance in academia and even beyond. This means that many scientists are under a lot of pressure to publish, because they know that their publishing record serves as a surrogate for the merit of their contributions to science. And many publishers are cashing in on this – publishing is an industry that seems to be booming. This has created a problematic system of incentives, and an antagonism between researchers and publishers, where publishers are no longer viewed as partners, and publishing is viewed as a necessary evil. 

In your EMUG keynote you referenced The Scholarly Kitchen’s posts on XXX things journal publishers do (102 at the last count!) . You noted that, in your experience, researchers only really care about a small fraction of these. As a researcher, which do you think are the most important and why?

Given what I said above, it is only natural that publishers want to paint themselves in a better light, usually defaulting to highlighting all their value-added bells and whistles. I understand the impulse here. From time to time, after being exposed to the negativity and frustration of the scientists I was dealing with, all I wanted to do was shout from the rooftops about how much the papers I’ve handled were improved thanks to the work I put in, and how much the scientific record has been strengthened through actions I took to prevent inaccurate, unreliable, and misleading information from being published. 

I’ve never actually done this – usually a piece of chocolate and a conversation with my editorial colleagues was enough to stabilize the mood. But even if I did, I think my shouting would have fallen on deaf ears, in the same way that publishers’ messages do – often resulting, instead, in a widening chasm. Now that I am back in academia and in the midst of the research process, I have the sense that this is mostly because publishers’ messages about the value they add are publishing-centric not research-centric. Lists such as those in The Scholarly Kitchen posts seem more like a pep talk to make publishers feel better about the work they’ve been doing than a serious attempt to bridge the divide. 

I’m sure publishers will say that this is not fair, and that, for example, they’re engaging researchers through surveys and interviews and opinion polls to learn more about what they need. However, I suspect that this kind of engagement is at best misleading (publishers can only ever reach a sliver of the community and surveys etc pre-select for those open to engaging); at worst, they may be failing to capture negative views As I was preparing for my EMUG keynote, I spoke with two early career researchers about their publishing experiences. They’d had good success publishing their research thus far, and their views of publishing were neutral to neutral positive. However, neither one of them wanted me to mention them by name to this room full of publishers, because not all their feedback was positive. Both of them had major concerns that being critical of publishers could jeopardize their ability to publish successfully in future. Which made me wonder how much of what I had been hearing from the community while I was the editor was subject to similar concerns, and made me question the value of the reader, reviewer, editor, and author surveys that publishers so often base their decisions on. 

So here is an unredacted summary of what I’ve been hearing from members of the scientific community I interact with, both as authors and reviewers, as well as experiencing myself, since I am now back to being a scholarly author myself. The things we care most about are:

  • Time – everything takes so long
  • Information overload on journal pages and how confusing things are (Instructions for Authors, I’m looking at you!)
  • Lack of flexibility – this leads to a great deal of pain and frustration as we try to fit our science into formats and limits that are – or seem – by and large arbitrary
  • How little help we get from journals, and how impersonal everything is

So there’s a tension between what publishers think researchers want, and what researchers actually do want. How can we square that circle? 

Building on the previous thoughts, I think we need to remember that, despite what some may be saying, publishing is a social (cultural) construct that begins, proceeds, and ends with people. I feel very strongly that technological solutions, which have formed the majority of current efforts in the publishing community, will not help as much as people-based activities: scientific community building and engagement; advocacy to benefit science; and increased levels of openness, not just of the content but of the processes as well. So I think publishers should be focusing on things like timeliness, flexibility, clarity, and friendliness. And if you can think of a technology that can help with these, go ahead and metadata and smart tag to your heart’s content!

To be really effective, publishers need to understand what the real bottlenecks are. One that was totally invisible to me as an editor, but which I’ve now identified as a major issue while working with trainees and faculty in our program, is the actual writing. It turns out that many scientists are really great at doing science, but not very good at writing about it. And yet they are judged to a great extent based on the quality of their writing. And before anyone says that it’s actually the quality of the science, I want them to pause and consider whether that’s really the case, because I’d argue that no amount of great science will survive scrutiny unless is well-written, well-presented and well-explained. 

In my EMUG keynote I proposed decoupling “doing” science from “authoring” and publishing science as one possible solution. In this model, scientists would be responsible for the scientific process: formulating hypotheses; collecting, organizing, documenting, analyzing, and interpreting data; registering, archiving, and preserving data and protocols; and formalizing conclusions and implications. Other professionals (writers and illustrators) would be responsible for writing and visually representing the data, as well as optimizing the presentation to maximize re-use and reach. And publishers would manage the publishing and peer reviewing, as well as taking on responsibility for formating for style and journal specific requirements. 

Sounds a lot like ghost writing, which I guess is quite fitting given the Halloween season is nearly upon us. But these ghosts and skeletons would not need to be hidden in the closet, as they are now, because their contributions would be fully acknowledged and encouraged. I bet we would end up with a better quality of communication overall, and also remove the stigma of speaking and writing in English as a second language that follows many of us around.

However, the pain point that I most want publishers to understand is that they are dealing with a vulnerable population, who are under a lot of perpetual stress. This level of stress produces some very unhealthy, unethical, and even illegal practices. Publishers have not created the stress in the system themselves, but seem to have been cast as a sort of a scapegoat that bears the brunt of community’s anger (mostly because they are perceived as having taken advantage of the pressures placed on scientists rather than trying to diffuse them). But there’s a lot that publishers can do to help to make the process more enjoyable. 

And it would be great if scientists realized that there are also human beings on the other side of the form emails we receive, that they genuinely want to be of assistance despite heavy work loads, and that they’d like to be appreciated and thanked too. 

*More about Milka

A self-described chemical biology enthusiast, strategist, and evangelist, Milka’s day job is to support a vibrant chemical biology program of about 120 scientists. Milka is a passionate advocate for chemical biology, and its transformative ability to accelerate basic and translational discoveries on the chemistry-biology-medicine continuum. She is also committed to promoting gender equality in society and science, and career development and well-being of early career researchers. Plus, she cooks really well – and shares her recipes via a food blog

Conflict of interest: Milka is a consulting editor for Life Science Editors, a company that provides manuscript and grant editing services.

 

Alice Meadows

Alice Meadows

Alice is Director of Community Engagement & Support for ORCID, responsible for communicating the why, what, and how of ORCID for researchers and their organizations. Alice is on the Board of Directors for the Society for Scholarly Publishing and received the 2016 ALPSP Award for Contribution to Scholarly Publishing.

View All Posts by Alice Meadows

Discussion

22 Thoughts on "What Do Researchers Want from Publishers? An Interview with Dr Milka Kostic"

Yes!:
“… how many journal articles you publish, and in which journals, is one of the most prominent metrics for scientific performance in academia and even beyond. This means that many scientists are under a lot of pressure to publish, because they know that their publishing record serves as a surrogate for the merit of their contributions to science. ”
Some thoughts in relation to this:
1. The answer to the question, “What Do Researchers Want from Publishers?” should be: far fewer peer reviewed articles to wade through; greater incentives within the scholarly assessment for “aggregative” and synthetic contributions rather than piece-meal disclosures of research results. And less pressure to peer-review, if that is an unspoken or implicit expectation of young faculty. Sure, engaging in peer review can help a young faculty member learn the direction of their discipline, but why not write a review article instead?
2. Talk of reforming the publishing system has been in the air for at least two decades now. My take on this is summarized here:
https://www.jiscmail.ac.uk/cgi-bin/webadmin?A2=ind1910&L=LIS-BIBLIOMETRICS&O=D&P=8922
Really interested in seeing whether anyone is studying these newly emerging experiments in contracting the journal markets, de facto (natural) or designed intentionally. Quantity of publication drives demand, which drives prices, which is a barrier to access of any kind: toll-access, or open access. It is unfortunate that the rhetoric of OA has diverted from this point, even if it is has been discussed.
3. There is I think a plausible rejoinder to the sentiment, probably shared among many consortial leaders (who can be agents of reform in their negotiations or educational/advocacy efforts), that it is not their responsibility or purview to contribute to reform scholarly publishing to the extent of addressing the problems that the current tenure and promotion fosters, a key feature of which is the publication glut. The rejoinder is that consortia, as well as the library profession as a whole, has been actively pursuing schemes to promote OA–which involves convincing faculty of the need to change their behaviors. Even unto the point of librarians advocating university *mandates* for faculty to publish OA! Under no illusion, of course, that the kinds of inroads that OA has made in the past 20 years has been in this respect an easier task than convincing faculty and administrators to reward more aggregative, less piece-meal, writing about research agendas. This is a 50 year project.

1. The answer to the question, “What Do Researchers Want from Publishers?” should be: far fewer peer reviewed articles to wade through; greater incentives within the scholarly assessment for “aggregative” and synthetic contributions rather than piece-meal disclosures of research results. And less pressure to peer-review, if that is an unspoken or implicit expectation of young faculty.

I think this really speaks to the schizophrenia inherent in being a researcher. Everyone wants to simultaneously publish more papers about their own work and at the same time have less to read from others. Everyone wants robust peer reviewers doing a rapid and fair job and at the same time can’t be bothered to peer review the work of others. Everyone gets mad at reviewers that demand extra experiments for their own work, yet has no qualms about demanding extra experiments from others.

As always, asking publishing to reform these types of issues is asking the tail to wag the dog. Publishing is a reactive, service industry that is offering what the research community has asked us to offer. The heart of these matters always comes down to the career and funding structure of academia. If you want to change things, one needs to address the disease, not the symptoms.

David C., very good diagnosis of the problem.
A few points:
1. I’m not entirely convinced, in relation to your point about wagging the tail, that society or university publishers, as well as libraries and the consortia that represent them, don’t have some responsibility in reforming the scholarly publishing landscape to help remove some of the oddities that you so well note. The long-term goal of all these entities should be to communicate and perpetuate human knowledge, across generations. Lofty sounding, but ultimately true. For this reason a concern with issues about what they are producing, and how much of it, and even the process by which manuscripts show up on their doors, should be one of their goals. These entities are part of the entire scholarly publishing system, soup to nuts. The particular concern here, the need to contract the journals market to ameliorate the damage that the glut of publishing it is doing (and reduce demand and prices for access or distribution of scholarshiop), would have consequences for society publishers, but ways of retrieving revenue streams lost through a contraction of journals could emerge.
2. You are right though that publishers themselves cannot be expected to be the *primary* agents of reform. Again, this is a quite reasonable expectation of the large consortia. After all, they are supposed to represent universities and their libraries. I haven’t done it yet, but an exercise would be to look at consortial websites across the world and see how many times open access (APC schemes, plan S, etc.) is a paramount theme. Presumably these consortia are all-in on trying to change faculty and research behaviors–again, witness all the clamor now somewhat subsided about university OA mandates. So clearly these big entities think they have a role in reform of publishing, and so why shouldn’t this (on pains of inconsistency) extend to the goal of exercising their negotiating power to contract the number of subscriptions in certain areas (areas of physics comes to mind immediately as a starting point), plus in challenging the populations they serve to reconsider their practices, esp. t and p?
3. It would be bad to dispose of traditional peer review wholesale. It is very important esp. in arenas in which human well being is directly at stake, as in medicine. Whether there should be a contraction of journals in that field, I don’t know. On the other hand, there are arenas in which peer review as traditionally practiced may be less of an imperative, e.g. (the usual example) high energy physics, or where contracting the journal markets will reduce the burden of peer review and open up time and energies for doing, well, quality teaching and research.

I think the problem in asking society or university press publishers to take the lead in reforming academia is that it puts them at a commercial disadvantage (an even further disadvantage than they now see). If the business of publishing is to meet researcher (author and reader) needs, then deliberately not meeting those needs in order to drive reform means you are going to lose a significant amount of business. And there will always be others willing to meet those needs who will gladly hoover up all that business that you’re refusing to do. There will be no pressure on authors to change their behavior because there will still be plenty of outlets for their work, and those outlets will continue to be favored by their hiring/tenure/funding committees.

Many of us in the university press/society world (and in the commercial publishing world for that matter) do put “quality” as a priority over “quantity”, and we publish smaller portfolios of higher quality journals (a study here for example: https://www.pnas.org/content/111/26/9425). This is becoming increasingly difficult as we see a continuous stream of funder and university mandates either requiring cost-cutting (https://scholarlykitchen.sspnet.org/2019/10/01/ramifications-of-the-downward-pressure-on-pricing/) or favoring bulk publishing approaches (https://scholarlykitchen.sspnet.org/2019/10/03/why-scholarly-societies-are-vitally-important-to-the-academic-ecosystem/).

Thanks, I’ll think about these points.
Allow me to reiterate that as noted the *primary* agent of reform will not be the publishers, but on the demand side on the part of entities with lots of negotiating power. Maybe, too, as you suggest, there are normative reasons why certain publishers should not be the (primary) drivers of this reform.
We all look at these issues from where we stand. I come at these issues from a long in the trenches perspective of a working librarian with six subject areas, very much the demand side. Plus always interested in finding new stuff to put into presentations or library guides about scholarly publishing!

I agree with “asking the tail to wag the dog.” and that publishing is a reactive, service industry. I tried to make this point but David you expressed much more clearly! It’s mostly up to academia to sort its incentive structure out. But: it is also up to publishers to not feed the hysteria (ok this might be a strong word, but I’ll leave it as I can’t come up with anything better at the moment).

Thanks Alice and thank you TSK for chatting with me! I know I am not the most articulate person on the planet so I am happy to clarify and answer any questions people may have.

The list of “what researchers want from publishers” is very helpful, and each of the points raised are ones I take very seriously in my efforts guiding papers through the process. In that vein, please allow me to briefly square that circle with “what publishers want from researchers”:

1. If your name is on the paper as an author, read the paper BEFORE it is submitted, not after if it has been accepted and page proofs have been sent out.

2. Read those pesky author instructions BEFORE you prepare the paper for submission; chances are they aren’t actually asking for much.

3. Read those cumbersome submission guidelines BEFORE you try to submit a paper and most certainly BEFORE you start sending e-mails complaining about the requirements, just to be sure you are in fact complaining about something the journal in question requires.

4. If your graduate student or co-author has difficulty speaking the language in which the paper is to be submitted, consider choosing someone else to write the paper. If that’s not possible, see Item 1 above.

5. Understand that it is not the publisher’s job to facilitate communication between the authors on a given paper. If you worked on a research project together long enough to generate sufficient material to warrant publication, we will assume you are grown up enough to e-mail each other on occasion.

and last but not least

6. When asked to provide peer-review on someone else’s work, show the same urgency and concern for speed that you do as an author. Honest, useful peer-review is the one service the publishers cannot provide by themselves; getting it done quickly is up to you.

“When asked to provide peer-review on someone else’s work, show the same urgency and concern for speed that you do as an author.”

Speed is all very well, but what about quality? A full, thorough, and considered review takes longer than a brief skim and jotting down a few comments.

“And many publishers are cashing in on this – publishing is an industry that seems to be booming.”

I believe this must be a difference between the hard sciences and the social sciences, because not one of us publishing social sciences is “booming.” Unless you are Oxford or Cambridge, you are not turning a profit of any sort. You are leaning on your university to float you through a time when presses are tanking HARD, to the point universities (ahem, Stanford) are trying to hang you out to dry.

Few will argue about Milka’s goal: “Both researchers and publishers want to make a difference – they want to advance human health and wellbeing, the health of our planet, and of our society.” She also appreciates the idea of rate-limiting bottlenecks: “To be really effective, publishers [and researchers and funding agencies] need to understand what the real bottlenecks are.”

The major bottleneck, according to Thomas Kuhn (“The Structure of Scientific Revolutions”), is what is rate-limiting – what is preventing a “paradigm shift.” These shifts are generally the work of individuals – Darwin, Mendel, Einstein, etc.. When the shift is recognized, researchers pack-up what they were doing and swarm to adopt the new paradigm.

Publishers, however, are interested in groups of researchers in swarms, not in creating a space for lone-wolves, many of whom may be mildly crazy and are eliminated by the peer-review process as it currently operates. Publishers send our surveys to tap into group-think and the show goes on until the next real paradigm-shifter overcomes peer-review hostility and sends the pack off in a new direction.

Paradigm-shifters are destabilizing. Publishers and the pharmaceutical industry do not like destabilization. But until we recognize the shifters’ powerful rate-limiting role, the approach towards Milka’s goals will proceed at a snail’s pace. Tell that to the parents of a child with leukaemia. Tell that to the husband of a wife with breast-cancer. Tell that to the climate-change activists. I could go on …

I looked at Dr. Kostic’s list:

Time – everything takes so long
Information overload on journal pages and how confusing things are (Instructions for Authors, I’m looking at you!)
Lack of flexibility – this leads to a great deal of pain and frustration as we try to fit our science into formats and limits that are – or seem – by and large arbitrary
How little help we get from journals, and how impersonal everything is

I started in publishing in 1970 and her list is the same as one I presented to management in 1972!
I asked myself why and came to the conclusion that authors and publishers do two different things in that authors create and publishers produce and promote. In between these two different tasks is a healthy antagonism that ends up with both sides being satisfied with the outcome. I say that because if it weren’t so it would no longer be!

Hands up all those publishers who in their earlier editorial roles did a full rewrite on an accepted paper and got a wonderful letter of thanks from a grateful author. I had many such experiences from the 1970s onwards. We can’t expect AI now to substitute much for this service…

You are joking – right?! Her evident dissatisfaction reflects the opinion of just about every researcher I have ever met – especially: “This level of stress produces some very unhealthy, unethical, and even illegal practices”. Characterizing Dr. Kostic as an “outlier” seems unwise.

In our many, many interviews with researchers, two things always emerge: they are skeptical of OA and they think that for all its faults, the publishing “system” ensures high quality work. Our sample is not representative, since we mostly work with established researchers affiliated with highly ranked journals. But they are not represented at all in your comment. Surely if we talk about Americans, we have to include Jeff Bezos and Bill Gates as well as the poor and the many in the middle. In any event, the notion that one individual speaks for all researchers is, well, not good research. That’s my objection: generalization from a small–1!–sample.

I want to clarify that my post is not about OA and although I am definitely N=1, I have interacted with thousands of researchers (including thousands from established researchers affiliated with highly ranked journals including two I was the editor of for a decade, and now as someone who is back to publishing and helping people publish in highly ranked journals). The post does raise a possibility that researchers that publishers are interacting with are not telling the fill story because they are not being asked the right questions, or because they are anxious about their ability to publish if they state something publishers will not like (this is perhaps a tad too dramatic but the anecdote I described in the post is real!). Anyway, I wanted to clarify because this post is most definitely not about OA and the quality of review. It’s about the disconnect between what publishers view as their value-added and what researchers value, especially from a perspective of authors.

Dear Dr. Kostic: I found your interview to be illuminating and fascinating. I was delighted to read it, and I am grateful that you took the time out of your own busy schedule to share your thoughts. We are in the middle of a miscommunication here. Let me try to clarify some points. The title of the post is unrepresentative of your comments. I don’t know who was responsible for the title, but its sweeping assertion does a disservice to your own nuanced thoughts. Second, it’s really not appropriate to use a post by Kent Anderson as representative of how publishers think (n=1). Speaking for myself, I don’t agree with Kent on almost anything–and he is a personal friend! Finally, I did not suggest that your post was about OA. Richard Wynne incorrectly made that connection. Finally, finally, it’s hardly surprising for authors to often resent publishers. Publishers make judgments about authors, and who likes that? The problem, in my view, is that some people think publishing is about serving authors, but publishing is about publishing (McLuhan 101). (Goethe said that there was a special place in hell for publishers, and he would know, having spent some time there himself.) It is hardly surprising for a group of people with different interests and aspirations to find the room they stand in to be too small and to jostle one another.

Interesting that you interpret Dr. Kostic’s comments as being all about OA – I read them as being more about the research incentive system.

For statistical analysis on this topic see Dr. John Ioannidis of Stanford University – he’s a bit more qualified than me!

The purpose of a research paper is to present results with clarity and precision. It is not to demonstrate mastery of the minutiae of a particular journal’s submission and formatting requirements. Hire a professional freelance editor to prepare the final manuscript for submission and get back to the bench. A great resource for finding a qualified editor is the Editorial Freelancers Association (the-efa.org).

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