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.
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.