Simon Chapman: Publishing horror stories: Time to euthanase paper based journals?

Every researcher has exasperating stories of the glacial pace of research publication.  But as a former research journal editor of 17 years, I know that researchers’ ideas on what constitutes “glacial” varies enormously. I’ve received “hurry up” letters from authors a week or so after submission, and have often played a game with other editors about the record number of review requests that have needed to be sent out before the required number of usable reviews were returned. Mine was 16.

While every researcher wants their paper peer-reviewed expeditiously by the best people, the noblesse oblige  to reciprocate reviewing to others is often sadly lacking. Unresponsive and delayed reviewing, and less commonly, tardy revisions from authors are two factors over which editors have little control.  If peer reviewed publications are to continue as a core academic currency, universities and research institutes should require their research staff to show evidence of at least as much reviewing as papers published. This data should be audited and published.

But in my experience, by far the biggest delay factor in publication times is the limitations imposed by the old model of paper-based publication, where publishers give editors a set number of issues and pages to fill each year, and publishing backlogs begin to form despite the best efforts of editors to match their rejection rate with the space available.

All these problems have combined to see many journals now offer on-line publication shortly after acceptance. It is not uncommon today to see subscriber or pay-per-view journals with vast numbers of “on-line first” publications available. One journal I know which publishes about 75 original articles a year in its paper edition, is currently showing a paper-edition backlog of nearly 130 on-line first papers, the most recent of which will not be published “properly” in print for nearly two years.

This is fast becoming a farcical situation. In my field, it has been a long time since I first read research in a paper journal or walked into a library to browse new paper copies of serials. To read a paper first in a printed journal would mean that I was up to two years out of date reading material that was first published on-line.  Why do publishers and (surely) a diminishing number of readers persist with the fiction that “real” publication means final publication in the paper version of a journal? Paper journals are fast becoming a kind of belated souvenir of on-line publishing that often happens many months or even years earlier.

If research matters, then we’d all assume that the importance of its findings ought to be somehow aligned with mechanisms to get those findings into the public domain as fast as possible after peer review.

In 2010, I submitted a co-authored paper on the research dissemination behaviours of a peer-voted list of 36 of Australia’s top public health researchers in six fields. I chose the American Journal of Public Health, considered one of the leading journals in that field. I’d published seven papers with them before which have had 794 combined citations. I’ve thought of it as a journal where I send some of my best work. Below is a time-line of the saga of trying to get that paper published, first in the American Journal of Public Health, and then in the Journal of Health Communication, impact factor ranked by Journal Citation Reports as 5/72 in the Communication category.

1. American Journal of Public Health
Dec 5, 2010: Paper submitted on-line
•    18 days
Dec 23, 2011: Electronic acknowledgement of receipt
•    148 days (4.9 months)
May 15, 2011: I enquire about progress, as submission system still saying “under review”
•    6 days
May 21, 2011: Assigned editor apologises, saying he was not made aware of the paper’s submission until April 8, 2011 (“communication unfortunately seemed to be obstructed”)
•    16 days
June 6, 2011: Editor rejects paper after review, but invites major revision
•    35 days
11 July, 2011: Major revision submitted, but problems seeing it in the on-line system
12 July, 2011: Former handling editor emailed, but explains he’s resigned, and provides name of likely new handling editor
•    10 days
22 July, 2011: major revision now successfully submitted on-line to AmJPH
•    103 days
27 July, 2011: An author in the paper receives invitation to review it!
11 Nov, 2011: revised paper rejected after two perfunctory reviews which stressed lack of interest for US readership because Australia is “different”

Time from first submission to final rejection: 341 days

2. Journal of Health Communication

15 Nov, 2011: paper submitted online to J Health Communication
•    3 months
15 Feb, 2012: reviews received and revision offered
21 May, 2012: paper accepted
•    346 days
2 May, 2013: Journal emailed & progress queried.  I noted that the journal has an “iFirst” facility for pre-paper edition publication
3 May, 2013: Editor apologises about backlog and says “your paper is in the next batch to go to the publisher. You will see proofs in the next month.”
•    138 days
18 Sept, 2013: Proofs arrive
20 Sept, 2013: Corrected proofs returned
Time from first submission to proofs arrival: 673 days
iFirst publication: anyone’s guess!!
Paper publication: probably long after the retirement of at least two authors.

This has been by far my worst experience in a 35 year publishing career, but  like most colleagues I’ve had many papers published many, many months after acceptance.  This time it was a saga of on-line submission failure, staff changes, dropped balls and incomprehensible, outrageous delays. The  differences between the original submission and the accepted version were mostly – as often happens — insubstantial matters of presentational preference (move this here, that there; reference this paper; and the profoundly naïve “delete extra spaces between words”.)  The material in the paper is now nearly three years old. As authors, we are presumably meant to be happy and grateful that that our work will grace a journal.  But the old model of paper publishing needs be euthanased fast and replaced with on-line open access publishing  featuring open-reviewing (moderated for trolls) and smart reader-rating metrics that don’t allow author gaming.


Simon Chapman is professor of public health at the University of Sydney.