on publication practice

Update / June 2014: this wonderful blog tells you far, far more than mine on the issue.  Read it.

Update / Dec. 2013: Elsevier seems to reinforce their effort to discourage open access publishing.  A paper sharing platform,, has been forced by Elsevier to take down certain publications.  Read the full story at

Then, Elsevier contacted universities—read the story on U Calgary in Canada at—–to take down papers from their websites.  This expression of mental poverty can only be the beginning of the end.

“In 2012 I decided to step back as editor of a machine learning journal published by a large Dutch publishing house, because of their publication practice. I had been with the journal for over 15 years, serving various board roles. I had and have nothing against that particular journal itself, nor against its board; indeed, its contents is generally good and it is one of the respected (indeed the oldest) journals on machine learning. But there the behaviour of the publishing house, which I consider to be very counterproductive for research, made me take this step.”

Let me explain my reasons for not liking science publication practice (but joining anyway). Scientific results are typically published like this:

  1. published research is, in most cases, funded by public money. That means, in general, the people working on research (in universities or research centres) are usually funded through government institutions;
  2. in order to inform colleagues and—where possible—the general public about the work, and of course to have one’s name associated with exciting results, a researcher (team) writes an as complete as possible article on the work, and attempts to publish it in the most suitable/most visible forum.  In short, the researchers publish a paper;
  3. other researchers hopefully pick up on the (great!) work and use that in their own research, and refer to it in their papers.

So far, so good. But there is a catch.  Whenever my co-workers want to publish a paper with me, one of the first questions is, “where shall we publish it”?  Or,

Which is the most suitable forum? Choosing a forum which counts has a few strings attached. As a researcher, you have to optimise two parameters: (1) the visibility of the paper (and therefore, of you); and (2) the credit that you receive.

It would be simple to publish on website-based forums. Free to put it there, free to read for all. But then this kind of publication does not include quality checks: anyone can publish anything, so finding good quality is difficult. Authors would not reach their readers.

Instead, journals have installed a peer-review system. Each submitted paper is sent out to two or three reviewers who are asked to read the paper, take it apart, comment on it, and send back their comments. The goal of the journal is to get good papers, which are often read (and therefore, often cited in other papers). The better the paper, the higher the number of cites, the better the journal.

The Institute for Scientific Information (ISI), now owned by Thomson Reuters, is a highly acclaimed organisation which indexes scientific publications. It looks for the most-cited papers, the most-cited researchers, and what not. What comes out of this is, for instance, the ISI IF, which we all call the “Impact Factor”.  How much impact does a journal, a researcher, a paper, etc. have?  Some ball park figures: 5 cites to a paper is not really much; hundred+ is quite good. There are “excellent” journals with impact factors of several tens; there are “bad” journals with impact factors below 0.1. These factors are then computed into the i10-index or h-index for researchers.

Why do I need a high impact factor? Well, it is one of the few numbers that researchers compare themselves which, and which is important for finding a better (research) job, getting grants, etc. Look up a researcher, look at the impact factor, and you have something to stick to.

Now, if you are a researcher and you want to publish, where would you? Right: in the journal with the highest impact factor that accepts your paper.

Again, so far, so good.

Now there is one slight snag. Journals—with a few exceptions—belong to commercial publishing houses. They are there to make money. This financial obligation usually result in putting a price to reading a paper, much like selling books. Go to any journal, e.g., Nature. You will find many articles, with an example picture, an abstract. And a link “purchase PDF” for  getting the paper itself for a price around €30.

Research institutions normally have subscriptions to a large number of journals. A typical price for a journal is several (to tens) thousand € per year; so, a library would spend millions (some accurate figures: 19 UK universities spent £14.4 million (excluding VAT) on subscriptions to journals published by Elsevier alone. – See more at: per year on journal subscriptions.

Unlike for books, journal authors receive no money for publishing a paper. Indeed, in some cases both the authors and the readers have to pay.

Now, it is understandable that the costs related to publishing must be paid. Even though there is very little printing to be done, still there is advertisement, manuscript handling, computing and communication costs, etc. I cannot begin to put a price tag on this, and it is irrelevant how high it is.

But is it correct that the results of publicly funded research is only available at a price? Maybe the general public is not directly interested in most research papers, but what about less wealthy universities? What about researchers in developing countries? These have no access to such paywall-protected publications.

What are the alternatives? There is a recent surge of open-access journals. These journals reverse their publication charges: in their case, the publishing author (i.e., institution) pays a fee, typically between 1500 and 4000 Euro, to publish a paper; the paper can then be read free of charge. Well-known examples are PLOS and Frontiers, except that: independent researchers have no chance to publish there, nor do researchers from developing countries.

Can’t we get rid of paid journals?

how the review process plays a role

Most reviews that I am involved in are blind: I know who the authors of the paper are, but they do not know the reviewers. That allows me to speak freely and bluntly to the authors; but on the downside, I may be biased by the authors, since very often I know them personally, or have a preconceived opinion about their work.

An alternative approach, which is sometimes used, is a double-blind review: neither the reviewer nor the author see the name of the other. That may seem to solve the problem—but only seemingly, since even there one can often, based on previous publications, guess who the authors are.

A way out would be to use a double-open approach, in which reviewers are acknowledged and, better still, reviews or commentaries are published. The workload for the reviewer is higher, of course—but would that not lead to better reviews?

An improvement on the double-open approach would be to use a grading system, in which everyone—with names being named, of course—can comment on or grade papers online. This will not only lead to majority voting, but also to accreditation of accreditors. Of course, blind votes must be prevented.

Wikipedia lists such ventures under, of which Behavioral and Brain Sciences, a journal initiated by (the legendary open-access promoter) Stevan Harnad, was a brilliant example. The journal “Papers in physics” uses a comparative approach, I think, but I don’t know that journal (nor the field) so I cannot comment on it.  arXiv shows a free publication platform which is universally accepted in computer science, maths, and physics.

A suggestion would therefore be, that a “journal” would consist of an open access web platform where logins are given to accredited users (that step requires some thinking). Each user can post an article or a commentary to an article, and a rating system will lead to something like an impact factor for the paper. Can a person build a reputation on reviewing only? I think not; the effort in writing a scientific article is much higher, while its impact (=influence on others) is much more profound, and should be honoured accordingly. Yet, only publishing without engaging in discussions is not right, too.

Advantages: fair reviews; but also a better understanding of the papers, since commentaries of peers are included. And, much more impact of papers since those papers which are controversial or important will have high grades. High grades are better earned in such a way than by being referred to from papers in obscure conferences!

Can we get rid of publication paywalls?

Caveat lector: impact factors and researcher index vary tremendously per research area. For instance, in medical fields, paper turnarounds are very short, and an impact factor of 3 is very low. In engineering it is the other way around: 3 is very high, while people often publish on conferences which do not count in the ISI system—a “lost” publication w.r.t. impact.

Nature is one of the journals with the highest impact factor; near 40. Everyone wants to publish there!

This is, for instance, true for engineering conferences. If you publish a paper, you must pay the conference price, typically around €600, which typically includes conference attendance, conference catering, and paper publishing. If your reader wants to read it, again the standard €30 fee must be paid. So… the publisher earns from both sides. IEEE is a good example.

Indeed, publishing houses often have paywall exceptions for developing countries, based on bilateral agreements etc. That may include some, but leaves out others, as well as the general public!

Again waivers exist for certain developing countries, etc.

From the website it seems that Cambridge University Press seem to have decided to close its traditional open access, and now papers cost a daring $45.


about this blog

This blog will express my personal opinions, at best. Or even less. It has no relationship whatsoever with any company or organisation that employs or employed me. You can find a bit about my scientific background by looking at my papers, most of which you will find at \sqrt2

Papers are something good: one must really be careful, since your peers (often friends) will read them, review them, and judge you on it. But papers are something bad: you must worry about the right journal, the right publisher, impact points… all of which one would rather ignore, but that is not always possible.

I have learned to dislike publication practice, as it often leads to abuse; both by the publishers as by the published. So… here you will find “unpublished” thoughts and results, or sometimes  perhaps prepublished ones. Will see.