[Disclaimer: in this post, I am unavoidably critical of certain aspects of particular journals.  Please take this in the spirit it’s intended: I’m not out to get anyone, but I need to illustrate my points with real examples.]

When we started blogging our recent neck-posture paper (Taylor et al. 2009, for those of you who’ve been chatting in the back row and not paying attention), we expected to make two posts, maybe three.  Yet here we are in post six, and I know Matt has another up the barrel for tomorrow, so it looks like we’re going to end up having written a whole week’s worth of daily posts, just as we did for Xenoposeidon.

One of the questions a lot of people have asked me is why we published in a Polish journal (Acta Palaeontologica Polonica).  Although APP is published in Poland and edited by a primarily Polish board, it’s more accurate to characterise it as an international journal — the papers in the issue where our work appeared had lead authors based in Poland (4 papers), USA (3), Italy (2), and England, France, Japan, Spain and Sweden (1 each).  Still, that question is a nice jumping-off point to discuss something of relevance to all academics that doesn’t get a lot of coverage: how to choose a journal.

From another sauropod paper in Acta Palaeontologica Polonica: Schwarz et al. (2007: fig. 1), showing CT scans of a Diplodocus cervical

From another sauropod paper in Acta Palaeontologica Polonica: Schwarz et al. (2007: fig. 1), showing CT scans of a Diplodocus cervical

Criteria for choosing a journal

There are plenty of criteria that come in to play in picking a journal, and people will vary in how much weight they place on each.  We’ll take a look at some of them (in no very convincing order), and then I’ll explain what I think is the unifying principle.

Impact factor. I’ll deal with this first, because it’s easiest to dismiss.  The impact factor is a stupid, irrelevant number attached to journals by a private corporation with its own agenda and with no responsibility to actual scientists.  Its use is particularly dumb in palaeo, a field in which it’s near impossible to get a paper written, submitted, reviewed and published in time to hit the two-year window during which citations are counted for impact-factor purposes — which is why even the best palaeo journals (JVP, Palaeontology, APP) have impact factors close to 1.0.  All scientists should ignore impact factor whenever possible.

Prestige. Now we’re getting somewhere.  Prestige is what impact factor is a (wholly inadequate) proxy for.  Of course, it’s impossible to define or quantify satisfactorily, but we all know what we mean by it.  Sadly, top of the tree for prestige — by a long way — are the “tabloids”, Science and Nature.  It’s considered a huge deal to publish in these, very good for your career — which is a shame, as the super-short format makes it nearly impossible to do decent science in these venues.  As Exhibit A, I give you Sereno et al. (1999).  In five pages, Sereno and his ten co-authors presented descriptions of not one but two new sauropod genera, plus a time-calibrated phylogeny and an analysis of rates of morphological change through time.  It is not intended as a criticism of Sereno and his colleagues when I say that for scientific purposes, the descriptions in this paper are essentially worthless — it’s simply not possible to do anything like justice to two genera, both represented by nearly complete remains, in that amount of space.  Lest I seem to be picking on this particular team, which I honestly assure you is not my purpose here, I could equally point to Curry Rogers and Forster’s (2001) description of Rapetosaurus, Rauhut et al. (2005) on Brachytrachelopan or indeed the original DinoMorph paper (Stevens and Parrish 1999).  The publication of important work in the tabloids is not such a disaster when conscientious authors such as John Hutchinson follow up a high-prestige extended abstract such as Hutchinson and Garcia (2002) with a full-length study elsewhere (Hutchinson et al. 2005), but sadly this seems to be more the exception than the rule — after all, if you’ve already got all that credit for a short paper, why bother doing all the extra work involved in getting the full-length paper done?  That said, I am assured that Curry Rogers’s long-awaited Rapetosaurus osteology is on the way RSN.  At the risk of sounding sour-grapesy (I’ve never been published in either tabloid myself), I do think that the existence of these journals is a net negative for actual science.  I won’t go so far as to say that I’ll never publish in S‘n’N if I get the chance, but I do right here and now undertake that if ever that chance should come my way, I will do my level best to get the full-length study out as soon as possible thereafter.

Hmm, that seems to have turned into a tangential rant about the tabloids, which really wasn’t my intention, but so it goes.  More generally, there is a sense that general-science journals are more prestigious than specialist palaeo journals: notable ones include PNAS and the various Royal Society journals.  An exception to this rule is the PLoS journals: because it’s more selective PLoS Biology is considered more prestigious than the general-science PLoS ONE.  Among palaeo journals, there’s a feeling that Paleobiology is particularly well regarded, with Palaeontology, the Journal of Paleontology, JVP and Acta Pal. Pol. up on its shoulders.  Other journals are a little further down the great chain of being.

How much does prestige matter?  Quite a lot (especially if you need your CV to look good) but rather less than a few years ago, I think — for reasons that will become apparent later on.

Turnaround speed. The importance of this will vary at different times.  I’ve had a couple of my papers published in PaleoBios, the journal of the University of California Museum of Paleontology — which is not particularly high-profile — for one main reason: they turn papers round really quickly.  That was particularly important to me when I was starting out, and really needed to get something on my CV quickly.  Now that my publication list is a little less feeble, I can afford to let my manuscripts marinate for longer in order to get them into more recognised journals.  But sometimes that goes to ridiculous extremes: a while back, Matt and I sent a paper to Paleobiology.  The editors sat on the manuscript for more than a month before even sending it out to reviewers.  When I asked two months later, then again a month after than, then again a month after that, reviews were still not in.  In the end, we didn’t hear back until more than six months after submission — and when we finally saw the reviews, one of them consisted only of filling in a one-page form.  We weren’t impressed, and won’t be submitting there again, despite the journal’s high prestige.  (We know others who have had even longer waits.  Sadly, we didn’t know this at the time we submitted; if we did, we’d have made other plans).

At the other end of the scale, Acta Pal. Pol. did a very fast job: just under one month elapsed after our initial submission of the neck-posture paper before we got back two detailed and helpful reviews accompanying a provisional acceptance.  It took us a fortnight to make the revisions, and only one further week for the revised manuscript to be accepted and in press — seven weeks from start to end, and then a wait of only two and a half months before publication.

Figure reproduction. This varies in importance depending on what kind of paper you’re submitting: for a description, I think it’s really important (which is why Darren and I argued, successfully, with the Palaeontology editor to get full-page reproduction for the Xenoposeidon photographs and interpretive drawings); for a biomechanics paper or similar, it’s maybe not so important, provided the figures are legible.  In terms of electronic figure reproduction, the hands-down winner is the PLoS series of journals: for example, the individual elements surrounding the skeletal reconstruction in the full-sized figure 3 of Sereno et al.’s (2007) description of the skull of Nigersaurus are exquisite.  At the other end of the scale, one of the big disappointments with Palaeontologia Electronica is the figure quality: for example, Rose’s (2007) description of Paluxysaurus has really tiny online images of the figures — something there’s no real excuse for in an online-only journal.

Length restrictions/page charges. Some journals charge the author per printed page; some charge per page after a certain number of free pages.  The charges, and the number of free pages, vary wildly between journals.  Some, maybe most, journals will waive these fees for authors with no institutional support.  Need I say that you want to find a journal that won’t charge, or will charge only a little?

(For journals that take away your copyright and restrict your use of your own work, I think that charging as well adds insult to injury.)

Reprint costs. Before the advent of ubiquitous PDFs, the main way to disseminate your work apart the journal issue itself was by buying reprints from the journal and handing them out to colleagues at conferences.  Reprint costs also very wildly between journals.  This used to be more important than it is now, as we have other ways of letting people see our work.

Wide distribution of physical issues. If your article is in Science or Nature, then a zillion copies will be printed and sent all over the world.  If you publish in The Biennial Newsletter of the South Yorkshire Lepidopterists’ Society, eight copies will be photostatted and sent as far afield as North Yorkshire.  So you might think that wide distribution correlates strongly with prestige, but that’s not always true.  A nice outlier here is PaleoBios: copies are sent to libraries all over the world, in exchange for copies of other institutional journals, which means that anything published in PaleoBios can be found in hardcopy in a surprising number of places.  This is nice; but as with reprints, less important than it was even a few years ago.  And the reason is …

Existence of PDFs. Finally we get to the bit that we’ve all known was coming.  In this enlightened day and age, most of us have several metric shedloads of papers in PDF form on our hard drives, meaning that whenever we go to a musuem with our laptops and want to compare an alleged basal titanosauriform median caudal with those of Brachiosaurus brancai, we have only to pull up the PDF of Janensch (1950) and we’re done.  Lugging around great stacks of actual paper seems not merely unnecessary but passé, like wearing flared trousers or listening to the Spice Girls.  Everyone needs PDFs, and everyone knows that this is the case.  So every publication venue provides authors with them … right?

Amazingly, no.  Things may have changed since 2007, but back then authors had to PAY $100 to the Journal of Paleontology to get a PDF of THEIR OWN PAPER.  Oh, and money orders were only accepted from the USA and Canada, so good luck if you’re a European author.  These facts hurt so much I am going to have to go and lie down before continuing.

… later … Here’s one that hurts even more: Brusatte et al.’s (2008) osteology of the stinkin’ theropod Neovenator DOES NOT EXIST as a PDF, except for a crappy scan.  Apparently the Palaeontographical Society doesn’t give the authors PDFs at all, at any price.  For me, that is a simple, non-negotiable Submission Killer: I will never, ever send my stuff to a venue that doesn’t give me a PDF.  In 2009, the idea is untenable.

Open access. Assuming that a PDF exists, who can get it and under what terms?  Under the classical model, publishers own your work, and can — and do — restrict access to it.  To see what you wrote, other scientists, and interested amateurs, have to either have an institutional subscription or pay some ludicrously inflated fee like $30.  (I wonder whether anyone in world history has ever done this?)  See Scott Aaronson’s rather brilliant article for more on this extraordinary state of affairs.

In contrast, an increasing number of journals are now open access, which means that anyone, anywhere can download the PDF with minimum fuss and at no cost.  Acta Palaeontologia Polonica is one of these, and was among the first in palaeo.  Other notable journals in this category include PLoS Biology and PLoS ONE, and Zootaxa.  If you’re prepared to wait a year before your paper becomes open access (i.e. wait until everyone who’s interested has long had a copy and all the buzz has died down so that no-one cares any more), then the list of open access journals grows to include venues like Science and Proc. B, but personally I am inclined to feel that this is stretching the definition well past breaking point.  There are good and valid reasons for wanting to publish in these venues, but their open-access-but-not-in-any-way-that-matters policy is not one of them.

There are (at least) two reasons to favour open-access journals: the pragmatic one is that it’s the best way to make sure that anyone, anywhere in the world who’s interested in your work can get it — whether professor, curator, student, interested amateur or vaguely interested high-school kid.  The other reason is that it’s just right.  We’re talking here about the world’s accumulated knowledge, in many cases acquired by publicly funded research programs.  It is simply and plainly wrong that this work should be shut up behind paywalls where the people who paid for it can’t see it.

Copyright retention. Most publishers, including some open access publishers, require the author to sign over copyright as a condition of publication.  Even if it doesn’t make much difference in practice, I have to say it rankles that, for example, that the Palaeontological Society has ended up owning my and Darren’s work on Xenoposeidon (Taylor and Naish 2007).  This is particularly iniquitous in unashamedly commercial publishers such as Elsevier — guess who owns Darren’s paper on “Angloposeidon” (Naish et al. 2004)?  And it’s even more baffling in open-access journals since they let anyone have the work anyway.  I assume the real reason for this is that publishers want to be able to exploit any spin-offs such as popular books, but copyright transfer forms usually contain a lot of blurfl about it being for the author’s benefit, as it allows the publisher to pursue infringement claims on the author’s behalf.  To which I offer the following rebuttal: “yeah, right”.

Not all publishers do this.  Notably, we retain the copyright on our recent paper in Acta Pal. Pol., Zoologica Scripta leaves copyright with the authors, and there are others.  Good for them.

… and finally, you do need to be realistic. Despite my whining about Science and Nature above, I don’t deny that we’d have loved to place the neck-posture paper at one of those journals: apart from anything else, it would be useful for Matt as he works towards tenure, and helpful for Darren who — astoundingly — is still without a job in academia.  S‘n’N papers help with that stuff.  But we know (these journals make no secret of it) that they reject 90% of submissions without even reviewing them, and it would likely just have been a waste of our time and effort to lobotomise our eight-pager down to three and reformat with the ultra-dumb numbered-references format in exchange for a tiny, tiny chance of hitting that jackpot.  So we didn’t bother.  (Also, while scientists strive to evaluate work on its merits, I can’t help suspecting that a submission to the tabloids with University of Portsmouth and Western University of Health Sciences in the byline would have started with something of a handicap in the selection process.)

What it all means

So apart from having suggested you ignore Impact Factor, I’ve said to consider prestige, reprint costs, distribution of physical issues, existence of PDFs, open access, copyright retention, turnaround speed, figure reproduction and length restrictions/page charges.  And the interesting thing is that the first half dozen of these are all about the same thing, which I’d argue is the underlying issue:

Getting the paper read by as many people as possible.

That’s what it’s really about, isn’t it?  The reason you want cheap reprints is so you can give them to people who’ll read them; the reason you want wide distribution of physical issues is so they’ll get into libraries where people will read them; and so on.

But both reprints and physical issues are much less important than they used to be, because now we can email our stuff to anyone in the world.  So let’s ignore them for now.  Prestige is less important than it used to be, because one of its big wins was that it got your article into the hands of potential readers; but it’s still important in other ways. And let’s ignore journals that don’t give you PDFs because they are off the Submission Radar.

Now here’s another thing:

Everything is open.

It just is, and there’s nothing that anyone can do about it.  Everything that becomes available as a PDF is quickly passed around the community, and in most cases posted on the author’s web-site (whatever the journal’s Arbitrary And Exploitative Copyright Transfer Form said).  So from a purely pragmatic perspective, you could say that in choosing a journal we can also ignore the criterion of whether or not the journal considers itself open access (because it really is anyway) and also copyright retention (since it doesn’t really matter if everyone can read it anyway).

So what criteria are we left with?  Of the ten we started with, those left standing in the era of ubiquitous PDFs number just four: prestige, turnaround speed, figure reproduction quality and length restrictions/page charges.  And this is excellent, because these are the actual services that journals provide to authors.  A journal best serves authors by handling their manuscripts quickly and without charge, by imparting prestige due to the reputation of the editorial board and quality of previous issues, and by reproducing the figures well.  I think it’s great that we’re moving inexorably towards an economy where the journals that get the best submissions will be the ones that provide the best services.

And among journals that do these things well, it’s fairer to reward the good guys by bestowing our submissions on those that are deliberately publishing open access rather than those that try to stop people reading what they “publish” (which, of course, is ironically the very opposite of what the word is supposed to mean, i.e. making something available).  There are some non-open journals that you sort of have to publish in — I don’t feel my CV would be complete without papers at JVP and Palaeontology — but aside from those society-owned journals (and, OK, museum journals), I am planning to pretty much stick to open access venues from here on.

In Praise of Acta Pal. Pol.

I’ll finish by mentioning that Acta Palaeontologia Polonica does offer a very good blend of the qualities we’re looking for in a publication venue: it’s open access by design (and has been for years), turnaround is very fast, the figure reproduction is good (though perhaps not stellar), and the page charges of 27 Euros per page over the first eight are not unreasonable.  (It also has cheap reprints and is widely distributed, but we’re ignoring those factors, remember?)  Finally, the journal has a well-earned reputation for publishing good papers and for reviewing them well.  So all in all, we’re really pleased with APP and would definitely use it again.


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