Thursday, September 15, 2011

Paleontology Journals - Cheers and Jeers

In my previous post, I introduced a compilation of data concerning various journals relevant to paleontologists. The data, which are freely available in Google Spreadsheet, Excel and HTML form, detail costs to readers, costs to authors, and more. In this post, I want to outline my personal opinions on the journals that I surveyed. Which have good policies for authors and readers, and which need some work? The answers may surprise you; they certainly surprised me. Some of the best-known journals in the field are not necessarily the best for those who need to use them.

A disclaimer: The opinions presented here are my own and do not represent any organization with which I am associated. Any critical comments are directed at the publishing practices of the journals, not the quality of the science or the efforts of the volunteer editors, authors, and reviewers. If I have made an error in compiling a journal information, I will happily correct it upon notification and verification. I have published in, and in some cases will continue to publish in, some of the journals of which I am critical. Although I personally would like to publish only in open access, non-profit journals, the realities of a career in science make that difficult at times.

Cheers to:
  • Journals that promote open access. Even with a delay, open access allows an increased readership (and hopefully increased citation) of articles. Although critics of OA often imply that scientific papers are just too complex for the lay public to understand, in a field like paleontology the lay public is a major consumer of our primary literature. So, cheers to journals like PLoS ONE, Palaeontologia Electronica, and Proceedings B, who practice and promote open access. Even some commercially-published journals (e.g., The Anatomical Record) deserve special mention for their OA efforts.
  • Journals with reasonable download fees. Although every journal would be free and open access in an ideal world, it does cost money to run a publication. I salute those journals of various sizes and business models that keep their per-article download charges at $15 or less; this includes Canadian Journal of Earth Sciences, Journal of Paleontology, Paleobiology, PNAS, and Science. Here's your next challenge, journals: lower the price to $5. I would predict that this is the tipping point in the balance between price and convenience for many readers of the paleontology literature.
Jeers to:
  • Journals that charge ridiculous fees for per-article downloads. I'm especially looking at you, Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology. $41 for a PDF of a one page taxonomic note?! Not even Cretaceous Research, owned and published by the oft-maligned Elsevier, charges that much ($37.95). Somehow or another, Journal of Paleontology only charges $12 per article. I realize that different journals have different goals and revenue streams, but it is absolutely unseemly that a society journal like JVP charges that much for its articles. One wonders how many potential purchases (and thus society revenue) are lost in the face of the fee.
  • Journals that only allow authors to publish the pre-peer reviewed version of a manuscript. Journal of Morphology and The Anatomical Record get this dubious honor. I can understand asking authors to delay posting the unformatted manuscript or to refrain from posting the published PDF (to allow the journal to recoup some revenue), but it makes no sense to prevent entirely the authors from posting the peer-reviewed, unformatted version. Given the sometimes substantial changes introduced during peer review (which is done by volunteers, and nearly always coordinated by volunteer editors), posting of an unreviewed manuscript has too much potential for making the author as well as the journal look bad. The Journal of Morphology is a particularly egregious offender. I feel a little bad listing The Anatomical Record in this category, because they do have default OA after one year.
  • Journals that lock supplementary information behind paywalls. Erecting paywalls for supplementary information may, in some cases, keep the data out of sight of legal readers. Someone who has only a paper reprint or PDF of the printed work legally obtained from the author, or a hard copy in the journal library, cannot access supplementary data. Keep in mind that most journals only minimally format the data, if at all, for publication, so there is no real value added by the publisher beyond posting it on the server. Prime offenders in this category include Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology, Canadian Journal of Earth Sciences, Historical Biology, and Cretaceous Research.
Top contenders in various categories:
  • Most reader friendly. Criteria: Cost of download, time to OA. Top picks: Acta Palaeontologica Polonica, Palaeontologia Electronica, PLoS ONE, PalArch's JVP. Runners up: PNAS, Science.
  • Least reader friendly. Criteria: cost of download, availability of supplementary information, availability of open access and/or author versions. Bottom picks: Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology, Historical Biology, Cretaceous Research.
  • Most author friendly. Criteria: OA fee and/or fee waiver, maintenance of author rights, impact factor. Top picks: Acta Palaeontologica Polonica, Palaeontologia Electronica. Good bets: PLoS ONE, PalArch's JVP.
  • Best all-around journals: These journals balance needs of the author and reader, using the criteria above. In this case, Acta Palaeontologica Polonica and Palaeontologia Electronica are at the top of the list.
  • Best Glamour Magazine: Science, by a long-shot. With the high impact factor that authors crave, and the low download fee and eventual open access that readers love, this journal has the entire package. PNAS is a very close runner-up.
*I would note that PaleoBios may be making some additional changes to propel themselves into the "best all-around journal" category; details will be added when available.
**I would also note that by "readers", I am referring to all possible readers, not just those with society memberships or at institutions with well-stocked electronic libraries.

So Now What?
Vote with your manuscript submissions. Submit only to journals whose policies benefit you. Encourage journals with non-friendly policies to change them. Although it may be tough to change strictly for-profit journals, we may be able to make a difference with society publications. Speak up. Blog about it. Talk to your colleagues. Ask the hard questions of the people who make the decisions. Make a noise at the annual meetings. Let's even the publishing playing field!

Update: Heinrich Mallison posted a nice response to the selection of Palaeontologia Electronica as one of the "best all-around journals" for paleontology, over at their official blog.

What are your thoughts? Weigh in with your own nominations for best/worst, or any additional opinions, in the comment section!


Heinrich Mallison said...

wow, the Palaeontologia Electronica team is surely proud to make the top of the list.

There will be some major changes at PE soon - we're trying to get even better!

Taissa said...

Other bets are the Annals of the Brazilian Academy of Sciences and the Revista Brasileira de Paleontologia (Brazilian Journal of Paleontology). Both are indexed (still waiting for RBP's impact factor, tough), free-of-charge, and entirely OA journals.

Paul Barrett said...

Interestingly no mention of other important criteria here that would include:

1. Turn around times from acceptance to publication.
2. Impact factor.
3. Any mandatory page charges.
4. Cost of colour plates/availability of free colour in print/online.
5. Availability of free hard copy reprints.

Some of the more maligned journals actually do well against some of these criteria - JVP for one.

Andy said...

You are correct, Paul, in that those are also important issues. I had considered including turn-around times, and might do this for a version 2.0 of the spreadsheet, with data on time to acceptance, time to posting online ("EarlyView" or the equivalent), and time to final publication. Unfortunately, many journals hide data on individual articles behind a paywall, which made it tough to put together a fair comparison for recent volumes in version 1.0 of the list.

Impact factor is on the spreadsheet (link in the main post), and was a minor factor in the rankings. However, IF is not particularly meaningful in the broad cross-section of journals I looked at (e.g., J of Anatomy and JVP have similar impact factors but very different audiences, and the high impact factor of Science is definitely not driven by the paleontology articles).

Mandatory page charges were not explicitly cataloged, unless you count the open access fees category (which is not the same thing in most cases). Again, this is probably something for version 2.0 of the list. Color figure charges are also a good one.

One area where we may disagree is on the utility of free physical reprints. They're nice to hand out to colleagues, but it's been at least four years since someone wrote and asked me for a physical reprint (I remember it vividly, because it was such a surprise!). By contrast, I do get fairly regular email requests for PDFs. I probably won't include reprint data in version 2.0, because so few journals do this now. The one area where reprints are nice is for lengthier publications, and my extra contributing author copies of the Majungasaurus monograph get used a fair bit.

JVP is excellent in many areas (turn-around time, IF, automatic distribution to SVP members, quality of science), but as outlined in the previous blog post my data were mainly focused on issues of accessibility. In my opinion the policies for access to supplemental information and individual PDF purchase cost are still unfortunate, especially in comparison to journals run by other professional societies of similar size and scope (AAA, PalAss and esp. PS). That said, I have high hopes for JVP's ability to change to suit member needs (a major advantage over strictly commercial journals).

Mike Taylor said...

Agreed on physical reprints. I'm just back from SVPCA, and I don't believe I saw a single reprint change hands the entire week -- a dramatic change from five years ago, when reprint exchange was still the dominant mode of dissemination. I've had none for my last few papers, and not missed them at all.

I think describing JVP as good on turnaround time is a bit of a stretch. In issue 31(3), I had a short corrective note published which came in at less than 300 words in total and filled less than half a page. That took a year from submission to publication, even though I took two days to make the changes suggested by the reviewers and one day to return the corrections to the proof PDF. By contrast, Acta Pal Pol went from submission to publication of our neck-posture paper in four months.

Andy said...

Earlier today I did stats on turn-around for three journals, based on their most recent issues. APP had receipt->publication of 527 days average and 536 days median (274 average and 262 median if you count to just posting of the accepted MS). For JVP, time from receipt to publication (preprints are not posted) was 262 average and 210 median. For PLoS ONE (counting the 25 most recent papers that are returned when searching "paleontology" in the journal), 155 days average and 128 median.

Counting just "production" time (acceptance -> final publication), numbers are 101 days average and 96 median for JVP, 254 average and 246 median for APP, and 37 average and 35 median for PLoS ONE.

I want to do stats for a bunch of others, but that will have to wait a week or two until I return from the hadrosaur conference.

Mike Taylor said...

Huh. I have to say I amazed at your JVP-vs-APP turnaround times. But you can't argue with data: I guess I have just been lucky at one and unlucky at the other. (It's not as though my sample size is huge: just two papers in each.)

Heinrich Mallison said...

Don't forget that turn-around times depend not only on the journal, but also especially on the authors, and a bit on the reviewers. That's why I think they are meaningless in this context.

Mike Taylor said...

Of course turnaround time depends on authors -- that's why I mentioned my own two-day turnaround of reviews and one-day turnaround of page-proofs in my account of the brachiosaur correction.

And, yes, they also depend on reviewers; but then part of the job of editors is to make sure that reviewers do theirs. I don't want to name names but I know of cases where reviewers have dragged their heels for ages, and editors have done nothing about it; and others where the editors have either cajoled the reviewers into doing their job in a timely fashion or cancelled the review all together and given it to someone else.

In short -- this is not something that the journal has no control over.

Anonymous said...


Panic Attacks said...

I agree with Paul. These are important criteria that should be included. That turn around time was faster than most. Looking forward to the improvements. Keep up the great work!

Gunnar said...

Zootaxa publishes palaeontology. Their open access option is 20$ per page and, if you can't afford it the PDFs cost 14$