Biochemical Journal


How can we make publishing less painful?

Peter R. Shepherd
  • article cascade model
  • Bioscience Reports
  • journal publishing
  • open access
  • painless publishing
  • peer review

The Times They Are a-Changin' in the world of scientific publishing, and just like Bob Dylan and the music industry, we have now moved into an electronic age in publishing. This digital revolution has made it less of a risk to start new journals with new business models and has allowed the proliferation of a wide range of open access online-only journals. This change and the response it has generated from traditional subscription model journals, together with numerous other developments that have improved accessibility, has started to make it much easier for scientists to find information. However, one area that remains a major area of concern to many of us [1] is the process of getting a paper published. The peer-review system of course remains the backbone of the scientific system, but many scientists see inefficiencies and perceive unfairness in the way the system has evolved. Essentially peer review is the quality-control system for published science, designed to validate the veracity of the results and conclusions of a scientific study. However, for many journals, space is at a premium and editors are invariably faced with more submissions than there is space for (for example the Biochemical Journal typically gets four times more submissions each year than our page budget allows). As a result, the reviewers are asked to prioritize papers based on perceived novelty and importance. Some system of grading and sorting of information is of course essential when we consider that 1582976 articles are listed in the ISI Web of Science database for 2011 (Thomson Reuters).

Different journals have placed varying levels of emphasis on novelty and perceived importance, and over time, this has created a hierarchy of journals based on the number of citations per paper published (the Impact Factor). This ranking has become commercially important as it is used by libraries to decide which journals they should subscribe to and has been used by publishers to decide what they can charge for the journals. In recent years, it has also become increasingly important for scientists as the journal an article is published in has become a de facto indication of the quality of the article itself. This has become an important consideration in the increasingly competitive scientific world as more and more scientists compete for a limited amount of funding.

One result of the importance placed on journal ranking is a distorted system, where scientists are overloading the high-impact journals with submissions, resulting in a huge pressure being placed on reviewers and editors. The sad thing is that much of this effort is in effect wasted as when a paper is rejected, as most are, it then goes through the whole process at another journal and then maybe another and another. Each time more reviews are solicited and more time is wasted. Even when a journal is interested in a paper the reviewers and editors will often insist on extra experiments being carried out. Sometimes these are indeed essential to support the claims made by the authors, but often the additional experiments requested are just icing on the cake. This whole process is enormously time consuming and very inefficient. The question we have asked at the Biochemical Journal is: how can we make things better? So far we have come up with two initiatives that we feel can make a real difference:

1. The Biochemical Journal'sPainless PublishingStrategy. In 2011, the Biochemical Journal instituted a policy aimed at minimizing the pain to authors. We now have two criteria for deciding whether a paper is acceptable. First, we ask reviewers and editors to decide whether the work is novel and will be of interest to a significant number of their peers. If it passes this test, we ask them to decide whether the experimental results described in the paper are sufficient to justify the conclusions drawn. Reviewers are instructed to ask for extra experiments only if they are absolutely essential. The aim is to make it as quick and painless as possible for the authors. So far this seems to be working well and we have had excellent feedback from authors.

2. New Review Cascade System to Bioscience Reports. Even with our ‘Painless Publishing’ strategy, about 80% of papers submitted to the Biochemical Journal are declined as they fail to reach the threshold of novelty and broad interest. A significant percentage of these papers are scientifically sound and will eventually be published elsewhere, but of course going through the whole process again is very frustrating and wasteful of both authors' and reviewers' time. Therefore over the last couple of years we have experimented with a system where the authors of selected papers in this category have been offered the opportunity to have their reviewer reports transferred to Bioscience Reports (BSR). BSR, also owned by the Biochemical Society and published by Portland Press Limited, is an established journal with a respectable Impact Factor of 2.213 and a well-respected Editorial Board headed by the Editor-in-Chief Wanjin Hong (Singapore). This experiment has been very successful and so we are now expanding this initiative. From 2 April, we will be offering all authors of scientifically sound papers that have been rejected from the Biochemical Journal the opportunity to publish their papers in BSR without a further round of review. At the same time Portland Press will begin converting BSR into an online-only open access journal with exceptionally low publication fees (the August issue will be the first open access issue). Of course it will not be mandatory for authors to transfer their papers, but we feel that a significant number of authors will find this option to be highly beneficial.

At the Biochemical Journal we are continually seeking innovative ways to make scientific publishing better – so watch this space for more developments in the future.