What do journal publishers actually do?

What do journal publishers actually do?

Over the years authors have asked me, what do publishers do? How do the likes of Springer Nature, Frontiers, Wiley or Elsevier actually add any value to my manuscript? Why should we publish in an academic journal? I’m going to try to be brutally honest in answering these questions and my answers might not make me very popular, but here goes!

Academic Journals: The Author’s Perspective

From the author’s perspective, it might not look like the publisher does an awful lot. Let’s imagine we have an author here with us, we’ll call him Bob. Bob submits his manuscript and waits for what feels like forever to hear news about the next steps. If Bob is lucky, the publisher’s peer review system will give him some sort of indication as to the status of his manuscript. Finally, Bob hears that his manuscript has been through peer review and the peer reviewers have asked for revisions. Bob then spends his precious time (that he could be spending with his family or on his current research) revising his manuscript, checking it scrupulously and resubmitting it. Then the waiting. Bob is forever waiting… When at last, it’s accepted for publication! So ensues rounds of author proofs and then eventually Bob’s article is published. After all of this, Bob then must log onto his much-neglected Twitter account and hope that his lonely Tweet will be enough for people to see the article and actually read it. Luckily, if the article has been published Open Access then it’s worth the effort of self-promotion, but if it’s published under a Subscription model, only those with a subscription to the journal will be able to even read it. Sounds exhausting, right?

In our story about Bob, where is the role of the publisher? Bob sees the technology the publisher offers during the submission, peer review and production processes. He might have an occasional interaction with the publisher during peer review if the formatting of his manuscript needs altering, or if he encounters any bugs in the platform. He will also likely have some interaction with the copyeditor working on his manuscript in production. Essentially, the people aspect of the publishing process is somewhat lacking for our author Bob. Bob sees the technology, Bob sees the editors and reviewers volunteering their time, but Bob doesn’t see what is happening behind the scenes. Therefore, Bob is sometimes critical about publishers, their value and what they do. Bob thinks that it might be easier to just self-publish his article somewhere online. To all the “Bobs” out there reading this, please trust your publishers! An awful lot happens behind the scenes that keeps that journal afloat and gives you and your funder value for money.

Academic Journals: The Publisher’s Perspective (an insider’s view)

Publishers are the well-oiled machines supporting research infrastructures and driving science forward. Let me give you the insider’s view. Aside from the act of publishing articles (I will get to this, I promise), publishers do a little bit of everything (see handy list in this blog).

All of these activities however are supplementary to a journal publisher’s main function, to publish research, which I will now explain (see, I told you I would get to it).

The process of publishing a journal article has been refined over hundreds of years. The first ever journal was published on the 6th of March 1665 in London (Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society), so we’ve had a decent amount of time to get the process right. The role of the publisher has changed dramatically with the invention of online publishing. It’s easy to see the value a publisher offers when the printed glossy issue of a journal weighs heavily in your hand. With online publications however, authors like our Bob are finding it hard to see the value.

Personally, I think the value is in the expertise. Publishers are highly knowledgeable about research standards, compliance with funder mandates, research integrity and dissemination. They are in a position to advise Editors on best practices and recommend editorial policies based on the Committee on Publication Ethics’ (COPE) guidelines. Publishers also have the expertise when it comes to building peer review platforms to enable efficient and fair peer review. Without journal publishers, we would still be peer reviewing manuscripts by post or email – things have come a long way since then.

Finally, and in an effort to keep this relatively brief because I could write for England on this topic, dissemination of research to the right people is absolutely key to the value of a publisher. Publishers are the soap box from which researchers tell the world about their work through academic journals. The soap box might be overlooked, and so it should be, the spotlight should always be on the researcher, but the soap box allows the researcher a platform so that others will notice and listen.

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