Scientific publishing today: bias, tools, and some thoughts from an associate editor

Matthias Schleuning (right)
Matthias Schleuning (right)

Matthias Schleuning is a Senior Scientist at Senckenberg Biodiversity and Climate Research Centre (SBiK-F), Germany, and an Associate Editor for Functional Ecology. In this post, he talks about a recent panel he took part in at the year’s Macroecology Meeting of the Ecological Society of Germany, Austria and Switzerland.


Scientific publishing today: bias, tools, and some thoughts

I spent several inspiring days (tough ones, too, as this was my first week away from my little one!) at this year’s German Macroecology Meeting in Würzburg, Germany. In addition to the many interesting presentations (including great keynotes by Maria Dornelas and Alexandre Antonelli), we had a panel discussion with six editors responding to the most pressing concerns about publishing (thanks to all and to the panel organizer Juliano Sarmento Cabral for inspiring this post!). Despite our diversity of backgrounds  and the many different journals we edit, for instance including Global Ecology and Biogeography, Ecography and Functional Ecology, there was a surprising degree of consensus, at least on most points (if you are not interested in consensus, then jump to the final section of my post).


How do you deal with bias?

There can be tons of biases, in our lives, in our scientific experiments and observations, and in publishing, too, of course. As editors, do we actually sufficiently consider gender balance and geographic origin when we invite reviewers? Do we think beyond our own (often regional) networks when we quickly add another reviewer to the invitation list because too many had declined our first round of invitations?

Well, yes, as editors, we do try to consider these things, at least as much as possible, as we may want to cover different types of expertise and perspectives, get input from both a junior and a senior person, or from a sceptical and a more curious mind – although it would sometimes be easier to balance all these aspects if more reviewers would accept our invitation to review.

Indeed, it’s easy to think about all these biases, yet it’s not that easy to properly identify them in ourselves and in peer-review – but it’s possible, e.g. see here for the author and the editor/reviewer perspective.

Overcoming bias remains most challenging. The good news is that we are all increasingly aware of it and try to balance these issues – as much as we can. This could be one reason why gender biases of selected reviewers seem to be significantly lower for early than for late-career editors. Whether or not these biases affect the outcome of the peer-review process remains controversial. Although gender differences are weak in peer-review outcomes, there still tend to be lower acceptance rates for female first authors. I’m actually not a big fan of double-blinding the review process, but this seems to be a point in favour of it.


Why do my papers always get rejected?

Honestly, no one asked this question, but there were several potential answers that came up in our discussion. For instance, is it because you always submit your papers at the end of the year when we all clear our desks before breathing out? Or do you always put the same, very critical reviewers on your wish list (although we learned that this is an unlikely reason because editors rarely pick more than a single of your suggested reviewers)? Or do you tend to always send your manuscripts to the same journal and not explain in your cover letter why your paper fits this journal? Well, these are all possible causes, but it could also be bad luck – indeed, the same manuscript can be judged quite differently by different people. For example, your manuscript may have been seen by an editor or reviewer who simply isn’t convinced by the study system that you work on instead of making constructive suggestions for improvement (as another person would have done). Yes, publishing scientific papers sometimes feels like a lottery, although I’m convinced that it isn’t in the long run. Nevertheless, receiving a rejection can be frustrating and is most difficult to accept if you just have this one paper to put all your hopes on when you’re at an early career stage.

We need to explain why we reject a paper and make our decision as transparent and constructive as possible.

But there is one thing we editors should all be doing, to make sure even rejected papers aren’t a waste of time. We need to explain why we reject a paper and make our decision as transparent and constructive as possible. If one of my papers is rejected, but received constructive, well-thought-out reviews – which are summarized and the main issues explained to me by the editor in their decision letter – it’s easy to move forward and revise the paper for another journal. Many in the audience pointed out that this was often not the case (and we probably all remember receiving such opaque decisions), making peer-review feel like a waste of time. And science should never be wasted, but always help us move forward.

The burden here is with us, the editors – and it’s actually rarely a burden, but mostly fun to edit papers and feel the pulse of the scientific field that we work on! So, it doesn’t seem to be too much to ask for that we need to explain why we made a decision. I think this is what we should actually always do when it comes to making a decision — and not just in scientific publishing.


Is there something going wrong in scientific publishing?

If you made it to here, please stay with me for some more lines. Here comes the controversial part (at least, I try to be because being controversial is not my greatest strength).

Do you agree that publishers sometimes provide a rather poor service for what they earn from their (wasn’t it our?) scientific business? Yes, to some extent. Were you ever unhappy that you have to pay for publishing a paper in a journal that you have just reviewed for (for free, of course)? Sure, this happens from time to time. Have you recently been annoyed that you were asked to pay for having your paper on the journal cover, even though the cover would show one of your best shots? Yes, I actually had hoped to receive a little recognition for providing my image to the publisher, rather than being charged for it! [Editor’s note: Functional Ecology doesn’t charge authors to include their picture on the cover – neither do any of the other BES journals]. Do you avoid certain journals when publishing your manuscripts? If these journals are known to have a poor and lengthy review process and seem to put most emphasis on the commercial side of publishing, this seems plausible to me. Would you prefer that your articles would readily be available to interested researchers, independent of whether they would like to read your paper in Berlin, Buenos Aires or Bamako? Of course, I do! So, then, isn’t there something strange in scientific publishing? Yes, there is and we – as scholarly community – may deserve something better.


Why should we use the journal system at all, when it can let us down in various ways?

As with many complex problems (in real life, too), the way towards this brighter future of publishing is not that easy. Maybe we believe in open science and would prefer to just place our papers (and underlying data) on a freely accessible server and let the community speak about it (and make rapid use of the data that we’ve collected). Well, fair enough… but then you may only realize afterwards that a proper review process, by your fair peers, would have made your manuscript so much better. And what about the scientific villain who uses this way of publishing to spread his crude theory on why the climate isn’t changing at all? Don’t we want this manuscript to be filtered by the informed scholarly community before it goes public? Of course, there are always ways for distributing nonsense (more than ever I suspect), but if we stop with peer-review as we know it, it might get easier to camouflage such things as scientific contributions.

And from a different angle, I actually like it if my paper gets copy-edited in a professional manner and is published in a cool journal that many of my colleagues read. And maybe my friend and colleague in Bamako can easily read this paper because the publisher offers special conditions and free access there, too.


Well, is academic publishing not too bad then?

Academic and scientific publishing is steadily changing and we – the scholarly community – should contribute to shaping this transition towards a better direction. When I wrote this post, I got steadily confused by the myriads of different publication models ranging from a restrictive subscription only model (where papers are hidden for a part of the community behind the virtual pay wall), over the many hybrid journals where specific contributions can be moved open access (if the authors are willing  and able to pay for this), to the fully open access journals (which are also those that only a part of the community can afford to pay for and publish in) – an open preprint system, as mentioned above, would even be placed on another level where authors would basically opt out of the traditional peer-review system and move the review process post-publication.

So, scientific publishing is a complex thing, and many things are currently in motion, such as the Plan S initiative launched by Science Europe (a coalition of the major European Research Funding Organisations), with the aim to make all publicly funded research open access by 2020. On the other hand, there is an ongoing, controversial debate on the different open-access strategies, e.g., triggered by the sudden decision of a publisher to move one of their ecological journals to a new publication model. This example clearly shows that open access does not necessarily equal open participation in scientific communication because the higher costs for publishing in fully open access journals pose strong filters on who could actually publish in such journals. [Editor’s note: For the BES position on Plan S and to send us your comments click here].


The future of publishing should be shaped by us

So, things are indeed changing quickly and we need to keep our eyes open. As the scholarly community who do the science, we should be heard and get involved when it comes to the question on how to develop our publication system further. But here is the consensus point again: complex problems have no simple answers, but they need many voices and different opinions to eventually make things better.


Matthias Schleuning (with a little help and input from Jennifer Meyer), 10 April 2019

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