Wednesday 29 September 2021

Research and Researchers in the time of Covid-19: Part II

What the researchers say

By Mridul Saxena and Alison McGonagle-O’Connell, MPS/HighWire Marketing.

HighWire is the Awards and Bronze sponsor for the ALPSP Virtual Conference and Awards 2021

In our first post, we shared an outline of the presented research. This included a summary of researchers’ responses within the ethnographic interviews conducted. The comments shared highlighted the issues, challenges, and changes observed by them. 

In this post, we recap and summarize the key comments and subject areas covered by our panel engaging publisher-side discussants with a subset of the researchers interviewed. The topics range from open access, preprints, peer review, choosing a journal, article discovery, changes in review processes due to the pandemic, and some specific questions to the publishers.

The Panel Participants

  • Richard Sever (Co-founder of bioRxiv and medRxiv, Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory)
  • Michelle Phillips (Open Research Product Manager, British Medical Journal)
  • Claire Moulton (Publisher, Company of Biologists)
  • Danielle Mai, Assistant Professor, Chemical Engineering, Stanford University
  • Samantha Andrzejaczek, Postdoctoral Scholar, Biology Department (Hopkins), Stanford University
  • Ben Callahan, Computational Biologist, College of Veterinary Medicine, North Carolina State University
  • Eva Fischer, Assistant Professor of Biology at University of Illinois
  • Roman Ellerbrock, Postdoctoral Scholar, Chemistry Department, Stanford University. 

Question: If the fee was out of the equation, does that really increase the enthusiasm for Open Access (OA) publishing, and secondly, are you aware of some of the publisher-led initiatives around things like read and publish agreements that aim to shift the cost burden to make it easier for authors to publish OA?

Danielle Mai, Assistant Professor, Chemical Engineering, Stanford University, said she believes that removing fees alone won’t change her behaviour. “I don't think that removing the fee helps me push towards open access, for me the case is when I would want to publish open access if a funding agency requires it,” said Mai.

Meanwhile, Eva Fischer, Assistant Professor of Biology at the University of Illinois, strongly supports the idea of OA but believes that the cost is ‘a pretty big thing’ when it comes to OA publishing. She believes that OA helps people in countries where libraries do not have enough resources to fund subscriptions to content. At the same time, Eva thinks that the fees levied on authors to publish OA are too high, as she prefers to use funds to support the graduate students in their work directly.

Roman Ellerbrock, Postdoctoral Scholar, Chemistry Department, Stanford University, agrees with Eva’s point on the accessibility of OA for less-privileged universities and Ph.D. students who could not afford fees for journals. He supported his thoughts by sharing a personal experience, “Ph.D. students from one of Argentina’s universities were forced to either use open access content, or somehow get access to the journals, otherwise they couldn't pursue the research, and this was, actually, for me, the time when I started thinking about it, and tried to push towards this”.

Richard Sever, Co-founder of bioRxiv and medRxiv, Cold Spring Harbor Labs, elucidated the panel on other different routes for OA. He explained, “paying for the article is the gold open access, there are a small number of journals for which you don't have to pay, and then there's a very large number of journals that allow you to, essentially, archive the author manuscript, and this was the basis for the NIH [National Institutes of Health -US] policy.” 

Ben Callahan, Computational Biologist, College of Veterinary Medicine, North Carolina State University, prefers to publish OA and is willing to pay fees on the condition of availability of funds. He supported his comments saying, “because I consider that posting a submission, or even post revision preprint, and having it up on PubMed six months later is sort of acceptable for me, in terms of access to people all around the world.”

Question: In terms of OA journals, what does overall impact mean to our researchers? 

Samantha Andrzejaczek, Postdoctoral Scholar, Biology Department (Hopkins), Stanford University, said, “I often go to a journal where papers I’m referencing in that certain paper have been publishing.” She then prefers to share her work on Twitter and certain Facebook groups. She measures her impact in terms of how much it is shared around. Supporting her thoughts, she reiterated, “I’m thinking of ‘how can I get it out to the people that are going to benefit from this paper?”

Roman believes that peers also play an important role in deciding on impact factors. He would talk to his professor and the other Ph.D. students to rank the different journals, and based on the responses, he creates a ranking in his head. He manifests his comments by adding, “it's just like a network that builds somehow, and then you have a hierarchy and if you think about publishing a paper in a top journal, and if it doesn't work, you just go down this ladder until you get it published.”

Eva prefers to choose a journal based on its community and whom she wants her paper to be read by. Meanwhile, she also advocated the idea of advertising the paper on social media platforms, “journals should think about what they are doing social media-wise, because people are using that to find articles.”

Danielle supports the idea of reaching out to more people faster. For her, the critical measure of impact is how quickly a journal is known for publishing, whereas Samantha prefers to have a smooth review process and a lot of communication to decide the impact. She concluded by saying, “there's a discussion between the reviewers and the authors, and I appreciate the fact that their reviewer names get published next to the paper. I think it makes people more accountable to what they're saying.”

Question: How do you feel about the open peer review and being named as the peer reviewer of an article?

Benjamin is not appreciative of the fully open peer review process and declined to participate in any of these. He supported his opinion by saying, “I don't believe that you can give the same kind of review when your name is eventually published on that review. You will be less critical for fear of retaliation; you will be positive for reasons of building a positive image in their mind.” But he supports the idea of authors responding to peer reviews without naming the reviewers or if the reviewers want to reveal their names to the author.

Roman believes that there should be a level of uncertainty regarding reviewer identity because in some cases it can become very hard to collaborate with some people in the future, whereas Samantha prefers to have a choice. She is comfortable having her name published alongside her review only for manuscripts that correspond to her expertise. 

Danielle feels skeptical that a fully open peer review would pressure a reviewer to write nice reviews, yet she does feel that the accountability built in to ‘open’ could help the reviewer in considering everything more stringently. She, like Samantha, is open to having her name published as a reviewer but only for manuscripts where she feels comfortable with doing the review.

Acknowledging Danielle’s thoughts, Benjamin thinks that options are fine, but these options also have some potential problems. He underscored his remark by saying, “if I reviewed a paper that I thought was quite good, I might feel very comfortable signing my name to that review, and also thinking about my future relationship, whereas if I gave a critical review, then my comfort level goes away.”

Richard brings an interesting fact to the table with his mention, “the tenured older males are more comfortable putting their names on the reviews than the untenured, underrepresented minority: females.” He further said, “it's not really about the immediate recrimination people always couch this in the notion. It's about the fear that this person may do something to you in the future, and you will never know about it because careers go on for decades.”

Eva believes that the options do have their pros and cons, but thinking about the unseen scenarios in the future where someone is holding a grudge against you for your past reviews is scary. She affirmed her view saying, “I stand by my reviews, but I will confess, I don't feel comfortable signing them.”

Question: Are you getting more focused or narrow in your discovery because of things like Twitter and new approaches to article discovery? What can we do to encourage younger researchers to read papers thoroughly?

Eva openly admits she is not an avid Twitter user, but she likes the personalization feature on the social media platform and credits it with providing useful reading recommendations. 

Danielle likes the ‘do you want to read it first’ feature on Twitter. She thinks that Twitter notifications and following researchers on Twitter have broadened her scientific sphere beyond the table of contents. Tailoring the feed feature is very useful for her in hiring postdoc students from underrepresented backgrounds. While using Twitter features to her advantage, she prefers to keep Google Scholar notifications fairly broad.

Benjamin prefers the option to focus his feed on the tweets of the people he follows to cut out unnecessary noise on Twitter. Meanwhile, he has stopped using Twitter during the pandemic because of too much noise.

Samantha credits Twitter with helping her broaden her information circle. Being active on Google Scholar, she said, “I’ve seen everything by the time it comes through on Twitter itself.”

Eva also pointed out the specific problem of filtering out targeted information from the wealth of broader information available. Supporting her views, she opined, “I would just point out that ever since the invention of the printing press, there are people writing articles about the information overload, and there's too much of this, and this happens every 50 years as somebody claims that there's a massive technology change and that is now creating so much information nobody can filter.”

Question: Thoughts on preprints and the future possibility of peer review occurring partially or fully on preprints?

Benjamin believes that there are some rare cases where people post their reviews on preprints. He further suggested, “unless there's some structure that makes people responsible for reviewing a preprint, it's just not going to happen for, like, 95 percent of all papers.”

Richard agrees. He shares that, in actual fact,  95 percent of preprints are not reviewed, and calls for thinking about this factor more broadly to tackle this issue. He believes that there is also a cultural shift, and there is a sort of discussion going on this issue, but funneling it down is a real challenge. He added, “some journals are moving to use their formal peer review on preprints so that's an interesting development.” Watch this space! 

Question: Is micropublication easier to achieve via preprints?

Benjamin thinks that micropublications play an important part in science, but he is not certain about the role of peer-reviewed micropublications. He added, “a micropublication can be a blog post or something that you link to on a Twitter post. I had very effective dissemination and feedback on an idea through, effectively, a micropublication that didn't go through a journal or from a journal's perspective. It's so much easier to do that than to then put the micropublication through that onerous peer-review process.”

Roman thinks micropublications will be extremely helpful in the field of chemistry and in other fields where theory dominates. He believes that, with micropublications, ideas can come first—in the open—and then authors can work on the developments later.

Richard thinks, “I feel my problem with micropublications is that I think this is a sort of an obsession among publishing types: you constantly talk about it, and then when you talk to actual researchers they are not very interested at all.” He feels that it is needless to create this additional category of an object apart from journals.

Eva thinks micropublications can be very cool for trainees and undergrads, where we can serve them a much more controlled parameter space.

Question: One of the biggest challenges was reading the research outside their area of expertise and how you might go about tackling that challenge?

Danielle only trusts the paper that has been reviewed and does not bother to read preprints. Meanwhile, Eva finds many interesting and important preprints. But there are still challenges associated with the quality of these preprints, and researchers have to think twice before citing those. She claimed, “I have found it an incredible resource both as a place I put things and as a place that I get things from.”

Benjamin reads preprints and likes the latest addition by the bioRxiv to populate the links to the published version of the paper. He suggested, “if you put out a preprint that you care to get published, it should be in a pretty good form before you just slap it up there.” He also added that his papers that undergo peer review come out better in the end, and they have more value.

Eva raises the issue of not seeing any changes or updates on the preprints once uploaded. She continues by raising another issue, “I agree the link [to published version] is helpful, but I wonder how often people are, you know, following the link to reread the finalized version of the paper.”

Roman says that a lot of the preprints are shorter because authors want it to be published elsewhere later afterward, but other papers are longer to read and there is always a problem with long papers: who will check this full paper, versus the shorter preprint, if it gets cited?

Question: What are some of the challenges that you faced due to the pandemic?

Samantha thinks in her field (Biology), there is always a kind of limitation of experimentation with regard to animals and sample size. Due to the pandemic, this issue of sample size remains prevalent, but even with the small sample size, researchers are still able to find something new that is worth publishing.

Richard believes that there is a flipside to what Samantha shared—in the field of microbiology. With fewer animals or subjects to perform the experiments, the experiments become less effective. He thinks that the pandemic has affected different people in very different ways.

Roman feels that, in a field where theory dominates, most of the work can be done from the home just as from the university, meaning that there may be fewer challenges associated with specific disciplines.

Question: What is the takeaway from the publishers from the session?

Benjamin feels that the publishers should not require stringent formats at the initial submission stage, and they should provide an option to format the paper later, only after it is accepted. Roman echoes these feelings and adds that, at reviewer invitation, adding more information about the manuscript rather than less would be better for researchers trying to decide whether or not to accept or decline the opportunity to review.

Danielle thinks handling manuscripts with care from beginning to end is critical, and making sure that editors moderate reviewers to avoid ‘bad review experiences’ is important. Also, partnering closely with authors for promotion of published works is also an important part of the process.

Researcher question for publishers: Editors are working to find and recruit reviewers who are otherwise academics; do editors receive and/or offer any training to academic editors and/or reviewers?

Richard clarifies that all of the editors in the publications are trained. A paid professional editor goes through extensive training; they have mentors, handle papers with other people to get to the point where they can make decisions on their own, and have groups where they can discuss with their colleagues.

Claire calls the process a team effort, where editors meet and share their decisions. She elaborated her thoughts by saying, “One of the things you do want is to get consistency across the editors so that you're setting the same threshold, and the same rules, first that you know for articles are accepted, so there's quite a team effort as well behind the scenes”.

While this was our first Best Practice Webinar Series event, we felt that the turnout, enthusiasm, momentum, and key takeaways were successful. We are working on plans to continue this series and have announced our next event, which will focus on Best Practices for publishers to consider when thinking about getting the most out of preprint integration. Find out more. And if you enjoyed this piece and would like to discuss, share questions, or suggest a new focus area for a future Best Practice Series event, please drop us a note.

HighWire is the Awards and Bronze sponsor for the ALPSP Virtual Conference and Awards 2021. To find out more about the conference and details for 2022, visit 

About the authors

Mridul Saxena, Subject Matter Expert, MPS 
Mridul strategizes, plans, and executes marketing activities for group brands including MPS Limited, Mag+ and HighWire . Mridul is a writer who observes the creative side of every task and infuses his work with over seven years of industry-wide experience in media, public relations, and corporate communications. Mridul studied Journalism, and is an Honours graduate of Delhi University. He is also a sports enthusiast, and enjoys reading mythological books. His favorite number is 42.

Alison McGonagle-O’ConnellSenior Director of Marketing, HighWire Press
Alison is an experienced marketing professional with nearly two decades of demonstrated history of working in the publishing industry, including 10 years marketing scholarly communications workflow solutions.  Alison leads HighWire Marketing and is responsible for continually growing and supporting our community. 

Alison is active as a volunteer in industry initiatives including CRediT and as a Library Trustee in her hometown of South Hampton, New Hampshire in the United States.

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