Insights Xchange: Conversations Shaping Academic Research

Duncan MacRae on Open Access, Peer Review, and Journal Discoverability

May 22, 2022 ScienceTalks Season 1 Episode 13
Insights Xchange: Conversations Shaping Academic Research
Duncan MacRae on Open Access, Peer Review, and Journal Discoverability
Show Notes Transcript

Plan S, an initiative for scientists to publish outside paywalls, has made waves in the publishing industry. Host Nikesh Gosalia and Duncan MacRae tackle the relevant topic of open access in scholarly publishing. Duncan talks about journals transitioning from subscription-based to open access, inefficiencies in journal workflow, and the importance of peer review in medical publishing. They also discuss how new journals have trouble being discovered, as well as the challenge of getting an impact factor as search indexes become increasingly exclusionary. Finally, Duncan shares his thoughts on the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on academic societies, particularly, on their revenue, and the long-term viability of virtual alternatives.

Duncan MacRae is the Director of Editorial Strategy and Publishing Policy at Wolters Kluwer Health.  He is involved in implementing editorial policies for open access publications in Wolters Kluwer and Medknow. With almost 25 years of experience in academic publishing for societies, he has worked as a Managing Editor for the publications Neurosurgery and Brain Pathology. Duncan can be reached on Twitter

Insights Xchange is a fortnightly podcast brought to you by Cactus Communications (CACTUS). Follow us:

Nikesh Gosalia 00:00:26

Hi, everyone.  Welcome to All Things SciComm!  All Things SciComm is a weekly podcast brought to you by ScienceTalks, a media platform that aims to make science accessible to everyone.

Today, I am chatting with Duncan MacRae, who is the Director of Editorial Strategy and Publishing Policy at Wolters Kluwer Health.  Duncan has spent nearly 25 years working in scientific journal publishing for societies, and for the last 9 years with a commercial publisher.  And like many of us here, he loves Wordle. 

Duncan and I know each other for I think over the last 10 years now.  I know that Duncan for a fact is one of the most entrepreneurial guys in the industry and he's always open to new ideas.  So, welcome, Duncan.


Duncan MacRae [00:01:17]

Thanks very much.  Appreciate it.  Appreciate it Nikesh, and nice to talk to you as always.


Nikesh Gosalia [00:01:22]

We all know that Plan S is currently disrupting the scholarly publishing industry.  Many journals have tried to adapt in one way or the other.  You've spent the last 8 years working exclusively in Open Access at Wolters Kluwer before starting your new role.  So, I am sure you are following all of these developments closely and seeing both the successes and the failures.  Just based on your experience Duncan, what should a journal avoid when transitioning from subscription base to OA?


Duncan MacRae [00:01:52]

Yeah, I think probably the biggest thing is that kind of transition is figuring out what is the problem you are trying to solve by making that transition.  And I think you have to ask some sort of hard questions about what for this journal if you make that transition.  So, this is actually not related to Plan S as much even though obviously Plan S has presented some hurdles that I am not really sure wouldn't have been hurdles anyway.  So, when I think about transitioning from subscription to OA, the first thing is, okay, so where are those submissions coming from?  Because now you are going from a model where you are basically a service to readers, the value is to the readers, the readers are paying to access the content.  Now you are shifting to a certain model where the service is to authors, so they are the ones who are presumably in this model paying in APC, of course that's not required.

But the question is, okay, where are these submissions going to come from there?  And I think that's probably the biggest question.  And certainly, the biggest debate that we have with societies who are thinking about launching new OA journals or shifting from subscription to open access.  Presumably, shifting from subscription to OA is much easier if the subscription journal itself has some form of indexing already, something that is a value to authors.  If that's not the case, then your life is going to be a lot more difficult.

So, in many ways, it's not so much of the flipping that's the issue.  The issue is presumably there's something wrong with the journal that you are even considering this move.  Does OA fix those problems?  And that's really the question.  So, it's a really basic point about flipping, that to a great extent Plan S doesn't really impact a lot of those really fundamental questions.


Nikesh Gosalia [00:04:01]

That's very interesting Duncan, and thanks for pointing that out.  I think the transitioning to OA also gives journals a chance to probably revisit some of the processes and, if I may call, inefficiencies in their workflows.  Based on your experience, have you seen some of that, and what are some of the dated processes that probably journals still follow?


Duncan MacRae [00:04:25]

I think it's a really good point.  I've already touched on this a bit in terms of okay, now you've got this journal, and your primary customer now is not readers, it's authors.  I get that those are often the same people.  But there's a lot more competition now.  And there's a customer service aspect to this that I think 20 years ago didn't really exist, right.  Because 20 years ago, you were a society journal, you may have been one of two or three high profile specialty journals, where else were authors going to go.  And you had all the leverage in that relationship.  And if you wanted to take 6 months to review something, you could take 6 months.  If you wanted to have a backlog of manuscripts for a year before they got published after acceptance, there really wasn't a whole lot an author could do with it.  You as the journal had all the power.

That is clearly no longer the case.  And it hasn't been the case maybe really since the explosion of PLOS One and scientific reports and other kinds of open access multidisciplinary titles, but now we're starting to see specialty OA titles also become more prevalent.  So talking about inefficiencies, really you are talking about providing a better experience for authors, because they now have so many other places they could submit their manuscript.  One of the things, for example, is – this sounds counterintuitive, but one of the inefficiencies that a lot of journals do that is not great for authors is they don't do enough desk rejects.  So, you get a manuscript, it doesn't fit the scope of the journal, or you read the abstract and it's clearly not going to get accepted.  I think there are still a lot of journals that are in that mode of, well, we have to review everything that comes in.  Especially newly launched journals that are so desperate for submissions, the idea of not holding on to something seems foreign to them.

But the fact is that authors really would rather have a quick rejection and be able to move on to somewhere else than to have the submission languish for 6 months, and then get rejected when there was never a chance in the first place.  So, I think one thing, one inefficiency that the journal is willing to embrace is the idea that you can make a very quick triage and assessment of a manuscript and give the author the opportunity to submit it elsewhere as quickly as possible.  I think that's a huge inefficiency.  The impact also on reviewer resources is huge.  Because everybody universally complains about reviewer fatigue.  Well, the easiest solution to that, honestly, is to send less manuscripts out for review.  So, if you can triage and remove 25% of your submissions legitimately because they probably are not going to get accepted in your particular journal, then you are doing yourself and the author a great favor by making a very quick decision and letting them go elsewhere.


Nikesh Gosalia [00:07:37]

Speaking about a way, I've observed that comparatively fewer journals and publishers are thinking around discoverability or accessibility.  How important will accessibility and discoverability solutions be in the future for journals and publishers, especially once the journal comparison service by cOAlition S is widely accessible?


Duncan MacRae [00:08:04]

This is an issue that for newly launched journals is huge.  And it's something that has really shifted over the last, let's say, 5 or 6 years, this idea of discoverability and accessibility, specifically in indexing.  I think the idea that readers go to the journal website and look for content there is probably on the wane, right.  And we know from our statistics that most people are finding content by either PubMed or Google, to a lesser extent Web of Science.  So, getting a new journal into those indexes to increase your discoverability, but more importantly to give your journal credibility to ensure to authors that this is a valid place to submit your work is really important.  I am curious about cOAlition S’ journal recommendation service.  I can't really comment on Wolters Kluwer’s position on it.  But it will be interesting to see to what degree that actually becomes a method via which authors are actually selecting journals.  And the reason I say that is because we do a lot of author surveys.  And there have been really good reports done, large reports done on why an author chooses one journal over another.  And there's also some cultural differences in terms of editorial freedom and academic freedom, to what degree an author should not be constrained as to where they submit their work.

So, I think there's a lot of different pieces of the puzzle here going on.  But I think to go back to your original question about journals and discoverability and accessibility, this is a major hurdle for new launched journals.  And I think that all of the indexes, whether it's PubMed Central, the Medline, Scopus, Web of Science, they have all significantly changed their bar for acceptance in the last 5 to 7 years, effectively making it somewhat more difficult.  They've all become a little more exclusionary.  And I think that is sometimes a shock to editors and societies who are operating under a very old mindset that said, you launch your journal, you wait 2 years to get into Web of Science, and it was a function of time.  And in 5 years, you get your impact factor.

Whereas the reality now is that there is a very good chance you'll never get an impact factor.  And that's really hard to explain to journals who see getting an impact factor is absolutely strategically necessary and now are saying maybe not or that may not happen for them.


Nikesh Gosalia [00:11:00]

I know that you spoke a bit about the peer review, and we all know the importance of the process.  But if I were to maybe expand this and assuming a lot of our listeners are general public, if you can talk a little bit about the importance of the peer review process and what does it mean in the publishing industry?


Duncan MacRae [00:11:22]

I think it's unfortunate, as you say, in the general public.  And this is one of these things that came up during COVID, with content being distributed amongst the media that was not peer reviewed.  And so, peer review is – and there's a lot of criticism of peer review.  And I've been in the industry for 25 years and it is the constant sort of in the background noise of peer review is deeply flawed, we should be doing it this way.  I work in medical publishing, which is slightly different than basic sciences.  And the reason is because if somebody publishes a physics paper, or a mathematics paper, or a geology paper, there's no patient impact from that paper.  Whereas in a medical paper, if I publish something that has not been peer reviewed, and I make a dosage error in my conclusions or my results, the potential for harm is enormous.  So, there's a huge risk in things being published and distributed without being at some point vetted by someone who knows that, hey, this doesn't look right, or that conclusion really isn't valid because your sample size is too small.

And it is really interesting to look at stories that get picked up in mainstream media, in layperson media, and the degree to which conclusions are presented as something groundbreaking.  But when you and I look at it, or any scientist looks at it and says, well, sample size is really small, the diversity of the sample was you can't draw those conclusions.  These are the kinds of things that peer review addresses.  For all of its flaws, peer review does address fundamental problems with medical publishing that absolutely need to be recognized.  And as I said, that's not necessarily true in some of the other sciences.  And for that reason, in medical publishing some of the alternatives to traditional peer review, post-publication review, transparency, they don't seem to have been adopted in medical publishing to the same degree because they don't really work in the same way, they don’t have the same impact.

And I know that there'll be people out there telling me here are all the problems with peer review, traditional peer review.  And I absolutely agree with every one of them.  But the problem is that from a pragmatic standpoint, the kind of blinded two experts peer review system has been in place for hundreds of years at this point.  It's there for a reason.  So, I tend to be a little bit conservative about it, about peer review.  But I emphasize, I think in medical publishing in particular peer review has to occur because the risk of information being distributed that has not been vetted and the potential for impact on patient care is too high of a risk.  I certainly feel pretty strongly about that.


Nikesh Gosalia [00:14:37]

Yeah, absolutely.  I think that's very helpful for anyone to understand the importance of peer review.  You work a lot with academic societies.  And just over the last 2-1/2 years with the pandemic, we know that a lot from a society's point of view has changed.  Perhaps, they would have a lot of member events, a lot of conferences.  In your opinion, how are they pivoting themselves going forward, how are they thinking about the next 3 to 5 years?  Just any insights into that.


Duncan MacRae [00:15:12]

Yeah, I think it’s been a real eyeopener.  And there are obviously a lot of societies where a good portion of their revenue is from annual meetings.  The annual meeting in some societies may account for 50% of their annual revenue or more, and so that has been very difficult.  I think the flipside of it is that it has fast tracked the development of all kinds of alternatives that probably once dismissed but people now recognize that you can do a virtual meeting and people will attend and it can be useful.  And it's funny coming from the side of it where we used to do an awful lot of travel.  And now it'll never go back to the level of travel, in part because we've all recognized that there's an awful lot that can be accomplished over a Teams call or Zoom call where we would have felt compelled to go talk to people in person.  And maybe a certain degree that will also move over into the societies as well.  But clearly the societies, they have to make decisions now on their business model about to what degree they can rely on in-person meetings, to what degree they can shift to virtual meetings, to what degree can they now emphasize digital products over in-person.

It's going to be really interesting.  I think for you and I, and we are just starting to get back into in-person travel.  I went to my first in-person workshop 3 weeks ago.  And it was good to be back in front of people.  We will both be at the SSP Meeting in Chicago.  It'll be interesting to see what the turnout is for that.  That's usually one of the biggest meetings of the year in terms of the scientific publishing world.  So, yeah, there's no question it's been very difficult for societies.  The question is what's the rebound going to be?  And to what degree is the gap between the rebound and what it was before going to be filled with other technologies?  I know as a commercial publisher that we've really emphasized developing alternatives and the staying power of those alternatives will be interesting.  Okay, people really adopted certain way of doing things as a substitute, will those things have staying power over the next 3 to 5 years.


Nikesh Gosalia [00:17:42]

Thanks, Duncan.  Very interesting.  And just for the benefit of the listeners, Duncan referred to SSP Conference.  That's the conference which is probably the biggest event of the year.  This year it is happening in Chicago.  Duncan's going to be talking about AI.  And I have a session on early career researchers and how their dissemination patterns are changing as well.