Why getting information from publishers is soul-destroying

I’m reprinting parts of a post from Bill Hooker. The point here is not just the message, but also the meta-medium. To get the message Bill has had to do some messy, boring, unsatisfying, incomplete research. Here’s how he did it.

Does the AAP/PSP really represent its members?


The PSP lists its members here ; it didn’t take long to compare that list with the list of publishers indexed by SHERPA/RoMEO. Of the 355 publishers in the RoMEO database, 46 are members of PSP; of these, 16 are listed as “grey” (won’t allow archiving), 23 are “green” (allow refereed postprint archiving — NIH mandate compliant) and 7 “pale green” (allow preprint archiving; many “pale green” publishers actually allow postprint archiving and are NIH compliant, but are not listed as green because of various restrictions).
It’s not possible to do what I wanted here — which was to answer the title question. The problem is that the PSP lists 102 members that aren’t indexed by RoMEO. I found that somewhat surprising, particularly since the list includes names I’d have expected to find in RoMEO: FASEB, Stanford U Press, Yale U Press, Cold Spring Harbor Lab Press, NEJM, Highwire Press and others.
Nonetheless, we can say that if the RoMEO-indexed sample (46 of 148, 31%) is representative, then at least 50% of PSP members are already complying with the NIH mandate, and a further 15% at least allow preprint archiving and may even be NIH-compliant.
It’s even more unbalanced if we compare the numbers of journals published by each company. Those 46 publishers account for 5901 journals; the grey publishers put out 222 (4%), the green publishers 4243 (72%) and the pale green publishers 1436 (24%).
If the PSP were honest and interested in fairly representing its members, I’d think they would find out (and make public) whether the remaining, non-RoMEO indexed members follow the same pattern. I won’t hold my breath.
Full disclosure: the numbers above are not 100% accurate, since the comparison between the two lists was not always straightforward. For instance, RoMEO indexes “Yale Law School” and the PSP lists “Yale University Press” as a member. I tried to err on the side of the PSP — for instance, Yale Law is grey, so I included them. There were a few such problematic instances; I very much doubt that they made any difference to the data expressed as percentages, I’d welcome correction and a better dataset, and if anybody wants the Excel files I used I’ll be happy to provide them.

PMR: I know exactly what Bill has gone through because I’ve done a lot of this myself. It might seem simple to find information from publishers. It’s not. My generalisations below extend a little into Open Access publishers, but it’s mainly aimed at Closed Access publishers.
A little while ago I thought it would be useful to see what degree of compliance Open Access publishers of chemistry had with the BBB declarations.  Should be easy – there’s only about 60 titles listed. So I mailed the Blue Obelisk and the Open Knowledge Foundation and suggested that if we divided the work – each took a few publishers – we could do this in a relatively short time. And maybe publish it.
Oh dear. The publisher websites were awful. It’s practically impossible to find out anything from most publishers (of any ROMEO/HARNAD colour). It’s spread over several pages, perhaps for authors, perhaps general blurb, wherever (and this is true for all publishers). We created a spreadsheet of what we wanted to record but found that the practice was so variable that we couldn’t systematize it.
So we gave up. The effort of finding out policies, even for Open Access publishers was too great. (But, closed access publishers, do not feel this is a defeat – we shall return).
The thing that really upsets me about closed access publishers is how profoundly unhelpful they are. They don’t want to communicate with the general authorship and readership. Each thinks it’s the centre of the world. Despite their acclaimed publisher organisations (AAP, ALPSP, STM, etc.) it is one of the technically worst industries I have encountered. There are no standards. No attempt to adjust to the modern world (I shall revist this later). Here are some examples:

  • Many don’t reply to courteous requests for information. I admit that this blog is sometimes a bit brusque, but it’s come that way because of the unhelpfulness of publishers. Every publisher should have a page on which it lists its policies. And there should be open forums fordiscussion on these policies. Some repository managers spend large amounts of time trying to work out whether articles can be put in  a repository – and I guess the publisher gets asked frequently. Wouldn’t it be easy to add a label to each journal saying whether manuscripts can be put in a repository. I suppose not, it would require agreement across the industry.
  • They work on Jurassic timescales. In the modern age people expect replies by return. It’s taken months to get answers for my latest manuscript  – and I’m an author. The ACS is taking a minimum of FIVE MONTHS to respond to Antony Williams’ courteous request as to the copyright position of our abstracting of factual data.
  • Requests, discussion, etc are all fragmented. I suspect the  same questions get asked again and again. If these were listed  on a policy FAQ as they were asked and answered it would save everybody’s time.
  • The technology is totally geared to the each publisher’s byzantine and tortuous internal business processes. I’ll give examples in a later post. Typical example from my latest submission – I have to submit a title page without the body of the text and the body of the text without my name. Those are reasonable objects for blind review. But why should I have to do this? Publishers,  we are in the twenty-first century. This can be done AUTOMATICALLY. You use a technology called STYLESHEETS. It takes 2 lines of code to split a document into these two bits.  I’ll give more later. This spills over into the awful state of presenting policy.
  • The technical business model is slow to adjust to changing demands. So when publishers adopted their “hybrid” policy (a different one for each publisher of course) they generally failed to tell the technical department that they needed to adjust their labelling and their policies and permissions for individual articles. With the result that I spent a number of gloomy days on this blog pointing out to publishers how little effort they had put into this.


A concern that I’ll return to is that not only is the technical standard awful, I suspect it’s expensive.  I’ll return to this.


But the really sad thing is that publishing (unlike making toothpaste, or bicycles) is based on  communication. I have been looking to see which closed access publishers have taken any effort whatsoever over the last year to communicate with authors and readers.  I don’t follow everything, but I follow Peter Suber’s blog, the only one I can think of is Nature.


Wouldn’t you think it would be good for business in this era of Web2.0 to bee seen to be interested in communicating? If – as a publisher – you want to respond I will honour your posting.

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One Response to Why getting information from publishers is soul-destroying

  1. Pingback: Preprints of conference submissions? « Research Remix

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