What The World Is Waiting For

The transition for scientific journals from print to online has been slow and painful. And it is not yet complete. This week I got an RSS alert to a “new” paper in Oncogene. When I downloaded it, something was familiar… very familiar… I’d read it almost a year ago! Sure enough, the AOP (ahead of print or advance online publication) date for this paper was September 2013 and here it was in the August 2014 issue being “published”.

I wondered why a journal would do this. It is possible that delaying actual publication would artificially boost the Impact Factor of a journal because there is a delay before citations roll in and citations also peak after two years. So if a journal delays actual publication, then the Impact Factor assessment window captures a “hotter” period when papers are more likely to generate more citations*. Richard Sever (@cshperspectives) jumped in to point out a less nefarious explanation – the journal obviously has a backlog of papers but is not allowed to just print more papers to catch up, due to page budgets.

There followed a long discussion about this… which you’re welcome to read. I was away giving a talk and missed all the fun, but if I may summarise on behalf of everybody: isn’t it silly that we still have pages – actual pages, made of paper – and this is restricting publication.

I wondered how Oncogene got to this position. I retrieved the data for AOP and actual publication for the last five years of papers at Oncogene excluding reviews, from Pubmed. Using oncogene[ta] NOT review[pt] as a search term. The field DP has the date published (the “issue date” that the paper appears in print) and PHST has several interesting dates including [aheadofprint]. These could be parsed and imported into IgorPro as 1D waves. The lag time from AOP to print could then be calculated. I got 2916 papers from the search and was able to get data for 2441 papers.

OncogeneLagTimeYou can see for this journal that the lag time has been stable at around 300 days (~10 months) for issues published since 2013. So a paper AOP in Feb 2012 had to wait over 10 months to make it into print. This followed a linear period of lag time growth from mid-2010.

I have no links to Oncogene and don’t particularly want to single them out. I’m sure similar lags are happening at other print journals. Actually, my only interaction with Oncogene was that they sent this paper of ours out to review in 2011 (it got two not-negative-but-admittedly-not-glowing reviews) and then they rejected it because they didn’t like the cell line we used. I always thought this was a bizarre decision: why couldn’t they just decide that before sending it to review and wasting our time? Now, I wonder whether they were not keen to add to their increasing backlog of papers at their journal? Whatever the reason, it has put me off submitting other papers there.

I know that there are good arguments for continuing print versions of journals, but from a scientist’s perspective the first publication is publication. Any subsequent versions are simply redundant and confusing.

*Edit: Alexis Verger (@Alexis_Verger) pointed me to a paper which describes that, for neuroscience journals, the lag time has increased over time. Moreover, the authors suggest that this is for the purpose of maximising Journal Impact Factor.

The post title comes from the double A-side Fools Gold/What The World Is Waiting For by The Stone Roses.

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5 responses

  1. Backlogs can very easily build up for a number of reasons that remain even when print is ditched. Every paper needs to be processed in a variety of ways, most of which cannot be entirely automated and involve per-paper costs – e.g. copy-editing, figure reformatting/labeling, XML tagging, typesetting for the PDF, etc. If a journal accepts more papers than it has planned and, critically, budgeted for, a backlog can develop because there are simply not enough staff hours, vendor time, or cash to allow it to process these and catch up.

    A print page budget obviously makes the problem more acute, but we’ll probably still see occasional backlogs with online-only journals.

  2. Thanks for the comment Richard. It’s true that we authors often don’t appreciate the extent of work that goes on behind the scenes. Probably because we have no idea about the scale of papers involved and what existing backlog there is. We just wonder “what’s taken them so long” about our paper!
    Just to reiterate that the AOP version at Oncogene is fully formatted and so I don’t think the delays you mention are slowing things up in this case. You also countered via twitter that PLoS ONE had experienced similar delays in the past and that online-only would not eliminate this problem.

  3. Yes – that doesn’t seem to be the case for Oncogene, and it may well be print page budget that’s limiting there. As a commercial publisher, they tend to adhere more strictly to budgets (print and other) for obvious reasons.

    But even when budgets are not adhered to, you still get delays. Scientist-friendly, non-profit JCS and Development, for example, would cram up to 2000 extra pages in per year in the early 00s but still experienced delays, simply because they were swamped with papers to process.

  4. Well, since you named them… JCS had a problem last year and were delayed getting new issues out – and processing our paper. This was pretty frustrating, but they kept us informed which was appreciated.

  5. […] at how long it takes my lab to publish our work, how often trainees publish and I also looked at very long lag times at Oncogene. I recently read a blog post on automated calculation of publication lag times for Bioinformatics […]

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