How Publishers Can Learn from Their Mistakes
Publishers have retracted more than 20 COVID-related papers
At the STM Association Annual Meeting in “virtual Frankfurt” last week, much of the focus was on how scholarly publishers are responding to the COVID crisis. Publishing executives reported how they have accelerated their editorial and peer review processes for COVID submissions, rightly taking pride in the contributions they have made to fighting the pandemic. They also emphasized again and again that they want to be more trusted. This is a formidable challenge in light of some recent failures. To achieve their objectives, publishers need to become more comfortable talking about their mistakes to prove convincingly that they are learning from them.
Let’s be clear that at the highest level scientific publishers — commercial and not-for-profit alike — have much to be proud of this year. Journals have implemented dramatic changes to their editorial and peer review processes to speed up time to publication for COVID-19 related materials. Annette Flanagin shared that JAMA is utilizing a differential peer review process, with greater scrutiny for articles that, if published, would be “likely to influence clinical practice or public health.” And, with the volume of submissions up substantially, publishers have collectively scaled up their throughput, increasing the number of articles published by 11 percent at Springer Nature, according to CEO Frank Vrancken Peeters. All this is impressive, especially in light of the disruptions that publishers (like so many enterprises) have faced themselves during the pandemic.
To speed up and scale up journal publishing, not to mention other parts of their businesses, scholarly publishers have clearly made investments, at least selectively. Elsevier CEO Kumsal Bayazit reported adding resources to editorial and production functions, not least of which was developing artificial intelligence systems to speed up COVID paper processing. A publisher with a substantial share of its revenues sourced from article processing charges (APCs) might find this to be a profitable opportunity, but others might be unable to offset the added expenses. Accelerated review while maintaining a high degree of rigor cannot be achieved without significant expense. Within the context of other businesses and sectors making major cuts, these investments and the organizations behind them deserve to be celebrated.
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