Publish and perish

This post is part rumination and part self-indulgent whining, but it’s just enough about publishing that I can barely justify putting it on this blog.

When I started my PhD, I never intended to pursue an academic position. What I’d hoped for was some dedicated time to learn more about plain language and knowledge translation so that when I returned to my editing and communication consultancy after graduating, I’d be equipped with research evidence and, frankly, the credential to be taken seriously by the academics I was hoping to work with to make their findings more accessible.

I still don’t want an academic position. But my transition back to freelancing has been much bumpier and more tortuous than I’d expected—in fact, I still haven’t completely gotten there. I was naive to have believed that I’d simply submit my dissertation to the library and dust off my hands, neatly closing that chapter of my life. As it turns out, I still care a great deal about my research topic and the people who could be affected by it, and in trying to make my own findings more accessible, I’ve spent the past two years in a kind of para-academic purgatory I haven’t managed to escape.

So here’s the convoluted story of my attempts to get my research published. Whether you learn from my mistakes, laugh at my misfortunes, find a cause to advocate for, or simply feel less alone, I hope you get something out of this brain vomit of a blog post. (For readers who aren’t in the academic world, I’ll be explaining some concepts that many academic publishing folks will already be familiar with.)

I’m deliberately avoiding naming specific people, publications, and institutions, but if you recognize yourself and want to be explicitly credited, please let me know. 

WARNING: Writing this post was necessary and therapeutic for me, but reading it will probably be incredibly boring for you. If the topic doesn’t interest you, I dunno, click on one of my cartoons or something.

TL;DR: The academic publishing system is bollocks, especially for unaffiliated para-academics.

Background

For my research, I worked with people who’d experienced involuntary hospitalization under British Columbia’s Mental Health Act to develop and user test a new suite of communication tools aimed at helping involuntary patients better understand their rights. The project was a perfect opportunity to (a) apply my existing plain language knowledge—to simplify legal and health information for an audience whose ability to read or take in information might be compromised by a psychiatric crisis—and (b) gain new plain language skills—namely, think-aloud audience testing and qualitative data analysis.

But a communication is only useful if it reaches its intended audience, and in BC right now, clinicians control involuntary patients’ access to rights information. My team and I created a pilot training program to introduce our communication tools to clinicians at three hospitals in Vancouver. I also ran focus groups with the clinicians who attended our training sessions about their attitudes toward giving patients rights information and about their opinions of a possible independent service to give involuntary patients advice about their Mental Health Act rights.

This second part of the project—the clinician training and focus groups—didn’t make it into my dissertation. My senior supervisor (rightly) said that developing and testing the suite of communication tools was enough for me to graduate. I’m positive that if I hadn’t listened to him I’d either still be working on the dissertation or I’d have given up completely.

Many PhD programs give students the choice of writing a traditional dissertation—a monograph, or a single, cohesive manuscript—or a paper-based dissertation. In a paper-based dissertation, the student writes a series of papers (often three) for peer-reviewed journals, which makes up the main body of the dissertation, as well as an introduction to tie those papers together and give readers the broader context. I chose a traditional dissertation, mostly because I was running out of time and couldn’t fathom having to research suitable journals and meet their submission requirements in addition to getting all of my content written.

All of this meant that after graduating, I had the possibility of submitting seven papers—four based on the content in the dissertation and three based on the clinician training and focus groups. 

I could have chosen to submit none of these—a common decision for people who leave academia after their PhD or for academics whose research has moved on—but (a) I wanted to honour my participants’ time and contributions, (b) the data from my focus groups and user-testing interviews led to important insights that could affect provincial mental health policy, and (c) I felt obligated to give back to my supervisory committee members in currency that would be meaningful to them: co-authorship. So after I finished my degree, I gratefully took a one-year postdoc contract for three days a week working with one of my mentors, and I intended to spend the rest of the week, unpaid, pulling these manuscripts together.

Complications

A lot of grad students take on projects that are part of their senior supervisor’s research program, which typically means their supervisor has the funding and infrastructure to support the student’s research and the publication of that research. Being part of a larger research program also increases the likelihood that other students and research staff in the group or lab can help bring continuity to a larger project, in that a graduating student can hand off their loose ends to others to tie up or even build upon.

I was not one of these grad students. My project was its own entity, not directly connected to any faculty member’s research. On one hand, this independence made it easier for me to move between senior supervisors when my first supervisor died suddenly and my second supervisor had to leave the university for a more stable source of income. On the other hand, I couldn’t pass along my data to an incoming student, especially since my final supervisor got his dream job on another continent and left my school immediately after I defended. (I deeply appreciate all of my supervisors, by the way. They generously took me on as a student when nobody else would and helped me get past the finish line.)

Grad students and faculty are expected to contribute their expertise—as conference presenters, authors, reviewers, webinar leaders, research team members, or policy advocates—as part of their (salaried) work. After I graduated, I was still asked or invited to take on these tasks, and although some opportunities offered compensation, most of them didn’t. Because my project wasn’t connected to an existing research program, I couldn’t refer people to a colleague who could present about my work. In a possible act of self-sabotage, I agreed to almost all of this additional unpaid work, which ate into my writing time. Maybe it was ego. Did I think my research was more important than it actually was? Maybe it was a sense of obligation to my research participants. Their experiences highlighted flaws in the mental health system I wanted to help fix.

And, of course, the most obvious complication was the COVID-19 pandemic. So far, thankfully, my family members have stayed healthy and safe. But, like many parents, in spring 2020 I had to supervise my kid’s schooling, and much of my writing got pushed to the back burner.

My Open Access deadline

I’ve been an Open Access advocate for ages, and my intent was to publish in Open Access journals as much as I could so that the work would be freely publicly available. But because Open Access journals can’t make money from subscriptions, they ask authors to pay article processing charges, which, for the journals I was looking at, were around US$2000 per article.

The library at my institution, as I later found out, is more generous than most: it maintains a fund for its students (including recent graduates), staff, and faculty that covers the cost of publishing up to two articles a year in Open Access journals. Since, as a graduate, I no longer had research funding, and my project wasn’t part of a larger funded research program, this central Open Access fund was the only way I could publish in Open Access journals. But time was ticking: I could access this fund for up to one year after graduating, so I had until July 2020 to submit my manuscripts.

With the tumult of the pandemic, writing seven papers in a year was out of the question. I focused on drafting the three papers I could get from my training pilot and focus groups, two of which I could publish Open Access.

Paper 1

The absurdity began when I submitted one of the articles to an Open Access journal. The submission system asked me if I wanted to make the draft available as a preprint. Preprints aren’t yet peer reviewed but are an important way researchers can get their findings to the wider community quickly. (For example, as COVID research ramped up and time was of the essence, preprints allowed researchers to share early findings.) Wanting to make my work as accessible as possible, I didn’t think twice and agreed to post a preprint.

After four months of hearing nothing, the journal desk-rejected our paper (a desk rejection is when a journal rejects the paper before even sending it out for peer review) when they couldn’t find any reviewers for it. One effect of the pandemic was a widespread reviewer shortage.

By this time, my year after graduation had nearly elapsed, and, figuring I’d have no further access to the library’s Open Access funding, I revised the paper and submitted it to another journal, this time a non–Open Access publication. They rejected it immediately, saying it was too similar to an existing paper. After a moment of confusion I realized that their plagiarism-detection software had found our preprint. I wrote to the editorial office and explained what had happened, but they told me the journal couldn’t accept any articles for which a preprint had been made available. (As an aside, one of my co-authors suggested rewording several sections in my papers to prevent flagging by plagiarism-detection software and thus avoid accusations of self-plagiarism—a ridiculous concept that exists only because academia and publishing have conspired to create a dysfunctional system of perverse incentives.)

By agreeing to a preprint, I had inadvertently limited my venues for publication—a misstep I hadn’t realized was possible because my first graduate degree was in physics, which was one of the earliest disciplines to embrace preprints. It’s common practice for physicists to submit a manuscript to a preprint server at the same time as submitting to a peer-reviewed publication. I learned the hard way that in health research this practice wasn’t universal.

After a failed appeal to the preprint platform to remove our preprint so that I could resubmit (they had already assigned the preprint a DOI, or digital object identifier, which means it now lives on the internet forever), I was in a position where I couldn’t publish in non–Open Access journals that didn’t allow preprints, and I’d run out of time to use the library’s funding to publish in an Open Access journal, marvellously screwing myself out of options.

Colleagues urged me to ask the library for an extension, which I did: I begged, pathetically, pointing to pandemic-related delays. To my relief, they gave me another six months, and I know how lucky I was to have access to the fund in the first place. 

I revised the paper again and submitted it to yet another (Open Access) journal, which accepted it and published the paper within three months.

Paper 2

Because of its esoteric subject matter, I submitted my second paper to a non–Open Access journal, and although I didn’t have to worry about article processing charges, this paper’s trip through the birth canal was also full of fits and starts, including a desk rejection, an invitation to resubmit the paper as a short report instead of a full article, many more rounds than usual of reviewer comments asking for minor changes, requests from the editorial office for resubmission because of formatting issues, and a proof riddled with copy editor–introduced errors that I spent an hour and a half fixing.

Having been on both sides of academic editing, I understand why journals don’t want authors making too many changes to their proofs, but when the copy editing is spotty and the editing process is opaque, journals are asking for conflict and mistrust from authors. I’ve met academics who rolled their eyes when I told them I was an editor, and if their entire experience with editing has been copy editors changing their intent, introducing grammatical errors, and uncritically enforcing house style when it makes no sense, I understand where they’re coming from. I have training and experience in publishing and write papers in my native language, so I know when I can push back. Other early-career researchers may let the introduced errors go, possibly because they’re afraid that putting up a fight could put their paper in jeopardy or because they aren’t comfortable challenging an editor on matters of language.

I do feel for the copy editors, who are probably underpaid, undertrained, and generally undersupported. But bad editing decreases confidence among academic authors of the value of copy editing and reflects poorly on the editorial community generally. Whether I have my editor or author hat on, this whole broken system has made my work harder.

Paper 3

I submitted my last manuscript to an Open Access journal, and, learning from experience, declined to post a preprint, in case I was rejected and had to resubmit to other, non–Open Access publications. It sat, untouched, in the journal’s system, for four months. I emailed twice for an update. They were having trouble finding reviewers, they told me, but within the next month they would definitely have it reviewed and would make a decision on acceptance. I checked in again the next month, and they still hadn’t found reviewers. I sent them a list of more than 20 people they could approach to review the paper, and I told them I’d withdraw my paper and submit it elsewhere if they couldn’t find reviewers within another month.

I think they could sense that my threat was empty. Revising the paper and wrangling with another journal submission system was the last thing I wanted to do, especially since my extension to the Open Access funding had truly elapsed this time. 

Hilariously, this same journal asked me to review a paper while mine was still stuck in limbo. And you know what? I agreed, because it was a way for me to give back to the academic community and because I apparently don’t have the constitution to set healthy boundaries or to “succeed” in the capitalist rat race. Could I be jeopardizing my paper’s acceptance by revealing this? I don’t know. I could have just as likely been subconsciously worried that declining the review would influence the decision on my paper. I’d like to think the two are independent, but, having worked on the publisher’s side, I won’t pretend publishing decisions are beyond politics.

So, here we sit, almost a year from submission with no news. Ironically, I’m now considering posting a preprint, because then at least the work would be out there.

Frictionful publishing

I’m not sure if I’m just exceptionally slow, but every submission, revision, and resubmission took me ages, even when the changes were minor. 

Each journal has different audiences, word limits, and submission guidelines. Journals’ demands that authors meet these guidelines are all over the map: some are quite flexible, allowing authors to submit their paper using whatever structure and citation style they want, then imposing house style only if the paper is accepted, whereas other journals explicitly say that non-compliant manuscripts will be desk-rejected. Most submission guidelines seem reasonable, but many are outdated or downright baffling—with some journals I was considering forbidding subheadings, contractions, or bulleted lists, for example. 

Some publishers clearly haven’t bothered to update their guidelines since workflow moved from print to digital. (In one instance I recognized artifacts from production constraints imposed by wax machines.) The guidelines of one of the journals I submitted to didn’t reflect how the submission system processed uploaded files: following the guidelines, I put my tables in a separate document, and only when I previewed the submission did I realize that the system wanted each table in a separate document. One journal editorial office asked me to resubmit because they wanted the word count on the title page, a requirement that wasn’t in their guidelines. I know how trivial and whiny this sounds, but accurate guidelines could have saved me and every author like me 40 minutes of reformatting, reuploading, and repreviewing. I simply don’t understand how assistant professors, who are expected to teach, do research, apply for grants, review grant applications and papers, serve on committees, and mentor students, could possibly fit this infuriating rigmarole into their packed schedules—or how precariously employed para-academics, who, like me, would not be paid for any of this time, can justify continuing to be part of what is essentially a giant make-work project.

Journal submission systems unnecessarily add friction to the publishing process in many other ways. Why do I have to both write the author names, affiliations, abstract, and keywords in my manuscript and input these into the journal submission system? Do we not have the technology for me to do the latter only and have the journal’s system build a title page to their specifications? The submission systems also reinforce outdated ideas of academic hierarchy that don’t make room for patient partners and independent scholars and that devalue the expertise of practitioners without PhDs. Why do your readers need to know if my clinical nurse educator co-author is a Ms. or Mr.? Why will the system not allow me to leave the affiliation field blank?

A more supportive system?

After I submitted the three papers on the clinician training and focus groups, I did start trying to draft four papers from my dissertation. Because I already had something written, I figured I’d have an easier time cutting and reformatting than starting from scratch. I didn’t account for how the past year’s experiences with trying to get published on my own time had utterly burned me out. I’ve given up for now, with apologies to my supervisors/co-authors for not being able to deliver more publications.

I know I’m not the only graduate who’s wanted to publish their research but couldn’t because they didn’t have the support they needed. When I consider how much time, effort, and funding has effectively evaporated because of this unpublished work, I can’t help wondering where we’d be, collectively, if stakeholders in the academic publishing system made a handful of adjustments to make it just a bit friendlier. An ideal situation for me (which admittedly would not work for everybody) would be something like a universal basic income that would let me focus on writing up my findings, but a few less ambitious investments could still make a big difference. Below are some of my ideas; feel free to add yours in the comments.

Universities and libraries

I’ll refrain from naming names, but here’s a contrast showing inconsistencies in institutional policies and ways universities can start becoming less hostile to graduates and para-academics. 

Whereas my PhD institution:

  • allowed me access to my institutional email for 1 year after leaving,
  • allowed me access to the library for 1 year after leaving,
  • allowed me access to an Open Access publishing fund for 1 year after leaving, and
  • graciously extended this year by 6 months after I explained how the pandemic derailed my plans,

my postdoc institution:

  • deactivated my email access the day my contract was up,
  • stripped me of library access the day my contract was up, and
  • didn’t have an Open Access fund available for most graduate students or postdocs at all, as far as I could tell.

I’d be curious to see a budget analysis of what it costs a university to be more like the first—and whether the practices of the second erode the goodwill that could, say, bring in more alumni donations.

Funders

I was grateful for my library’s Open Access fund, but I think funding agencies should play a role in supporting Open Access publication for graduates, too. If they’d funded a student’s work (and especially if they did so using public funds), they should have an interest in seeing that work through to publication. Offering Open Access funding not only means that the graduate will be able to make their work widely publicly available but also broadens the pool of possible journals a graduate can consider submitting to. I’d like to see federal and provincial research funding agencies establish a fund that would cover the article processing charges for recent graduates—say, those who’ve completed their degree in the past 5 years—who no longer have an institutional affiliation.

Publishers

I know academic publishers have few incentives to change their process or systems. They make a healthy profit while wielding enormous power over scholars, especially early-career researchers. But here are some small ways they could help authors while, in many cases, saving their staff time. (I am by no means the first to suggest many of these!)

  • Allow authors to submit manuscripts that don’t meet house style—and impose house style only after the article has been accepted.
  • Allow preprints. Physics has made this model work financially, and I have yet to see a compelling reason other disciplines can’t do the same.
  • Hire, train, and support excellent copy editors, and make copy editing, as we do in trade publishing, a transparent, two-way interaction.
  • Avoid blanket bans of self-plagiarism. If authors use the same protocol on disparate samples, for example, it makes no sense to force them to torture their words to convey the same message—expecially since doing so could actually hurt research reproducibility. The Text Recycling Research Project has helpful guidelines on when recycling one’s own text is ethical.
  • Review all of your submission guidelines for accuracy and completeness and user test them with authors, who’ll be able to help you identify zombie rules and relics of past workflows that could be costing you time and money now.
  • User test your submission system with authors, too, to figure out what elements are creating unnecessary work or upholding harmful hierarchies.
  • If you’re a science publisher, consider moving toward publications as structured data, which would eliminate a lot of redundancy in the submission process and ultimately make systematic reviews and meta-analyses easier to conduct.

My wish list is much longer, but those are the basics.

Preprint platforms

I’d like to see preprint platforms ensure authors know what they’re getting into when they agree to post a preprint. If their original solicitation note had clearly explained that a preprint can’t be withdrawn after a DOI is assigned and that some journals won’t accept manuscripts that have been made available as preprints, I might have made some different choices.

Stopgaps

Until (that’s an ambitious thought, isn’t it?) these ideas are implemented, I do have some suggestions for people like me:

  • If your school has taken your library access and you need it to keep doing research: The Canadian Academy of Independent Scholars has partnered with Simon Fraser University to give members library access. Membership at the time of writing is $60 per year, although the site doesn’t seem to have been updated since the start of the pandemic. The catch is that you have to go to SFU in person to get the library card, so if you don’t live in Metro Vancouver, the library services may be less accessible.
  • If you want to publish Open Access but have no funding: A colleague of mine asked the journal for—and was granted—a waiver on article processing charges. I’d never considered asking for a waiver because I assumed waivers and discounts were only for authors from nations the World Bank defines as low-income economies, but some journals do offer discretionary waivers if you can prove that you have no funding for the work you want to publish.
  • If you’re considering posting a preprint: Learn your discipline’s approach to preprints and act accordingly to avoid trapping yourself in a position where you can publish in neither Open Access nor non–Open Access journals. And if you post a draft to your personal site rather than a preprint server, for example, it will be less discoverable but easier to take down if you need it off the internet.
  • If you have a method you’ve used for several studies and want to avoid accusations of self-plagiarism: Publish a protocol first—Open Access, if possible, or at least in a publication that allows you to post a preprint. (I was in a situation where Open Access Journal A wouldn’t let me cite a submission I’d made to Journal B unless it was available as a preprint, but non-Open Access Journal B wouldn’t allow preprints.)

I’d love to hear from you if you’ve been through the same and want to commiserate or have solutions of your own. But if you’re tempted to tell me what I should have done differently, or that perhaps I’ve neglected to consider one aspect of publishing or another, or that my experience wasn’t nearly as bad as others’, I’ll gently ask that you refrain. I’ve already cut this post to half of its original length, so I’m bound to have left some nuance out. I’m well aware of my mistakes and of my privilege. But I’m exhausted and demoralized and not in the headspace to hear advice, no matter how well meaning. Advice is only helpful if there’s a next time, and for me there won’t be.

What’s next

So am I back? Ready to freelance full-time? To be completely honest, my brain still feels like mush, and the pandemic doesn’t seem to want to relent, but I’m afraid that if I don’t commit now, I never will—so, yes. I certainly need to start taking on tasks that pay more than zero dollars. I’ve got commitments into early fall, but I’m booking work for November onward, including cookbook indexing, plain language training, nonfiction editing of various flavours, and speaking on editing and publishing. I’d also be delighted to help with your knowledge translation/mobilization, mental health, or patient-oriented research project, but I’m afraid I can’t do it for free, and I’m thankful to all of my colleagues who’ve already recognized this fact.

***

Huge thanks to Juan Pablo Alperin, Alan J. Card, James Day, Kim Miller, Jill Murphy, and Filippe Vasconcellos, whose insights have informed this post.

7 thoughts on “Publish and perish”

  1. Oh, Iva. It all sounds dreadful! My brain would be mush, too. I obviously need to take you to lunch!

    I only have one thing to add, and it’s peripheral to your perspective, but I think it’s important: your PhD institution also pays it’s non-faculty staff considerably more than your post-doc institution does. It makes me wonder what the heck is going on with that PhD institution.

      1. Isn’t it just? I know one person who made $10,000 a year more doing the same job at one than the other.

  2. Actually, this mostly sounds like a successful experience in PhD land. If you want to hear how bad things can really get, I recommend the Facebook group, “Reviewer 2 Must Be Stopped”.

    But you have my full sympathy…and I second all your recommendations, not that any journal publisher has the remotest interest in improving the process for their authors. They have a captive (I would say ‘slave’ but slaves aren’t usually charged for the privilege of working for their owners) workforce so have no reason to care.

    Hopefully, other post-docs can learn from your experiences.

  3. I have sent this to a friend who I am afraid could relate.
    This is suffocating to read, I am not getting my PhD but I am an artist and I realize now again, why I am.
    I have been following you for years, I have always loved getting something from you in my ‘inbox’. Now, I realize why, you need to know there is a person far away that cares about you and your struggles with an ‘institution of education’. Kind of ironic is it not?
    Hugs,

  4. Iva, I’m so sorry. You’re one fierce and brilliant thinker, and these small changes could make the world a better place! (No kidding, that’s what you’re trying to do.) Thank you, and hugs, indeed!

    1. I find it strange that your collective support team finally left comments Iva.

      I’m one of those hospital patients with whom I shared my deepest struggles of a psychotic episode with you so you could the bring to light the very point of going forward that you, yourself left behind.

      I’m not sure what to make of your long dissertation right now, as I consider myself a great thinker myself and have lived through the horrible and terrifying Bipolar 1 experience and will have to rely on my 6 different psychotic medications , and Psychiatrist, Psycologist, Family doctor, coaching from Gabor Mate. I’ll never be able to work and will be on disability for the rest of my life.

      That’s why I couldn’t understand so many messages.

      Anyway “it is what it is” for me and I’m not boohooing by any means. All this says to me “Be careful what you wish for”

      “Fin”

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