Publishing Matters

Researchers, librarians and publishers take on new era of publishing

Wageningen University/Elsevier forum focuses on peer review strains, ethics and innovative publishing

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Wageningen UR's Dean of Science, Professor Johan van Arendonk, presented the code of conduct their university uses to ensure publishing integrity. (Photos by Nina Koele, Associate Publisher for Agriculture, Forest and Soil Sciences at Elsevier)Have you ever felt like the world of science is spinning so fast it is hard to stay in touch?

This sentiment is expressed by people throughout the research community in response to the burgeoning volume of scientific information and publications. Since the digital era emerged, our daily lives have changed tremendously.

Academic publishing is not what it used to be, and the issues and challenges have changed dramatically as a result.

To explore changes in the publishing landscape, researchers and members of Elsevier's publishing staff convened at Wageningen University & Research Centre (Wageningen UR) in the Netherlands November 13. Topics such as peer review, publishing ethics and technical innovations in particular were open for debate as researchers and publishers exchanged ideas and observations.

As the world of publishing continues to evolve and the pressure for efficiency increases, both publishers and researchers – including authors, editors and reviewers – are looking for guidance on these topics. At the same time, researchers are ideally positioned to make suggestions to improve these systems and explain what they need to be successful. For Elsevier, it is increasingly important to have strong connections with researchers and their institutions. By listening and sharing experiences, we can identify new opportunities and challenges to better support researchers.


Peer review – a system under strain

One of the main topics of the conference was peer review, the backbone of academic publishing. Dr. Jan-Willem van Groenigen, Associate Professor in the Department of Soil Quality at Wageningen UR and an Editor-in-Chief of the journal Geoderma, summarized the challenges faced by authors, reviewers and editors. His key message: while many critics consider the peer review process subjective, unreliable and inconsistent, most researchers still agree that of all options, it is the best system. He explained:

Full transparency or so-called open peer review systems might seem better, but as an editor, you lose control over the quality of reviewers if everyone can contribute unsolicited reviews. The best reviewers are often very busy and might not react. Also, you might attract people who have ulterior motives for submitting reviews (such as settling personal scores).

Transparency can also be problematic for some reviewers. In the discussion that followed, early career researchers indicated that while it might be fine for established researchers, transparency could pose a conflict of interest for them. As one researcher explained, "Imagine you may want to work in a particular research group later in your career while you openly wrote a critical review for one of their papers."

Gilles Jonker, Executive Publisher of Water Management and Biological Resources at Elsevier,explains how to manage 4 million peer review hours efficiently.The rapidly increasing research output, which is occurring on a global scale across research areas, puts a strain on all aspects of peer review. Gilles Jonker, Executive Publisher of Water Management and Biological Resources at Elsevier, presented on the important role publishers have in bringing together editors, reviewers and authors. A simple calculation shows that for Elsevier's nearly 2,500 journals, 4 million peer review hours are managed by 10,000 editors and 100+ publishers. Jonker emphasized that peer review is not only important as a process to assess the quality and fit of an article for a journal, but it plays a pivotal role in bringing scientists together to discuss research and build networks leading to new collaborations, insights, and scientific achievements.

Finding appropriate and willing reviewers is becoming harder and harder, and recognizing reviewers is an important approach that may relieve some of that burden. Jonker demonstrated Elsevier's Reviewer Recognition Platform, which was first piloted in March 2014 for 40 journals and now includes more than 350 journals. Reviewers of these journals have a personal profile page that presents their review history and awarded statuses, certificates and other rewards. They can also share their profile page on social media to showcase their review activities.

In addition, both Elsevier and the Wageningen UR graduate school programs have How to Review workshops to encourage early career researchers to take part.

Laura Hassink, Senior VP of Physical Sciences at Elsevier, joins the discussion on peer review led by Gilles Jonker.


Publishing ethics – "What are the rules anyway?"

Presentations led to lively discussions.While most researchers are honest and hardworking, there are always some who try to bend the rules on publishing ethics and codes of conduct – and others who just don't know the rules. But what are the rules? And how are they affected by culture and research area? Wageningen UR's Dean of Science, Professor Johan van Arendonk and Elsevier's Publishing Director of Environmental Sciences Gert-Jan Geraeds shared their visions and experiences on this delicate topic. While all agree that this topic should receive more attention, one common international standard for ethics is hard to find.

Authorship, for instance, is a delicate subject, especially now that many researchers are pressured to increase their scientific output. Pressure to acquire tenure, foreign students with multiple supervisors in multiple countries and limited research grants were factors that led to disputes in some of the notorious cases that were discussed. All these circumstances may lead to researchers putting their name on an article to increase their publication list when their claim on authorship is ethically not warranted; for example, if they didn't actually contribute to the work but are listed as author – so-called "gift authorship." Authorship is responsible for many ethical cases and disputes encountered by editors and publishers. This leads to the question: What defines an author and should we even talk about "authorships" or should we move from authorship to "contributorship" of a paper?

Solutions aren't always clearcut, but both Wageningen UR and Elsevier see the need to continuously discuss ethics and bring the issues to the attention of all researchers, junior and senior, to make sure the rules are understood. Working with tools such as CrossCheck, impartial ethics committees such as COPE (Committee on Publication Ethics) and educational workshops are some ways that already make a difference in maintaining publishing integrity.


The influence of technology and social media

Wouter Gerritsma, Information Specialist at the Wageningen UR Library, gives an overview of social media usage by researchers and how it can improve research success. Academic publishing has been around for centuries, but it continues to change with the times, especially in our era of ever-advancing technology. Wouter Gerritsma, Information Specialist at the Wageningen UR Library, presented on the use of social media and altmetrics for scientists, including Twitter, Altmetric and ORCID.

He said more and more researchers are recognizing the power of these tools to make research more efficient. He gave the example of Dr. Michael Muller, Professor of Nutrigenomics & Systems Nutrition at the University of East Anglia in the UK, saying he acts as a "human filter" for fellow researchers by keeping track of scientific publications in their field and tweeting about the "must reads."

Maxim Khan, Product Development Director for Research Applications & Platforms at Elsevier, talked about "connecting the dots" to help researchers focus on their passion – research – while being more effective and efficient in doing it. By linking its world-class research content with other data sets, supported by the HPCC supercomputing technology, Elsevier aims to help researchers address important questions such as: How can I stay on top of the research field? How can I expand my collaborative network? How can I showcase and improve the ROI of my research output?

Wageningen University and Research Center  

The Wageningen University and Research Center (Wageningen UR) was founded in 1876 as a center for national agricultural education in the Netherlands. It has grown into a leading international scientific institute, with 6,500 faculty and staff and 10,000 students from more than 100 countries. With a mission "to explore the potential of nature to improve the quality of life," the university focuses the theme of "healthy food and living environment," It was ranked among the 100 best universities in the world, in the 2014 Times Higher Education World University Rankings.


Elsevier Connect Contributor

Elaine van Ommen Kloeke, PhDDr. Elaine van Ommen Kloeke (@ElaineVOK) obtained her PhD in soil ecology from the VU University Amsterdam, investigating the potential risks and effects of genetically modified crops on essential invertebrate species in the soil ecosystem. She joined Elsevier as Publisher of Agronomy and Remote Sensing journals,
working closely with experts in the field of agriculture and food security.

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