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The long and erroneous publishing process after a recently accepted (Open Access) paper has led me to ask this question. I'll explain its context briefly.

We submitted a journal paper (a LaTeX manuscript including supplemental material) which after, in my domain (Computer Science) somewhat reasonable, 7 to 8 months time got accepted subject to minor revision. The journal has a very good reputation, the reviewers unanimously liked the manuscript and gave very helpful and detailed feedback. I handed in the revision not quite a month later. About 4 months from then I got the final acceptance notification. Although I felt already that took quite long, what followed seems like an Odyssey to me: after more than two months I got the first online proof which had numerous (100s of) typos, type setting and conversion errors introduced, tables wrongly formatted, cross-references lost, etc. I had to invest considerable time to point out all the errors, and after several more weeks (about two months in the meanwhile) and two proof revisions, I'm still stuck with waiting for another iteration of the proof. The editorial office has politely and helpfully handled the corrections with the production team, however, my requests/concerns also got a bit lost in translation. Overall, we are about to reach 9 months after acceptance with minor corrections and, after a couple of emails with the editorial office, I have no idea how long it will still take to at least see something like an official online-first version, not talking of the journal issue the article will possibly be included.

I believe that journal's procedure seems inappropriate inasmuch as I opted for full Open Access according to the funding policies and my Uni accepted (by a default waiver for that publisher) to pay a decent amount of article processing charges (I believe from their library budget). This inappropriateness stems from the long production time and that the conversion of the LaTeX manuscript caused so many further issues and required several proof iterations. Maybe strange, but again, I would have expected a more accurate production process than for a non-OA publication. But OA might not play a role here.

Just for comparison: a year earlier, we had a non-OA article accepted with minor for another (even higher ranked) journal where it took them about six weeks from this acceptance to complete publication, no typos introduced, and those six weeks even included our time to submit the minor revisions.

That whole thing made me wonder what expectations one ought to have on the paid portion of work done in the production process, other than reviewing and editing which in the majority of cases is purely voluntary in my field? How could one improve this situation? E.g. would a notification of my Uni (maybe our library) be exaggerated, so they can consider blocking future APC waivers for that journal/publisher?

I believe my concerns go beyond this interesting question about long review processes.

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    Please ask only one question. Also, what do you want to achieve? – Anonymous Physicist Aug 25 '20 at 1:00
  • Thanks, reduced the number of questions. I just want to know whether I expect too much, and if not, what can I and others do? – Mario Aug 25 '20 at 8:48
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It doesn't matter whether you paid an APC or whether the publisher is getting money from subscribers for seeing your article.

There are journals that have very significant production backlogs, so that accepted papers are not produced for months or even years. A long production backlog is not really cause for serious complaint, though undoubtedly both you and the editors of the journal are not happy about it. Note that frequently the only way to fix a production backlog is to stop accepting papers (or accept very few papers) for some period of time. (In particular, back when people mostly read papers by going to their physical library, there was no reason for the production backlog to be any better than the publication backlog, and some publishers still think this way.)

However, the number of errors in the production process and the amount of time and number of iterations it has so far required to fix them is completely unheard of in my experience. I have had some production issues twice in 20+ papers (both times with the same publisher but different journals), but they were nowhere near what you are describing.

At this point, you should let the editors know what has happened and ask them to complain strongly on your behalf. (Of course, you should be nice and understanding about it, since it's not their fault in any way. But they have leverage that you don't.) They are on your side. They can see you have been treated badly, and they know that incidents like this are very bad for their journal. This should be a serious issue, to the extent that, if these kinds of production issues are a common occurrence, the editorial board might try to switch publishers (if they own the name of the journal) or resign. (You don't know if your case is a one-off or common, so you can't very well ask them to do this, but they should want to know and should take this seriously.)

Finally, I think you are well within your rights to not submit to a journal run by this publisher until you have some indication they have improved their processes, and you should quietly let anyone who asks you for journal advice know about what you have gone through. (If someone reads this question, figures out who you are, and e-mails you, you should let them know who this publisher is.)

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  • Thanks. Well, about half of the errors stemmed from changing the LaTeX package configuration, although, I have only used fairly standard packages, packages that I've also used elsewhere without issues. However, they could have double checked the impact or gotten back to me before altering the code such that LaTeX compiles with lots of artefacts. – Mario Aug 25 '20 at 8:56
  • Note that frequently the only way to fix a production backlog is to stop accepting papers (or accept very few papers) for some period of time the way to fix a production backlog is to hire more production people! (Or move them from other parts of the publisher) – Allure Aug 25 '20 at 23:57
  • @Allure: Springer or Elsevier can hire more production people. Mathematical Sciences Publishers might be able to. The University of Michigan Math Department (which publishes a reasonably well regarded journal) cannot. – Alexander Woo Aug 26 '20 at 0:49
  • @AlexanderWoo they should outsource to freelancers then ... – Allure Aug 26 '20 at 0:52
  • @Allure: and pay them with what money? We're talking about a journal with something like a US$25K/yr annual budget, most of which goes to the department staff member who spends 15 hours a week working on the journal. – Alexander Woo Aug 26 '20 at 1:32
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When I worked in production, we had a timetable of roughly 30 working days to get a manuscript published. The 30 days would include all the steps in the process: copyediting, 1st typesetting, proofreading, author checking, 2nd typesetting, author sign-off, and uploading online. Lots of people were involved, up to 5+.

Sometimes the timetable would not work. Why not? Usually it's because one of the 5+ people dropped the ball. Do remember that in general the staff are not the "journal's" staff, they are the publisher's staff, and the publisher probably has more than one journal. This means things like these can happen:

  • A paper for journal A arrives, but six papers for journal B arrive at the same time, and the staff choose to work on those six papers first (because those six papers are urgent, because the editors request it, etc).
  • One of the 5+ people goes on leave for a few days. That's not long enough to really have someone else cover for them, but more than long enough to upend the schedule for everyone else.
  • One of the 5+ people is focusing on something else, e.g. if you are in charge of uploading the paper online, perhaps you are also in charge of maintaining the journal's website or editorial management system, and there's something about the website that needs to be fixed.

Taken together this means there is room to expedite a paper - certainly a very important/urgent paper can be completed in a few days, for example - but the speedup happens at a cost to every other paper, and there's no guarantee that papers take the same amount of time.

You might have experienced something similar. Say you are reviewing papers by Alice and Bob. Alice's paper is smooth and easy and you finish it in one week, well before the deadline. You then put Bob's paper aside for a while to grade your students' assignments, then you have to deal with unhappy students, and then it turns out that you need a paper Bob referenced to finish the review so you contact your librarian, and it ends up taking a long time. From your perspective you've done the best you can do under the circumstances. From Alice's and Bob's perspective, they both submitted to the same journal and yet one review was very fast and another took an unpleasantly long time.

One more thing: my experience with Open Access is that it literally does not affect the publication process, except at the end when we instruct the sales department to charge the author. It is possible some publishers expedite OA papers, however.

In your specific case: it's hard to tell what happened from the outside. If you submitted a manuscript in a difficult-to-parse format (e.g. if you used Word when the staff are trained with TeX), then they might have encountered problems converting it. You write that "The editing office has politely and helpfully handled the corrections with the production team". Assuming the editing office is the editorial office of the publisher, then they've done all they can, and it's the production team that's at fault. Still, one can't tell from the outside what's going on - for example, you could simply have gotten a bad (or new/overworked/depressed) typesetter. What certainly shouldn't happen is for the bad manuscript to make it to you in the first place, simply because one of the 5+ people in the production process should have caught the issues before it got that far.

I'm almost certain getting your library to impose an open access "sanction" on the publisher is kind of missing the point, since it almost certainly doesn't address the problem(s). It's not clear how to address the problem either - from the publisher's point of view, what needs to be done is for the 5+ people involved to be more careful and/or willing to ask for help, which isn't something that management can just implement.

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  • Thanks for this insight. I don't know the exact circumstances for what I believe to be a dramatic delay and quality breach. Too many manuscripts for too few staffs is certainly an explanation. The reason I mentioned OA-based APCs is that it creates (at least to me as an author) the impression that I'm now paying for the processing more directly than through the traditional subscription-based funding and, therefore, I could expect better results. I might err. However, I don't want to follow up on the seemingly difficult OA vs. non-OA discussion having taken place elsewhere. – Mario Aug 26 '20 at 8:50
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I agree with what Alexander Woo said, to the effect that "numerous typos" should not be taken lightly, and that you should consider contacting the editorial board.

When something similar happened to me once, I sent a long and angry email to the publisher, and demanded the process be started over from scratch. This produced the desired results.

Also, again agreeing with Alexander Woo, the scheduling concerns are more ambiguous. In my experience, asking you to wait forever is a bit annoying, but par for the course.

I have an additional suggestion: as you suggested, contact your librarian. They might be familiar with this publisher; ask them how typical your experience is.

I don't think that they would block APC waivers based on a single complaint, but if they received many such complaints then they might consider it. In any case, they might be willing to suggest a course of action, or to contact the publisher on your behalf.

Good luck!

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