Discussions about academic publication (for example, the recent Elsevier boycott, the actual cost of publication, open-access initiatives by universities and funding agencies, citation cartels, or post-publication review) are often muddled by the fact that publication practices and culture vary significantly from one discipline to the next. I would like to see some of these differences explicitly teased apart.

I'm particularly interested in exactly how publishers in different disciplines help move authors' ideas to formally published papers. Publishing in any discipline requires the combined effort of authors, publishers, editors, and reviewers, but the distribution of these efforts (and their associated costs) seems to vary from one discipline to the next.

What specific services do publishers provide to authors in your discipline? Please only one answer per discipline. (If necessary, define "discipline" as "set of researchers with the same publication practices".)

(At a deeper level, I am curious why so many people seem to associate the value, authority, and prestige of various publication venues with their publishers instead of their authors, editors, and readers. But that's not a good question for StackExchange; let's stick to the narrower factual question.)

I'll provide an answer for my own discipline.

  • 1
    So... nothing, then?
    – JeffE
    May 18, 2012 at 20:13
  • 1
    It doesn't directly answer your question, but you might be interested in Priem & Hemminger's "Decoupling the scholarly journal", dx.doi.org/10.3389/fncom.2012.00019 for the types of services that could be shifted away from the publisher. (eg, why should peer reviewers have to deal with papers that haven't even been edited for spelling and grammar mistakes?)
    – Joe
    Dec 18, 2014 at 14:51
  • A question asking for a big list. A proper answer would have a list inevitably as long as the number of disciplines or longer.
    – Leon Meier
    Jan 1, 2018 at 1:27

4 Answers 4


In theoretical computer science:

  • Papers are written, illustrated, and typeset (in LaTeX) by authors and refereed by unpaid volunteers. Some publishers give free journal subscriptions to editorial board members; a few pay a small stipend to the editors-in-chief of each journal; otherwise, editors are also unpaid volunteers.

  • Most journal publishers provide an online system to help editors track submissions and communicate with referees. Conference publishers do not; most program committees use free systems like EasyChair or HotCRP.

  • Some journal publishers employ copy editors, who produce the final camera-ready paper directly from author-provided LaTeX and image files. Specifically, copy editors correct (and invariably insert) spelling and grammar errors, and reformat the paper (especially the bibliography) to fit the publisher's standards. For other journals and most conference proceedings (Springer's LNCS series being a notable exception), copy editors simply do not exist; camera-ready papers are produced by authors using publisher-provided LaTeX packages, except possibly for page numbers.

  • Most publishers provide electronic versions of their papers to subscribers. Some publishers also provide extensive indexing and cross-referencing of their publication catalog. Online-only venues are still relatively rare, so for most venues, publishers print, bind, and ship paper copies.

  • 3
    My experience (logic programming, concurrency, software engineering) is very similar. Around 2000, one of the Springer journals claimed to retype the entire article despite being provided with the LaTeX source files. Fixing all the typesetting mistakes introduced during this process took me ages. In a different paper the copy editor decided to replace temporal logics by temporary logics... May 17, 2012 at 16:25
  • Yeah, everybody seems to have a copy-editing horror story.
    – JeffE
    May 17, 2012 at 16:35

In mathematics, the publisher mainly:

  • organizes the peer-review (for example by providing an electronic platform for submission, communication with authors and referees, etc.);
  • provides copy-editing;
  • publishes in paper (organizes printing, sends the volumes, etc.) and electronic formats (manages a website, cross-links, a database, etc.).

I would add a remark: it seems that many of the cheapest journals do all these three things a lot better than most the expensive ones. For example the professionalism of copy-editing was far better for my papers handled by the London Mathematical Society or the American Mathematical Society than for the one I got published by Elsevier, Springer or World Scientific. My only copy-editing horror story happened at Springer (seven errors in formulas introduced after the proofs).


In psychology and neuroscience, in addition to all the services noted by JeffE for theoretical computer science, the publisher lays out the text and the figures on the page to fit the standard journal layout.

This usually requires manual intervention because papers in psychology and neuroscience are rarely composed with LaTeX. More often they are submitted as a Microsoft Word document or a PDF. The need for intervention by a person makes this process expensive, although it is sometimes outsourced to India to make it cheaper. In many cases, layout seems to be the process that preventes academics from publishing their journals online themselves without a publisher. Doing the layout seems too time-consuming for academics to manage on their own.

  • One can easily produce beautiful layouts with LaTeX, if provided with the right style file. May 22, 2012 at 12:10
  • 6
    @DaveClarke: As others have pointed out elsewhere, producing a functional layout is "easy" only if (1) you've climbed the LaTeX learning curve already, and (2) someone else provides a polished class file. But producing beautiful layouts is NOT easy, in any platform. If they were easy to make, at least one CS or math journal would have one!
    – JeffE
    May 22, 2012 at 12:25
  • 3
    @JeffE: I agree. However, many of the difficulties of producing beautiful layouts are actually related to the specifics of traditional printing press: the need to save space (e.g. overuse of inline equations, mixing figures and text on the same page, and the use of two-column layouts), the need to justify the bottoms of pages on a two-page spread (e.g. controlling orphans/widows), etc. If our primary goal was to produce reasonably beautiful papers for reading on screen, with an appropriate tool chain it might within the reach of a much larger fraction of researchers. May 22, 2012 at 13:36
  • Indeed. If only there was some sort of... markup format, that would like... be formatted for a screen, right? Oh well, I guess we're stuck then. :) On a side note, does anyone actually go find a print copy of a journal in the library any time other than when they couldn't find it online?
    – Namey
    Sep 8, 2015 at 3:32
  • @JukkaSuomela Mostly agreed, except that figures should arguably be next to referencing text if possible for readability (according to e.g. Edward Tufte). But I learned typesetting papers from a CSist with typography books; doing better than stuff outsourced to India is certainly much easier. Jun 23, 2016 at 15:11

I used to work at an academic publisher and so have some knowledge of what services are provided to all STEM fields. Social sciences should be similar, although I am less familiar with them.

Publishers provide:

  • An editorial management system ("EMS"). See this question. EMSes help the editors keep track of the status of each paper, as well as things such as the performance of reviewers, author blacklists, and so on. EMSes (at least the more powerful ones) are usually not free and charge by per paper handled.
  • Editorial office support (the "desk editor"). Desk editors are usually degree holders although not necessarily in a relevant discipline. They handle everything that might need to be done for the journal. Examples: answer author queries, liaise with Clarivate Analytics to get a journal indexed in Web of Science (see selection process and the list of deliverables), operate the EMS for editors / reviewers who can't figure out how to use it or are not interested in learning, negotiate special issues with conference organizers, choose articles to feature on the journal's website, maintaining a publishing licence from the government.
  • Acquisitions. The editorial board does a lot of this, but it's also possible a motivated desk editor or more senior editorial consultant will do some acquisition work too. Typically this involves emailing researchers and asking if they'd be interested to write on ____. They may discuss the topic with the editorial board before attempting to acquire for it. Usually editorial board approval is still required. The publisher may also attempt to invite people to join the editorial board.
  • Peer review. Some journals are set up so that the desk editor assigns a member of the board to handle the paper. Desk rejections can also be due to the desk editor, although it requires some experience on his or her part. Actually handling the peer review process also happens relatively often in my experience. Sometimes the editorial board is either not very active or that no member of the board is interested in handling the paper, whereupon someone has to do it and that someone is the desk editor (or editorial consultant). Alternatively there could be an editor assigned who doesn't do anything for two months (example), and the desk editor moves the paper forward by inviting reviewers.
  • Marketing. There're often publisher booths at major conference. One may also see insertions in these conferences. Other marketing activities include making flyers (visit your local library if you want to see what these are like), usage marketing, or things like "we just discovered gravitational waves, here're some of our papers on gravitational waves for free".
  • Copyediting & proofreading. Self-explanatory.
  • Typesetting. Most authors actually don't know LaTeX very well, if they use LaTeX at all. It is very rare that a manuscript does not require typesetting. Expressions such as "Ref (??)" or figures being placed 3 pages away from where they are referenced are quite common, as are poor quality figures or even hand-drawn ones which need to be fixed. TeX occasionally also does things like split the caption of a figure between two pages. If one has reviewed papers in one's field one should also be able to see firsthand what the typesetting does, since the paper that's sent for review has not been typeset yet.
  • Website maintenance. Self-explanatory.
  • Electronic distribution of published papers. This includes generating epub files, xml files, and DOIs.
  • Customer service. This could e.g. be librarians asking why they haven't received an issue of the journal they subscribed to (which is a reason to publish issues whenever ready and not hold papers in reserve). If print issues are necessary, they + their distribution are also handled by the publisher.

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