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This recent question on the Elsevier online submission system prompted this question to me.

It seems like there are lots of outstanding examples of bad usability and overall negative user experience with the workflow between scientists and journals. For instance, citing only things from the top of my mind:

  • bad copy-editing (as in: they introduced many more errors instead of fixing them);
  • old, unwieldy, and non-standard LaTeX templates;
  • confusing or outdated instructions to authors on websites;
  • confusing e-mail interface: for instance, in my experience, in all the e-mail I get from Elsevier journals, the editor in chief is listed as the "From" address, even when it comes from another editor. Another example that comes to my mind is a Springer journal which has no online editorial system whatsoever, and editors treat the submissions by bouncing e-mails manually back and forth with the authors and reviewers, with all the problems that this entails.
  • the copy-editing phase taking months, and then corrections on the drafts needed "within 48 hours".
  • complicated submission processes, in which the authors have to fill in manually lots of data that are unnecessary at the refereeing stage. or could be inferred automatically from the TeX source.

If one compares them with commercial websites, where the philosophy is "the customer is king; let's do everything so that they won't waste 30 seconds more than necessary filling our forms", the user experience seems poor, overall. It's not the kind of treatment I get on Amazon, Booking.com, or Google, for instance. Far from it.

I am not an editor at any journal, but if I were one, I would definitely try to complain about these practices and general approach. So, my question is:

Do editors (and editors-in-chief especially) complain about usability problems like these ones? If the answer is yes, why don't things get fixed? If the answer is no, why? Is it because they don't realize that there are these problems, because they don't care, or because they know no one would listen?

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    One part of the issue is likely that I do not have the impression that volunteer editors and authors are considered "customers" by Springer et al. in the same sense that you are considered a customer by Amazon. I have no idea what would be a more fitting comparison, but likely some sort of farm animal. The reason for that is that Amazon is afraid that you take your money elsewhere. Springer knows that often there is realistically nowhere to go for their authors and editors. – xLeitix Jan 13 '16 at 21:12
  • @xLeitix I agree with you that authors have nowhere else to go because they are under a strong pressure to publish, but does the same apply to editors? I imagine that journals need them and they should have some leverage. – Federico Poloni Jan 13 '16 at 22:27
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    @xLeitix if you don't pay for a service, you're not a customer. – Cape Code Jan 15 '16 at 9:11
  • @CapeCode In many fields, the norm is for authors to pay four-digit amounts to publish an article. – Federico Poloni Jan 15 '16 at 9:23
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    You mean for "gold" open access publications? Yes then the customer is the author, which is highly problematic from an ethical point of view. – Cape Code Jan 15 '16 at 9:38
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I am an editor for a journal, and the terrible user interface provided by the publisher is a frequent topic of discussion amongst the editors. My "favorite" of many problems with the interface, which I think make everybody's interactions much worse are:

  1. People can't respond to a review request without having an account. When I invite a person to review, the system thus sends them a rather obnoxious spammy email trying to enroll them into the system, and only afterward does it send them an email telling them I've invited them to review a paper. I think this makes it much harder to get reviewers.

  2. As an editor, I do not have permission to correct obvious errors in a reviewer's account, such as a misspelled name, incorrect title, or the system thinking they are the wrong gender. Emails that I trigger manually, I can force the system to let me edit, but if I forget to check or if the email is sent automatically (e.g., reminder emails), then the person will see a terribly unprofessional error. Worse yet, this happens ALL THE TIME, because the system creates accounts for reviewer the author suggests, and if they don't put in the title, for some reason it defaults to "Ms."

    Thus, as an editor, I frequently have emails automatically sent to prestigious academics, with my name on them, which sound like I am a terrible spammer: "Dear Ms. John Smtih, ..."

Can you tell that this really pisses me off? I should probably stop being an editor complaining about the journal's crappy user interface now, but well, your question really got me going.

The point is, yes, we complain. The publishers, however, are pretty insensitive to complaints: they effectively have a captive audience, since it is still quite difficult for a journal's staff to switch publishers or go it alone. Among other things, that would completely destroy the brand for most journals, along with the absolutely critical rankings (e.g., impact factor), which are vital to many of the authors who publish in a journal because of pressure and requirements from their institutions and funding agencies.

So yes: the editors don't like it either, and in most cases they have little more power to change the situation than the authors do.

  • The "defaults to Ms." part is hilarious, I'm afraid. I feel your pain though, even if I've never had to deal with the back end of a system that's really bad. – Buzz Jan 14 '16 at 20:17
  • Point 1 is really absurd. Did you ever get a reviewer that hadn’t been a corresponding author for that journal/publisher? I think, if I were an editor, I would send review requests manually before the system does (or leave). – Wrzlprmft Jan 15 '16 at 9:40
  • @Wrzlprmft It's an ongoing struggle. – jakebeal Jan 15 '16 at 14:16
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Of course we do! I don't edit for any of the big commercial publishers, but I do for top open access publishers that use similar or even the same manuscript submission systems. I'm continually badgering them about this detail or that one.

Some get fixed, some don't. When they don't, I'm not really sure why not. Maybe the systems don't allow the flexibility. Maybe there are good reasons for the hassles they impose. Maybe the journal staff are so busy putting out bigger fires that this never makes it to the top of the list.

  • Thanks for the great answer! What do you do when things don't get fixed? Have you ever encountered a flaw serious enough to insist and consider pulling your weight ("fix this or find another editor")? If they didn't even offer an explanation for the things they didn't fix, maybe they don't consider your protests serious enough or you do not insist. – Federico Poloni Jan 13 '16 at 22:31
  • When you say "open access publishers", do you mean gold open-access publishers, or free-as-in-beer home-grown journals with little budgets and sources of income? I can understand the latter ones having little resources to improve things. – Federico Poloni Jan 13 '16 at 22:35
  • The journals I edit for are all top gold OA publishers with dozens of staff and university press gold OA journals -- in all cases using top-shelf commercial submission management systems or developing their own to the same standard. When they don't do I want and don't give me a good reason, I continue to pester if it is important, and drop it if it is more of a personal preference issue. I have never threatened to quit because in large part these publishers do very well and I have no major complaints. – Corvus Jan 13 '16 at 23:31

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