Value removed by journals

It is a truth universally acknowledged that journals fail to add significant value in a way that justifies their high prices (we write, typeset, referee, edit, and they do basically nothing except charge an arm and a leg for it). However, I think it is underappreciated the ways in which some journals actually take away value. Typically by wasting our time with bad interfaces or imposing unreasonable typesetting/file format requirements. I’m in the middle of a particularly hellacious experience with the Journal of Functional Analysis (whose support staff have been unhelpful on top of incompetent) but I’ve also run into similar inconveniences with IMRN (where at least the support staff was helpful in getting around the problems).

Suppose we lived in a world where journals did the following

  1. Took submissions of papers by receiving their arXiv ID number.
  2. Refereed them and had the authors make necessary changes.
  3. Slapped the journal’s logo on the paper and called it accepted.

That to me is the baseline of how things should work (and is roughly how things do work at many journals: ANT/G&T/AGT obviously, but also CMP/JAMS/Acta were more or less similar). Anything else the journals do beyond that should add value rather than remove it. Here are ways that journals often remove value:

  • Requiring additional typsetting work prior to submission. I’m happy to do a little bit of grunt work on an accepted paper, but it’s very frustrating to struggle to just submit a paper. ArXiv or PDF should be good enough for submission.
  • Having difficult to use and poorly engineered submission systems. (E.g. JFA has no way of allowing you to delete multiple files you’ve uploaded. So if you upload 200 images and then need to change them because their system failed to compile you need to remove each file manually.)
  • Having unnecessarily strict file format requirements (e.g. JFA doesn’t want .png, and IMRN wasn’t able to deal with TikZ).
  • Having strange limitations on how files can be uploaded, in particular not allowing subfolders (JFA and IMRN) or only allowing particular sorts of zip formats (IMRN).
  • Inserting the evil “et al.” into citations.
  • Update: Introducing mathematical errors during copy-editing

Any other important ways that journals remove value that I’m missing?

UPDATE This post has been attracting an extraordinary amount of spam. (See post above.) I (DES) have changed the title to see if that helps.

42 thoughts on “Value removed by journals

  1. What drives me crazy is when a journal asks you to review galley proofs without providing a detailed list of all changes that were made in the copy-editing process. Then it turns out they’ve done something crazy, like dropping the subscript p from the finite field F_p everywhere it appears, and you’re supposed to mark every occurrence in the galley proofs and cross your fingers that they fix them all. Once I had an over-zealous punctuator who added a comma that changed the mathematical meaning of a sentence: from “The elements x in S which satisfy property P…” to “The elements x in S, which satisfy property P….” I’m still amazed that I caught this, so it didn’t make it into print.

  2. I think that page limits are a big problem. I’m a physicist, so let’s take for example Physical Review Letters. It is an unfortunate sociological fact that in order for your work to be taken seriously, you have to “signal” to you colleagues by publishing in this journal from time to time. To get accepted to PRL, a paper must be novel and high-impact, but also have broad interest. As a consequence of trying to squeeze all that novelty, high-impact, and broad interest into 4 pages, typical PRLs are so dense as to be practically unreadable once you get to anything mildly technical.

    Let me say, though, that I’m happy to have guidelines for the length of submissions, but since everything is available in electronic format, I don’t see the need for a draconian page-limit policy. This seems to be changing more with journals that only publish in electronic format.

    Another related example is journals such as Nature that limit the number of references you can have. This one is pretty terrible because you may have to basically deny someone their due credit.

  3. I’ve also met some, let’s say, “unprofessional” proofreading. I mean, I’m not a native English speaker, but I’m fairly sure you usually can’t remove the main verb from a sentence and pretend it still makes sense.

  4. @Steve : That’s lousy! I’m glad that math journals don’t generally have page limits. The only 2 that I’m aware of are Proc AMS and C R Acad Sci Paris, but those are pretty special cases.

    @Noah : Journals also serve the purpose of providing a paper copy that libraries can archive. Who know what technology will be current 100 years from now or whether pdf, ps, or tex files will still be easily readable? Books, however, are forever, and I’m grateful that I can go to a good library and browse papers from 50-100 years ago or more. Even if my library doesn’t have it, I can get it via interlibrary loan.

    I think that young mathematicians sometimes don’t appreciate how unique it is that our literature is so durable, and it would be a shame to get rid of that.

  5. I’ll admit it seems extremely unlikely to me that in 100 years it will be the case that human civilization still exists *and* that anyone is still using paper copies of anything.

    But at any rate, there’s nothing about printing things out on nice archive quality paper that requires the journals to do any of the annoying things mentioned in this post.

  6. I’ve definitely gotten the impression at some journals that the copy-editors came from the publishing side (English majors or whatever) and ended up in mathematics by chance. I had an experience nearly the same as David’s — my phrase “there exists a unique X that is Y, and is also Z” was turned into the logically strictly weaker “there exists a unique X that is Y and is also Z” (which was, at least, still true).

    I hate reading papers that number their references, instead of giving me a chance to say “is that the paper I think it is? okay good I don’t need to look at it.” And therefore I hate journals that think there is value added in their turning my bibliography into numbers.

    I also hate reading papers that italicize their defined terms, or FSM forbid, don’t emphasize them at all. And therefore I hate journals that think there is value added in their turning my \bfs into \ems.

  7. Hrm, I should figure out how to change references from numbers back to initials. Scott and I started using this great system where SVN automatically syncs the bibtex files for all of our papers, and it’s super convenient, but somehow since then the references have been numbers instead of initials and I agree that’s annoying.

  8. Speaking of editors, one of my top two students from my 4 years as a counselor at Ross seems to have ended up working in math publishing (she’s one of the editors for Jacob’s higher topos theory book). So at least there are some people working on the publishing side who are quite knowledgeable.

  9. I had an annoying “correction” made to a paper lately, where I had written a (rather convoluted) sentence, logically equivalent to something like

    “We say X is the tallest person in the room if
    (1) X is a person in the room, and
    (2) if Y is another person in the room, then X is taller than Y.”

    The editors (at Oxford Journals — this was for a paper in Proc London Math Soc) deleted the second “if”, presumably because they didn’t like the idea of “if … if”, resulting in obvious total nonsense. This is not as bad as some of the examples above, but it still irritated me a good deal. (I devised the paraphrase version above in an attempt to explain to the journal staff why what they had written made no sense.)

  10. @Allen: Why do you object to italicizing defined terms? What do you recommend instead?

    @Steve: Page limits are an even bigger problem in crypto, where all significant results are published in refereed conference proceedings. The standard technique to circumvent page limits is to move the proofs to an appendix. Neal Koblitz has (many) further thoughts on this matter…

  11. I have so much I can say about this topic, but I will limit myself to two comments/stories:

    1) I agree that page limits and huge margins are incomprehensible in this day and age. One journal had a strict 20 page limit. My paper was 20 pages. It was accepted after a lengthy referee process. Then the journal staff recompiled it with their “format” and margins. Suddenly it was 22 pages and I was *forced* to cut out 2 pages of content, which significantly decreased its readability. (Also, increasing margins creates a lot of equations that used to fit but must now be broken across two lines. Completely unecessary.)

    2) This one is my favourite. I had a paper in a Springer journal which was accepted. They had my original .tex source file. For some *inexplicable* reason, they had someone RETYPE the paper from scratch, introducing dozens and dozens of typographical errors which were not there before. The best was that about half (but not all ?) of my gradient (\nabla) symbols had become Laplacian (\Delta) symbols. I guess the typesetter figured a triangle is a triangle, what possible difference could its orientation make? Needless to say, I don’t anticipate submitting to that journal ever again…

  12. Why do you object to italicizing defined terms? What do you recommend instead?

    Boldface. I want to be able to find them.

  13. Like Andy P. #4, I agree with many of these points, but think we shouldn’t overlook the value of having physical printed copies in libraries. While paper may well become more rarely used than it is now, if human civilisation as we know it is still going in a few centuries time then surely they’re at least as likely to be able to read our paper legacy as anything digital we can lay down? Which technology do we better trust the durability of: one that’s been around 50 years, or one that’s been around for centuries already?

  14. David, if you mean “The elements x in S that satisfy property P…”, then write that (see Strunk and White). If you write “The elements x in S which satisfy property P…”, the copy editor, not being a mathematician, will think you meant “The elements x in S, which satisfy property P…” and change it to that. What you wrote is at best ambiguous.

  15. #3. Antonio E. Porreca said “I’m not a native English speaker, but I’m fairly sure you usually can’t remove the main verb from a sentence and pretend it still makes sense,”

    … especially with verbs like “>” and “=”.

  16. @18. OK, try the Chicago Manual then. More to the point, “The elements which” is ambiguous. Does the author mean “The elements that” or does he mean “The elements, which”? One has to stop and figure it out. The ambiguity doesn’t matter much in ordinary writing, but in mathematics such things are crucial (as David noted). Unusually, I’m with the copy editors on this one.

  17. “Negative value added by journals” sound much more longwinded than “value reduction by journals”.

  18. For me the biggest neg is papers that aren’t freely available. Why do people not put their papers on their website or the arxiv or something ? Whyyyyyyyyyyyyy??????????????????????

  19. I have refereed, or been asked to referee, a small but significant number of papers which needed someone to sub-edit and proofread them. So while I’m broadly sympathetic to Noah’s original posts and other people’s harrumphing, I think not all authors work to such exacting standards.

    Also, having had to jointly edit a small book for the LMS, I am now more sympathetic towards editorial staff, if not necessarily to some of the strait-jackets imposed by house style and publishers.

  20. Ben and I had the title of our article completely changed at the very last minute by the Journal of Algebraic Geometry. When we found out (after it was too late) and complained to the editor, it took him days to figure out how this had happened. It turned out the the new title was a working title that we had been using two years earlier (so many drafts ago that we had both forgotten). Some editor found the old title in our TeX document (commented out, of course) and reinstated it without mentioning it to anyone.

    This has led to some confusion over the years due to the fact that the version on the arXiv and the published version have different titles. Of course this might count as positive value added, since it makes it look as if we wrote two papers rather than one.

  21. @16: Memory is a funny thing. I looked up what actually happened, and it turns out to be this: the copy-editor changed “Let S be the full subcategory of T consisting of objects X for which…” to “Let S be the full subcategory of T consisting of X objects for which…”

  22. Some journals (especially ones owned by big multinational corporations) and many math copyeditors (typically having little experience with the weirdness of mathematics writing) make the author’s life worse. I think all of us agree with this, though our personal experiences vary a lot. And there are a few miraculously good copyeditors with math background. Mostly I’ve had no helpful feedback from journals or book editors, sometimes no feedback at all even when obvious corrections would be useful. But style requirements tend to get irrational, as many people have complained. Not that “anything goes” is viable for a journal or book series, but authors usually make their choices for a reason. At least with books I’ve been able to get away with nonstandard numbering or omission of some conventional numbering, but journal standards and style files for TeX tend to be arbitrary at best and frustrating at worst. There is too little connection with clear communication of mathematics.

  23. Obviously people would voice their complaints to the editor, if they thought it would do any good. The answer to your question is probably no.

  24. Hi Noah, I have yet to have a really bad editing experience, though I’ve only submitted a few papers for publication. I think I object to your objection about .png files. I say this, even though I spent over an hour tracing a png file I had made and forgot to convert.

    As you probably know (unless I am mistaken), .png files are stored as bitmaps rather than vector graphics, so when you zoom in on them at all, they are terrible to look at. Also, on many postscript printers, a large png graphic embedded in a pdf will take several minutes to print. I feel it’s reasonable to put graphics in vector format since there are editors freely available (Inkscape is my favorite) to save to eps and pdf format, and since most people look at submissions online rather than in print, and there the bitmaps really don’t look good.

    I agree that making changes to a galley proof and not clearly marking them is a crazy thing to do. I now start to wonder if I have had small but important changes imposed on me without my knowledge. Perhaps people on the board of editors (these, at least, are mathematicians) can simply communicate to the copy-editing staff that mathematics has its own grammatical peculiarities, and that even the most harmless-seeming grammatical issue needs to be clearly marked and approved by the author. Perhaps they can also demand that the copy-editing staff be stocked with actual former mathematicians. In the present economy, there are surely armies of math Ph.D’s without academic jobs who might consider it.

    A related issue: I have been asked to referee a paper, which seems okay mathematically (though I haven’t really started it in earnest), but has serious “lost in translations” problems, as the authors clearly don’t speak English as a second language. Is it my job to do a grammar sweep?

  25. “Is it my job to do a grammar sweep?” If there are minor grammar problems, I usually point that out when refereeing. I don’t think this is officially part of the job, but if I don’t do it, usually no one will. I always point out places where the authors’ language causes mathematical ambiguity.

    If there are major problems, I simply put in my referee report something like “The paper contains numerous errors of English grammar and usage. The authors should have their paper proofread by a native English speaker before resubmitting.” If it isn’t too much trouble, I may list representative errors, with the disclaimer “this is not a complete list of errors.”

  26. David Speyer: If there are minor grammar problems, I usually point that out when refereeing. I don’t think this is officially part of the job, but if I don’t do it, usually no one will.

    I’m heartened to find someone else saying this! I was beginning to think it was just me.

  27. Noah mentioned journals “[r]equiring additional typsetting work prior to submission.”

    Have you, or anyone else, known a math journal to _insist_ on this? What I mean is that some journals ask you to put your work into their house style before submitting, and for my first couple of papers I obediently did so, but after a while I stopped bothering. No one’s ever objected. Of course, I put it into their style when it’s accepted.

    If you know journals that insist on this, name names!

  28. @Tom: So this is essentially what happened with the Journal of Functional Analysis. I couldn’t get the files to compile, I went to their webpage to find some way to contact someone for help, fully expecting that they would say “oh just send us the files and we’ll deal with it” (which is what happened with IMRN when we had trouble) but instead the support person I was talking to wouldn’t help me at all. I suspect this is because it went to some general Elsevier contact person rather than someone actually associated with JFA, and it may be the case that if I contacted on of the editors at JFA to complain about this that they’d try to find a workaround, but there’s a limit to the amount of work I want to do to submit a paper to an Elsevier journal (which I’d rather not do in the first place).

  29. @Nate: Although the editor may be able to do something about this particular case (i.e. find a way to work around things for our particular paper) I feel bad about hassling a busy editor about technical issues which should be something that *the non-editorial staff at the journal can deal with*. Furthermore while they may be able to get a work-around for this one paper, the fact of the matter is that math publishing is too small a part of Elsevier’s business for one editor at one math journal to change the way their system works. If I’m going to hassle an editor it should be to *convince them to jump ship from Elsevier*, but I don’t know any of the editors well enough for me to be comfortable making that argument to them.

  30. @Noah: You’ve said enough that I’d be wary of submitting to the Journal of Functional Analysis (not that there was any great risk). But I’m confused: why did you have to compile anything merely in order to submit? Could you not just send them the same pdf as appears on the arxiv?

  31. Both Elsevier and Oxford math journals have an TeX based submission system that is vaguely like the ArXiv while not being well engineered the way the ArXiv is. They don’t accept pdf submissions, only TeX submissions. I think the reason for this is that it lets them keep track of what versions go to referees and lets them insert line numbers for referees, but I’m not sure.

  32. Yikes. I guess I haven’t submitted to an Elsevier or Oxford journal in a while.

    If your guessed reasons are right, they’re pretty flimsy. There must be some Latex package that puts line numbers on, and it would be a lot quicker to use that yourself and send the journal the pdf than to rejig all your files in the way demanded by the journal.

    Actually, I do have a paper in process with Elsevier, but it was submitted so long ago that they might well have changed their system since. They took my submitted pdf and somehow added a new page at the beginning containing the version number and other metadata for the refereeing process. So again, that’s not a reason for them to need the Tex source.

  33. It’s worth pointing out that JHEP does exactly numbers 1,2, and 3 in the OP. My recent experience in submitting to JHEP consisted of giving them an arxiv number. All the formatting was done by them; the only annoying part is that they turned my nice [G09]-type citations into useless [3]-type citations.

  34. This example came up in work in progress with Pinhas Grossman where we compute the Brauer-Picard groupoid of the fusion categories which come from the Haagerup subfactor. As we’ll see the automorphism group of a point in the Brauer-Picard groupoid has a subgroup consisting of certain “outer automorphisms.” I wanted to have a good example in hand where the outer automorphism group of different points were different in order to test certain lemmas. The example in this post is as extreme as things can get, for k there are no nontrivial outer automorphisms, while for \bar{k} the whole group consists of outer automorphisms.

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