Scientific publishers *not* adding value

      5 Comments on Scientific publishers *not* adding value

A month ago, I wrote about things that bum me out in academia, and some antidotes against cynicism creep. It was actually one of my best-received blog posts, and I appreciate all the positive feedback, comments, and shares.

In the last half year, we’ve had an absolutely terrible experience with a scientific journal, so let me add one more thing to the list of antidotes against cynicism creep: joking about stupid experiences (well, ranting really). So if you’ll indulge me, I’ll write about what happened and then add a few more stories of scientific publishers not adding value—for good measure. I haven’t seen a collection of these stories, so if you want to leave your own experiences as a comment, that may be ‘fun’ for others to read as well!

For a more serious blog post about failures of the scientific publishing industry, either read between the lines in this blog, or see my critical overview blog post on scientific publishing as well as our investigation into the data Kraken Elsevier.

1. Copy editing fun, #1

End of 2023, we published a review paper on problems in psychedelic science in Therapeutic Advances in Psychopharmacology. The process was pretty smooth, the reviews were fair, and the editor who handled the manuscript was helpful and fast.

In the proofs stage, we received the manuscript, which contained several smaller issues. The most important one was that we had been asked to remove a reference to our own work in our original submission—”see blinded for peer review”—which the copy editor had not returned to its original state in the proofs. So we pointed that out.

Once the paper was published, this bracket, along with other issues we had pointed out during the proofs, were maintained in the paper. NRGL. Final PDF screenshot:

We wrote the journal, and the response was first that it is perhaps better to just leave the paper as is, making us authors look like idiots. I didn’t particulary care for that, so we pushed back in quite a large number of emails, to which we eventually received the response that the journal would fix these issues, with two caveats. First, they would add the proper reference at the appropriate place, but didn’t really feel like updating all other references. So they would add the 37th reference that was missing, but not as number 37, because that would require updating all subsequent numbers (current 37 would have to be 38, etc). Further, they would have to issue an erratum for these corrections. We pushed back against this, arguing they should simply update the PDF: the journal had messed up some minor things such as a reference or the formatting of a table, nothing substantial would change with an update, therefore no erratum would be required. After several emails, the journal decided, after escalation, that it was indeed necessary to publish an erratum (but they did properly number our references).

This was the day I learned that erratum means that the journal screwed up, and a correction (or corrigendum for fancy people) means that the authors screwed up1. I don’t particularly care for this difference that will likely be lost on most readers: an erratum still looks like we made a mistake. Oh well.

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So it’s a few months later, I revisit the new PDF for a screenshot, and I find that this is what the new PDF looks like: the copy editor had introduced an error in the erratum by not replacing <Erratum link> with the hyperlink.

Further, the journal, after educating us on the difference between erratum and correction, had written about this as erratum on the website, but (in yellow above) as correction in other places such as the PDF itself.

2. Copy editing fun, #2

I encountered a specific copy editor working for a specific publisher twice—they are known for excessive copy editing. I’m not a native speaker and my English isn’t the best, so I appreciate someone going over my work, and honestly, some of the suggested changes have genuinely improved my work.

But I’ve always run my texts through spellcheckers and grammar checkers, and never for any other papers had many hundreds of comments on my writing. This copy editor also tends to restructure papers—after they have been accepted by reviewers and editors for publication, at times after multiple rounds of revisions2.

Here is a screenshot of the tracked changes in the two manuscripts the person edited. A colleague who had the same copy editor had over 1200 revisions in their (comparably short) manuscript.

For one of my papers — a paper on studying mental health problems as systems, not syndromes — the copy editor insisted that key terms required different spelling: “mental-health problems”, “mental-health practitioner”, “mental-health problems”, “mental-health systems” and so on. I kept reverting these changes multiple times, and left comments, but the copy editor kept returning them to their silly hyphenated versions. I honestly may have let this one go if the title of the paper wouldn’t have read ..

Studying Mental-Health Problems as Systems, not Syndromes

I tried a number of arguments, including that in this very same journal, and other journals of the same publisher, mental health is spelled correctly. The response was that the existence of mistakes isn’t reason to change the rule. This was only resolved once I sent a pretty strongly worded email with over 10 screenshots from large mental health organizations about “mental health”, including NIH, NIMH, NHS, Mayo clinic, WebMD, The Wellcome Trust, and so on.

By the way: I run blogs through a grammar and spell checker before publishing them. When the checker encountered the quote of how the copy editor insisted to spell “mental-health”, this was the result:

Oh sweet victory ʕᵔᴥᵔʔ.

3. Supplementary materials

I’ve written about this before, but it’s too good to pass on here. In 2016, we published a paper in the journal Social Psychiatry and Psychiatric Epidemiology. I wanted to attach some R syntax, but because I already expected issues with the file ending *.R, I instead submitted the supplementary materials as a *.txt file.

When the paper was published, the journal made our code available: as screenshots, carefully pasted into a MS Word file, page by page. Beautiful.

4. Journal style

Lastly, in a 2018 paper I wanted to cite a genetics paper with many, many author. The copy editor responded: “Don’t abbreviate authors with et al.—journal style requires to spell out all names.”

So I not only spelled out the 217 names—I also made sure to add a reference to the Higgs Boson paper (the journal decided not to follow through with the journal style in either case).




  1. The COPE guidelines, for example, use that definition.
  2. Yes yes yes, I’m talking about that APS copy editor and want you to know you’re not alone!

5 thoughts on “Scientific publishers *not* adding value

  1. Pingback: Gute wissenschaftliche Praxis im Spiegel der Weekend Reads von Retraction Watch – Archivalia

  2. David Epstein

    I’ve had lots of frustrating experiences with errors introduced by overconfident copyeditors. (I like the closed form “copyeditor,” which is used by some stylebooks and dictionaries, though not all:

    But in your second example (“mental-health problems”), the copyeditor wasn’t wrong. You were simply disagreeing about whether to hyphenate a compound modifier. Issues with mental health (no hyphen) are mental-health issues (the compound modifier is hyphenated). Practitioners working with mental health (no hyphen) are mental-health practitioners (the compound modifier is hyphenated).

    In my line of work, I do a lot of real-time assessment (the compound modifier is hyphenated), which means assessment in real time (no hyphen).

    Most people are lax about the hyphenation of compound modifiers, which is why we see such objectively strange formulations as “high school teachers” (how high ARE they?) and “real estate agents” (how real ARE they?). But using the hyphen is never wrong and often clarifying. After all, how mental ARE those health practitioners?

    1. Angelos

      Yep, editor is perhaps pedantic but not wrong. “Mental health problems” is arguably not going to confuse anyone but does not distinguish between mental-health problems and mental health-problems.

  3. Matt

    So infuriating. Scientists need some sort of union-type organization with enough members to threaten a boycott and threaten to create parallel alternative journals. Publishers can only get away with this bs because scientists aren’t organized.

  4. Bradley Baker

    Copy Editing Fun, Part 3

    On a paper I co-authored, for the final round of review before acceptance, on the journal’s request we submitted a redline copy marking both new text and deletions from the previous round. That apparently confused the copy editor, who helpfully “corrected” all strikethrough text, retaining both the original and revised wording. Fortunately caught in the proof stage largely because the abstract became incoherent.


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