British Birds was first published in 1907, so it’s had a long run. Not as long as the Ibis (first published in 1859), or Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, the world’s first and longest-running scientific journal, which first appeared in 1665. Scientific journals like these were invented to disseminate information, and all of them use an editor to oversee the process and ensure that the information they contain is relevant and intelligible.
The Royal Society was fortunate to have the wise and energetic Henry Oldenburg as editor of its journal for its first 12 years. He decided which of the letters he received – from across the world – were worth publishing. One of his most enthusiastic correspondents was Francis Willughby, who, together with John Ray, produced the first ‘scientific’ overview of ornithology, in 1678: The Ornithology of Francis Willughby (so named by Ray because Willughby died, aged 36, before publication). Willughby submitted letters to the Royal Society on a variety of natural history subjects and because Oldenburg rated and trusted Willughby (he was an aristocrat after all), his letters were published without much editing or consultation with anyone else (Birkhead 2018). With some authors, Oldenburg had to seek advice from experts, or as we now call them ‘referees’, as did his successor, Lord William Brouncker. In 1677, Brouncker received a letter from Anton van Leeuwenhoek in the Netherlands, with a disquieting covering note that said:
‘… if your Lordship should consider that these observations may disgust or scandalise the learned, I earnestly beg your Lordship to regard them as private and to publish or destroy them, as your Lordship thinks fit.’
The Royal Society eventually published Leeuwenhoek’s groundbreaking discovery of spermatozoa, although not before someone who saw his letter during its protracted refereeing process tried to claim the discovery for themselves (Cobb 2006).
Little has changed since the mid 1600s in the basic way that letters or manuscripts proceed from author to publication: the author prepares the text and submits it to the editor, who then consults with one or more referees. On the basis of their comments and the editor’s own judgement, a decision is reached. If the letter or manuscript is to be published, the editor may then suggest changes to ensure that the text is clear and conforms to the journal’s particular style.
Although the principles behind publication have remained unchanged, the actual process has undergone an extraordinary transformation, especially in the last 30 years. As a young academic I used a typewriter to produce my manuscripts. It was a pain. Errors meant copious Tipp-Ex or retyping. Making copies meant carbon paper. Creating graphs and histograms entailed grappling with a messy Rotring pen and the intransigence of ‘Letraset’. But… once the text and figures were complete, all one had to do was to put the whole lot into an envelope and drop it into the post. Off it went!
Today, it is very different, with the vast majority of journals using an electronic submission process. Electronic submission may be an editor’s dream, but often it is the author’s nightmare. Most scientific journals, such as Nature, Science, Ibis and Auk are published by large publishing companies, such as Elsevier and Wiley, which provide ‘their’ journals with an electronic submission system – like the one called Manuscript Central – that provides the interface between author and editor. From my conversations with journal editors, these systems work well for them: everything is automated and permits no leeway. If an author fails to meet the journal’s exacting submission criteria, their paper simply never gets submitted and the editor never even sees it. Automated submission systems keep everything on file, help to identify referees, send out timely reminders and generally speed up the process. From that perspective, I understand why editors like them.
For the author it is often another matter. Publishing houses seem to have invested the absolute minimum to facilitate submission when creating their electronic submission systems. Perhaps deliberately so, because they deter all but the most ambitious or desperate. And these are desperately competitive times, as job acquisition and security in academia depend increasingly on high-profile publications in the increasingly marketised academy (see https://bit.ly/2ANQ8WI).
Imagine if, when booking a flight, or buying something from Amazon, you had to set aside an entire morning. You just wouldn’t bother. It would be quicker to walk to the travel agent or the bookshop. But when submitting a scientific paper to a particular journal, there’s no alternative since virtually all journals use online submission systems. And it can take several hours. You are at their mercy, a victim of a deliberately underfunded, poorly conceived system; even if you eventually succeed, it leaves you feeling out of sorts, frustrated, irritated (murderous even) for the rest of the day.
What’s wrong with these electronic submission systems? First, there are typically large numbers of boxes to fill, often with obscure or irrelevant details: your co-authors’ middle names, dates of birth, institutional addresses and phone numbers (when did I last phone them?). Second, the instructions are often unclear and nothing is intuitive: you get so far and the system comes to a juddering halt. You go back in a desperate search for what you might have missed. If, in doing so, you inadvertently leave the page — pooff! — everything you’ve done so far disappears, and you have no choice but to start again. Silly you! You missed the ‘save’ button, secreted away in micro-font in the least obvious place. Third, if your paper is rejected and you decide to submit it elsewhere, you’ll discover that this new journal has a different set of editorial rules that require reformatting the entire manuscript (and the references in particular) and you will now be confronted by a different, but equally inefficient and unhelpful online system. With a weary sigh you start to copy out your co-author’s middle name, eye colour and home address… and all those other details that in some obscure and perverse way are valuable to the journal’s overlords.
In 2017, out of sheer frustration, my colleague and collaborator Bob Montgomerie and I wrote to the journal Natureabout this. That they published our letter confirmed our belief that there really is an issue, but so far at least, there has been no sign of change (Birkhead & Montgomerie 2017). It is a buyer’s market. You want your paper published? You do as we say! That’s why it is called a ‘submission’.
Another major change to academic publishing is ‘Open Access’, the idea that since most research is funded by the public purse, its published results should be freely available to all. Perfect in principle, but less so in reality. To publish their articles Open Access researchers have to pay — in some cases several thousand pounds. These costs are usually covered by the researcher’s grant or institution, but if one has neither, then Open Access publishing is an issue. See https://bit.ly/2ZVu8BJ.
But don’t despair. Out there on the publishing high seas among the voracious sharks, horrible orcas and gluttonous giant squid, there are a few tiny life-rafts. One of these is British Birds. You write your paper, check that it is formatted appropriately and then just send it as an attachment to the editor. Good grief! What could be simpler, more satisfying, and less stressful? BB’s editorial procedure is a ray of sunshine in a dark and treacherous publishing seascape. OK, now retired, I’m (almost) free from the tyranny of publishers’ online systems. Even so, I harbour this (naïve) hope that just as some commercial companies eventually discovered that automated telephone answering services were bad for business, scientific journals may follow the lead of British Birds and offer a more straightforward, humane way of submitting a paper.
Birkhead, T. R. 2018. The Wonderful Mr Willughby. Bloomsbury, London.
–– & Montgomerie, R. 2017. One submission to all journals. Nature 545: 30.
Cobb, M. 2006. The Egg and Sperm Race. The Free Press, London.
Tim Birkhead is emeritus professor of behaviour and evolution at the University of Sheffield. His main research interests include promiscuity in birds, an on-going, long-term population study of Common Guillemots on Skomer and the history of ornithology. Other interests include the public understanding of science, playing the guitar, painting and walking.