Analysis: When will your BMC paper be typeset?

One month ago, people from Jan Gorodkin’s group and my own group published a paper in BMC Systems Biology. This happened after a very long process during which we were very close to retracting the manuscript due to inaction by the editor and sending it elsewhere. In the end it got accepted, but even now there is only the provisional PDF available. The paper has still not been typeset.

Typesetting is one of very few things an online-only journal does to add value. Publishers often claim to add value by organizing peer review, but if you think about it, they pass the manuscript to an unpaid editor who subsequently recruits unpaid referees to review it. Careful copyediting and typesetting of the final, accepted manuscript is thus in my view the only hands-on work that most journals do for their considerable article-processing charge. Neil Saunders’ recent blog post “We really don’t care what statistical method you used” illustrates well the care with which copy editing is done. We are thus down to only one service actually done by the publishers: typesetting the manuscript to produce XML, HTML, and PDF versions of it.

You would thus hope that typesetting at least happens promptly once a manuscript is accepted and the authors have paid. However, I have been frustrated to find that both my own manuscript in BMC Systems Biology and many manuscripts that I have downloaded from BMC journals exist only as provisional PDFs even months after publication. I thus decided to quantify to which extent typesetting of papers is delayed. To this end, I considered all papers published in each journal during the months May-July this year and calculated which percentage of them had been typeset by now.

Starting with BMC Systems Biology, here are the numbers: 7 of 26 papers from May, 3 of 24 papers from June, and 1 of 15 papers from July have been typeset to date. The numbers for BMC Bioinformatics turned out to be as disappointing: 6 of 52, 7 of 36 and 1 of 32 papers from May, June, and July have been typeset so far. And BMC Genomics confirmed the trend: 17 of 56, 14 of 74, and 11 of 67 are the numbers for May, June, and July. This adds up to only 16.9%, 10.6%, and 21.3% of papers from May-July having been typeset by BMC Systems Biology, BMC Bioinformatics, and BMC Genomics, respectively.

I continued to check other journals from BioMed Central, Chemistry Central, and SpringerOpen journals, which all are open access journals owned by Springer. The results were the same. The percentages of papers from May-July that had been typeset were 6.2%, 20.0%, and 9.0% for Proteome Science, Chemistry Central Journal, and Critical Ultrasound Journal, respectively.

To make a long, depressing story short, I should expect to wait for at least another three months before I see a typeset version of my paper. Can someone please remind me why we, the researchers, pay for this?

Full disclosure: I am an associate editor of PLoS Computational Biology.

7 thoughts on “Analysis: When will your BMC paper be typeset?

  1. caseybergman

    Your concerns and analysis raise a very important general point that publishers should be aware of in the coming Open Access era where individuals, not institutions, will control economic decision making power in the form of Article Processing Charges (APC). Authors will increasingly demand real service for their APCs, like any other product that you pay for as a lab manager. Publishers who do not deliver a good “product” in terms of doing their job in handling manuscripts, typesetting, hosting, etc. will find that they are now in a competitive market and authors who don’t get a good service will take their money elsewhere.

    Reply
  2. Bryan Vickery (@Vickerbry)

    Dear Lars,

    Thank you for raising these concerns via your blog. You are correct that we have recently been taking longer than usual to publish typeset PDF and HTML versions of articles. This situation is being addressed as rapidly as possible.

    At BioMed Central we regularly update our processes and procedures as we seek to provide the best possible publishing experience. In late 2011 we embarked on a major overhaul of our production process working with a new typesetting vendor with the aim of improving and simplifying the process for our authors. For example, we have introduced online proofing of both the author version and final typeset articles in place of the previous email-only system, improved table layout and implemented better support (via MathJaX) for mathematical formulae in our HTML. Projects of this scale are always complex and some delays have occurred as a result.

    In dealing with this delays, we initially focused on publishing articles in author version as soon after editorial acceptance as possible. With author version publication now on track, we are rapidly bringing down the time taken by the final typesetting stages.

    We sincerely apologise for the delay you experienced and any inconvenience caused.

    Best regards,

    Bryan Vickery, Chief Operating Officer, BioMed Central
    bryan.vickery@biomedcentral.com
    +44 (0) 20 3192 2101

    Reply
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  4. veravannoort

    Hi Lars,
    Good news! Our BMC evolutionary biology paper was accepted and published in final, formatted version 9 days later. I must say the process was very efficient through the new online proofing.
    best regards,
    Vera

    Reply

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