President’s Desk: Publications: The good, the bad and the ugly

Brian Denton
INFORMS President

In this article, I will discuss some of what I believe are the positive and negative aspects of publishing in our field. Much of the discussion focuses on INFORMS journals but many themes apply equally well to other journals. My goal is to point out where our community is doing well and where we have room for improvement. Unlike one of my favorite movies that bears the name of this article, I’ll start with the “ugly” and work toward the “good.”

The Ugly. A recent article in The Guardian titled “Is the staggeringly profitable business of scientific publishing bad for science?” recently caught the attention of many with provocative statements such as the following: “In 2010, Elsevier’s scientific publishing arm reported profits of £724m on just over £2bn in revenue. It was a 36 percent margin – higher than Apple, Google or Amazon posted that year.”

The article goes on to say that many people find the business model of “for-profit” publishers to be “puzzling.” After all, they profit by selling the creative work of others, often to the very institutions where the authors work. Unfortunately, statements like this cast a dark shadow over all publishers, including not-for-profit society publishers such as INFORMS, that have a much different mandate and use revenues to create value for their members.

The Bad. Unfortunately, there is never any shortage of concerns about the publication process in our field. The time from submission to publication is often measured in years. Multiple revisions are the standard for our top journals, sometimes leading to third or fourth round rejections. This lengthy process delays the time to the dissemination of results, hinders promotion and tenure cases for junior faculty, and can deter people from entering our field. Moreover, these decisions are made based on feedback from a handful of referees whose opinions are subjective and sometimes unnecessarily critical. All of these things hurt authors.

So, why do we do it? The answers are not so simple. Chris Tang, editor in chief of the INFORMS journal M&SOM, recently opened up a highly constructive dialogue on his Editor’s blog about this issue [1]. In one of his postings, Chris quotes an article by Matthew Spiegel who argues, “No published article is good enough to publish” [2]. This argument is supported by a controversial study (Peters and Ceci, [3]), in which the authors resubmitted articles previously published in top psychology journals, and found that eight of the nine articles that underwent review were rejected. Could this happen in our field?

The Good. Our journals help to cultivate research, brand our field, promote access to new ideas and archive published discoveries for future generations. For many of our members, publication of research in archival journals is the most important and recognized way to disseminate new discoveries. When it comes to INFORMS journals, there is much to celebrate. Authors have a rich collection of highly cited journals where they can submit their work, including journals for the general audience, such as Operations Research or Management Science, and focused topic journals, like the new INFORMS Journal on Optimization and INFORMS’ open access journal, Stochastic Systems. In total, INFORMS has 16 peer-reviewed journals, addressing the full spectrum of operations research methodologies and applications.

Five of these journals are featured on the Financial Times list of 50 top academic journals [4]. Of the 78 recipients of the Nobel Prize in Economics, 36 percent (28) have published in INFORMS journals [5].

Revenues from publications serve to cover the cost of activities that benefit all of our members such as the cost of service to subdivisions, marketing of our field and our members’ accomplishments, continuing education offerings, analytics certification efforts and many others.

In my view, the good far outweighs the bad, but I think there is a lot we can do to improve the peer review process. I think the biggest opportunities pertain to the editorial culture in our field. Editors in chief hold ultimate responsibility, but a lot rests with reviewers and editorial board members. Reviewers often see themselves as gatekeepers whose role is to decide which papers are “good enough,” but this ignores an equally important role they can play as “coaches” on behalf of authors. Another problem is that reviewers often cannot recognize their own personal biases. This is unavoidable because we are all influenced by our personal experiences, but it can be mitigated by entering into a review with an awareness that such bias exists and endeavoring to provide objective feedback. Associate editors and department editors have the important charge of working on behalf of the editor in chief, but they must also serve authors when reviewers disagree by thoroughly evaluating the reviews and the manuscript to advise authors on how to proceed.

There is much more to say about publications than space allows. I invite you to weigh in with your own thoughts and constructive ideas about how to improve the review process, by talking to your colleagues, contacting journal editors or posting comments on INFORMS Connect.
2.     Spiegel, M., 2012, “Reviewing Less – Progressing More,” Review of Financial Studies, Vol. 25, No. 5, pp. 1,331-1,338.
3.     Peters, D.P. and S. J. Ceci, 1982, “Peer Review Practices of Psychology Journals: The Fate of Published Articles Submitted Again,” Behavioral and Brain Sciences, Vol.5, pp. 187-195.