Online proofing, a service to authors (stakeholders) or shareholders?

Elsevier (RELX) and Springer-Nature, two of the maximum profit science publishers, have introduced online proofing as a service to facilitate the work of us unpaid authors and avoid errors. They say. Naturally, it’s not true.

I happen to co-author a last book chapter, and today we got the proofs. Traditionally, we would have gotten a proof-read and print-set PDF with some author queries by the proof-setters and annotated corrections (in case of Elsevier and Springer-Nature, these are India-based companies, who have the technology and very cost-effective employees). So with the technology advancing, now it’s an online (browser-based) correction system that “… allows you to directly incorporate your corrections, thereby eliminating any possible misunderstandings arising from misinterpreted handwritten corrections. This ensures that publication of the book is not delayed by additional rounds of correction.” (Quote from accompanying email by Rajalakshmi Narayanan from Scientific Publishing Services (P) Ltd, Tamil Nadu). One thing, “handwritten”? There may be still old guys around that add their corrections by pen in a print-out and send it back, but most of us used since years the PDF annotation functions. Which, by the way, was also introduced to avoid said problems with hand-written corrections...

The old system: a proof-PDF

Unless the journal hires a technical editor (hardly the case for any Elsevier and Springer-Nature journal), the PDFs are not proof-read: too cost-intensive, even when you hire Indians. All errors by the authors such as excess brackets, missing full stops etc. in their final version will still be there. Especially Elsevier’s proof-setters have astonished us in the past by
  • introducing inconsistent formatting and typing; 
  • re-formatting errors in the references – a highly profitable company like RELX can of course not afford to keep their reference styles updated and their workers aware of different journal styles;
  • half-hearted changes from British to American spelling (or vice versa, not rarely both); 
  • wrong links, poor layout, and other things.
For instance, in my last professional paper for a journal issued by Elsevier, the Review of Palaeontology & Palynology, they introduced about 50 extra errors in the proof and managed to not find a single of the about 20, we had submitted with our finally accepted version! Plus, they messed up the reference format by changing it to some Elsevier standard that unfortunately was different from the format the journal used in its last printed issue and still uses (and we used) and – a common thing to be annoyed about – resized most of our perfectly trimmed plates (1-page figures); trimmed by my first author so that they fit the page and have enough place for the legend below on the same page. In the proof, all were reduced to squeeze a few lines of running text beneath them, which naturally looked disastrous. Well, proof-setting used to be a job for professionals, now it’s just cost-effective workers able to handle a programme (PS the prices Elsevier and other charge for their “service”, haven’t gone down…) Printing pages for the library versions is obviously the most cost-intensive thing about publishing these days, so the publishers have an interest to keep the page numbers low.

We annotated all the errors in our PDF (using Adobe Acrobat’s commenting option, no hand-writing involved), and the EHIs – Elsevier’s hired Indians – did manage to not overlook more than a quarter of them for the final version they put online (while managing to insert some entirely new ones). How a change can be overlooked, remains obscure to me, as you can view them all in Adobe’s programmes. But maybe the EHIs don’t have those programmes to be cheap enough for Elsevier and save on the licences?

The new system: online correction

As stated by Raj in his mail, the online correction should avoid these errors; not the problems with hand-written corrections, but with the general incompetence of the low-paid EHIs who read the authors’ annotated PDFs and should incorporate the changes. And this is how the start page looks like for Springer-Nature’s new online correction system (the one of Elsevier, its main competitor, is disturbingly similar).
Beautiful innit? Lovely-jubbly! Del Boy would’ve said.

We go to the second page, select the proof to check (by the way, you don't have to wait for the book to appear to read our chapter, or pay for it, a pre-print with the same content has long been uploaded to bioRxiv)

  … and this is what we get.

Fools-proof mask, big buttons on the left for the changes. In the old proof PDF, using Adobe Acrobat or similar software, I would have just selected a text piece and retype the correction and done. Here, I have to mark the text, press on “change”. Then a little window opens, and I can make the correction. Same for deleting things. Mark, then press on the “delete” button. Not very efficient, but fools-proof, particularly with respect to the proof-setters. Obviously, Springer-Nature really thinks their authors – all highly educated (the actual ‘highly’, not Trumpian “me highly educated”) scientists – have never used computers before, because they actually explain the above on their help page and provide play-buttons for starting how-to-do videos (and, technologically up-to-date as usual, still requiring Adobe FlashPlayer plug-in). For example:
Change/Update Content
Select the text that needs to be changed and click on 'Change'. In the dialog, type the new text and click on 'Change'. The inserted text appears in blue with yellow highlight and the old text appears with a strikethrough.   
Delete Content
Select the text that needs to be deleted and click on 'Delete'. The deleted text will appear with a strikethrough.   

A nice service. How could we possibly manage such complex deeds without such profound help instructions?

What they don’t mention is that you need to reflect carefully before making a change, because removing (‘undoing’) it, can be tricky. Because you have to mark exactly the piece comprising the change (and nothing else) to ‘undo’ it (using the undo button) or you get an error message that undoing is not possible because you selected multiple objects. Amazingly inefficient, with the PDF is was just a right-click and click with the mouse. You also cannot edit your changes: you first have to ‘undo’ them (select, press button) and then redo them (select again, press other button). With the PDF, well you know…

And then you run into the impossible thing to do. Like trying to remove an access space behind a (not interlinked) link ...
  • ... using the 'Delete' button (the blue field is the selected superfluous space)
  • ... using the 'Comment' button (the second space just became visible)
  • ... (and last option) using the 'Change' button (the second ghost space miracuously disappeared again)

Thank you very much for your fine effort to facilitate my work (which – for the most part – is something a professional proof-setting would have already done, like finding excess spaces and brackets...) I suppose the excess space has to be kept (so next time you find errors in a printed paper, don't blame the authors, they may have simply given up thanks to the new online system).

The most striking innovation of Springer-Nature’s online system is that you don’t get the actual proof-set PDF, so you have to just hope layout will look good in the end … or, may be you get one if it is not a book chapter? 'Cause on the introductory page on line says: “Alternatively you can apply your corrections in a proof PDF. Note that this will increase publication time.” We don't want that, do we? Already wrote an e-mail to Raj asking for the proof PDF, curiosity kills the cat! Will see if Springer-Nature's EHIs are quicker to respond than those of Elsevier; the latter usually need a week or two (or four) in case of insignificant journals such as the Rev. Pal. Pal. to handle authors' inquiries (not welcomed by the publishers as I know first hand).

Online proofing with big publishers: user-fiendish but good for the shareholders

Naturally, the guys at Springer-Nature, Elsevier or the EHI companies working for them did not consider time wasted by the authors when designing the new online proofing. Because the author works for no pay for them; and then pays for accessing, freely sharing, or reading the work (of others) not matter of the quality provided by the publishers. If it takes us double or triple the time, so what? No-one will complain. And when you do (like I did), nothing happens: single voice – no effect. Thus, minimum user-friendly functionality is missing, particularly basic functionality we had in PDF times to make our work easy and as efficient as possible (the most efficient would be hand-writing on our side, but well, the modern age, you can’t help it).

And researchers will go on wasting time they could to put to better use, because they don’t think or dare of boycotting the ripping-off high-profit science-publishing industry. In contrast, there are those who complain (angrily), and when submitting the next paper they choose the same receptacle feeling they have no choice. Guess what, you have: there are alternatives like PeerJ, still using PDFs being more user-friendly despite a most-modern and versatile online submission platform (something Elsevier and Springer-Nature still struggle with, you know, author service – not their priority), or traditional print journals that still have a technical editor checking the final manuscripts and EHI proofs.

And the big players? They often speak about providing better services for scientific “stakeholders”, which apparently includes authors, e.g. Elsevier’s “Coalition for Responsible Sharing” going after ResearchGate.

But what they really mean is: Generating even more profit than already for their shareholders!

By the way, to the largest part that profit is generated by having the public paying for it and public-funded employees doing most of the work … it could easily change:  
Don’t submit to journals who put authors last!


25/10: Enlightning answer from Raj, who handles the book for Springer-Nature

Dear Professor Guido Grimm,
Thank you for bringing to my notice.
Please find chapter proofing procedure below:
•  Click on the link provided in the email sent by us – and go to start proofing option.
•  Then click on ready to proof option to review and perform your correction.
In case of any further clarification please find the “Help” option.
Sorry for the inconvenience caused. Anyway I have sent the Proof PDF for chapter 2.
In case further queries please get back to me.
With regards,

So: I send a mail pointing out a list of missing features and a particular problem with the online proofing system, and as answer I get a mail telling me how to get to the online proofing (the above is a literal quote, any errors – as usual – are the responsibility of Springer's proofing company employing poor Raj). Left aside that Raj assumes "Prof. Grimm" (fun-fact: whenever you complain about something in science, the response addresses you very formally as "Prof."; although we otherwise just use our fore-names in correspondance and I never was or will be a professor) is too stupid to find his way to the online proofing ... it's good to see that Springer-Nature matches Elsevier in only hiring the most competent people and companies for the job of publishing scientific research. Both rely on low-paid, utterly unqualified people sitting in some Indian subcompany to handle author (and editor) queries, complaints, and other stuff related to publishing science using the good old Yes-Thank-you-No-answer-to-question-Please-see-help strategy. And no way to get to get hold of anyone with actual responsibility or competence for dealing with a problem.

26/10: Raj answers again

New mail, essentially same content than the day before, but now with a more eloborate explanation how to get into and use the online proofing system with screenshots. Are you kidding me? This time in perfect English again, makes you wonder who writes the professional emails sent under Raj's name. Still entirely ignorant of the content of initial mail/problem, though: the errors you get and annoyance you face when using Springer-Nature's online proofing client. I wrote back he should realise that I'm not stupid, but that the online proofing sucks, and that he should please forward my mail to someone competent who can handle the problem (hope dies last). Meanwhile, my first author gave up, too, and the corrections will be send back the traditional way: using an annotated PDF.

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