“Online publishing should be less expensive than print”: Interview with PeerJ Editor Kenneth De Baets

As part of our interview series with our Academic Editors, we caught up with paleobiologist Kenneth De Baets. We asked him about his research, his thoughts on academic publishing and open access, and how he balances his editorial duties alongside other competing demands. PeerJ recently published an article co-authored by De Baets, 3D-Analysis of a non-planispiral ammonoid from the Hunsrück Slate: natural or pathological variation?, which has already received over 400 views.

Could you tell us a bit about yourself, and what brought you to the research world?

Yes, of course. I have been interested in dinosaurs and the evolution of life since I was a kid. I studied geology with the aim of becoming a paleontologist and somehow succeeded. I changed camp to the evolution of invertebrates after seeing a documentary about the intelligence of octopus (fish were apparently disappearing in a lab, turned out the octopus from another aquarium was behind it). I did my Ph.D. in evolutionary biology on the evolution of ammonoids – an extinct group of cephalopods and I currently still work on the macroevolution of cephalopods, parasites and many other groups combining the fossil record and modern (paleo)biology.

What do you see as wrong with the current system of publication?

There are several issues and some things we can to do to make them better. For example, I am generally for open access, but in a non-profit sense (meaning it should be enough to cover the basic cost of editors, typesetters, programmers, etc.). I understand handling, formatting, publishing and maintaining scientific publications cost money. However, online publishing should be less expensive than print.

…online publishing should be less expensive than print

Particularly, large publication fees to publish an individual article (several thousands of dollars, euro or pounds) in some journals are a bit over the top. In this way, the publication is available for all, but we close the opportunity for many authors to publish there which have no grant or position. I have some grant money and the universities offer some opportunities to cover for open access publishing costs, but it is often not enough to cover such high fees.

Given your experience, what would an ideal publishing venue look like?

Basically, 1.) a venue where publication costs are affordable for all (also for open access) and you are allowed to share your article with all, 2.) a good team of editors from your field which can get experts from your field(s) to peer-review your papers which are not dogmatic, 3.) proper formatting and 4.) follow-up of your articles.

Stilkerich J, Smrecak TA, De Baets K. (2017) 3D-Analysis of a non-planispiral ammonoid from the Hunsrück Slate: natural or pathological variation? PeerJ 5:e3526 https://doi.org/10.7717/peerj.3526

My favorite paleontological publishing venue at the moment are journals run by paleontological societies (e.g., Palaeontology, Paleobiology) or universities/paleontological/natural history institutions (Acta Palaeontologica Polonica, Fossil Record, Journal of Systematic Palaeontology). I also like biology journals which can be broad (e.g., PeerJ) or more narrow in focus (e.g., Evolution), but have competent editors. I am curious to see whatx the future will look like.

What are your thoughts about the value of Open Access publishing?

I am all for it, but it should be sustainable and affordable for all.

What excited you about PeerJ that persuaded you to become an AE?

I joined PeerJ as I liked the publishing model with a subscription for life at an affordable rate (although it has unfortunately increased since then) and because of the professional experience I had during a review assignment for PeerJ. I am excited that we finally managed to publish our first article in PeerJ, which is related to work from my former B.A. student.

How do you go about evaluating a paper as an Academic Editor at PeerJ

Usually, I read the abstract first to see if I am interested/able to handle it, then I read the paper first to figure out which reviewers might be suitable. I read it again before the reviews are in to make my remarks. I subsequently compare my remarks with reviews once they are in to see if they are equally happy with it and then I submit my recommendation taking into account the guidelines offered by PeerJ.

How many hours a week would you say that you devote to PeerJ, and how does it fit into your schedule?

Hard to say, it depends on a number of articles I choose to handle which in turn depends on my availability or the article submitted in my field of expertise. I usually read them over lunchtime or in the afternoon. Depending on the size and complexity, a couple of hours per week per article.

You have recently had an article published which was first published as a preprint – why was it important to you to publish it as a preprint, and how was your experience?

Yes, we were a bit reluctant/anxious at first. It is not so common in our field (paleontology/paleobiology). I am already so used to peer-review, so it felt a bit strange to publish my article before peer-review. Although we, particularly my student, put a lot of thought/effort/work into the manuscript, we were still a bit afraid what would happen if the paper would have been rejected, but luckily it got through peer-review.

Which aspects of the PeerJ functionality do you find the most useful or interesting?

I really like the fact that you can see individual metrics for your article on the website as well as the amount of feedback you receive through the system during the submission process – really streamlined.

In your opinion, why should researchers submit to PeerJ?

It’s open access – still at a comparably affordable rate – I hope this will remain. The time between submission and publication is comparatively short (if the reviews come in time and of course your research methods are sound), and the editors and PeerJ team members I have so far come in contact are really professional, helpful and friendly.

Thank you for participating in our Editors Interview series, Kenneth! Our plans for the future are to continue investing in significant internal development, which will allow us to deliver an even better author experience, but still at a rock bottom price. We’re also extremely mindful of PeerJ’s founding principles on affordable high-quality Open Access for all. That’s still our goal, and so we’ve strived to ensure that at the end of the day, the value authors get from PeerJ surpasses all other major Open Access options.

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