Saturday, March 10, 2012

Elsevier added value. The story of how a figure from a paper by other scientists ended up in our paper

What I will show you in this post is hopefully the worst example of scientific editing by a publisher that you will ever see. As scientists we spend endless times in the field. As peatland scientists this involves hard sweaty work in terrain with no shade and lot of mosquitoes. When we have the data we spend a long time analyzing it and writing a manuscript. We choose a journal that we see fit for the study. Other scientists volunteer their time as reviewers. Then the paper, if accepted, goes over to the publisher who in this case is Elsevier. Elsevier has recently been criticized by a big boycott campaign for charging high prices fore their journals, but one of the arguments made by Elsevier has been the “added value” they bring to a manuscript. Many times this “added value” is indeed real. The layout is nice, typos are identified. Sometimes however, you end up with something so messed up that you first lack words to describe it. “I am shocked” and “One of the worst mistakes I have ever seen” are so far comments I have heard from distinguished colleagues in the field with decades of experience.

Directly when our paper was made available online at Science Direct I realized that something was very wrong with figure 3d. The error bar was hanging separated from the data point in one place, and was on the wrong year in the other series of the same graph. I directly contacted Elsevier and the Journal Manager got involved. She send me 2 versions and asked me which one was correct. I pointed out the one that she took from our raw manuscript. Phew problem solved you would think. You can see the wrong figure below, followed by the correct figure below it.

Wrong figure 3 d

Correct figure 3d

Yesterday the article went in print, and the wrong graph was switched to the correct one (bravo), but……..our figure 2 of the experimental layout had been switched to a completely wrong figure of a completely different paper about wildlife-friendly vs. wildlife-unfriendly farming. The correct figure is listed below, followed by the (for the context) horrendous figure that Elsevier put in.

Correct figure 2

Wrong figure 2 (can you spot the difference?)

Perhaps I am being to harsh here. I mean, at least the figure text below is still the same (although it now has no connection to the figure).

I have no words for how this could have happened, except perhaps intentional sabotage. Other options are blatant incompetence. It sure adds something to the paper, but what it adds has no value. Who are the people working at the production team? Have they any idea about scientific editing at all. Do they know anything about separating files from different projects? Has the entire work been outsourced so far that Elsevier has really no control anymore, or is this their level of competence in editing?

How this could have happened, I simply do not know. I just know that it absolutely raises the question what the “added value” Elsevier brings really is, if they are unable to identify such an obvious mistake before sending it out for print.

I will present this study on the Intecol 9th International Wetland Conference in Orlando, U.S.A. in June, and it will also be referred to during SER 2012: 8th European Conference on Ecological Restoration in Ceske Budejovice, Czech Republic in September. I can only hope that this mother-and-father of editing mistakes has been fixed by then. We will of course demand a correction. Should it not have been fixed, well perhaps we can only apologize and refer to the mistake as “Elsevier added value”.

I also here would like to apologize to the people who Elsevier took this figure from and put it into our paper and send it out for print. We had nothing to do with this as you certainly already knew. I only hope you did not receive our figure in your paper, but considering what has happened so far, it wouldn´t come as a shock anymore.


Anonymous said...

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Дмитрий Курищенко

Anonymous said...

Dear Dr Hedberg, as publishers, we care about your article. While the occasional mistake will happen, we take each occurrence seriously and will go back to the origin to find out what happened. Believe me, this error baffles us too! This issue is on hold pending correction of this mystery figure swap. We will come back to you when we know how this happened. Meanwhile with my unreserved apologies. Philippe Terheggen, Elsevier.

Petter said...

Dear Mr Terheggen. Thank you for your reply. I understand and I am thankful for the swift action taken by the editors the Journal Manager and Elsevier regarding this incident.

Best regards, Petter Hedberg