24: Psychological Reports

Interview with Dr. Doug Ammons, Editor, September 2008

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            The subject of this installment of Periodical Radio is Psychological Reports, a bimonthly scholarly journal in its 54th year of publication. Psychological Reports is an oft-cited and highly regarded journal. The editors’ stated purpose is to “encourage scientific originality and creativity in the field of general psychology.” Examples of such originality and creativity in a recent issue include articles on whether evolutionary sex differences impact Nintendo Wii performance, eye color as an indicator of behavior, and the relationship of insubordination with genius. Each issue has about 40 articles filling approximately 300 pages, and there’s no advertising.

            My guest is Dr. Doug Ammons, one of the editors of Psychological Reports. Dr. Ammons, welcome to Periodical Radio.

Steve: Dr. Ammons, let's start with the origins of Psychological Reports and your involvement with it, and the relationship between that and your very interesting work as a kayaker and cinematographer.

Dr. Ammons: It’s a pretty big question. I would say that I’m the direct outgrowth of my parents’ attitude towards science as being a wonderful but limited problem solving tool. The same kinds of things that led them to begin the journals in the late 1940’s, early 1950’s, and then my interest in kayaking and the out-of-doors and the psychology thereof is all part and parcel of the same thing. The more skilled aspect of learning a skill, the decision processes, those are all aspects that carry over to everything you do. Each thing is the mirror image to a different facet of this general principle that as human beings we are a very fascinating, each one of us are very fascinating animals. Some would say spiritual being that exists in a very complicated universe in with the wonderful prospects in every direction and some other not so wonderful prospects. I don’t want to get to general though, Steve, so why don’t you ask me a specific question?

Steve: Sure, that’ll be fine.

Dr. Ammons: I’ll wax eloquent about things that are outside the purview of what you intented.

Steve: All right, to give us some focus, let’s begin with the contrast and comparison of Psychological Reports and Perceptual and Motor Skills and American Psychological Association journals. They’re big leaders in the field of psychology, yet Ammons Scientific journals have done very well over the years, been very successful. What do you see as the primary distinguishing differences of your journals from those of the American Psychological Association?

Dr. Ammons: Well, first I’d say that the APA does a very good job. They represent the largest psychology organization in the world, and they’ve got their plate full of a lot of different things, with 150,000-odd members, and a very diverse membership. They publish the way they see things as a large organization. The contrast really is that we are not a large organization. We’re a very small group of individuals. From the very outset the reason for having the journals was to provide an alternative to the mainstream APA journals. The fact of the matter is a lot is going on in psychology in every area that’s outside of any major organization. That organization involves the people who are interested in being in organizations, so it doesn’t include an awful lot of other people who have perfectly legitimate and interesting views of the world in psychology, particularly here [in the U.S.]. Otherwise they don’t have a place to go to be heard, to have their work peer reviewed carefully, and to have an outlet for it. So that’s what we provide.

Steve: You’re very consciously an alternative to the APA journals. You want there to be an independent outlet.

Dr. Ammons: Yes. Any organization, and I’m not going to accuse any of them of any particular bias, but any organization or group of people, especially one with a clear hierarchy, develops its own political beliefs within the hierarchy, and there’s just no way of getting around that. It’s a process that develops quite naturally out of the fact that you have a big group people who are trying to do something in general, and they all have their own beliefs. In contrast, then, we don’t have this organization. We are not spokesmen for any group. Therefore all we try to do is look at science in the broadest sense and take on anybody who’s willing to present a well done article of any kind, be it experimental, or theoretical, or a commentary, or other, take them on and evaluate it without any axes to grind, without any external biases, but purely from the scientific method. I think what that does is you just get . . .there are a lot of people out there, foreign authors, people outside the mainstream, which is what the APA really generally publishes. Really by definition everything in science we believe now at one point or another came on as a reaction to the ongoing consensus of that time, and disagreed with it or contradicted it. Nobody’s got a crystal ball for where the field’s going to go, or where the world’s going to go, what fate will have in store for us. The only thing we can do is leave the playing field open for as many different well reasoned positions as possible. That’s the only way that science will progress.

Steve: In the pages of the journal, one of things that comes out as a contrast is that as that process is happening, the APA tends to publish articles that are 20-40 pages long, and those in Psychological Reports tend to be quite a bit shorter, 4,5, a dozen pages, sometimes longer, but on average much shorter. What’s the reasoning behind that?

Dr. Ammons: Actually, the average number of pages of an article for us is about 10 pages now. It might be a little bit longer in the APA, but it depends on the journal. It depends on the field, too, so I think if one looked at a given journal and made a comparison, then you’d be comparing something a little more similar. In general, though, we try to cut to the quick. We attempt to have people say what they have to say as succinctly and clearly as possible. One of the things I commonly put on a manuscript when I’m editing, in one form or another I say “write as succinctly and precisely as possible exactly what you mean.” I think there’s just a little more leeway in other journals for taking a little bit extra. Academics are notorious for liking lots of words.

Steve: Indeed. The front matter of Psychological Reports that articles are reviewed by from three to up to twenty peer reviewers. How do you decide how many reviewers an article needs?

Dr. Ammons: I’m the one that assigns reviewers. In each case, with each article, unless it’s like a one page note or comment, any normal manuscript that comes in, I’m going to look, I’m going to make an initial assessment, does it fit, is the writing adequate enough to be sent out. If it’s not, I’m going to send it back to them, and I might give some editorial suggestions, but also that they really need to shore it up and give a short list of what they need to focus on. With the reviewers, I will always assign six reviewers. We’ll go through the first 3 and send those out, and if we don’t get response from at least 2, if not 3, then we’ll go through the next 4-6. If we still don’t have enough, then I will add some more. That upper limit then changes depending on the hot-button issue. If it’s an issue that obviously has political problems, that is going to stir up some major controversy, or even minor controversy, I’m going to extend the reviewers to as wide a variety as I can within reason. So the upper number, actually 21 is the largest number, which we’ve done a number of times, is for papers that clearly hit people square on their hot buttons. So we want to have best set of comments that we possible can.

Steve: How do you recruit your peer reviewers?

Dr. Ammons: We start with our associate editors, and then we have a database of probably 15,000 reviewers, people we’ve contacted and who have done one or more reviews for us, and that’s constantly expanding. I’ll start with those two things. It will also come from the reference page of the manuscript itself, and if there’s still a problem I will scurry around and attempt to identify some other likely people.

Steve: Do your authors ever recommend a reviewer?

Dr. Ammons: Occasionally.

Steve: What do you think of that? Do you like that information?

Dr. Ammons: That’s fine. Typically we would include at least one of those people, because we’re going to include three or four others who are going to be different. The authors I think are pretty good, in my experience, about suggesting people who are perfectly legitimate and fair. I had one notable manuscript about three weeks ago where when once I started looking, it turned out that this author had really tread on the toes of the two biggest guys in this particular subfield, enough so that one of the very first abstracts I pulled up in looking at the topic, these original authors who he was criticizing actually just had an alternative view. Anyway, he had tweaked him so much they had devoted a major proportion of their abstract to debunking him from their standpoint. I thought that was a little over the top. I’m negatively suggestable by nature. If somebody says “this is the truth”, I’m going to say, “Lt me see. What about b,c,d,e,f,g,h, all the way through j?” and see as Dr. Seuss says, and on beyond zebra. Just because somebody thinks something is the case doesn’t mean it is the case, no matter who they are. I take that attitude with all the reviewing. If authors suggest something I’ll certainly consider it, and often use at least one, and then look for others. There are many different reasons why people will take one position or another, or want to review, or not want to review. Some people want to review, but they don’t have time for it. There are many different reasons. But we all try to get for all manuscripts a minimum number which is at least one more, for a total of at least three. It’s typical for a journal to have only one or two. We always get more than that. Every single paper that we publish has been through more peer review than almost any other journal. I should say with that, the nature of our peer review is somewhat different. That has directly to do with our editorial attitudes. I’ll say it this way. The easiest thing for an editor to do in the world is to say “I reject this.” Then the easiest thing for the editor to do is to rationalize that he’s rejecting it because he has such incredibly high standards. Actually, he’s just being lazy. The hardest thing to do is to actually engage with what the author has to say and engage what the reviewers have to say, and try to find whatever resolution there might be to further science. The issue is whether your commitment is to further science by helping people do research and help people argue their position, or argue alternative positions, or whether your point of view is just to make life easy for yourself because you’re so overworked.

Steve: And before our interview, you worded that to me as “scientific freedom of speech.”

Dr. Ammons: Well, that’s what I would say. I have a couple of ways that to me express in a nutshell where we’re coming from. And the first of those is our journals are the scientific expression of freedom of speech. They’re intended to reflect the entire field of psychology world wide. That means they will always reflect highly diverse approaches and topics and positions and any other aspect that some people will disagree with, and other people will agree with. So the issue is that understanding the nature of human and animal behavior isn’t just an undertaking of American or European scientists. It’s not just an undertaking of the APA. It includes all nationalities and the unpredictable diversity thereof. The other aspect in a nutshell is the scientific method will always be our touchstone coupled with freedom of interpretation and position. Science is the greatest problem-solving tool humans have ever devised, even if it isn’t all that easily applicable to something as complicated as human behavior. Another principle I’d say is that no reviewer has a veto right based solely on their opinion or their personal interpretation. If their objections are based on fact, they can demonstrate a flaw in the analysis or method, or if they can point out a logical fallacy, then their objections are really likely to be sustained by me as an editor. But I will say one thing. That’s providing the authors can’t justify what they’ve done, because what they’ve done might just be a limitation of the current methods. So that is a very difficult place sometimes to balance. Those are key issues about where we’re coming from and what we’re trying to do. I’d say the last one is that I’m never going to just lop off an author, and reject it without him having a fair hearing. I want everyone to go away, all the authors and the reviewers, my goal is as an editor that all the authors and all the editors go away from the experience thinking that that’s the way the scientific method should work, that’s the way publication should be done.

Steve: That reputation is known and is a primary, if not the primary reason why Psychological Reports has such a good reputation. Would you agree?

Dr. Ammons: Well, I would hope so.

Steve: Let’s switch gears a little bit . . .

Dr. Ammons: I’ll say one thing.

Steve: Sure.

Dr. Ammons: I don’t have any control over what people feel is the reputation. All I can do is the very best I can according to those principles. The difficulty comes in sometimes where people conflate, they mix up their personal beliefs with what they think is true. When you do that, then basically you’re saying that something is not true because you disagree with it. That’s a very prominent thing. It happens with everybody, with all of us. It happens with psychologists as well in their science. One thing I won’t do, is when a reviewer says “no reputable journal would ever blah, blah, blah,” I just think, you know, the problem here is you are trying to strong arm me, and the author and everybody else by declaring what is reputable by declaring what is reputable and what isn’t. They’re declaring what’s truth and what isn’t, and they don’t know. None of us know. That’s why we’re doing science. It’s our best approximation for trying to figure out a little bit about what is true. I find it a totally inspiring process. But when people mistake their personal emotionality for something, they mistake that for scientific truth, well then you know we’re just dealing with psychological pathology instead of peer review. So I try to keep that stuff out, and I make a very concerted effort, as do the other editors here, to identify it while respecting each person’s point of view. I hope that message gets through to authors, reviewers, and readers.

Steve: Very good. I’d like to change focus now to a bit of the business end of running the journal. People unfamiliar with scholarly publishing are sometimes surprised that not only are your authors not paid, but they actually pay to have their articles published. Will you explain for us how author fees work, and why they make sense for Psychological Reports?

Dr. Ammons: As a general framework, page fees are very common in a great number of areas of science. For instance in geophysics, wildlife biology, cryobiology, paleontology, and a whole bunch of others. If you go in, you’ll find page charges anywhere from, for instance in cryobiology about $25 a page, which is about ours, up to 400, 500, 600, 800 dollars a page for certain other journals. There’s a sliding tier. In psychology, though, we are one of the few journals that have a page charge. So we do stand out that way, and that is sometimes something people try to use as a club against us, saying that authors are just paying to be published. The issue is that page charges are just one aspect of a whole variety of ways of paying the costs that it takes to get a journal published. Always, in all journals, those costs have to be paid, or else the journal can’t publish. So it takes the place, for instance Science and Nature, which are excellent journals, half of their pages are advertisements, biochemical companies, biological assay companies, immunology companies and so on are paying top dollar for big ads. We don’t have any advertising. The APA designates by budget how much a journal’s budget will be. That automatically lops off the size of the journal, purely by central planning. We don’t have that. The page charges allow us more freedom in how many pages we can publish, and I think the author or his institution can help support the work, because it’s a combined effort. It’s really a service for improving the field. Nobody’s getting rich off this, except maybe some of the huge for-profit publishers who are charging increases in subscription prices of 15-20% a year. We don’t do that. We keep it right down to a bare minimum, and the page charges are really a part of that. So there’s all these different mechanisms by which one can cover the costs. Even editors, for instance I would say in my experience none of the editors of the APA journals have any clue about what their journal actually costs to print. The estimate from their main committee is $8000 an article. So that price has to be paid by somebody, by some way. It can be paid by dues to the organization, but we don’t have an organization. When you have dues, it’s like having a union. Then everybody has a say, and you have union bosses and politics. We try to stay out of that. So the page charges are part of what keeps us independent. Again, they’re completely common across other areas in science, and they’re usually much, much higher than ours.

Steve: Right.

Dr. Ammons: One last example is that every journal that the American Statistical Association publishes has a page charge of $55-75 a page. The statisticians don’t blink an eye at that. It’s just part of the mechanism for how they’re able to have a journal that can publish their work. A magazine is in a different stretch of things. It’s a for-profit venture.

Steve: Right.

Dr. Ammons: I actually write magazine articles on kayaking, because I’m a long time expedition kayaker, and I’ve done a lot of stuff in that area. Sometimes I do stuff for free because I believe in the project. But nobody can put food on the table if they’re doing things for free all the time. So magazines function in a very different way.

Steve: Indeed, yes. You currently allow authors to post online the last prepublication version of their articles, even though copyright is owned by Ammons Scientific of the final version. Is that policy working?

Dr. Ammons: It depends on what you mean by “working.” I’d say yes, but of course authors would like to just put their article up. But the problem is, when they do that, the copyright basically becomes meaningless, and anybody can copy anything. That’s one of the problems with Open Access in general. An author’s last prepublication version is their last work. It still includes our efforts as editors and reviewers, but it’s still their last work that has not actually gone through completion into journal form. So it’s the last best thing. It’s a struggle. One would like to have all information available to everybody who wants it. The problem again comes back to there’s no way to prop such a system. These things don’t just come of their own without immense work by a lot of different people. Unless that immense work is compensated in some way, people simply can’t afford to do it.

Steve: So would it be your take that most or many of the advocates of Open Access underestimate and undervalue the work that editors and publishers do?

Dr. Ammons: Well, I think, I’m not sure. You use the word “undervalue.” I think there’s a difference of opinion. The more activist Open Access . . . . Let me back up. First, I think Open Access is a great idea, personally. We actually have an Open Access policy that we started here. The problem comes in how the costs get paid. The most adamant and aggressive of the Open Access advocates are responding to what I consider to be horrific increases the main for-profit publishers, just horrifically huge increases that are completely unjustified by the market and by what the journals actually cost. I mean, 20-25% a year increases. It’s unbelievable, and year after year. The libraries pay for those things, the students pay it through their fees, the taxpayers support it in public universities through library budgets. That’s where all that money is being skimmed from. So that’s where the aggravated Open Access advocates are coming from. They don’t like that, and I don’t like it, either. The problem is that they in return, when they advocate complete Open Access, they are looking at the system in an unrealistic way. It does require expertise and time and lots of materials and machinery and special knowledge and equipment in order to put a journal out. You used the word undervalue, and I think they undervalue that. Somewhere in between the rapacious for-profits publishers who are charging exorbitant fees and increases each year, somewhere between that extreme and the Open Access “agro,” someplace in there is a reasonable comprise. That’s what we have been trying to find. I think we are very close to it. If you get away from that Open Access extreme, what you find out with the Public Library of Science journals is that they still are not a viable business model, even though they’re charging $3000 up front for each article that they publish. They’re still not making ends meet. It’s even worse than that, because they are propped up by very large funds that have been donated to them. It’s a reasonable start-up, it’s a good attempt, but what they’re finding out is that it takes much more energy and money than they thought to make it work. I’m hopeful in the long run that it will work in one way. But the only way it will work is if people actually realistically apprise and solve the problem of cost.

Steve: Dr. Ammons, our time is coming to the end, but I’d like to ask a quick question before we finish up. Do you think Psychological Reports will still be published in print in 10 years?

Dr. Ammons: I think so, yes. It’s an issue. It depends on whether libraries still want a print copy. We will always print some, because if the power goes out and everything is online, you have nothing. You might as well be in the Stone Age.

Steve: Indeed.

Dr. Ammons: There is something to be said for Gutenberg.

Steve: Well, Dr. Ammons, our time is up. Thank you very, very much for your time. It’s been a fascinating interview.

Dr. Ammons: You’re very welcome. Thank you for calling.

Steve: A subscription to Psychological Reports costs $440. Subscription details are online at http://www.ammonsscientific.com. Thank you for listening to Periodical Radio. I'm your host, Steve Black.