The last few weeks there has been a number of researchers calling for, or supporting, a boycott against Elsevier; for example, Scientific Community to Elsevier: Drop Dead, Elsevier—my part in its downfall or, more general, Should you boycott academic publishers?
What metrics are used to compare Elsevier to other publishers? It is common to refer to cost-per-article; for example, in my area Forest Ecology and Management (one of the most popular general Forestry Journals) charges USD 31.50 per article but Tree Genetics and Genomes (published by Springer Verlag) costs EUR 34.95 (roughly USD 46). Nevertheless, researchers affiliated to universities or research institutes rarely pay per article; instead, our libraries have institution-wide subscriptions. Before the great consolidation drive we would have access to individual journal subscription prices (sometimes reaching thousands of dollars per year, each of them). Now libraries buy bundles from a given publisher (e.g. Elsevier, Springer, Blackwell, Wiley, etc) so it is very hard to get a feeling of the actual cost of a single journal. With this consideration, I am not sure if Elsevier ‘deserves’ being singled out in this mess; at least not any more than Springer or Blackwell, or… a number of other publishers.
Elsevier? No, just Gaahl Gorgoroth
What we do know is that most of the work is done and paid for by scientists (and society in general) rather than journals. Researchers do research and our salaries and research expenses are many times paid for (at least partially if not completely) by public funding. We also act as referees for publications and a subset of us are part of editorial boards of journals. We do use some journal facilities; for example, an electronic submission system (for which there are free alternatives) and someone will ‘produce’ the papers in electronic format, which would be a small(ish) problem if everyone used LaTeX.
If we go back some years ago, many scientific societies used to run their own journals (many times scrapping by or directly running them at a loss). Then big publishers came ‘to the rescue’ offering economies of scale and an opportunity to make a buck. There is nothing wrong with the existence of publishers facilitating the publication process; but when combined with the distortions in the publication process (see below) publishers have achieved a tremendous power. At the same time, publishers have hiked prices and moved a large part of their operations to cheaper countries (e.g. India, Indonesia, etc) leaving us researchers struggling to pay for the subscriptions to read our own work. Not only that, but copyright restrictions in many journals do not allow us to make our work available to the people who paid for the research: you, the tax payer.
Today scientific societies could run their own journals and completely drop the printed version, so we could have cheaper journals while societies wouldn’t go belly up moving paper across continents. Some questions, Would scientific societies be willing to change? If that’s the case, Could they change their contractual arrangements with publishers?
Why do we play the game?
The most important part of the problem is that we (the researchers) are willing to participate in the publication process with the current set of rules. Why do we do it? At the end of the day, many of us play the journal publication game because it has been subverted from dissemination of important research results to signaling researcher value. University and research institute managers need to have a way to evaluate their researchers, managing tenures, promotions, etc. Rather than going for actually doing a proper evaluation (difficult, expensive and subjective), they go for an easy one (subjective as well): number of publications in ‘good’ journals. If I want to get promoted or taken seriously in funding applications I have to publish in journals.
I think it is easy to see that I enjoy openly communicating what I have learned (for example this blog and in my main site). I would rather spend more time doing this than writing ‘proper’ papers, but of course this is rarely considered important in my evaluations.
If you already are a top-of-the-scale, tenured professor it is very easy to say ‘I don’t want to play the game anymore’. If you are a newcomer to the game, trying to establish yourself in these times of PhD gluts and very few available research positions, all incentives line up to play the game.
This is only part of the problem
The questioning does not stop at the publication process. Instead, the peer value of review process is also under scrutiny. Then we enter into open science: beyond having access to publications, How much can we trust the results? We have discussions on open access data even when it is in closed journals. And on, and on.
We have moved from a situation of scarcity, where publishing was expensive, the tools to analyze our data were expensive and making data available was painfully difficult to a time when all that is trivially easy. I can collect some data, upload it to my site, rely on the democratization of statistics, write it up and create a PDF or HTML version by pressing a button. We would like to have feedback: relatively easy if the publication is interesting. We want an idea of reliability or trust: we could have, for example, some within-organization peer reviewing. Remember though that peer reviewing is not a panacea. We want to have an idea of community standing, which would be the number of people referring to that document (paper, blog post, wiki, whatever).
Maybe the most important thing is that we are trying to carry on with ‘traditional’ practices that do not extend beyond, say, 100 years. We do not need to do so if we are open to a more fluid environment on both publication, analytics and data sharing. Better, we wouldn’t need to continue if we stopped putting so much weight on traditional publication avenues when evaluating researchers.
Is Elsevier evil? I don’t think so; or, at least, it doesn’t seem to be significantly worse than other publishers. Have we vested too much power on Elsevier and other publishers? You bet! At the very least we should get back to saner copyright practices, where the authors retain copyright and provide a non-exclusive license to the publishers. Publishers will still make money but everyone will be able to freely access our research results because, you know, they already pay for the research.
Disclaimer: I have published in journals managed by Elsevier and Springer. I currently have articles under review for both publishers.
P.S. Gaahl Gorgoroth image from Wikipedia.
P.S.2 The cost of knowledge is keeping track of academics taking a stand against Elsevier; 1503 of them at 12:32 NZST 2012-01-30. HT: Arthur Charpentier.
P.S.3 2012-01-31 NZST I would love to know what other big publishers are thinking.
P.S.4 2012-02-01 NZST Research Works Act: are you kidding me?
The Research Works Act (RWA) bill (H.R.3699) introduced to the US Congress on 16 December 2011 proposes that:
No Federal agency may adopt, implement, maintain, continue, or otherwise engage in any policy, program, or other activity that–
(1) causes, permits, or authorizes network dissemination of any private-sector research work without the prior consent of the publisher of such work; or
(2) requires that any actual or prospective author, or the employer of such an actual or prospective author, assent to network dissemination of a private-sector research work.
The idea of calling researcher’s work funded by government, edited by their peers (probably at least partially funded by government funds) private-sector research work because a publishing company applied whatever document template they use on top of the original manuscript is obscene. By the way, Richard Poynder has a post that lists a number of publishers that have publicly disavowed the RWA.
P.S.5 2012-02-02 16:38 NZST Doron Zeilberger points to the obvious corollary: we don’t need journals for research dissemination anymore (although still we do for signaling). Therefore if one is keen on boycotts it should affect all publishers. Academics are stuck with last century’s publication model.
P.S.6 2012-10-19 15:18 NZST I have some comments on publication incentives.