We have met the enemy: part 1, pusillanimous editors

I have been semi-obsessively following developments related to the Elsevier boycott, open access publishing, and related issues for the last 2 years. Perhaps my idealist personality is always in need of a cause to fight. As so often in the past (e.g. the uprisings in Iran and Arab countries in the last few years), my initial hopes that the world would be reorganized in a more reasonable, fairer, and more efficient manner have not been fulfilled. There are many reasons why progressive movements fail. The goals may be unrealistic, there may be powerful individual incentives against collective action, etc. In the next few posts, I want to discuss why progress is so slow in moving to a new system of research publishing that almost everyone seems to think is inevitable and most think is desirable. I am not trying deliberately to be offensive, but I feel that the time is right to start talking more directly about the ethical standards of our research colleagues. Commercial publishers certainly don’t have the interests of science at heart, but they are not the main cause of the current malaise.

One reason for lack of change is the lack of a reason to change. I presume there are some people who still think the current journal system is close to optimal. This is likely a minority opinion, but still needs to be addressed.

Difficulties with the current system (System A)

  • Most journal titles are owned by for-profit companies (usually called “publishers”, but I will call them “owners”).
  • Each journal has a monopoly on its content.
  • Pricing information is deliberately made opaque by owners, using bundling and non-disclosure clauses in contracts.
  • Therefore, journal prices increase at a rate well above true costs, leading to huge profits by the owners and financial strain on libraries. For this, very limited access to content is given to the public.

A better version of the current system (System B)

  • Each journal is owned by a nonprofit society, university library, or similar organization.
  • Any publishing services required by the journal are contracted out transparently and competitively.
  • This should lead to lower overall subscription costs for libraries. The issue of public access is not addressed.

An alternative (System C)

  • Authors pay the up-front cost of publication.
  • Content is freely available to anyone.

This is usually called “gold open access”. Switching to such a system would lead to large savings overall compared to the current system. There are problems with exactly how authors pay, among other things.

System C deserves its own post. In the rest of this post, I want to discuss the more traditional options.

How to change from A to B

Owners accustomed to supernormal profits will resist giving up the exclusive right to use journal titles. Methods to achieve the desired result include

  • Asking assertively.
  • Threatening to move the editorial board to another publisher (changing the name, but making it clear that the “real” journal will be moving and the traditionally named one is not supported by the editorial board.
  • Carrying out such a threat.

Why has so little happened?

Tim Gowers’ latest post includes the following:

There were rumblings from the editorial boards of some Elsevier journals, but in the end, while a few individual members of those boards resigned, no board took the more radical step of resigning en masse and setting up with a different publisher under a new name (as some journals have done in the past), which would have forced Elsevier to sit up and take more serious notice. Instead, they waited for things to settle down, and now, two years later, the main problems, bundling and exorbitant prices, continue unabated: in 2013, Elsevier’s profit margin was up to 39%. (The profit is a little over £800 million on a little over £2 billion.)

I find this very hard to understand. There is a clear path to follow, demonstrated by several editorial boards. I read some comments about deliberations by the editors of Journal of Number Theory in 2012. Apparently: (attributed to Urs Hartl) “in a recent vote among the 36 editors – 19 wanted the divorce – 6 didn’t – 6 were not ready to commit at this time and abstained – 5 didn’t respond.” It would be very interesting to read public comments from some of the editors.

An anecdote: I was asked to referee a paper by an Associate Editor (whom I dont know personally) of the Elsevier journal Discrete Mathematics. After rejecting this because of the Elsevier boycott, I received an email from this Associate Editor.

If you have a colleague who is an Elsevier editor, take a look at
their tools for managing a journal.   Similar open source tools could
be developed, but  serious dedicated resources would be needed.
Working at [redacted] and on software for [redacted] have taught me not to underestimate the task of creating top notch tools.  Besides tools, Elsevier provides large databases of
potential referees, referee reviewing history, and on-line access to
large libraries of papers.  They make it very easy to manage the
editorial process.   Their tools have helped our efforts to improve
the journal Discrete Mathematics.

Having these tools available has made it possible to keep plugging
away given the turmoil in the peer reviewing process.  I have handled
a nontrivial number of papers for which finding willing reviewers was
a challenge.  I’ve found that the Elsevier tools (together with Google
Scholar) have made it possible for me to ultimately end up with two
reports for even the most troublesome paper.   By the way, I feel that
referees should be compensated; I’ve  articulated this view several
times to Elsevier when I’ve had the chance to provide suggestions.
However, there seems to be little opportunity to change things, even
in token ways.  Although I would like to more precise, I think all I
can say is that Discrete Mathematics associate editors get a mid-four
figure salary (in US$), enough not to feel taken advantage of, but
less than it should be.   I also know that the chief editor receives
quite a bit more, as he should.

…  Everyone on the editorial board resonates with many of the
complaints raised by the boycott.   But we all have decided to
continue working on the journal and encouraging Elsevier to change
many of its ways.  I feel I am doing a service to the authors and to
the mathematical community by this work.

Let’s address the main points raised here:

  • The owner provides me with a lot of useful software tools to do my job.

Since I am not an Elsevier editor I can’t comment on their tools. My recollection from the time when I was an Elsevier referee is that the Elsevier Editorial System was nothing special.

However, I do have considerable experience as an editor using Open Journal Systems software. My enquiry to the Associate Editor about which features EES has that OJS doesn’t was met with silence. Does anyone reading this have a good answer?

  • The owner pays me thousands of dollars a year.

My own opinion is that this is scandalous. I am sure not everyone will agree. It certainly creates a strong impression in my mind of conflict of interest.

  • I am working to change the system from the inside.

Concessions made by Elsevier so far to a strong campaign by researchers have amounted to not much more than reduction in rates of price increase and freeing up of archives in some subject areas that don’t substantially impact the profitability of Elsevier. It is not remotely enough. My enquiry to the Associate Editor as to his progress in changing things was met with silence.

My conclusions, in the absence of further information: senior researchers by and large are too comfortable, too timid, too set in their ways, or too deluded to do what is needed for the good of the research enterprise as a whole. I realize that this may be considered offensive, but what else are the rest of us supposed to think, given everything written above? I have not even touched on the issue of hiring and promotions committees perpetuating myths about impact factors of journals, etc, which is another way in which senior researchers are letting the rest of us down (there are very few prepared to do what Randy Schekman has). That might be a topic for another post.

I very much hope that this post will stimulate serious discussion and we can really hear some principled reasons why, at the very least, we haven’t seen more progress toward System B, or a cheaper version of System A. Senior researchers invested in the current system, please let us know your views!

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