We have met the enemy, part 3: out of touch patriarchs

It is easy to argue that the problem of commercial control of scholarly journals is largely the fault of previous generations of academics. If they had not been so naive as to cede control of  journals, and to fall for the wiles of Robert Maxwell, giving away valuable content and labour for free, we may have avoided the mess we are in now. This is probably unfair. After all, the publication and marketing of journals was difficult, researchers wanted to focus on research, funding was increasing, and academics were not used to dealing with unscrupulous businesspeople.

However, it has been abundantly clear since at least the late 1990s that the current system in which Elsevier and other large companies sell back the fruits of our labour at exorbitant and ever-increasing cost, while the overall value added decreases, is not sustainable. It is also clear that a major reason it has not collapsed and been replaced by a simpler, fairer, more efficient and higher quality system is the lack of leadership by senior figures in the research community. The examples of Donald Knuth and Randy Schekman are impressive precisely because of their rarity.

Here is an anecdote. I recently approached the editor in chief (call him H) of a strong specialized mathematics journal (call it J) with a carefully worked out proposal for leaving its publisher E.  After 3 attempts over many months by email and a promise by another editorial board member to raise the matter with H, nothing happened. I then approached B, the founder of the journal and indeed of much of the research field. There followed a few rounds of civilized discussion by email during which I believe that I dealt with some of B’s rather cliched concerns about the effect on junior researchers. It all seemed to be going well, until B took offence at my claim that H was behaving unacceptably, and claimed that I was arrogantly judging H for his refusing my proposal. The explanation that I was in fact judging H for his refusal to engage with the proposal (a refusal would have been an improvement on being ignored repeatedlly) was apparently not understood, and discussion ceased.

I simply cannot understand the attitude of B, who exited in the 1990s the role of EiC at  the journal he created in the 1980s. The sensitivity to criticism is unworthy of someone of such stature. The excessive loyalty to H who whatever his other merits may be, has clearly not acted professionally in this situation, is strange. All that would be required is for B to ask H to consider this seriously and give an answer, and surely this would get some results. If even this is too much, then perhaps E is right that academics do not deserve to run their own journals.

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