January 28, 2012

Scientific Community to Elsevier: Drop Dead

Attention conservation notice: Associate editor at a non-profit scientific journal endorses a call for boycotting a for-profit scientific journal publisher.

I have for years been refusing to publish in or referee for journals publisher by Elsevier; pretty much all of the commercial journal publishers are bad deals1, but they are outrageously worse than most. Since learning that Elsevier had a business line in putting out publications designed to look like peer-reviewed journals, and calling themselves journals, but actually full of paid-for BS, I have had a form letter I use for declining requests to referee, letting editors know about this, and inviting them to switch to a publisher which doesn't deliberately seek to profit by corrupting the process of scientific communication.

I am thus extremely happy to learn from Michael Nielsen that Tim Gowers is organizing a general boycott of Elsevier, asking people to pledge not to contribute to its journals, referee for them, or do editorial work for them. You can sign up here, and I strongly encourage you to do so. There are fields where Elsevier does publish the leading journals, and where this sort of boycott would be rather more personally costly than it is in statistics, but there is precedent for fixing that. Once again, I strongly encourage readers in academia to join this.

(To head off the inevitable mis-understandings, I am not, today, calling for getting rid of journals as we know them. I am saying that Elsevier is ripping us off outrageously, that conventional journals can be published without ripping us off, and so we should not help Elsevier to rip us off.)

Disclaimer, added 29 January: As I should have thought went without saying, I am speaking purely for myself here, and not with any kind of institutional voice. In particular, I am not speaking for the Annals of Applied Statistics, or for the IMS, which publishes it. (Though if the IMS asked its members to join in boycotting Elsevier, I would be very happy.)

1: Let's review how scientific journals work, shall we? Scientists are not paid by journals to write papers: we do that as volunteer work, or more exactly, part of the money we get for teaching and from research grants is supposed to pay for us to write papers. (We all have day-jobs.) Journals are edited by scientists, who volunteer for this and get nothing from the publisher. (New editors get recruited by old editors.) Editors ask other scientists to referee the submissions; the referees are volunteers, and get nothing from the publisher (or editor). Accepted papers are typeset by the authors, who usually have to provide "camera-ready" copy. The journal publisher typically provides an electronic system for keeping track of submitted manuscripts and the refereeing process. Some of them also provide a minimal amount of copy-editing on accepted papers, of dubious value. Finally, the publisher actually prints the journal, and runs the server distributing the electronic version of the paper, which is how, in this day and age, most scientists read it. While the publisher's contribution isn't nothing, it's also completely out of proportion to the fees they charge, let alone economically efficient pricing. The whole thing would grind to a halt without the work done by scientists, as authors, editors and referees. That work, to repeat, is paid for either by our students or by our grants, not by the publisher. This makes the whole system of for-profit journal publication economically insane, a check on the dissemination of knowledge which does nothing to encourage its creation. Elsevier is simply one of the worst of these parasites.

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Posted at January 28, 2012 11:15 | permanent link

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