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back to article Elsevier's backpedalling not stopping scientist strike

Dutch publishing house Elsevier is facing increasing pressure from the scientific community, with the company's 2,000 journals now being blacklisted by over 8,600 academics. In January, following an angry blog post by British mathematician Tom Gowers, academics started to sign a public petition refusing to submit, edit, or …

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Pint

Thanks for the update! Nice to hear the boycott is starting to work.

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About damn time

This response to Elsevier is long overdue. Their journals have been exorbitantly priced for tens of years. More scientific solidarity is needed.

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Anonymous Coward

"refusing to submit, edit, or approve"

Not sure this will work, they'll always find someone else willing to do those.

Now if someone developed a way of masking citations to Elsevier publications, in a way that would damage their impact factor (but still allowing a citation to be made)...

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Re: "refusing to submit, edit, or approve"

but if enough prominent scientists are signed up to *not* be doing those things, the consumers of the journals are going to start wondering exactly who's doing it instead, and why they should be forking over gigantic sums of money for crap written by idiots and edited and peer-reviewed by idiots.

the only leverage elsevier really has is that it's The Establishment - it's where all the Best People publish their work and review other people's work. When the best people are manifestly not doing that, why would you pay elsevier's extortionate prices?

It also makes it abundantly clear to anyone with an entrepreneurial glint in their eye that there's a giant sodding gap in the market for some new science publications with somewhat less generous profit margins. All those prominent scientists looking for a new venue to publish in. Actually, excuse me, I have to go and...do something...

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huh?

".....was stricken with an attack of conscience."

Only because of libel laws.

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One more casualty of the Internet...

along with newspaper classified ads, neighborhood record stores, etc. Why would I ever pay to get my papers printed? I do everything electronically with PDFs these days. The old journal business model is a total dinosaur.

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wim

online

Why do scientist not publish/peer review their papers online like suggested by Bob 18 ?

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Re: online

So I publish my research on my blog - does anyone see it?

How do i get it 'peer reviewed' - a comment section like the reg, a star rating like Amazon?

How do I get it into citation index scores

There are some solutions. 100 years ago university departments published their own journals and exchanged them with other institutions, and handled the reviewing - that's why you have university presses.

Then they were persuaded that it was an expensive extravagance that would be better handled by commercial publishers with their own printing presses.

Now that you don't need a printing press and many universities own a web server you could return to the "proceedings of the institute of XYZ"

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ql
Thumb Up

Re: online

I think this is what the eprints initiative was all about, wasn't it? If I recall it was a Southampton Uni inititiative but seems to have morphed more into a Free software project. [ CHECKS eprints.org] - here's a quote

"EPrints has allowed us to put our research output online and make it easily discoverable with a minimum effort on the part of our researchers. The implementation of EPrints a few years ago started as a interesting minor project. It has quickly become one of our institution's core systems."

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Re: online

Scientific publishing these days is not really about publishing (it is really rare for me to have to read papers in a journal -- essentially everyone either puts their papers on arxiv or makes them freely available in some other way). It is basically about rating the researchers. When one applies for a job at a university, they will look at your cv and see how many papers you published and where, and use this to form an opinion on how good you are at research. When one applies for tenure or habilitation or whatever, again, your publications will be judged. This is the main reason why attempts to form new journals (possibly with better publication policies) fail -- people do not send good papers to unknown journals, as they would not gain as much prestige as by getting it accepted in a well-known journal. This means that new journals are usually forced to accept lower quality papers, and in long term, this establishes them as lower quality journals. Which further discourages people from publishing good results there.

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Anonymous Coward

Re: So I publish my research on my blog - does anyone see it?

Worse -- does anyone cite it in their works?

Some years ago I gave a lecture on a specific but a little bit obscure topic, and decided I could expand it. Instead of a blog I've turned the whole thing in a online bookish site -- lots of pages, indexes, code, etc. I know it is being read because of the logs, and because the lots of questions I get, mostly from undergrad students asking for help on their homeworks. Ugh.

Anyway, it does not have a ISBN, it is not published by any publisher and worse, some consider "it's on the Internet so it is free". So I know people use it but don't cite it, so those G- H- indexes are not increased because of this tutorial.

Even worse, at least in my country (A large one in the southern hemisphere. Lots of beaches and forests, but no koalas. You know it.) there is a list of publications rated by the people who publish on those journals and decide who get grants several committees for advancing the science. When you apply for a job or grant they will check your publications against the ranking database. Depending on your area of knowledge they can decide that your 12 presentations on international conferences are worth zero points (because conferences are not ranked), but your competitor's paper in the Journal of the North Wing of the Economics Building of the Southern, Central and West Agricultural and Health University is worth more because it is ranked.

I sympathize with the cause, but when you deal with "publish or perish" you know that if you won't do it, others will.

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Boffin

Cost Analysis

Speaking as a semi-academic at a UK university, I do see why sheer inertia keeps the current business model of scientific publishers working, but it's such a rip-off that it must change in the long run. Here's the procedure by which a scientific article gets into a university library.

1) A scientist or group of scientists do some research. They are employed by a university, possibly with additional money from government funding bodies (EPSRC/BBSRC, etc. in UK, NSF/DoE/DoD,... in the US). They write up their results in an article.

2) They submit this article to a scientific journal. The main criterion in choosing a journal is how widely it is read in the community of researchers who might be interested. Actually, they submit it to a scientific editor. This is an academic who does this job because it adds to his standing in the academic community, not because he might be paid for it.

3) This editor, after sifting out any totally hopeless submissions, sends the article to 2-4 other academics in the same field for peer review.

4) The reviewers read the article and write a report, recommending to reject it, accept it, or demand changes. There is little advantage for them in doing this (for one thing, they remain anonymous), but it's part of what's expected from an academic. Abuses do happen at this point, but in my experience they are rare.

5) Based on these reports, the scientific editor accepts or rejects the article. If accepted, the (non-scientific, even though they usually have a degree in the field) editors of the journal create a publication-ready layout. This is the first step in the process that's paid by the publisher. Until a few years ago, this involved combining separately submitted text, figures and tables in a readable form. Nowadays journals require submission in the final publication format, so it's barely any work.

6) This publication-ready "proof" is sent back to the authors, who check for final typos and misspellings. These are sent back to the journal. For free, of course.

7) The article appears online. Web hosting needs to be paid by the publisher.

8) The paper appears in the next issue of the journal, which is sent out to subscribers (university libraries and very flush companies). This is a waste of dead trees. I'm doing literature search on a daily basis, but haven't looked at a bound copy of a scientific journal in years. But we have access to the online archive because we pay for the paper subscription...

Cost analysis:

- What the publisher pays for: Cursory editing. Web hosting. Paper, printing and postage.

- What the publisher charges: tens of thousands of pounds/dollars per year and institution. Having a de-facto monopoly on an important journal, they bundle it with less popular publications to hide the price.

The alternative: Open access journals. Drawback: It doesn't work.

The model: the author pays for being published. It's a few thousand pounds per article, which an academic without a grant just doesn't have. If you do apply for a grant, there is provision for it, but at the same time you are supposed to keep the cost down. And if you do get the money, you are tempted to spend it on something more useful and publish with Elsevier.

The solution:Beats me. Either a wholesale switch to open access (with changes in funding to allow/enforce this), or a slow drift to slightly more reasonable publishers.

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Anonymous Coward

Re: Cost Analysis

There are additional costs. Developing our platforms, xml-ing the content, curating metadata. It hasn't just been a case of slinging up a pdf file on a server for a decade.

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Re: Cost Analysis

Ok, lets suggest this model.

Governments every year spend thousands of dollars/pounds/euros so that public and university libraries have access to journals like Elsevier's. So what if they set up an academic non-profit organization that occupies a few editors and the infrastructure (which could use university infrastructure and networks therefore it is already paid for). All the rest work (which academics provide already for free) will remain the same.

In the end universities, libraries, governments, grant bodies could save A LOT more money and tunnel all these money saved to actual research. Furthermore, access will be provided to anyone. The whole thing is insane if you consider it. Due to my country's financial problems there are times that I cannot have access to research work and papers written by my fellows and sponsored by my government. Epic fail of the whole system.

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Silver badge

Re: Cost Analysis

Speaking as someone who isn't an academic and did some of that work for a publisher once upon a time in my life, your description does not accurately describe the process. There's no way they are requiring you to submit it in "publication ready format" because that would require everyone in academia to own a copy of PageMaker, Ventura, Quark, and maybe one or two other programs. What they are requiring is something formatted to look like what will eventually be published so when they're done reworking it, they have something to match it against.

Next, some journals may only do cursory editing others do extensive, particularly for non-native speakers. In our case in addition to the reviewers we usually had 3 or 4 editor/proofreaders (hourly part time) who were assigned articles, they came back to us were reviewed either by the senior or assistant editor (both full time employees at the publisher), and finally went to either me or my assistant for correction and formatting in the publication program. While my salary didn't make me rich, I wasn't exactly cheap either. I expect most of the rest of the staff made more than me.

Finally, we need to deal with your throw-away greed line: they bundle it with less popular journals to hide the price. No, they've adapted to the socialist model academics prefer: they subsidize the cost of equally critical journals that don't have sufficient circulation to break even, or support other work the organization was doing [in my case we were a 501(c)3 corporation supporting scientific research in testing methodology assurance].

Now maybe Elsevier deserve a boycott because they are making obscene amounts of money, I haven't looked at their last quarterly report. But I given my experience, I doubt it. Probably just keeping their heads above water wondering how they are going to still be a going concern 3 years from now, and that was before the boycott. Chances are you'll only find out how truly critical they were after they go bankrupt and things that use to be easily available to you cease to be.

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FAIL

Re: Cost Analysis

I just looked at their annual report for 2010 and their net profit of £642m seems to beat your expectations by a rather large margin.

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Thumb Up

"However, the backdown by Elsevier and Washington seems to have had little effect"

Delighted to hear it. As a research scientist my only comment on Elsevier is that they stink - for reasons already mentioned so I will not bother to repeat them.

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Re: "However, the backdown by Elsevier and Washington seems to have had little effect"

I think this particular event served to make the scientific community realize the fact that today the role of peer-reviewed journal publisher can be filled by a mere server computer (or even hosted in the cloud).

The publisher had an opportunity to be a part of this new (albeit less profitable) norm by correctly recognizing their place and coming up with a reasonable value proposition. But I think they blew it.

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J 3
Meh

Pay?

"has helpfully suggested that scientists might like to pay it to get their research printed"

Eh? Many (most?) non-open access journals I've seen already charge some fee anyway. Just from the Cell journal mentioned: "Authors will be charged $1000 for the first color figure and $275 for each additional color figure." Apparently, if you don't have color it is free. Woohoo.

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Re: Pay?

The funny thing is that Elseveir charge the same for it's online journals. Those colour pixels are expensive you know!

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Re: Pay?

Or the cost of the paper is negligible compared to the rest of the cost.

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Re: Pay?

True, those stupendously fat margins make up most of it.

That is what the argument is about - making excessively large margins. Especially galling becuase the vast majority of the work is done for free - the only thing the publisher is actually doing is collating, printing and distribution.

The prices they charge don't match up with what they do. Compare with other low-volume printers, eg Lulu, and the various University presses.

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Anonymous Coward

Dutch????

You have got to be kidding me. Elsevier is 99% USian, and has been for a long time now. One office left in Amsterdam, and it's half empty.

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Anonymous Coward

Re: Dutch????

I think there's still a lot of ES left at Oxford. I used to work there, and I have no quibble that the journals are overpriced - some were in the leagues of £10,000/pa for a subscription which takes the piss no matter how you slice it.

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Anonymous Coward

Re: Dutch????

Yeah, I was in the Boulevard this week. It's not half empty, but getting that way. Back in the day, there were 1000+ of us in Oxford, it can't be anything like that.

I'm not quibbling either.

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Anonymous Coward

Re: Dutch????

Outsourcing the UK's IT to India was a clear indicator to me that the ethical stance of the business was no longer as important as the bottom line.

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Anonymous Coward

Re: Dutch????

"Like", for reasons related to both ethics and self-interest.

Ditto the US IT folk. Except it's amazing how many got rehired to manage the outsourced teams.

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IT Angle

Online citations

This may be a little naive but one could use one's Google Rank.

Or alternatively (and probably less subject to gaming), set up a similar system using registered institutions' eprint (or whatever) webservers.

There would be pools of registered sites covering specific subject areas and mailing lists notifying "subscribers" of new "publications" and also trending ones. Each article is reviewed by any subscribers interested and then (if they are) create links to those publications that they "like". There probably needs to be an "unlike". There will be mailings lists...

One or more "trusted" web spiders searches each site for a) publications b) subject tags (probably from a standard list for a pool) and c) links to other sites' publications. A search engine shows publications ranked according to things like no of links, cumulative "liking" for an author (or other reputational attributes) etc.

"Good" (or at least popular) publications rise up the ranking, "bad" ones don't get linked to (or are actively unliked) and fall away.

I expect one or organisations will have to be created to administer this, but I imagine this could be done by cohorts of institutions rather than a "commercial" player. But ultimately this is more democratic system and the spidering process could be done by anyone - so it is probably less capable of being hijacked as easily as now.

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Anonymous Coward

Re: Online citations

Given how Google like to change their algos, it's a bad starting point: also their algos like popularlity, hence the reason why a google search is a bad one for health problems, you'll get a very strong bias towards examples of bad outcome (for example) rather than what is normal. There are lots of people who are working in altmetrics. Mostly the data is open.

We (the industry - I work for publishers) are spunking a fortune on auto classification, auto taxonomic creation, etc.

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Bronze badge

Re: Online citations

> This may be a little naive but one could use one's Google Rank.

Yes, let's replace peer review with SEO. That will really improve things.

In the past, journal rankings were a necessary evil - necessary only because you couldn't convince P&T (promotion and tenure) committee members to spend the time taking a critical look at individual publications, or at the journals that printed them. Committee members are tenured or tenure-track faculty, with their own teaching and research work to do; serving on the committee counts as service, which tends to be weighted very lightly (if considered at all) for the members' own merit reviews.

But journal rankings are at least an abstraction of peer review. A secondary reputation network derived from the online activities of an unknown population might turn out to be a decent proxy for peer review; but without conducting the review we can't tell, and we have no idea how reliable a proxy it is, and it's subject to various biasing effects (like the popularity of the author), and it's subject to gaming.

A better approach would be to start by getting rid of journal rankings, which will require both positive (better rewards for committee work) and negative (pressure from top authors, disciplinary organizations, etc) incentives. And work on improving the efficiency of the various peer-review processes in the system; they tend to be abysmally slow and wasteful. (I'm involved in some projects in this area now.)

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Pint

Lisi's E8 theory/observation was published on-line

"An Exceptionally Simple Theory of Everything" was posted to the physics arXiv online repository by Antony Garrett Lisi. Worked for him.

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FAIL

Hard problem

As an IT entrepreneur, it's easy to see how we can apply technology to radically reduce the distribution costs. It's also easy to see how to handle the peer review workflow, search and qualifications.

The real problem however has absolutely nothing to do with technology and everything to do with academia itself.

Academia is a world that places more value on where your ideas are available to be seen and the accreditations attached to your name than on the ideas themselves. This is fundamentally broken and no amount of technology is going to solve it.

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Re: Hard problem

Academia is a great many places, not all of them alike; and some orders of magnitude more people, who are similarly varied. But no doubt your sweeping generalization is true for all of them.

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