Why I will no longer review for your journal

I have, for a while, been frustrated and annoyed by the behavior of several of the large for-profit publishers. I understand that their motivations are different from my own, but I’ve always felt that an industry that relies entirely on both large amounts of federal funding (to pay scientists to do the research and write up the results) and a massive volunteer effort to conduct peer review (the scientists again) needed to strike a balance between the needs of the folks doing all of the work and the corporations need to maximize profits.

Despite my concerns about the impacts of increasingly closed journals, with increasingly high costs, on the dissemination of research and the ability of universities to support their core missions of teaching and research, I have continued to volunteer my time and effort as a reviewer to Elsevier and Wiley-Blackwell. I did this because I have continued to see valuable contributions made by these journals and I felt that this combined with the contribution that I was making to science by helping improve the science published in high profile places made supporting these journals worthwhile. I no longer believe this to be the case and from now on I will no longer be reviewing for any journal that is published by Elsevier, Springer, or Wiley-Blackwell (including society journals that publish through them).

Why have I changed my mind? Because of the pursuit/support by these companies of the Research Works Act. This act seeks to prevent funding agencies from requiring that the results of research that they funded be made publicly available. In other words it seeks to prevent the government (and the taxpayers that fund it), which pays for a very large fraction of the cost of any given paper through both funding the research and paying the salaries of reviewers and editors, from having any say in how that research is disseminated. I think that Mike Taylor in the Guardian said most clearly how I feel about this attempt to exert legislative control requiring us to support corporate profits over the dissemination of scientific research:

Academic publishers have become the enemies of science

This is the moment academic publishers gave up all pretence of being on the side of scientists. Their rhetoric has traditionally been of partnering with scientists, but the truth is that for some time now scientific publishers have been anti-science and anti-publication. The Research Works Act, introduced in the US Congress on 16 December, amounts to a declaration of war by the publishers.

You should read the entire article. It’s powerful. There are lots of other great articles about the RWA including Michael Eisen in the New York Times, a nice post by INNGE, and a interesting piece by Paul Krugman (via oikosjeremy). I’m also late to the party in declaring my peer review strike and less eloquent than many of my peers in explaining why (see great posts by Michael Taylor, Gavin Simpson, and Timothy Gowers). But I’m here now and I’m letting you know so that you can consider whether or not you also want to stop volunteering for companies that don’t have science’s best interests in mind.

If you’d like to read up on the publisher’s side of this argument (they have costs, they have a right to recoup them) you can see Springer’s official position or an Elsevier Exec’s exchange with Michael Eisen. My problem with all of these arguments is that there is nothing in any funding agency’s policy that requires publishers to publish work funded by that agency. This is not (as Springer has argued) an “unfunded mandate”, this is a stake holder that has certain requirements related to the publication of research in which they have an interest. This is just like an author (in any non-academic publishing situation) negotiating with a publisher. If the publisher doesn’t like the terms that the author demands, then they don’t have to publish the book. Likewise, if a publisher doesn’t like the NIH policy then they should simply not agree to publish NIH funded research.

To be clear, I am not as extreme in my position as some. I still support and will review for independent society journals like Ecology and American Naturalist even though they aren’t Open Access and even though ESA has made some absurd comments in support of the same ideas that are in RWA. The important thing for me is that these journals have the best interests of science in mind, even if they are often frustratingly behind the times in how they think and operate.

And don’t worry, I’ve still got plenty of journal related work to keep me busy, thanks to my new position on the editorial board at PLoS ONE.

UPDATE: The links to the INNGE and Timothy Gowers post have now been fixed, and here are links to a couple of great posts by Casey Bergman that I somehow left out: one on how to turn down reviews while making a point and one on the not so positive response he received to one of these emails.

UPDATE 2: A great collection of posts on RWA. There are a lot of really unhappy scientists out there.

UPDATE 3: A formal Boycott of Elsevier. Almost 1000 scientists have signed on so far.

UPDATE 4: Wiley-Blackwell has now distanced itself from RWA and said that “We do not believe that legislative initiatives are the best way forward at this time and so have no plans to endorse RWA. Instead we believe that research funder-publisher partnerships will be more productive.” In addition, it was announced that a bill that would do the opposite of RWA has now been introduced. Hooray for collective action!

About Ethan White

I'm a happily married dad and a scientist. I like computers, math, stats, and good scotch. I believe in the importance of open science and a free and open web.

Posted on January 27, 2012, in ecology, publishing, science. Bookmark the permalink. 19 Comments.

  1. Kudos for your honesty and openness on this, Ethan (although I’m sad that Oikos will lose you as a reviewer).

    A few questions (real questions, not rhetorical ones; I’m genuinely interested in the answers).

    1. It sounds like you’re still planning to submit to the journals published by the “Big 3″? (You only said that you’ll stop reviewing for them, which I took to imply that you won’t stop submitting). Assuming I haven’t misread you here, why keep submitting? Isn’t that also a way of supporting those publishers? Some of the folks you linked to have decided to stop submitting to as well as reviewing for certain publishers (e.g., Gowers will not longer submit to Elsevier journals). I wonder about this in particular because, if you submit to journals published by those publishers, you’re effectively asking your colleagues to do reviewing that you yourself are no longer prepared to do. And yes, I recognize that not submitting to any journals published by the Big 3 would cut you off from the majority of the leading journals in ecology, so could be quite professionally risky. But if the principle is really that important to you…

    2. Journals are still a key way that scientific societies fund themselves. The economics here are basically the same for the BES and the Nordic Society Oikos as for the ESA and ASN. The only difference is that the BES and Nordic Society Oikos have chosen one of the Big 3 to publish and distribute their journals, while the ESA and ASN have chosen smaller publishers. What do you think the consequences would be for the scientific societies that publish with the Big 3 if lots of ecologists followed your lead, and do those consequences concern you? I guess the answer to this question would help explain why you’re not prepared to continue reviewing for society journals published by the Big 3?

    3. It sounds like you’ll be switching much of your reviewing/editing (and submitting?) to PLoS ONE. PLoS ONE also is for-profit, although it plows those profits back into developing its own business and subsidizing its selective journals, rather than distributing those profits to shareholders. Those profits also are based on academics working for free, and on publication fees that come from grant funds (which could otherwise be spent on doing science). So is your main concern with the Big 3 that their papers typically aren’t open-access (although even there, many of the Big 3 journals allow authors to pay a fee to make their articles open-access)? I guess I’m not entirely clear on what the key differences between the ‘good’ and ‘evil’ publishers are here.

  2. Great questions Jeremy – several of which I’d thought about addressing, but didn’t want to post to because excessively long. My responses follow your numbering.

    1. In some cases, yes. My main reason for this is that not submitting to the major journals in ecology could do serious harm to my graduate students and postdocs, and I am unwilling to do that. More generally, since I practically never write sole authored papers I don’t feel that it is my place to force my philosophy regarding these things on coauthors. Regarding the suggestion that if I submit to journals that I won’t review for that I’m somehow a bad actor, I think that this idea is a sign of how deeply we as a field have gone down the publisher’s rabbit hole. I am already providing research that was funded by the government, that was conducted and written up by me, to the publisher, for free, and allowing them to profit from it. How can that act possibly obligate me to also volunteer my time to them for peer review? If the argument is that as part of the scientific process I have an obligation to review, that’s fine, but I don’t understand how that would require me to review for a specific set of journals. In fact, if those journals are, in my estimation, acting against the good of science, then it would seem that any obligation I have is actually to not review for them.

    2. My hope would be that the society journals that have signed on with the Big 3 will do one of two things: 1) Use their influence to improve the conduct of the Big 3 to bring it more inline with the goals of the scientists involved (e.g., dropping support for RWA, lowering subscription prices, moving away from bundling); or 2) Switch to publishers that either behave better or are simply doing contract work to produce the journal. Societies and their members need to take a leadership role here and it is my hope that actions like this can do something to encourage them to act.

    3. As I’ve said before I have no objection to companies profiting from the publication process. The tipping point for me was the support for and financing of RWA. They are quite literally trying to legislatively codify the idea that if they publish a paper that they have complete control over it and no funding agency, university, etc. has any rights related to that publication at all. In my opinion this represents a complete disregard for the scientists and agencies involved in the production of research. When combined with high subscription costs (far higher than ESA journals and AmNat), billion dollar profits, and anti-competitive behavior (e.g., bundling), clearly designates these companies as ones that I have no personal interest in volunteering for. It is also worth noting that profits by small society journals and PLoS ONE go back into science. That’s a pretty clear distinction in my book.

    A lot of the discussion about this topic is wrapped up with Open Access. I believe that this is the direction that scientific publishing is and should be going, primarily because it assures access to research (our primary goal as scientists) and is by every estimate I’ve seen far less costly if implemented completely, thus leaving more money for research and teaching. It also provides the opportunity for real market forces to operate on journal pricing. That said, this isn’t about Open Access for me, this is about no longer volunteering for entities whose interests are in increasingly direct oposition to science.

    Thanks again for the great questions and the opportunity to expound a bit more full on my thoughts regarding RWA and the Big 3.

  3. Thanks for the reply Ethan.

    Re: #1, ok, fair enough, as long as your reviewing and editing activities for non-Big 3 journals still “pay” for your submitting in a PubCreds sense. In practice, I’m sure they will since you’re now a handling editor. But you knew I’d say that. ;-)

    Re: #2: again, fair enough, although in practice I’m not sure how realistic it is to expect societies that publish their journals with the Big 3 to switch to smaller publishers when the publishing contracts come up for renewal (indeed, I’ve heard that ESA is not thrilled with Allen Press and could well switch to a bigger publisher in future). I don’t know, but I highly doubt that any one society, or even a coalition of, say, all ecological societies, have sufficient leverage to be able to get Wiley, Elsevier, or Springer to change their pricing models. And even when it comes to choosing which publisher to go with, if a Big 3 publisher offers the society a better deal than a smaller one, and if you also believe in the uses to which the society puts its money, it seems to me that the society, and its individual members, are faced with some difficult choices. I too found some of the ESA’s comments on recent federal legislation disappointing. But I can understand why the ESA would like to protect a key revenue stream. It’s pretty glib to just say “scientific societies should just chuck part or all of that revenue stream and go get grants instead, and if they can’t get grants to support their activities then that proves those activities weren’t worthwhile in the first place.” I’m not saying scientific societies are somehow entitled to the same revenue streams they’ve always had. But they, and their members, have an obligation to think seriously about what activities the societies ought to pursue and how they ought to pay for those activities. I have the sense that there are folks out there who are quite narrowly and zealously focused on one piece of the puzzle, which causes them to ignore or say glib things about other pieces of the puzzle. Which really bugs me, because it’s not as if the consequences here for scientific societies are really so indirect or tangential that they’re impossible to foresee or to think about. If you’re *truly* passionate about solving a problem, it seems to me you should be passionate about developing a *complete* solution. And no, I don’t think that that’s necessarily an obstructionist or status-quo-preserving point of view. Ecologists of all people should understand and care about negative externalities. We oppose all sorts of economic activities on the grounds that the benefits on which their supporters focus are outweighted by negative externalities that their supporters conveniently ignore. So how any of us can turn around and argue for reforms of scientific publishing without considering the possibility of negative externalities for our own professional societies is beyond me. Just to be clear, I’m not accusing you personally of being glib, and I’m sure that you’ll continue to think, write, and act on these issues. I just hope that in future you’ll have more to say about the broader consequences of the reforms that you support. For instance, I suspect that a look at the annual financial statements of the ESA and BES (which are made public), and some correspondence with the relevant ESA financial officers, could provide fodder for discussion of what the ESA and BES might look like in an alternative world in which they publish with different publishers.

  4. I certainly agree that proposing major changes calls for having an actual plan, and I have seen the “scientific societies should just chuck part or all of that revenue stream and go get grants instead, and if they can’t get grants to support their activities then that proves those activities weren’t worthwhile in the first place” argument and don’t find it satisfying either. However, I don’t see very many serious people actually claiming that societies should give up the journal as revenue stream model. The folks who are proposing Open Access aren’t claiming that the societies should do so at cost, so I guess I’m a bit unclear as to whether this kind of reaction (which I’ve seen in other places as well) is based on reality or fear of change.

    For me personally I don’t even think it’s critical for major changes to occur. As I’ve said, I think that ESA has a perfectly functional model. They pay Allen Press to do contract work for them. Realized profits go to ESA and back into science. If I was in charge I would put a plan in place to move to an Open Access model that still produces revenue for the society, since in my opinion that’s where scholarly publishing is heading and I’d want to be leading the way, not holding onto a pre-internet business mode, but I’m not rebeling against the current system.

    I think in part you’re reading my position as being against the current general model of publishing. While I may have Open Access inclinations my point here is not about that. I am simply saying that I consider the Big 3 publishers to be behaving antagonistically towards science, and therefore I am no longer going to volunteer my time to support them. Fixing this doesn’t require a revolution in academic publishing. It simply requires that the Big 3 pay attention to the people that are working for them, for free, and the funding agencies that are paying for the research, and take their concerns into consideration. If the idea is that because societies publish with them that we can’t challenge them to act more in the interest of science, and refuse to collaborate with them if they will not do so, then I think that is “an obstructionist [and] status-quo-preserving point of view”, which is part of the reason we are where we are.

  5. Thanks for your further thoughts Ethan!

    p.s. Just got assigned a ms at Oikos that’s right up your alley. Don’t suppose you’d be willing to postpone the start of your protest long enough to review it? ;-)

  6. Yeah, don’t think I don’t suffer weekly regret when cool manuscripts come though my inbox (I’ve been on strike for a couple of weeks, just got around to getting this post done today). I just turned down a cool looking piece from Ecography earlier today and thought “man, I’d really like to review that one.”

  7. I’m glad to see this is picking up steam. If the publishers were interested in a real solution to their “problems” they would help end competition for research funding.

  8. Reblogged this on Sex, math and programming and commented:
    I feel like I’m seeing science change right before my eyes. This is huge.

  9. Rather than type multi-paragraph comments, I should’ve just linked to this (although it’s not apropos anymore now that Ethan’s denied that he wants a revolution):


  10. Here’s a nice little post supporting your goals, but opposing you methods Ethan. Illustrated with a rather, um, striking analogy: “shooting the hostage”!


    You’ve already addressed this issue, but I thought the analogy was fun.

  11. Ah yes, the old “protests are fine as long as they don’t inconvenience anyone” argument. I guess at least it’s in good company, since it’s been used against pretty much every protest in recent (and not so recent) history.

  12. “the old ‘protests are fine as long as they don’t inconvenience anyone’ argument”

    Well, getting shot certainly is inconvenient… ;-)

    (Obvious) joking aside, I guess that’s part of what this debate over the Elsevier comes down to–different people drawing the line in different places in terms of what “collateral damage” from a protest is acceptable. As I’ve said, I’m with you on this, as I don’t think academics have a duty to review for any particular journal (even if they submit to it), they only have a duty to, over the course of their careers, do at least enough reviewing to balance their submitting.

  13. Interesting food for thought here, from the perspective of a smart, knowledgeable outsider:


    Or, why Elsevier ought to take some lessons from the people who publish…(wait for it)…Dungeons and Dragons!

  14. Yeah, that is a nice piece. Thanks for sharing.

  15. Another nice post from Zen Faulkes, on why the Elsevier boycott may be difficult to grow and sustain, at least if it takes the form of people declining to submit to high-impact Elsevier journals:


    I used to think that the “you have to publish in Nature, Science, or the very best journal in your field to get a job” ethos didn’t really apply in ecology. Yes, having a Nature or Science (or maybe PNAS) paper would certainly get you interviews, but it wasn’t necessary. And it certainly wasn’t necessary to have a paper in any one particular ecology journal–there was no ecology equivalent of, say, Cell. Yes, you needed to have papers in good journals, but there were various ecology journals that were considered “good”–Ecology, Ecological Monographs, Am Nat, the BES journals, Oikos, and others. But with the increased competition born of several years of a bad academic job market, and the increasing impact factor of Ecology Letters, I’m starting to wonder if that’s not changing. So while ecologists might might be able to sustain a boycott of Elsevier, I wonder what would happen if someone tried to get them to boycott Wiley-Blackwell, or even just boycott Wiley-Blackwell’s non-society journals.

    Zen Faulkes suggests that hiring practices ought to change in order to address this problem. But that’s a whole ‘nother conversation, both about the reasonableness or otherwise of current hiring practices, and about the reasonableness or otherwise of trying to change those hiring practices.

  16. Some good questions for Elsevier, and a lengthy comment thread, going here, at one of the world’s most prominent humanities/social science/general intellectual blogs:


  1. Pingback: Just Say No – The Ashburner Response « I wish you'd made me angry earlier

  2. Pingback: The scandal of the Research Works Act and for-huge-profit publishers like Elsevier | Sociobiology

  3. Pingback: Poll: which scientific practices are ethical issues? | Dynamic Ecology

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