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Since the beginning of 2017, over 60 large German universities and other research institutions lack access to journals published by scientific publishing giant Elsevier. Paradoxically, this escalation in the conflict between research institutions and Elsevier is actually a good thing. To a certain degree, the battle puts to test a great thought experiment provided by James Heathers last year. In his post he applied The Garbage Strike Test to the contemporary scientific publishing system:
What happens [when garbagemen just stop doing their job]? Almost immediately, massive stinking middens of rancid trash build up. Streets became partially inaccessible. Rats run rampant. Cities marinate in their own furious stink. Rocks are thrown at strike-breakers and scabs. Mayors call meetings.
In the end, garbagemen win in such struggles because they are (a) truly necessary, (b) on the right side of public opinion, and (c) something whose absence horrifies people utterly. If you apply this scenario to large academic publishers, assuming that they “suddenly refused anyone any access to any of their copyrighted materials at 9am tomorrow morning ”, the outcome would differ substantially: Read the rest of this entry »
The recent infight between the world’s largest academic publishing company, Elsevier, and (soon: former) editors of one of their journals over attempts to make the journal open access – that is, freely available online – demonstrates the potential power of editorial boards in shaping the digital future of academic publishing.
The academic publishing system runs on reputation. Researchers gain reputation by publishing in reputable journals, which are more read and cited than other journals. The better the reputation of a journal, the more prestigious is it to review and serve as a member of the editorial board. Of course, the related reputation dynamic is self-stabilizing and highly path dependent because prestigious journals get more submissions, have higher rejection rates, more prestigious authors and reviewers, all of which contributes to being cited more often, which in turn is the key reputation metric in most disciplines (see a paper by Jakob Kapeller and myself on this issue for the field of economics).
The path dependence of journal reputation in contempary academic publishing is one of the reasons – if not the main reason – why new open access journals face a steep uphill battle against incumbent journals. The few open access journals that managed to acquire substantial prestige such as some of Public Library of Science (PLoS) journals did so mostly because of the very high prestige of founding editors, including nobel laureates. It is also the reason why simply calling for researchers to switch to open access outlets won’t work. Since careers and funding depend on the proven ability to publish in established “top journals”, researchers in general and early-career researchers in particular have strong incentives to avoid newly founded open access outlets.
About one month ago, Fields Medalist Tim Gowers complained in a blog post about Elsevier’s publication practices, which inspired the mathematics PhD student Tyler Neylon to launch the campaign “The Cost of Knowledge“. The website makes three main accusations against Elsevier:
- They charge exorbitantly high prices for subscriptions to individual journals.
- In the light of these high prices, the only realistic option for many libraries is to agree to buy very large “bundles”, which will include many journals that those libraries do not actually want. Elsevier thus makes huge profits by exploiting the fact that some of their journals are essential.
- They support measures such as SOPA, PIPA and the Research Works Act, that aim to restrict the free exchange of information.
So far, 7434 researchers have signed a petition to publicly declare that they will not support any Elsevier journal unless they radically change how they operate. Most of the signers even specified that they “won’t publish, won’t referee, and won’t do editorial work” for Elsevier any more. And Elsevier, one of the largest and most profitable publishing houses of the world, seems to begin to falter.