Wednesday, May 30, 2018

An interesting take on the business of academic journals

I want to share this particular article simply because there is something rotten in the state of academic publishing: All publishers are predatory - some are bigger than others. The author shares a personal vignette about a recent experience with one of Elsevier's journals, and in the process examines how a large corporate journal enterprise is making quite a profit off the backs of scholars and the institutions that house our research offices and labs. Most importantly, for those without necessary institutional access, just how much is charged for an article that hasn't even been officially published yet. I think this passage in particular is worth considering:
We still don’t know if they were taken into consideration, as to this date, more than five months later, a typeset version of the article has still not been made available, and all that can be found in the website is our own PDF version.

Nevertheless, by visiting the journal’s website, I have been made aware that it is already charging US$ 35.95 for a single copy of the article (Pinto et al. 2017). Of course, most customers will access it through an institutional subscription to the journal - which, also according to the website, costs US$ 4420 per year for an institution, not including taxes.

Now let’s briefly review what the publisher has done in order to charge those prices:

- It provided a platform for submission - which basically merged files into a PDF and forwarded it by e-mail to the editor, something a marginally tech-savvy person could have done in less than 10 minutes.

- Through the editor, it looked for reviewers for the article. We do not know how much work that took, as the process occurs behind doors. Nevertheless, it took more than 3 months for the publisher to provide us with a couple of brief reviews. In comparison, a mere 48 hours after the preprint version of the article had been posted on bioRxiv, it had already been retweeted 15 times (although no formal comments had been made), suggesting that scientific readership might not be that hard to find.

- After a whopping 102 days, the publisher was able to provide some feedback on the article - 5 comments that fit into little more than half a page. That feedback was based on the opinion of a reviewer that, in all likelihood, provided his expertise for free for the publisher. That said, we cannot know for sure whether the chosen reviewers were indeed experts in the field, as both of them remained anonymous.

- After resubmission, it took around 30 days to confirm that the paper was accepted, without any further comments or feedback to justify that delay.

- After acceptance, it provided an automatically typeset version of the article in which the formatting of tables was ruined. After complaints on the proof, they have still not been able to provide a final typeset version of the manuscript at the time of writing, even though more than three months have passed.

On the other side of the deal, my coauthors and I worked for around 2 years on the manuscript at the time of submission. To arrive at the final product, we reviewed 1050 original studies and 142 meta-analyses, and extracted data from 326 of those articles in order to produce a 6,486-cell, 282-row-x-23-column spreadsheet. We produced figures, had countless discussions on the subject, read a huge amount of articles, worked hundreds of hours on the manuscript, and showed it to multiple collaborators who provided their input. Both my salary and my coauthors’ scholarships were paid by Brazilian governmental agencies. Ultimately, that is the value for which the publisher charges with the fees quoted above - science produced with public money whose copyright is transferred for free to a private company.
Now about that submission platform: Elsevier journals may vary in terms of how well that platform is used. Part of what is supposed to make their journals and the articles contained within them worth the price of admission is that the submission process as well as the entire review process strictly adheres to COPE guidelines. That means among other things that any author submitting a manuscript has an assurance that their work is being cross checked with up-to-date software to check for authenticity. As one of the company's associate publishers accidentally informed me, one should realize that Elsevier's journals may cross check submissions. That should be a concern to any author. If there is ever a concern for any duplicate content - and that is one that any of us who write multiple manuscripts on the same topic continually worry about - it is not entirely clear that Elsevier's journals uniformly cross check. You are really at the mercy of a competent publishing and editorial team for each specific journal currently owned by Elsevier. Some of its journals may avoid using the submission platform altogether. I had that experience last year with a submission to Current Opinion in Psychology. Given that a subscription to the journal goes for $2358 per year (plus tax) and the price per article is $31.50 (and those articles are little more than superficial narrative reviews), not including tax, we should all expect better than a submission process befitting one of the sort of journals once featured in Beall's infamous list. Let's just say that the editors and associate publisher responsible for that journal don't really want to talk about the submission and review process.

We'll put that little detail aside for a moment. The bigger point is that there is an enormous transfer of wealth from public funds used to finance scholarly work to private for-profit corporations, and we're at their mercy as far as quality control is concerned. I'm no fan of the sort of predatory journals and publishers that Beall tried to expose. However, they are small-time compared to some of the conglomerates that dominate our current academic landscape. I am increasingly gravitating toward open-access journals and platforms, in particular non-profit. I'm convinced that research should be treated as a public good rather than a private commodity. For the time being, the system rewards those of us who turn a blind eye to that particular value. Given some of Elsevier's recent setbacks (whole nations are now ending subscription contracts with Elsevier), I think it is safe to say that, as Bob Dylan might have put it, "it doesn't take a weatherman to know which way the wind is blowing." My concern is that open access will itself become commodified, and any of us with a grain of good sense and decency should do whatever we can to prevent that from occurring. There are plenty of good folks already on it. They'll need all the support they can get.

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