Bad Signs From The Publishing World

The recent acquisition of an open access publisher by the publisher juggernaut Elsevier raised a lot of concerns in the scientific publishing arena, justifiably so, in my opinion; see Elsevier buys SSRN: “Elsevier is one of the world’s largest scholarly publishers and one of the most bitter enemies that open access publishing has; SSRN is one of the biggest open access scholarly publishing repositories in the world: what could possibly go wrong?

Coming not long after some major incidents around issues of editorial independence, this is indeed cause of major concern. In one case, the editorial staff of an important medical journal resigned in protest to the sacking of its editor: Medical journal editor sacked and editorial committee resigns.All but one member of the editorial advisory committee for Australia’s top medical journal have resigned following the sacking of its eminent editor. Stephen Leeder, an emeritus professor of public health at the University of Sydney and chair of the Western Sydney Local Health District Board, was sacked as editor of the prestigious Medical Journal of Australia after he raised concerns about a decision by the journal’s publisher AMPCo to outsource the journal’s production to Elsevier. AMPCo is a wholly owned subsidiary of the Australian Medical Association.” In another case, an OA publisher sacked virtually the whole core team of two journals: Open-access publisher sacks 31 editors amid fierce row over independence. “A booming open-access (OA) publishing company has dismissed virtually the entire leadership of two medical journals amid a heated conflict over editorial independence. Frontiers, based in Lausanne, Switzerland, removed 31 editors of Frontiers in Medicine and Frontiers in Cardiovascular Medicine on 7 May after the editors complained that company staff were interfering with editorial decisions and violating core principles of medical publishing. Emotions are running high. The editors say Frontiers’ publication practices are designed to maximize the company’s profits, not the quality of papers, and that this could harm patients. Frederick Fenter, executive editor at Frontiers, says the company had no choice but to fire the entire group because they were holding up the publication of papers until their demands were met, which he likens to ‘extortion.’

Such events makes one ponder about the role of the publishers in general, and makes inevitable that proposals to fundamentally change the status quo start popping up all over the world, such as this: Want to Change Academic Publishing? Just Say No. If academic work is to be commodified and turned into a source of profit for shareholders and for the 1 percent of the publishing world, then we should give up our archaic notions of unpaid craft labor and insist on professional compensation for our expertise, just as doctors, lawyers, and accountants do. This does not mean we would never referee articles free. Just as the lawyer who is my neighbor bills corporate clients a hefty fee but represents prisoners in Guantánamo pro bono, so academics could referee without charge for nonprofit presses but insist on professional rates of compensation from for-profit publishers that expect us to donate our labor while paying mansion salaries to their chief executives and top managers.

I am not sure that this is the best approach, but it has the merit of exposing a major problem in the publishing industry, that is being compounded by the strong hand tactics in the examples given, which compromise the very core of the enterprise, namely the circulation of scientific knowledge.

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