Friday, February 3, 2012

The problem with academic journals 4

Or, why I'm not boycotting Elsevier.

"You never change something by fighting the existing reality. To change something build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete." - R. Buckminster Fuller

This is the fourth post in a series about the problems with the big academic journal publishers. In summary: the journals get their content for free; get their quality control (peer review / refereeing) for free; and get their editors for free, yet they charge many thousands of dollars for subscriptions. This bad situation has been compounded by publishers like Elsevier basically trying to buy a law that directly attacks open-access journals.

In response to this, and to other bad behaviour, calls for a boycott of Elsevier have culminated in this website being launched, where scientists can pledge to not submit, referee or edit for Elsevier journals. At the time of writing, around 3000 scientists have already done so.

I am not one of them, and I will not be one of them. I have several reasons for taking this position, some of them idealistic, and others pragmatic.

Firstly, I agree with the sentiment from Fuller above: it is better to create something new than to tear down the old. In this case, it means that it is better to support open access journals than to boycott traditional journals. In other words, let the old journals wither away into history because they have been made obsolete, not because one particular publisher has been throttled by a boycott.

Secondly, boycotting one publisher (Elsevier, in this case) won't achieve much. Other publishers, who are guilty of much the same behaviour as Elsevier, will simply pick up the slack, that is, they will see an increase in submissions that would have otherwise have gone to Elsevier journals. The boycott might hurt Elsevier, but it won't fix the problem with academic journals.

Thirdly, there is a lack of alternative venues for some fields. For my ecological research, the most appropriate journals are Ecological Informatics and Ecological Modelling, both of which are published by Elsevier. There is an open-access alternative to them, Computational Ecology and Software, but it is less than a year old and has yet to become anywhere near as established as the incumbents.

Fourthly, students and junior researchers do not have much of a choice where they submit their papers. If your supervisor says to submit your paper to an Elsevier journal, do you really have a choice about it?

Finally, any early-career researcher who signs on to this boycott is setting themselves up for some trouble down the line. As an early-career researcher myself, I ask myself, do I want to mark myself as someone who will not try to publish in the top journals in my field, just because they are published by Elsevier? I need to publish in the most appropriate and highly-ranked journals in my field, and for me, most of those are published by Elsevier. Put another way, I don't have a permanent job yet, so I need to publish in the most appropriate and highly-ranked journals for the sake of my career. I need to develop my career because I have a family to support. If that makes me a coward, at least I'll be a coward who can feed his family.

We will not solve the problems with academic journals by boycotting any one publisher. We will solve the problems with academic journals by supporting open access journals. That means submitting papers to them, refereeing papers for them, and volunteering on their editorial boards. I am supporting CES, by publishing papers with them, and by working on their editorial board. I might even start my own open-access journal one day. But we need more top researchers to get involved with open access journals. We need the big names to support them, so they get the citations they need to increase their impact factors, so the journals become more desirable venues in which to publish.

If there were a site where scientists could pledge to submit, referee and do editorial work for open-access journals, I would sign up there. I might even set it up myself - it's not like I need to sleep, is it?