Why I chose to decline an invitation to review by Elsevier

All relationships suffer tensions from time to time, especially those based on love-hate.

Scientists have a complex relationship with their publishers — they love to get published in high-impact journals (most of which are run by major publishing companies) but hate the abuses of impact factors made by their own community in promotion and funding committees. They applaud the ethos of peer review as a valuable quality-control mechanism and a cornerstone of the amateur ethos of science that has persisted despite the global professionalisation of research, but grumble that publishers get this arduous service for free. They love to see their work in published form — a particular thrill the first time it happens — but complain that they often have to pay to do so, both as authors who have to meet page and colour figure charges, and as readers whose universities must pay subscription charges that place increasing strains on library budgets.

It’s complicated: my sketch does not cover all the nuances and dimensions of the problems. But partly in response to these tensions, and to advance access to publicly funded research, there has been a move over the past decade towards an open access (OA) model of publishing, in which the author pays the costs of publishing and the papers are made freely available to readers: there is no subscription charge. The OA model takes many forms, including new community-sponsored publishers like the Public Library of Science and funding mechanisms that enable cooperating private publishers to offer open access. Not all publishers have warmly embraced the OA movement, seeing it as a threat to subscription model that worked well for a long time, at least before the advent of the internet.

The troubled love-hate liaison between scientists and their publishers is going through a particularly dangerous turn at the moment because of the Research Works Act (RWA), a piece of legislation introduced to the US Congress in December. I read about it last week on Michael Eisen’s blog and was surprised to learn that the act would undermine the OA policy of the NIH, the major US government agency that funds biomedical science. That policy requires

that all investigators funded by the NIH submit or have submitted for them to the National Library of Medicine’s PubMed Central an electronic version of their final, peer-reviewed manuscripts upon acceptance for publication, to be made publicly available no later than 12 months after the official date of publication.

But the Act demands (with my emphasis) that:

No Federal agency may adopt, implement, maintain, continue, or otherwise engage in any policy, program, or other activity that:

(1) causes, permits, or authorizes network dissemination of any private-sector research work without the prior consent of the publisher of such work; or

(2) requires that any actual or prospective author, or the employer of such an actual or prospective author, assent to network dissemination of a private-sector research work.

The insidious aspect of the act, apart from its threat to open access, is the use of a kind of double-speak that converts work that is almost entirely publicly funded into the private property of a publisher. It is this claim — an apparent land-grab — that has incensed scientists.

But what has further stoked the fires of this argument is the revelation that one of the sponsors of the bill, NY Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney, has received substantial campaign contributions from executives at Elsevier, one of the largest academic publishers in the world.

Eisen, an evolutionary biologist at Berkeley and a co-founder of PLoS, laid out the details clearly on his blog and drew comment from Tom Reller, Vice President for Global Corporate Relations at Elsevier. To his credit, Reller tried to make the case for the publisher. But to my mind that argument incorporates excessive claims about the value that publishers add to final published peer-reviewed papers that report publicly-funded research. Reller was right to point out that management of the peer review process is a non-trivial exercise and incurs real costs, even if the peer reviewers themselves are mostly publicly funded scientists. But he still struck a bum note:

…of course we know peer reviewers aren’t paid. And we know that we, and our journals need them. If you ever reviewed for one of our journals, thank you, and we truly hope you continue to do so. I know all about the issues related to how difficult it is to find quality peer reviewers. You’re often paid by the government, and it is time consuming, we get it.

“We get it”? Perhaps it was a moment of exasperation on the part of Mr Reller, but his gratitude for peer-review was starting to sound like ingratitude. It was not a winning pitch to a community on which you rely. It was a slip of the mask that revealed the hard-edge of a serious business. That same hard edge drives the decisions to fund sponsors of legislation that aims to curb open access. One wonders if the authors of the legislation have had other support from Elsevier?

These are emotive issues — see, for example, this argument and response — but I wanted to look at them coolly. As Eisen points out, it should come as no surprise that a large successful company should lobby and support legislation that is in their commercial interests. This has been happening since parliaments were first formed. But scientists and publishers have to interact — they have shared interests. And that interaction will be healthiest if the discussion of respective interests is held in the open, which is why I was glad to learn of Elsevier’s latest activities.

I started to seriously think about my attitude to scientific publishing and to open access in particular last September when I wrote on the topic in response to a piece by George Monbiot in the Guardian. My blog post led to an extended and informative comment thread — with contributions from scientists and journal editors — that I found very helpful.

This latest episode caused me to think further. On reflection, after the first pulse of anger had passed, I found that I was still angry at Elsevier’s actions. And so, when a request to review a manuscript for an Elsevier journal appeared in my inbox, I opted to decline. I gave as the reason for my refusal the revelations about how the publisher was providing support for the Research Works Act.

This triggered an email from Elsevier which, in the interests of further discussion, I reproduce in part below (again with my emphasis). They make their case:

Fully acknowledging your right to decline reviews wherever you feel appropriate, I am taking the liberty of providing you with some background information on the Research Works Act, hoping of course that you might change your mind.

Our support for the Research Works Act comes down to a question of preferring voluntary partnership with government agencies and other funders to promote access to research works, rather than being subjected to inflexible government mandates like the NIH policy, which do not take into account the needs of different journals.

One of Elsevier’s primary missions is to work towards providing universal access to high-quality scientific information in sustainable ways. We support the bipartisan bill, which seeks to prevent US government policies, like the one imposed by the NIH, that mandate the dissemination of journal articles published and funded by the private sector.  Elsevier and other publishers have embraced and nurtured a whole range of access options to ensure broad dissemination – author pays journals, delayed access, manuscript posting, and patient access, to name a few.  We’ve worked constructively with a number of government agencies to develop new ways to expand access to journal articles reporting on, analyzing and interpreting agency-funded research. But like other publishers and societies we have always opposed the adoption or extension of the NIH policy, which restricts the author’s freedom to choose where to publish and undermines the sustainability of journals published by the private sector. The legislation is an effort to prevent such unsustainable policies.

Congresswoman Maloney of New York City co-sponsored this legislation quite simply because New York is one of the country’s leading publishing states. There are more than 300 publishers that employ more than 12,000 New Yorkers, many who live or work in or around New York City. Elsevier and many other publishers have offices located in Congresswoman Maloney’s district. We support her because she has been a strong supporter of this important industry, our employees and good public policy. And we believe the Research Works Act is good public policy.

There is nothing in the Research Works Act that prevents an author from publishing in an open access journal. Furthermore, Elsevier works proactively to achieve universal access to all its products and services, publishes eight open access journals, offers authors the option to sponsor open access to their article in over 1100 titles, and has a flexible green open access policy. While we support measures to curb open access mandates for government funded research, we have consistently supported the NIH research posting policy since its inception in 2005 as a voluntary provision. In other words, our basic position has remained unchanged.

I hope this provides you with some background regarding our standpoint in this issue.

If you have any questions, I would be more than willing to answer them.

While acknowledging the work and added value that publishers certainly bring, this position does not properly address the fact that for most papers the research work and the effort of peer review is funded publicly. Nor am I convinced by Elsevier’s contention that the NIH policy undermines the sustainability of private sector journals. A study commissioned by the Wellcome Trust in 2004 (PDF) compared the costs of subscription and OA models of publishing and concluded that OA was sustainable and likely to be marginally cheaper. Perhaps those conclusions need to be updated for 2012. I would be grateful if anyone could point me to a relevant analysis.

Elsevier’s assertion that the RWA does not prevent authors for publishing in OA journals is certainly true. I have to say the current fracas is propelling me further in that direction (and I am by no means alone in this – see here and here). There are concerns about the possible impact of committing to OA-only journals — loss of prestige, threat to the careers of junior colleagues, loss of grant income (as I mentioned towards the end of this post), so this is not a decision to be taken lightly.

But if scientists believe, as I do, that the fruits of their publicly-funded work should be available to the widest possible audience, we have to think about the most cost-effective ways of doing that. Of course, many have already done so; I am playing catch-up here but so are many of my colleagues, which is why I wanted to think through these issues in the open.

Scientists — and the public — are the major players in this arena and so have the scope to influence events. I am not looking for a shouting match but we need more dialogue between all parties to move the relationship forward, even if that sometimes involves difficult arguments or refusals to co-operate.


Update (29-1-12): For anyone looking for a handy background briefing on Open Access Publishing, this POST Note from the UK Parliament is very useful.

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58 Responses to Why I chose to decline an invitation to review by Elsevier

  1. deevybee says:

    Much is said about how scientists, especially junior scientists, dare not publish in journals such as PLOS One because they need more prestigious journals on their c.v.s. I suspect there are big differences between disciplines, but I think too much is made of this. There are two advantages of OA journals to authors. Because anyone can read them, articles published there tend to get more citations. And the publication process is typically much swifter than for the prestigious journals. My advice to junior colleagues is to get the work out a.s.a.p, rather than spending months if not years trying to place it in a high impact non-OA journal. The current obsession with impact factors is, I suspect, a transient thing, because more sensible metrics, in particular, numbers of downloads of an article, will be used to judge how influential an article is. Over the longer term, you’ll be more likely to be judged by H-index than how many papers you have in a top journal, and that reflects citations per paper, which won’t have a chance to start mounting until the paper is actually out there.
    Finally: the people who can really make a difference are the more senior scientists who don’t have to worry about embellishing the c.v. If more of us publish our best papers in OA journals, they will cease to be seen as a second-best option.

    • Stephen says:

      Thanks for the comment Dorothy – I agree with almost everything you say. The emphasis on prestigious journals is problematic for junior scientists especially. I’m not sure it’s overplayed. Although you are right to point to the evolution of metrics, I think it’s still the case that junior scientists see a palpable risk in opting for OA journals. But I agree that it is up to more senior people to lead by example.

    • Jan Jensen says:

      “Much is said about how scientists, especially junior scientists, dare not publish in journals such as PLOS One because they need more prestigious journals on their c.v.s.”

      I would argue that:

      1. Most journals that most researchers publish in are not really more prestigious than PLoS ONE. The journals are just better known in some fields.

      2. “Prestigious” is a loose term, so for lack of anything better 1. can be restated as: Most journals that most researchers publish in are have a lower impact factor than, or an impact factor not significantly higher than PLoS ONE. The journals are just better known in some fields.

      3. Most articles could be published in PLoS ONE without any significant loss of prestige.

      Thoughts on this?

      • Jan Jensen says:

        To clarify: 1. Most journals that researchers publish most of their papers in are not really more prestigious than PLoS ONE. The journals are just better known in some fields. Same for 2.

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    • Stephen says:

      Thanks for the links Peter (and apologies for the delay in getting them posted). I had meant to link to Tim Gowers’ post since his online collaborative maths projects had in part stimulated my thinking about more collaborative approaches to publishing.

      • Peter says:

        Thanks, Stephen. I actually learned that the reason were the links in my comment — too many automatically makes it spam…

        I do remember that discussion (I left a comment, I think).

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  4. Mike Taylor says:

    “But scientists and publishers have to interact — they have shared interests.”

    This should be true, and historically was. It’s only recently that I’ve realised (prompted in part by this article) that that simply isn’t true any more, at least in the case of non-open publishers. The bottom line is that what scientists want is for their work to be universally available and widely read; but publishers’ entire business model is to make access a scarce resource that they can force readers to pay for it.

    So it isn’t just that authors’ and publishers’ interests are no longer perfectly alignment. Much of the time they are diametrically opposed. That’s pretty terrifying.

    • Peter says:

      I think there’s another “service” of publishers that we still use — and, in my humble opinion, the main reason that we will not get away from them anytime soon.

      The main service nowadays is metrics. Instead of evaluating researchers on multiple facets, we reduce them (at least in hiring and tenure decisions) to impact factors of the journals they publish in.

      It always makes me think of Kant’s “selbstverschuldete Unmündigkeit”.

      • Stephen says:

        OK, I had to look that up (I’m not as well educated as I pretend).

        So “selbstverschuldete Unmündigkeit” translates as “intentional immaturity” or “self-inflicted immaturity”. I see what you are getting at and yes, I agree, to a degree scientists (and other academics) are their own worst enemy in terms of abusing metrics. I hope that more sophisticated approaches are developing (as deevybee noted in the first comment above) but we do seem to be slow learners. Maybe this Elsevier business will help a few more to rethink their attitudes to publishing.

        • Peter says:

          Sorry for being seemingly snobbish. The translation doesn’t work well. I also found “dependence” instead of “immaturity” and neither really nails it.

          Anyway, yes, I hope there will be better metrics in the future — at Science Online 2012 there were many fascinating examples. But we also need to work on our side. I think we’ve become so good at producing new research that we increasingly face the bigger problem of how to identify good research.

          Journals (and referees) seem unable to deal with the amount of research being produces and maybe more modular ways will be found (post-publication peer review or things like FigShare).

          But above all, no structural element can replace a change in the communities. We need to communicate whom we’re giving attention. I once read that the average number of readers of a scientific paper is 5. If we can get one of them to talk about it, we might be in a much better place when it comes to new metrics — but especially when it comes to being a community.

    • Stephen says:

      I’m not quite as pessimistic as you Mike but take your points. Maybe I’m too sanguine but I do know some people who work for publishers who certainly do care about the science. However, none of them as far as I know are at the money end of the business and I guess that is where the tension comes from. The thing that gives me some hope is that the community is now more active in developing alternative options to the traditional publishing houses.

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  6. I’ve found saying “no” to reviewing for non-OA journals to be a very effective step in the open-access revolution. Michael Ashburner, University of Cambridge emeritus geneticist (http://bit.ly/zSTxCB), has provided a template for saying “no” to non-OA review requests, which hopefully can be of use to others: http://bit.ly/xdPfra

  7. Frank says:

    Thanks for this clear overview Stephen. It is good to see the community getting behind open access. I recall something similar ten years ago, when the Public Library of Science petition garnered an impressive number of signatures as scientists pledged not to publish in any journals that did not deposit articles in PubMedCentral. Sadly when push came to shove they did not stick to the pledge, and PLoS started its publishing program as an alternative strategy to encourage open access. It’s early days but I sense that this RWA-inspired boycott may get more solid support. The OA agenda has moved on and is more embedded than ten years ago.

    • Stephen says:

      I feel bad that I didn’t cotton on to the real worth of OA sooner. Not sure why that happened but perhaps I was younger and more focused on just advancing my career.

      I agree that this RWA business has had a bit of a Steisand effect — or at least I hope so!

  8. My analysis of the economics of scholarly communication, illustrating how we could manage both a full flip to open access and major cost savings, can be found in this first-draft chapter of my dissertation:


    A brief update on the enormous – and still growing – profits of the big commercial publishers – certainly shows no harm due to NIH policy -can be found here:

    Thank you for posting the Elsevier reply, this is very helpful.

  9. Jason Snyder says:

    What about other non-open access publishers? Would you decline to review for them too? Are they really any different, even if they’re not openly supporting the Research Works Act? Where do you draw the line?

    • Stephen says:

      That’s a very good, tough question.

      In this particular instance I am reacting to what I see as excessive interference by Elsevier in the legislative process, for which they have yet to produce a reasonable justification. As I said in the post, this particular episode is causing me to think through my position. You’ll forgive me, I hope, if I take my time. In part that’s because there are many facets to the problem (and blogposts and reports to read!) and because I am not the only person in this equation. I need to think of the interests of my group members.

      But I think I am pretty clear on the direction I want to move in — towards only publishing in and cooperating with fully open access journals. The question is how quickly we can get there. That will likely require broader community support (which I hope will be stimulated at least a little though this blog post) and some risk-taking.

  10. steve caplan says:

    I really admire your principles! And for taking the time to stand-up and compose a letter explaining why you declined/refused to review!

    The sad truth is that I think many junior and mid-level scientists simply feel they cannot afford the “luxury” of taking any stand with regards to journals. The competition for funding being so stiff right now, that most scientists will be happy to get a publications in a reputable journal, and can’t really stop to consider whether they agree or no with the publishing ethics of the said journal.

    Those of us who review and sit on editorials boards can and probably should aim to be more involved–as you are–in taking a stance. However, rightly or wrongly, the vast majority of my colleagues and peers seem so overwhelmed by scientific survival that I doubt many have energies for any such actions.

    • Stephen says:

      Steve — all you say is true, but especially:

      “Those of us who review and sit on editorials boards can and probably should aim to be more involved–as you are–in taking a stance. However, rightly or wrongly, the vast majority of my colleagues and peers seem so overwhelmed by scientific survival that I doubt many have energies for any such actions.”

      I think the more senior members of the community should show the way and so offer reassurance to younger scientists who are rightly fretting about the impact of these choices on their careers. We have to start somewhere.

  11. Dear colleague,

    You might be interested in this opinion piece I lately published in the French national daily Libération: http://www.liberation.fr/sciences/01012365543-les-rapaces-de-l-edition-scientifique

    The newspaper slightly bowdlerized it, but my conclusion stayed: I called for Government to prohibit exclusive copyright licensing of research papers funded with public money…

    Looks like some members of the US Congress want the opposite of what I suggested!

    • Stephen says:

      Thanks for the link David – good to know these issues are being discussed elsewhere in Europe. Is the French government likely to act as you advise?

      • DM says:

        @Stephen: This is an election year. The French government is thus obsessed with reelection; academic publishing is thus not a major issue. 🙂 We’ll see with the next administration.

  12. Frank says:

    Another tricky question. Will you review for Elsevier’s open access journals such as Cell Reports, or FEBS Open Bio?

    • Stephen says:

      Don’t know, to be candid. That muddies the water a bit. Still inclined to put pressure on publishers to be more responsive to the changing mood of the scientific community.

      Rich Apodaca’s views below are interesting in this regard.

  13. Rich Apodaca says:

    The NIH Public Access Policy has been flawed from day one:

    1) It does not in any way change the copyright status of depisited works. You’re still liable for infringement by copying or repurposing these works – even if you’re the original author;
    2) This policy is creating an incomplete corpus – about as useful as a Web in which 4/5 sites are blacked out;
    3) It’s an attempt to legislate what scientists themselves should be doing – namely completing the transition from pre-digital era of publication scarcity to the post-digital era of limitless, cheap publication capacity.

    As a scientist, I encourage all other scientists to forget about the Research Works Act – it’s irrelevant. Focus on more important issues.

    Scientific publishers used to provide a lot of value. Now the only value they provide is that of Imprimatur , the implied endorsement received by authors who publish in certain scientific journals, particularly in those that earned a high level of prestige during the pre-digital period of publication scarcity.

    Elsevier and many other old-guard publishers have created top-heavy organizations that are fundamentally incapable of the kind of technical, cultural, and financial innovation required by Open Access. We should stop berating them about it and vote with our feet.

    But the thing nobody should forget is that the concept of the scientific paper is eroding before our very eyes.

    Future generations of scientists will look back to this as the period when scientific discourse stopped being about papers and started being about peer-to-peer communication. Boycott Elsevier if you must, but the real gains will come from making Elsevier and its ilk irrelevant.

    • Jan Jensen says:

      I think you are correct. But you are taking the long view here. A generation is 30 years.

    • Stephen says:

      The point about ‘imprimatur’ is very well made and one that I have even heard acknowledged by a journal editor.

      And thanks for the links to your blogs, Rich – some very thoughtful stuff there which I highly recommend to others.

  14. I think Rich is incorrect about imprimatur – the real value is adequate curation, which then provides imprimatur. You can read more at my blog on the matter.

    • Stephen says:

      Thanks for the link John but I’m not immediately convinced. I take the point about curation but in these days of burgeoning post-publication review and comment (only growing slowly, I admit), it seems to me that good papers will rise to prominence wherever they are published. In effect, the curation will be done online, not by the journals.

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  18. Stephen says:

    For those with access to Research Fortnight, they have covered the Elsevier boycott — and my refusal to review — in the editorial and an article in today’s issue.

  19. Putting an article online for free has economic consequences for the publisher because it effectively takes away returns that a publisher earns from all the value it has added and the investment it has made. So it does have the potential to make a journal unsustainable, and thus negatively impact the research community that relies on it.

    Elsevier has always been happy for researchers to voluntarily post the manuscripts they submit to us on their websites or in institutional repositories.

    Ever since the NIH Public Access Policy was introduced in 2005, we have also been helping researchers by posting their accepted manuscripts, which have been peer reviewed and accepted, for them on PubMed Central so they are publicly available 12 months after publication. We’ve posted more than 80,000 of them. This is more new content than NIH has received from any other publisher.

    Elsevier hopes the current dialog will stimulate reflection about the appropriate role for US government agencies in expanding access. We believe that government mandates are unnecessary and that there are better ways to provide access including to taxpayers.

    Elsevier already works successfully with an array of other funding bodies (for an overview of these agreements see http://www.elsevier.com/fundingbodies) on sustainable solutions. With some funders, for example the Wellcome Trust, we have successfully blended models and feel it represents a win for author, funder, publisher, university, and science more broadly.

    • Stephen says:

      Many thanks Simone for taking the trouble to leave a comment. My interest in dialogue is genuine.

      No-one disputes that managing the process of peer review and making papers available via an open access model is cost-free. The question for many people, I think, is how to do that most cost effectively. There are outstanding questions about Elsevier’s profit margins, which I understand to be in the region of 30-40%

      I am glad that Elsevier allows authors to post their final peer reviewed articles on personal or institutional web-sites (the so-called green option OA) but I’m sure you realise this is very much a second-best option. Since such publications are not flagged up in PubMed searches (as far as I know), they are not as accessible as they might be. This method of deposition is really too disorganised to be of much value.

      Of course, Elsevier facilitates the gold OA option in which, for a fee, you will place papers on PubMed Central (where they do get picked up by PubMed). However, this option is expensive (e.g $5000 for Structure the last time I looked) and, although supported properly by the Wellcome Trust, other UK funders (including Research Councils) are not so consistent in their provision to grant holders. For example, I have found it is difficult to get access to funds for OA charges for BBSRC-supported work published after the end of the grant (a far from rare occurrence).

      We may have to agree to differ in the rights and responsibilities of governments when it comes to public access but I hope we can continue the conversation productively.

      • Mike Taylor says:

        “Of course, Elsevier facilitates the gold OA option in which, for a fee, you will place papers on PubMed Central (where they do get picked up by PubMed).”

        By the way, I have not been able to determine under what licence Elsevier’s Gold OA articles are made available — see http://svpow.wordpress.com/2012/02/02/what-actually-is-elseviers-open-access-licence/

        It would be great if Simone could clarify, ideally with a link to the relevant page on the Elsevier web-site.

        • Mike Taylor says:

          “I have not been able to determine under what licence Elsevier’s Gold OA articles are made available … It would be great if Simone could clarify, ideally with a link to the relevant page on the Elsevier web-site.”

          Simone? Anyone?

          Can it really be true that no-one knows what licence Elsevier’s “sponsored articles” are released under?

          • Alicia Wise says:

            Hiya Mike,

            If memory serves I tweeted this info to you a few days ago. Elsevier is experimenting with various licenses for our OA content. There are some bespoke licenses which permit non-commercial reuse, and some CC options including BY and NC-ND. This information also appears in different places on different articles/screens. We’re in a test-and-learn phase.

            With kind wishes,


            • Mike Taylor says:

              So it varies on a per-article basis? But the fee is the same $3000 irrespective? Are there pages somewhere on the Elsevier site that explain this? It would be very helpful.

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