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More on Elsevier January 29, 2012

Posted by Ben Webster in Uncategorized.
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I keep feeling I should comment on the kerfuffle around Tim Gowers and Elsevier. I had some similar thoughts way back when, though I found that I actually did not have the necessary chutzpah to respond to referee requests as I suggested therein. At the moment, I really find myself just wishing I understood the situation better.

On Gower’s blog, we’ve had the response from within Elsevier; I don’t find it particularly convincing, but what do you expect. I don’t think that anyone disagrees that at one point commercial publishers provided a service learned societies didn’t have the resources to provide. I personally think that things have changed to the degree that is false, but I can’t say I’m certain.

What I would really love to hear is the response from someone on the editorial board of an Elsevier journal about why they stay. The editorial boards are really the key to the business of any commercial publisher; the moment they jump ship, there just is no journal. Why didn’t the board of Topology leaving spark a mass wave of resignations? We got a bit of this from Scott Carter on my previous post, but I still don’t entirely understand the situation. So, I have a very serious question for any readers sitting on the board of journals with commercial publishers generally, and Elsevier specifically: what are the publishers providing for you that couldn’t be reproduced by, say, Scholastica? Have you thought about leaving but decided it doesn’t make sense for some reason I don’t see? Or is the situation fine in your opinion?

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Comments

1. matthias beck - February 1, 2012

I’m on the board of two Elsevier journals and I’m seriously considering resigning if there is no plan to move them off Elsevier, but with all serious decisions, I’m sleeping this one over for a while.

Let me use the Journal of Number Theory as an example to address your questions, because JNT’s situation is typical for many of the older journals that are implied by the Elsevier story. I think there are two main reasons for the inactivity of editors:

(1) Many editors (in fact, many mathematicians) don’t think “Elsevier” when they think “JNT.” In some sense it is an accident that JNT is currently published by Elsevier–it has existed for many decades and has gone through various publishers over those decades. I’m working for JNT, not for Elsevier (nor do I get paid by them, anyway), and I think of JNT foremost as an old and arguably well-known journal in number theory. I fully realize that this position contains a good deal of ignorance about Elsevier’s misdeeds, but it’s human, and I suspect it applies to many editors on many Elsevier boards.

(2) As I hinted at in my intro (and as many others have mentioned on Tim Gowers’ blog), the ideal solution in my mind would be to move Elsevier journals such as JNT to a more friendly publisher/publishing model, but such a move needs to involve the editor-in-chief(s). These are colleagues who put their heart into running the journal (most of them get paid, but that’s not why they’re running the journal), including many times the hours I put into JNT (which is already a nontrivial amount). A move to a different publisher/publishing model is not a pleasant thought for them, no matter how bad the current publisher might be: they have set up a system how papers are handled, they have trained staff for the journal’s operations, etc. What I’m trying to say is that being an editor-in-chief of a journal is a serious job, one that I have a lot of respect for, and thus I cannot take my editor-in-chief’s reservations about moving to a different publisher/publishing model lightly.

2. Scott Morrison - February 1, 2012

Hi Mattias,

I’m hoping we could persuade people just like you to try and describe in more detail what the obstacles are facing an editor-in-chief who is considering jumping ship.

I don’t doubt they are inconsiderable, but I also think that many people participating in the wider discussion happening at the moment don’t appreciate how big a problem this is. It would be great to hear more details about practical difficulties, things that might change that could lessen then, etc. Ideally we could all hear from some actual managing editors, but in a pinch someone like you — an active editor who cares enough to consider resigning — could be great!

3. David Speyer - February 2, 2012

I’ve been corresponding with a number of the editors at Advances. Several of them have also edited major journals published by mathematical societies, and a common theme in their responses is those other journals required far more non-mathematical busywork, because Elsevier hired clerical and administrative staff to take care of any such issues.

I’m hoping I can get some of my correspondents to come here and discuss the issue in more detail. I find it completely reasonable and believable that this can make the difference in deciding which journals to edit for.

4. John Baez - February 2, 2012

I quit the editorial board at Advances when their original publisher, Academic Press, was bought by Elsevier. I now wish I’d stayed so I could do more good now.

I think a lot of academics don’t talk enough to their librarians.
These days, we usually read journal articles on our computer – we don’t physically go the library like we used to – so we may even forget the library is there. Meanwhile, the librarians are suffering enormously trying to deliver good service despite ever-rising journal costs.

When I joined the library committee at U.C. Riverside I became aware of the full depth of the problem. Then, with the economic crisis, our book budget was cut 90%. Why? Even though journals eat most of the library’s budget, the journals are bought in huge bundles which the library doesn’t dare cut: it’s an all-or-nothing thing. All they can cut is books and staff!

I think we should all talk to our librarians more. They tend to be really nice people – too nice, in fact, to adequately inform us of the crisis we’re facing. We’re sitting on the top deck while they’re bailing out water from the sinking ship. Someday we’ll realize that, perhaps too late.


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