Why do people still referee papers for Elsevier?

Maybe I don’t have a whole blog post’s worth to say on this topic, but it is a question that bugs the hell out of me. I mean, I know perfectly well why people publish in Elsevier journals: it’s good for their career. I’ll confess I have a publication coming out in the Journal of Algebra some time in the near future (and another in Tranformation Groups, which is a Springer journal).

But if Elsevier sends me an article to review, I’ll send the editor a polite letter along the lines of

Dear Editor,

I’m sorry, but I won’t do free work for a for-profit organization. I encourage you to do the same.

Ben Webster

If everyone would do that, there would be no more for-profit journals in a matter of weeks, and it wouldn’t be particularly hard. I mean, is there anbody who derives enjoyment or even career advancement by refereeing papers for Elsevier? It really doesn’t seem like it would be the case. Most other questions of interactions with evil journals are much more mixed. It’s a genuine dilemma for a library to decide to drop Inventiones, or for a mathematician to decide not to publish there. But refereeing for them? Come on.

EDIT: Scott mentions there is a list of people who have publicly committed to not participating in the operation of high priced journals by agreeing to the so-called Banff Protocol. I encourage you all to sign up.

25 thoughts on “Why do people still referee papers for Elsevier?

  1. Have a look at the Banff protocol, which is essentially an agreement to neither submit to, nor perform free work for, the most expensive journals.

    The list of signatories is not enormously long, but does include some names mentioned here (Wolfgang Soergel, John Baez) as well as some of our readers.

    I assume I’d be agreeing with Ben to say that as it’s written it’s not so great — simply because it’s much harder for people to promise they won’t publish there, than to say they won’t work for evil publishers for free.

    If only we had some way of getting hold of a list of everyone who’s refereed for Elsevier in the past couple of years, wouldn’t it be fun to email them and ask them to sign up to the Lesser Banff Protocol?

  2. The problem I find with the half-ass approach of “I’ll publish in
    evil XYZ but I won’t referee for them” is that when I referee, I’m really hoping to do the author a favor, not the editor, and certainly not the money-hungry journal. It’s a return of good will for others refereeing my work.

    In particular, suppose you get a paper by A from J. Algebra, and it’s clear that you are the person the referee it. By not accepting to do so, you cause delays, and possibly inappropriate rejection from someone who may not appreciate the “true” virtue of the work. Meanwhile A is refereeing your
    paper sent to J. Algebra…

    So I see two natural, and morally consistent, ways out:
    (1) reject refereeing _and_ publishing in evil XYZ now
    (2) wait until you get tenure and then do (1)

  3. That’s a fair point, but for me not particularly moving. I mean, yes, you’re causing a bit of damage to the author by not refereeing their paper, but not a huge amount. Not to mention that if it starts being impossible to get papers refereed by expensive journals, people will be less tempted to submit to them. Certainly if I really believed it took longer for things to get published in for-profit journals, I definitely wouldn’t submit to them, but this is not being born out by my experience (the longest I’ve waited for a referee report is from TAMS, who I submitted a paper to 9 months ago).

    My point was not one about moral consistency or naturality, but about what is easy. When one judges that the best journal one can get a paper into is expensive, then one is tempted to go for it anyways, since getting tenure is more important to me than smashing the journal system. (Not to mention that it takes effort to research journals and find a good one which is appropriate for one’s paper.) Whereas it is much easier and more pleasant for me to not referee a paper than it is to referee it. You might think that people would seize on any excuse available not to referee papers. But this seems to not be the case.

  4. Alternately the for-pay journals could start paying their referees, which would also be an acceptable outcome to me. If they’re making profits, then referees should be making a profit too.

  5. Hardly worth mentioning though, since they can’t afford it. I feel like refereeing is the sort of thing that people will do as a community service or at fair pay, but not at low pay. For the time involved, I’d say it would be at least a couple hundred dollars per paper.

  6. Yossi Farjoun, who I’m currently visiting in Madrid, just explained why he agreed to referee for Blackwell’s Studies in Applied Math, which comes in midway on Kirby’s list of expensive journals.

    The editor who’d just accepted his paper stepped across the hall at MIT to Yossi’s office, to hand him a paper and ask him to referee it.

    Often we know the editors personally, and Ben’s note might seem more disrespectful.

    On the other hand, I disagree with anon about Ben’s solution being half-assed. While we certainly have moral obligations towards other mathematicians, we have none towards publishing companies, and I’m not convinced that refusing to referee really does harm to individual authors. Further, a moral argument based on not wanting to delay someone else’s paper seems to overstate our obligation to random individual mathematicians. Refusing to referee also has the enormous advantage that it might just work.

  7. I’d agree with you Scott that Ben’s note could be rude to send to someone you know personally. However in that case I’d imagine that talking to said editor about why you’re refusing to referee would be just as effective – if not more effective – as sending a letter.

  8. Ben — You said: “My point was not one about moral consistency or naturality, but about what is easy. ”

    In that case it’s reasonable that one always try to avoid refereeing whenever possible (even with cheap journals). I certainly have no problem with that (and was merely confused
    by the additional “Elsevier” hypothesis in your original writeup).

    Scott — you said: “…and I’m not convinced that refusing to referee really does harm to individual authors. Further, a moral argument based on not wanting to delay someone else’s paper seems to overstate our obligation to random individual mathematicians.”

    OK, “half-assed” was a poor choice of words.

    I think that if you’re the natural one to referee a paper, not refereeing it can have a delay effect, since most mathematicians basically write to impress a few of their friends who somewhat understand what their doing. (Apologize for the sarcasm in advance.) Given other reasons for people not to referee a paper (e.g., too busy, conflict of interest), the pool of qualified referees really isn’t that large for a typical paper, no?

    Put another way, my argument is based on the premise that the choice of referees is an algorithm is less like “random” than “deterministic”. Probably the few people who referee my papers are the people I also referee. Maybe an editor who’s reading could chip in a remark about whether this is usually true…

    If I knew that someone wouldn’t referee my paper sent to evil XYZ because of the “evil”, I’d feel less inclined to spend the time to referee theirs (unless it was really interesting).

    I’m tempted by the idea of paying for, say, timely refereeing. A few hundred dollars perhaps. The main problem I worry about is that it might lead to less well done reports (e.g., by people accepting to referee just for the money).

  9. Jeepers, I was going to keep quiet about this whole evil journal thing, but I had a couple of thoughts. First, I am not disinterested. I just accepted a managing editorial pot at JKTR — this is definitely a for profit enterprise — Lou Kauffman will be moving to a higher position. Why would I do this? I want the prestige! I also want the more broad view of the world that comes from seeing who is working on what. There are enormous costs in terms of time, but WTF.

    Sitting from the point of view of a department chair, I see that deans and higher administrators want measurable quality in journal publications. The current measures that some pay attention to are the MCQ (math citation quotient) and the Citations per Author. When the Dean is pitching his departments against other departments in the University, he needs to come to the table with simple measurements. [There is the inverse relation between IQ and administrators; that is why I feel at home here]. Neither of these measurements is particularly accurate. There can be excellent and clever mathematics that closes the door on a subject and never gets cited again. Clever mathematicians, and well respected ones, can have low citations per author. The bottom line is that administrators like to associate numbers to things because they think numbers are easy to understand. They don’t like it when I tell them about sets with partial orders and no orders, and I try and explain how utterly bizarre the real line is.

    So my question is, “Why publish when you can post?” People continue to surf the ArXiv daily to see if there is something interesting. If there is, the blogs such as SBS and nCC pay close attention to it. Others do too. Important papers are read carefully. Fashion moves the beast, but it does so under the journal system. Meanwhile citeseer gives the numbers for the Deans.

    Or we could have an American Idol system of voting for the best papers of the day. Wouldn’t that turn this endeavor into a popularity contest? Simon Whatshisname relagates this paper to the GM category.
    Yes, Paula I’ll sleep with you, but only if you cite my up-coming paper on Quantum Gravity and Braided Monoidal 2-Categories in your blog.

  10. I’ll admit, I’m really confused by your comment. I mostly agree with it, but it doesn’t seem to actually address my post.

    I publish for a number of reasons. For one thing, it is genuinely helpful to have one’s paper refereed. Sometimes referees have very helpful comments. But much more importantly, I would like to get tenure someday, and understand perfectly well the value of signaling mechanisms.

    I’m not arguing against having a journal system, I’m arguing against us as a community paying Elsevier enormous sums of money every year for the privilege of having one when non-profit publishers have shown that they can do just as good a job.

    Unfortunately, we’re left with something of a prisoners dilemma (unless publishing in expensive journals becomes stigmatized, which I don’t really expect any time soon), because of the entrenched position of these journals and the small-mindedness of publication-counting administrators, since we individually benefit from publishing in Inventiones, even though it hurts the math community as a whole.

    But I was sort of treating all of the above as background that could be taken for granted. My question was this: accepting the premise that we would like to get rid of Elsevier, why don’t we force them out of the community using the one weapon we have which won’t harm our individual prestige: the fact that they depend on our free and unacknowledged labor. The administrators won’t even notice, and the whole math community will be much better off.

  11. I don’t think anyone is proposing dismantling the journal system or the peer review system.

    In particular, I wouldn’t want the “blog triumphalism” attitude heard around these parts to be misinterpreted — we are trying to add something extra, not replace. In particular, we want to do some of the things which our current publication system doesn’t really allow for — redigesting and explaining “old” material, and providing summaries of and introductions to the really “new” stuff coming out at conferences. You can certainly see both of these in our posts so far, and on most of the other math blogs, new and old. Perhaps there’s also an experimental aspect of “public research” — hashing ideas out in public, wth the hope of disseminating interesting problems, having bad ideas shot down faster, and finding collaborators.

    The problem isn’t journals per se, and it’s certainly not peer review.

    The problem is that our work is essentially financed by the public, and yet the products of our work are unavailable to the public. A large part of this unavailability is the high price of journals, making them prohibitively expensive even to many university libraries. Other causes of this unavailablity are the copyright restrictions demanded by publishers, which still to some extent discourage mathematicians from providing their work on the arXiv.

    At the same time, the high prices of some commercial journals don’t seem to have any compensatory benefits to the mathematics community. Perhaps we’d be willing to overlook our moral obligations to freely disseminate our work if there was something in it for us, but it appears there isn’t. Mathematicians do all the work, writing, editting, refereeing, whether the journal produces profits or not. The only difference is that someone else out that takes a profit. But perhaps I’m missing some benefit that for profit journals provide over cheaper institutional journals?

  12. The reason that adminsistrators like publications is they provide prestige numbers. Papers that appear on the arXiv get some refereeing before they are sent to the journal. A formal refereeing process could be slapped onto the arXiv, or you could know who the referee is. By posting rather than publishing, you can eliminate an extra layer.

    I know it is not practical. But I don’t think that Ben’s proposal is practical either. I agree the blogosphere is a nice add on. It is particualrly nice in math since there is a dearth of math for the lay person. Posting makes the work publically available. Journals (when refereeing takes place) provides valuable editorial service.

    I guess the question is who should get paid for this.Ben argues not the journals. Probably we should. But we do a lot of work for free.
    I base my decisions on what to referee by how much time do I have, am I among the best possible referees, and will my actions help the author. Sure I could consider who the journal is, and sometimes I do. IN PARTICULAR, I WILL referee for an evil journal is the paper submitted is of suitable quality, and by doing so, I can help a younger mathematician.

  13. A related thing to speculate about is the long run future of some
    of these journals. If I think my work is suitable for Inventiones, then I’m not going to run to the “electronic journal of math”. But on the other hand, perhaps my work is only good enough for, e.g., Advances (an elsevier publication). Maybe it’s worthwhile to take a shot at a rising star and see if a few years down the road that journal becomes a new JAMS or something.

    I have no specific ideas about which journals might have that happen, though.

  14. I think that the position “I won’t referee for this evil journal for free, but I’ll still submit papers to them because I need to get tenure” doesn’t make sense. Think about it: who is supposed to referee your paper?

    The real, nontrivial, and irreplaceable work that you shouldn’t be doing for evil journals for free is writing papers. If you feel you can’t stop submitting to evil journals until you have tenure, fine (although there are a number of low-cost journals you can try first).

  15. dont most of the paid journals still allow you to put your paper on the arxiv? if so, wouldn’t the whole system be bypassed if someone maintained a website with a list of journals and issues, where each issue had a list of papers in it with links to the arxiv url of the paper? all one would need is for some uiversity to subscribe to the journal. i realise that univerisites can’t individually cancel journal subscriptions because of collective deals, but maybe over time the sytem will mature and most of the popular journals will be covered and then people could cancel most of them together. this would pheraps need a more stable hosting system as there is no permanent sorage guarantee with the arxiv, but atleast initially it would be pretty useful

  16. (1) I’ve looked at a lot of data concerning journal prices, but I haven’t seen any evidence that Elsevier is more expensive than other for-profit publishers, so why is it that it’s the company that anti-profit bloggers always headline (while relegating mention of other companies, like Springer, to a parenthetical comment)? Did the CEO run over someone’s dog?

    (2) In my limited experience with refereeing, it is my impression that it is not a job that is taken very seriously by my colleagues, by those who referee my papers, and by the editors I’ve dealt with as a referee. If demanding payment for referees would encourage people to take the process seriously, then I’m all for it.

  17. The AMS has an up-to-date list of journal prices here (I found the link at Baez’s “Nasty Stuff”). Kluwer and Springer are certainly as bad or worse than Elsevier on that list.

    Springer used to have a reputation of a for-profit outfit that actually cared about mathematicians and made a positive impact on the community. Even though it was recently bought out, there’s still some residual good will. Nonetheless, Inventiones is also a high-profile target among the anti-for-price-journal crowd.

    Elsevier is a particular lightning rod because of their bundling policies (iirc the entire UC system has to buy all or none of their journals for a 7 year period) and because they used to run weapons fairs (which they’ve recently stopped doing).

  18. Whatever the problems with Elsevier’s bundling policies, that they are all-or-none propositions doesn’t seem to be one of them. The stories I’ve read about university libraries rejecting Elsevier’s “Big Deal” all go on to say that the libraries are switching to subscribing to Elsevier journals on an ala-carte basis. My university’s library subscribes to lots of Elsevier journals, but I don’t think it’s a bundle, because I recently persuaded the powers that be to cancel our subscription to an otherwise fairly respectable Elsevier journal that hasn’t exercised due diligence in filtering out submissions from cranks.

  19. I just came across your blog (wish I could understand the math) and thought I’d post the url to this long but fascinating article at the Association of Research Librarians’ site. Among other things it describes how journal publishers are exerting influence on the direction of actual research, beyond merely charging people to read it. It discusses Elsevier’s activities at considerable length. It seems like important reading for people interested in this topic. Probably a lot of you have already seen it but I only discovered it fairly recently and it crystallized a lot of vague grumbling for me.


  20. Hmm… while the article mentioned above by phr is painfully turgid, it does eventually get around to saying some interesting things, by Chapter 6 or so.

    One example is a predecessor of the recent Topology resignation. This happened before, in 2000, at another Elsevier journal, the “Journal of Logic Programming”. The editorial board resigned en masse and started a new journal, “Theory & Practice of Logic Programming”. Elsevier responded by finding a new editorial board, and starting “the Journal of Logic & Algebraic Programming.” It’s still running; does anyone know anything more about this?

    Chapter 11 also has some interesting things to say about commercial publisher’s responses to things like the arxiv.

  21. I think it’s interesting that the canonical response people give to explain why they are happy to referee for an evil journal is because they don’t want to hurt a young mathematician (who presumably has been forced at gunpoint to submit their paper to the evil journal . . .). In a way I have a lot of sympathy for this, since the connection between the act of not refereeing and the harm to the young mathematician is more or less direct. But supporting “evil journals” causes immense (if somewhat less direct) harm to young mathematicians – dollars spent on ludicrously overpriced journals are dollars that are not going to pay for some postdoc position, so our poor hypothetical young mathematician might not get a job out of grad school, and will have to switch professions altogether. My point is that it is the net harm either way to the young mathematician that is (should be?) the focus, not the directness of the harm. A young mathematician whose paper doesn’t get due consideration at evil journal X can always submit to virtuous journal Y (especially if virtuous journal Y has a fast turnaround time, because they can get lots of people to referee for them, now that they are boycotting evil journal X) but money spent on overpriced commercial journals is not reinvested back into the mathematical community in another form.

    To show that this discussion is not entirely abstract: I get asked to referee many more papers than I can comfortably manage. I have an upper bound on how many pages I will referee per year, and when I reach that limit, I just have to say no. Surely there is a net benefit in my passing on a request to referee for evil journal X, knowing that this will free me up to referee for virtuous journal Y?

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