Publishers: we may do stupid things sometimes, but give us scientists some credit

Yesterday evening, I attended a Meetup organized by Impact of Science at the Alexander von Humboldt Institut for Internet and Society in Berlin. The topic was the highly publicized Projekt DEAL negotiations with Elsevier et al. and the future of Open Access research in Germany and beyond.

The speakers were Dr. Nick Fowler, Chief Academic Officer and Managing Director of Research Networks at Elsevier, and Prof. Dr. Gerard Meijer, Director of the Fritz Haber Institute of the Max Planck Society and a member of the German science council.

Each speaker gave their perspective on the past, present, and future of the negotiations. To me, it was refreshing hearing the “other side’s” take on the matter. Dr. Fowler highlighted some important issues that made the negotiations more complicated and difficult. Before that, I admit I had mostly been exposed to the viewpoint of the proponents of Projekt DEAL. So I started the evening thinking “OK, this is good. I’m learning some new stuff and some of these counter-arguments make sense.”

That feeling didn’t last long. After Prof. Meijer’s talk, we went into the discussion round. I asked Dr. Fowler to comment on what kind of value the big publishers add to an article. The issue had been brought up briefly by the speakers before this, and the consensus from both sides (including, it seemed, at least the general position of Projekt DEAL albeit not that of Prof. Meijer, as he explained later), was that publishers do add value to articles. I wanted to know what kind of value was added, how this is quantified, and how it relates to the price that researchers and institutes pay publishers for the processing of gold open access articles or subscribing to paywalled ones.

Do publishers improve the articles that are submitted to their journals?

Dr. Fowler explained how they have evidence that articles published by Elsevier are of higher quality than the rest of the published literature. He used that as proof that their publishing system improves articles, and casually swept aside the idea of added value – the difference between the quality of submitted manuscripts and their published counterparts.

Hold on, you might say. Did he just try to pull a fast one on a room full of scientists? I mean, scientists may have stuck with a flawed and exploitative publishing system for decades, but we know a potential confounding factor (and an inappropriate surrogate outcome) when we see one. Elsevier is the largest, most well-known scientific publisher on the planet. Of course they publish the highest-quality research, because they probably get the highest quality submissions.

Scientists know a potential confounding factor when they see one.

Whether or not value is added during the submission and review process is not a minor detail, it’s at the core of the problem, and therein lies the solution. If the system that publishers provide does add value, how much of that is attributable to peer review, something that researchers do for free (a point emphasized during the discussion by Prof. Meijer)?

I’m not saying publishers don’t add value, but as a scientist, I want to see some evidence. Mind you, I wasn’t asking Dr. Fowler for a randomized controlled trial of their article processing system versus some generic processing-type intervention. I probably would have been satisfied with some As-Seen-On-TV-style before-and-after photos. Instead, the audience got a response that proves nothing.

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