Why I Won’t Review or Write for Elsevier and Other Commercial Scientific Journals

A few weeks ago, a message pinged into my inbox asking if I would peer-review a manuscript submitted to a reputed scientific journal published by Elsevier. I was tempted. The topic of the manuscript was related to my own research on what happens to wild plants and animals when previously forested landscapes are transformed into large plantations of a single crop species. A quick look at the journal website showed that the journal published quality research and a bunch of academic grandees sat on the editorial board. Their request to me indicated a recognition of my expertise in the field. By accepting to review the paper, I could learn something new, share my expertise and comments with the authors and editors, and add a notch on my academic belt, so to speak.

And yet, I refused.

Scientists track their credentials and calibre by how many papers they manage to publish in such peer-reviewed journals and how often they are called upon to review manuscripts for them. In brief, here’s the good, the bad, the ugly of it. The good: the process of independent and anonymous peer review serves as a crucial quality-check and enables authors to hone and rectify their work before it is published. The bad: peer review can be a flaming hoop you are forced to jump through, more difficult if you are not a native English speaker, if you are from a less-privileged background, if you are from a relatively unknown institution in the Third World. The ugly: the process can degenerate into a situation where jealous peers and conniving editors disparage your work and obstruct publication, or simply display how racistsexist and patronising they can be from their positions of power or anonymity. If I did the review, I would not be paid for it—that’s how scientific peer review works—but I could include the journal in a section in my CV listing all the national and international scientific journals that I had reviewed for. I could even register on a commercial website where academics track and showcase their journal peer review and editorial contributions. Still, it was not my skepticism over the peer review process, nor my lack of interest in counting review-coup that brought me to refuse.

Instead, here’s what I wrote to the Editor-in-Chief, copied to all members of the editorial board:

Dear Dr _____ and other members of the _____ editorial board,

Greetings for 2021 from India! I trust the year has begun well and you will all have a productive, healthy, and peaceful year ahead. I recently received an invitation… to review a paper for [_____ journal]… I am writing to you to explain why I am declining to review (or submit for consideration) any paper to [_____ journal]. At the outset, I would like to state that I have great respect for the work that the journal publishes and for all of you on the Editorial Board. My decision is based on the fact that the journal is published by Elsevier.

You are doubtless aware of the concerns already raised by many in the academic community and the media on the business of scientific publishing, particularly the role of companies like Elsevier, Wiley, and Springer Nature. You may recall that many editors have resigned en masse from these journals as well in the past to protest against their practices.

Recently, Elsevier along with others (including Wiley) filed a lawsuit in an Indian court against Sci-Hub and Libgen. Leading Indian scientists and researchers (and a group of over 2000 signatories) have protested this highlighting how Sci-Hub has greatly enabled access to scientific research in India and other countries. Sci-hub struck at the heart of the oligopoly of purely commercial publishers, which includes Elsevier and Wiley, who run scientific publishing like a fiefdom, charging exorbitant subscriptions or publishing fees, making exponential profits, and treating the intellectual output of scientists and institutions as if it was all their personal property. This is the case although the research published in these journals is funded by public agencies or other funders, and the papers are written, reviewed, and edited by scientists who seek no compensation for their intellectual inputs and time. With exorbitant subscriptions, steep open access publication fees or paywalls for each article, companies such as Elsevier, Wiley, and Springer Nature are profiteering from an enterprise that generates knowledge which really belongs to all and which should be truly open and free for anyone in the world to access. To me, this is also a form of predatory publishing: unbridled corporate predation on captive academic prey.

To the argument that shunning such journals will compromise science, I can only point out to many journals of repute published by scientific societies and academies worldwide (such as the Indian Academy of Sciences) that make all their published papers free (diamond/platinum open access) and are able to run their journals with modest subscriptions and advertisements. There have also been initiatives like Amelica and Coalition-S. The alternatives are there for us to adopt as scientists and scholars if we wish.

I realise that, for early-career scientists, publishing in some of these journals is still important because of the undue importance still given to them by academic institutions in their scientific recruitment and recognition policies. I, too, have published in these journals and realise I am implicated in the perpetuation of this system. I will respect the views and needs of students and others I collaborate with on where they seek to publish in or review for. But as a token of protest, I declare that where it concerns my own work I will not submit a paper to these journals or review a paper for them, until such corporate predatory practices end. I do realise that my action is a mere token and not enough. There is more I myself need to do to make science universal, free, and accessible.

I hope you do not see this as an attack on your or the journal’s credibility but consider it in a more progressive spirit. If you have read this far, I thank you for taking the time. Kindly accept my regrets once again.

Best regards,
Shankar

It was a rant, a polite one, but a rant, nonetheless. As you can imagine, the Editor-in-Chief was not too happy about it.

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Before the Editor-in-Chief wrote back, another member of the Editorial Board—the person handling the manuscript—wrote me appreciating my email and agreeing that scientific publishing had a lot of room to evolve, but personally preferred, as an editor, to engender small and positive changes from within. (Another member of the editorial board, a leading woman scientist from India, wrote saying she was not on the board as far as she knew. It turned out she had been invited a while back and had agreed to be on the board, but the journal had never involved her in its work, so she wrote again indicating that she would prefer her name to be removed. Why a woman scientist from India was on the editorial board but never involved in it is another story perhaps.)

With the Editor-in-Chief himself, a back-and-forth exchange of emails ensued, which I will paraphrase here. [I have tried my best not to misrepresent anything and have chosen to leave out names of the concerned people and journal as I have no issue with them individually and prefer to keep the focus on the issue of commercial scientific publishing rather than any individuals or particular journal. I have rearranged the discussion slightly for clarity and placed my interjections and asides, like this one, in square brackets.]

He started off by partly agreeing with me. He then said that Elsevier, Wiley, and Springer Nature are no more predatory than many other businesses that one has to deal with these days. He said that as academics we clearly have a duty to try to find alternative models, and emphasised that his journal was an open access journal, for which the authors had to pay $1650 to publish in, unless they were from a World Bank low-income country where they could ask for a waiver. [Actually, the current rate is $1820 for a paper of 12-15 published pages, which is about as much as a Masters student would need for a 5-6 month field research project in India.] He wrote about how they receive a large volume of papers and how many scientists they approach to provide their peer review. They needed over 1000 volunteer reviewers he said in one email, changing the figure in a later email to indicate they had more than 1000 authors and over 2500 reviewers each year.

Then he wrote that if every paper had to be reviewed by 2-3 scientists, every scientist who wants to publish in these commercial journals are also obliged to review 2-3 papers for every paper they intend to publish, otherwise the system would not work. He said that if I did not want to publish in such journals, I should then also not read these journals or allow my students to do so.

That last bit got my goat. I wrote back respectfully disagreeing with him. I said readers have a right to access the research (which is publicly funded or funded by other agencies) irrespective of whether they personally support commercial publishers. I did not need to stress the importance of enabling wide access in the case of socially relevant studies or conservation research as the editor himself was doubtless aware of it. It also struck me later that the published research itself would have referred to other earlier research in various journals. In papers related to my field of work that may have included my own work or those of colleagues. Saying I cannot read a paper in this journal was just as absurd as saying the authors have no right to refer to my work or any other research published in non-commercial journals. Science simply cannot work that way.

The Editor-in-Chief raised a number of other valid points. He said that there was a suite of publishing options available for authors these days and another member of the editorial board was planning to launch a new conservation journal that addressed some of these issues. He named one journal that offered a reader-pays alternative for authors who cannot pay the Article Processing Charge (APC), and another that was open access and “provides competition” to his journal. So if you don’t like a journal for its policies you can find another one that better suits you. But, someone has to pay, he emphasised. Non-profit publishers don’t have to take a large cut for shareholders but, according to him, they did not achieve the same efficiencies as the large commercial publishers. He noted how most society-owned journals, earlier published on a non-profit basis, have shifted to Wiley and other commercial publishers and been forced to charge huge fees because it costs too much to publish a journal. As far as the journal he edits was concerned, he pointed out that authors retain copyright alongside scholarly usage rights and Elsevier is granted publishing and distribution rights. Authors are paying Elsevier for publication and distribution only, which to him was reasonable. Furthermore, the articles were released under a Creative Commons license so people could use and re-use them in different ways (with attribution), so what was I complaining about? I should be reviewing for them since they are not doing any of the terrible things I was accusing them of.

There was stuff I agreed with and yet, much I still disagreed with. If someone has to pay and the authors are forced to pay to publish it is still an absurd payment in some ways, if you think of it, I wrote back. Companies like Elsevier rake in profits of 30-40% every year through a business model that appears unique to scientific publishing. Based on the figures the editor gave me, just this one journal he edited had more than 3000 highly-qualified scientists voluntarily contributing each year to Elsevier’s extraordinary profits. Imagine that! As a 2017 article in The Guardian puts it:

Scientists create work under their own direction – funded largely by governments – and give it to publishers for free; the publisher pays scientific editors who judge whether the work is worth publishing and check its grammar, but the bulk of the editorial burden – checking the scientific validity and evaluating the experiments, a process known as peer review – is done by working scientists on a volunteer basis. The publishers then sell the product back to government-funded institutional and university libraries, to be read by scientists – who, in a collective sense, created the product in the first place.

It is as if the New Yorker or the Economist demanded that journalists write and edit each other’s work for free, and asked the government to foot the bill. Outside observers tend to fall into a sort of stunned disbelief when describing this setup.

Then there is the question of the APC that is levied by commercial journals that use an author-pays model (in journals that are not fully open access, an extra charge has to be paid to make it open access.) The APC is typically imposed without any transparency as to the real costs incurred by the publisher. Studies indicate that commercial publishers charge nearly 3 times more than similar non-profit publishers of reputed standalone journals. One can ask whether the huge profits made by the publishers under the guise of “efficiency” or “scale” are not better ploughed back into scientific societies (and nonprofits that support science) rather than to the pockets of wealthy companies and their shareholders. The commercial publishers appear to call all the shots. As Brian Nosek, a Professor at the University of Virginia and Director of the Centre for Open Sciencesaid in an interview to Nasdaq, academic publishing is

the perfect business model to make a lot of money. You have the producer and consumer as the same person: the researcher. And the researcher has no idea how much anything costs.”

Even where learned societies had failed to run the journals on their own and had succumbed to handing it over to a commercial publisher to handle, as the editor pointed out was increasingly the case, most fail to disclose the terms of the arrangement with the scientific society. For instance, one of the leading societies in the field of nature conservation is the Society for Conservation Biology, whose flagship journal Conservation Biology is (unfortunately) published by Wiley, which levies a charge of $3000 for publication as open access. Fortunately, the society enables authors to publish their work at a reduced rate or ask for a waiver if they cannot afford the page charges: although such articles would be held by Wiley behind a paywall (about $42 per article, at present rates, for online access and PDF download). The journal website hosted by Wiley claims that “payment of article publication costs furthers the work of the society and conservation worldwide” but gives no indication as to what their deal is or what fraction of the profits are actually shared with the society.

For almost every commercial journal, I retorted in an email to the Editor-in-Chief, there is a non-profit equivalent that achieves the same quality at a significantly lower cost. They also make all papers available free for readers after a period of 6 months or a year (for instance, the journal Science published by the American Association for the Advancement of Science versus Nature produced by Springer; the Royal Society journals and PNAS, say, versus some sub-journals in the Nature crop). Further, any profits made from the academy or society journals contribute to a scientific rather than a business enterprise like Elsevier, Wiley, Springer Nature, or other big commercial publishers.

Take, for example, the journal Human Ecology, a Springer journal that paywalls its articles or publishes as open access after you cough up a cool $2780, every dollar of profit going to Springer’s coffers. Contrast that with a superb journal in a similar field, published from the global South, like Conservation and Society published by the Indian non-profit and think-tank ATREE. This fully open-access journal, which recently was forced to go from diamond open-access to an author-pays model, has a transparent ownership and publication policy and levies an APC (only on authors from higher middle-income and high-income countries) of $600—just one-fifth of Springer’s rates. Another Indian journal, Ecology, Economy and Society-The INSEE Journal charges nothing to authors and readers for open access. For a comparable non-profit or society journal published from the West, the Resilience Alliance publishes a fully open access journal Ecology and Society levying an APC of $975, or just 35% of Springer rates.

In the Indian context, there is also this absurd situation where Springer republishes many diamond open access journals, such as through their republishing agreement for the journals of the Indian Academy of Sciences. The journals are entirely edited, printed, published, and distributed by the society or academy imposing no page charges on authors and making the publication freely available to readers on the academy’s journal websites. Springer does zero editorial or publishing work but still charges the academy (for what? hosting on their online platform) and then paywalls the same papers at >$30 per paper. Just for parking it on their website! [Correction: Springer paywalls the papers, yes, but apparently does not charge the Academy.]

Another example is the journal Tropical Ecology published by the International Society for Tropical Ecology, which was diamond open access with no page charges until 2019, when they unfortunately succumbed to the ‘efficiencies’ and enticements of Springer. They now levy an APC of $2780 to authors who wish to make their paper open access, failing which they impose a paywall to each reader of ~$42 per paper.

Still, on the charges levied by commercial journals, the editor I was corresponding with had a different take. Like many things in life, you get [what] you pay for, he wrote. Journals like Nature have open access publishing charges that seem outrageous, but they were justified by the editing services of full-time professionals and unmatched quality they provided, and the citations the papers generated. If he had the money and his students produced something worthy of such attention, he would scrape it together to pay up.

This left me stupefied. If the publishing charges seem outrageous, it is perhaps because they are outrageous. Instead of figuring out a better way to make their work openly and freely accessible and appear on global databases and platforms, if leading scientists and academies worldwide subscribe to the costly vision of payment and efficiency and impact sold by commercial publishers, there is definitely something broken in the system. As a scientist from a non-profit organisation in a lower middle-income country like India I somehow could not countenance such sums of money being shelled out ostensibly to advance science. Have these journals come to command such power and clout that top scientists in the world will simply pay up unquestioningly? Do we still believe that counting citations is the way to build reputation in science? Can scientists who are so meticulous in preparing their papers and so generous with their time in reviewing them for free, in order to contribute to scientific growth and the growth of their community, not find better ways to advance science, academia, and community than relying on profiteering journals? Could we not invest more as a community in society-run, non-profit, open access journals and enhancing the list and quality of free journals, of which, as one can see from the Free Journals Network and the Directory of Open Access Journals, there are many?

According to a 2021 survey, at least 29,000 diamond open access journals are published around the world. While diamond open-access journals face many operational challenges, 70% of them manage to produce the journal at an annual operational cost of under $10,000. In other words, the amount of money a scientist pays as APC to Elsevier/Wiley/Springer or similar publishers for just three or four journal articles can be more than enough to support an entire journal for a year and produce science that is freely accessible worldwide. Even now, about 356,000 diamond open access papers are published per year compared to approximately 453,000 papers where the scientists have shelled out the APC (453,000 x average APC of $2000 implies ~$1 billion). Imagine if those funds can be routed to support scientific societies and their journals, produce free and better academic community resources and databases (rather than the tyranny of science citation indices and Clarivate Analytics, for instance). Imagine if that money could be used to provide free, open, and easy access to all scientific publications!

§

Free, open, and easy access to all scientific publications is what Sci-Hub provides. In our email back-and-forth, the editor and I never discussed Sci-Hub, which was why I started off on my rant in the first place. And yet, the exchange had made me acutely conscious of my debt to Sci-Hub and of my own failings as a scientist.

Alexandra Elbakyan at a talk in 2010. Photo: Apneet Jolly/Flickr, CC BY 2.0

Alexandra Elbakyan, a scholar and computer programmer who created and runs Sci-Hub, is probably the one person who has contributed more to global dissemination of science and access to scientific literature than any other person in human history. Sci-Hub offered a way to access scientific publications, including those behind paywalls. One just had to put in the link to the paper or the DOI and Sci-Hub delivered it online (in PDF) almost instantly for free. In recent years, it has been invaluable for scientists in countries like India who have no other access to these journals.

Before Sci-Hub, if I wanted to read more than just the abstracts of pay-walled papers (or more than just the titles of papers that had no abstracts), I would have to ask friends in some (usually foreign) university to download it via their library access and send it over, or write emails directly to author after author and wait for them to respond with PDF soft copies. Neither did that work all the time nor was it even remotely an ideal way to do research.

It should hardly come as a surprise then that open access papers are more likely to be read and cited. In fact, a 2021 study published in a Springer journal (some poetic justice there), found that papers downloaded via Sci-Hub were cited 172% more often than those that were not. I am no fan of citation counting, but irrespective of whether scientists want greater readership, open access, or more citations, they must acknowledge Sci-Hub does a service. There are other points of view about Sci-Hub, but after the last few years as an admirer of both Sci-Hub and Alexandra Elbakyan, I know on which side of the fence I will stay.

Also read: An Interview With Sci-Hub’s Alexandra Elbakyan on the Delhi HC Case

Sci-Hub is not just for scientists. It provides access to everyone. It is also particularly valuable to journalists and science communicators who often have no direct access to journals and find scientists both difficult to reach and reticent to communicate with journalists on a deadline. Take what the journalist and writer, George Monbiot, had to say, for instance:

After definitively disrupting the status quo, Elbakyan soldiers on, while commercial publishers who feel threatened by her keep filing lawsuits. The recent case filed in a Delhi court by Elsevier, Wiley, and the American Chemical Society (ACS) brings charges of copyright infringement and asks for a dynamic injunction to block internet access to Sci-Hub nationwide. These three are among the top scientific publishers in the world, with ACS, despite being a scientific society and one of the wealthiest in the world at that, being opposed to or a laggard in supporting open access. The Delhi case —a David versus Trio-of-Goliaths case, if ever there was one—is still in court. Legal experts indicate a strong basis in law, ethics, and equity, going for Sci-Hub. One prays the court rules likewise.

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It is easy enough to point a finger at greedy Goliaths, but what about the other fingers curled inward, biting into my fist, pointing to me? What had I done, as an individual scientist or as part of the scientific community, to make science free, open, and accessible? The floodgates opened. My thoughts and mortification came pouring out. I could barely keep track of the list of personal failures and all that I myself needed to do. I made a list.

1. Many of my own scientific papers were in pay-walled journals. I had shared them as much as I could earlier, but I could do more to ensure that every one of them was accessible.

2. A boycott of journals published by companies like Elsevier, Wiley, Springer Nature, Taylor & Francis, and Sage was one thing, but there were positive contributions I needed to make. I could do more reviews for diamond open access journals and also serve on their editorial boards, if invited. My record in this remains miserable. After turning down two such invitations in the past, I had served on the editorial board of one diamond open access journal (Current Science), only to resign after about three years giving workload as an excuse. I am one of the editors of a new diamond open access journal, Hornbill Natural History and Conservation, but I have done almost nothing for the journal so far. A society-run journal invited me to their editorial board and after the Editor-in-Chief assured me they were planning to make it open access and also bring a diverse editorial board with better gender representation, I have agreed to join, but am yet to contribute anything of significance.

3. Instead of paying outrageous sums to journals, I could donate instead modestly to Sci-Hub itself or other individuals and non-profits supporting open science (such as the Centre for Open Science, for instance). I could become a member of one or two scholarly societies relevant to my work, which publish open access journals.

4. Even if scientific papers are accessible, they are rarely intelligible to the wider audience, beyond our peers, that we are often interested in reaching: journalists, science communicators, policy makers, and interested citizens. I could put more time into sharing relevant research in more accessible avenues, especially Wikipedia, where my contributions have been minuscule so far. An encyclopedic review on a bird species, could be contributed to something like the online Birds of the World (which has made all species accounts open and freely accessible in India, although requiring a sign-up), rather than to any pay-walled journal, however reputed.

5. As a naturalist and biologist, I only have contributed a small fraction of my species observations to citizen science portals like eBirdiNaturalist, and India Biodiversity Portal. I have stockpiled thousands of useful and educational photos and other media, but shared only a tiny fraction so far where it can be used by the wider community, such as on Wikimedia Commons. There was a lot more I could do.

6. As for my scientific datasets, I have sat on most of them for years. I could easily share them on open repositories like OSF and Data Dryad, with CC-BY or Public Domain licenses, so other scientists have access to the data and could do more with it than I myself can by clutching onto it as personal intellectual property. Technical reports (grey literature that academics typically consider less worthy than journal publications), too, often contain valuable information and material unavailable elsewhere and I could upload mine to public archives like Archive.org with free licenses. I can make academic presentations and talks available, too, through suitable repositories.

7. I could re-do my CV to highlight public contributions to science and open access rather than try to pad it with an impressive list of publications in so-called high-impact-factor journals. For instance, the following summary of my contributions to Wikipedia should be in my CV. Although it only catalogues how little I have done so far, it should be at least as important to chronicle this as any other scientific work and publications of mine. (A bonus: as a regular editor I can gain access to scientific publications and digital libraries like JSTOR through the Wikipedia Library.)

8. Finally, I can ensure that in our own hiring and assessment practices, we do not privilege publication in the so-called high-impact-factor journals of these commercial publishers. If the scientific community does not privilege these journals, it will take the wind out of their sails and curtail the power commercial publishers currently wield. For an academic appointment, if publications are an aspect to consider, then the quality of the person’s work, motivation, and aptitude should matter more than any journal they have published in (or are yet to publish in). We have applied this rationale as far as possible in our research and it has paid rich dividends by attracting people with excellent capabilities in basic and applied conservation science.

Also read: The Problems With Science Journals Trying to Be Gatekeepers – and Some Solutions

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Even if one accepts that the system of scientific publishing is unjust and broken, the responses to this so far (besides Sci-Hub, of course) seem like half measures. Boycotts like mine remain little more than tokenism. Deals arrived at by universities with publishers like Elsevier remain riddled with holes. Even the proposed “one nation, one subscription” policy that the Government of India proposes to negotiate where, in return for a centrally-negotiated payment to journals, all individuals in India will have access to journal articles, avoids the question of whether such huge payments should be made to benefit commercial publishers. As a nation, India’s science budget (R&D) is only 0.7%, much lower than most nations in our position, and a large part of that budget goes to the private sector (42%), defence and space (29%).

In a way, each of the above half-measures is a lost opportunity to shake the system loose of its existing anchors to sail on new voyages in the sea of science. We need a far deeper commitment to and more active engagement with free and open access to science and scientific knowledge in all its various stages and shapes. If science itself has the innate capacity to shake free of old paradigms and shift to new realities, perhaps it can happen in the system of scientific publication, too. And the time for that is now.

T.R. Shankar Raman is the author of The Wild Heart of India and is a wildlife scientist with the Nature Conservation Foundation. This post first appeared on his blog View from Elephant Hills, and has been republished here with permission.

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