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January 11, 2011

Another Editorial Board Resigns

Posted by Tom Leinster

It’s three-month-old news, but I’ve only just heard it—and since many patrons of the Café enjoy hearing about academics taking power out of the hands of commercial journal publishers, I’ll pass it on.

So: in October last year, the entire editorial board of the Journal of Group Theory resigned. It came into effect on 1 January. Here’s a brief announcement. Unusually, the dispute appears not to have been about price, but poor service.

I learned this from the latest newsletter of the London Mathematical Society (LMS). Here’s the relevant part:

Another issue concerned the Journal of Group Theory, currently published by de Gruyter. It is by now public knowledge that the entire editorial board has resigned, and Susan Hezlet, the LMS Publisher, invited Council to consider whether the LMS should get involved in some way. For reasons of commercial confidentiality, however, our conclusions must for the moment remain under wraps.

I guess this means that the journal will now be published, under a slightly different name, by the LMS. A pattern seems to be emerging: editorial boards fed up with their (commercial) publishers are provided with a new and much better home by the LMS, to the benefit of everyone. This is a truly valuable service that the LMS provides.

Posted at January 11, 2011 7:54 PM UTC

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Re: Another Editorial Board Resigns

Civil disobedience has always been and will always be the most powerful form of dissent. Kudos to these brave gentlemen and women for taking this step. Now if only one could free the stores of precious information that still remains locked up behind paywalls put up by corporate publishing houses. Hardly a day goes by that I am not frustrated in my attempts to read articles written more than 20 or 30 years ago by the greats such as Witten, Zamolodchikov and many others. There is no moral or monetary justification for limiting access to this intellectual depository, which rightfully is the heritage of all of humanity.

Of course, this will be the hardest part of fight but I’m sure that my kids and grand-kids will grow up in a world where they do not have to pay a penny to read the works of Bethe, Einstein, Feynman and countless others, which as of now are accessible only to those with “subscriptions” to journals such as those run by APS, Elsevier and Springer.

Posted by: Deepak on January 12, 2011 12:19 AM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Another Editorial Board Resigns

In somewhat related news: “Publishers withdraw 2500 journals from free access scheme in Bangladesh”.

Posted by: Blake Stacey on January 13, 2011 1:37 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Another Editorial Board Resigns

The main offenders are—and this will surprise no one—

  • Elsevier (withdrew 1610 journals)
  • Springer (withdrew 588 journals)
  • Lippincott Williams and Wilkins (part of Wolters Kluwer; withdrew 299 journals).

These are online health and biomedical journals, which had been available through a World Health Organization programme giving free or low-cost journal access to not-for-profit institutions in developing countries.

How low can you go?

Posted by: Tom Leinster on January 13, 2011 2:00 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Another Editorial Board Resigns

We should also praise the good guys, which in this case include the publisher Wiley.

Wiley publishes the Cochrane Library, which is designed to help doctors and other health care providers make decisions. The Cochrane project uses volunteer labor, but it’s not open-access. Indeed, its list of key principles includes “Building on the enthusiasm of individuals, by involving and supporting people of different skills and backgrounds”, which in this case sounds a bit like making money off other people’s altruism.

However, this library is free in many locations, including a large number of low-income countries.

In the article Blake cited, Dr. Koehlmoos, from Bangladesh, explained how this can make a difference, and why the decision of Elsevier and Springer to cut free access to their medical journals hurts:

Dr. Koehlmoos described the situation as very discouraging and said that it was likely to make working in a challenging environment even more difficult. She added, “I lead a small WHO funded centre for systematic review. Can you imagine the difficulties of trying to conduct or support systematic reviews without access to the major journals in global public health?

“Already my junior scientists who are writing proposals have started to ask how they can access articles. I envision a period where we have to work from abstracts or ask our partners in big universities in developed countries to send us full text articles, which is humiliating. If you look at Wiley & Sons, they have enabled all low income countries to have access to the Cochrane Library for no cost. This move by other publishers is really going against the grain.”

Posted by: John Baez on January 14, 2011 12:43 AM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Another Editorial Board Resigns

The story has been picked up by Bob Grant at The Scientist … who does not seem happy.

Posted by: Blake Stacey on January 18, 2011 1:16 AM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Another Editorial Board Resigns

Tom wrote:

Unusually, the dispute appears not to have been about price, but poor service.

Clicking the link, one finds that de Gruyter “tried to make copy-editing part of the formal duties of the Managing Editor”.

Many journals have been cutting costs by slacking off on one service that they traditionally provide: copy-editing. But I’d never heard of them trying to make the managing editor do it!

Posted by: John Baez on January 14, 2011 12:24 AM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Another Editorial Board Resigns

Many journals have been cutting costs by slacking off on one service that they traditionally provide: copy-editing. But I’d never heard of them trying to make the managing editor do it!

I think it is about using “free labor”. In many scientific fields somebody senior enough to be a journal editor has enough graduate students or post docs that they can be made to do the copy-editing for free.

Posted by: Rod McGuire on January 14, 2011 2:59 AM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Another Editorial Board Resigns

I’d call that a flagrant abuse of power.

Posted by: Tom Leinster on January 14, 2011 3:08 AM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Another Editorial Board Resigns

Gee, and I naively thought that journal publishers hired copy editors. Rod: are you saying the standard practice is that journal publishers tell the journal editors to do the copy editing, and the journal editors make their grad students or postdocs do it?

Maybe it varies from journal to journal. Does anyone out there have some experience with this?

Posted by: John Baez on January 15, 2011 1:47 AM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Another Editorial Board Resigns

John - I have no experience with journals. I do have some experience with big names who have a lot of assistant professors, post docs, or graduate students types. When the big name is officially in charge of a lecture series, some program aspect of a conference, or local arrangements, much of the grunt work can fall on the lesser people as “good experience you need to learn about”. I did grunt work along these lines as a graduate student, up to refereeing submissions, and at most my name appeared somewhere in a list of people who were thanked.

Since de Gruyter acted as if copy editing could be a normal responsibility of an editor I would investigate their other journals to find out who does the copy editing. In particular I would look at their medical journals since medical research groups tend to be large, well funded, and quite hierarchical (and I’ve heard can tend to be run on authoritarian lines.)

Posted by: Rod McGuire on January 15, 2011 1:18 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Another Editorial Board Resigns

“The power of the press is based on the ignorance of the masses.”

There is already the well-known problem of science-ignorant media, trying to communicate Science to science-ignorant masses. The media regularly take advantage (“scam”) scientists, chopping/splicing interviews into something incoherent. I.e., the publishers implement their own (crackpot) “scientific editorial”, cutting the scientists out of the loop. The smart scientists want editorial control, to prevent this

Science and Science Fiction
http://www.math.columbia.edu/~woit/wordpress/?p=1208

“Update: Just finished watching Parallel Universes. Wow. Almost
completely free of any real scientific content, and definitely
deserves an award as the most idiotic and ludicrous TV show ever
made that pretends to have something to do with science. Deep into
“what the bleep” territory. The problem is not just Michio Kaku.
Everyone involved in the thing should be deeply ashamed of themselves.”

I can summarize the situation as a “collision of 2 universes”: technical VS non-technical. Over at sci.research.careers many yrs ago, it was brought up that a researcher could get SUED for posting the paper on the university website (since submitting to journal, gives them full copyright!!??).


“Back in ‘73 I had the extreme pleasure of traveling with Isaac Asimov to
an [ solar ] eclipse. He was a lot of fun to talk with and quite intelligent.
Although just a teenager at the time (a tall, skinny one), he spent a
lot of his time with me after I explained that I too wanted to be a
writer of science and science-fiction. Although he was encouraging,
there was one statement he made in a story he related about the
Foundation series and its publication that bothered me then, as it does
today. He said: “Publishers are scum.”. This was an interesting phrase
coming from someone who talked just like he wrote. I think he even held
back a bit. And this was when he was a famous and wealthy writer. I
can add only that after six books published, and 16 years of writing for
magazines, that he was quite correct in his assessment. There are
layers in the industry. The writers tend to be pretty cool. The
editors tolerable. The copywriters and layout people pretty docile.
And the publishers who authorize things are scum.

– Bill K., eclipse-chaser, private communication

Here is another case of Science VS Journalist:

“Everyone who gave this book one star should realize that this book is
entertainment. Hancock is not a scientist or an academic of any kind - he’s a
journalist! … Of course Hancock tailors the facts to fit his theories - he
is not constrained by truth, science, or even ethics. He is a journalist.

[ the resignation of the Editorial Board was based on unethical behavior: cheaping out “tried to make copy-editing part of the formal duties of the Managing Editor” ]

…This book, and all those like it that preach pseudo-science, appeal to the
majority of people in this world who are scientifically challenged. Most
Americans don’t have enough scientific knowledge to understand the technology
they face everyday, much less untangle the fact and fantasy in this book. It
is entertainment, but it’s dangerous - science interpreted by a journalist!”
– review of “Fingerprints of the Gods”

[ crackpot book about ancient civilizations, with full Discovery Channel episode. Hancock appears on the mega-popular “Ancient Aliens” series on History Channel, along with “leading scientists” (Dr. Sarah Seager/MIT, planetary scientist) ]

Posted by: chimpanzee on January 16, 2011 11:06 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Another Editorial Board Resigns

Well, I don’t think publishers are scum, and were Isaac Asimov to rise from his grave and say that here, I like to think that I would gently request that he desist from calling anyone scum on this blog. (Back to the bowels of the earth with you, Isaac!) Some publishers are principled and ethical and admirable.

That said, some publishing houses—especially commercial ones, especially big commercial ones, and most especially Elsevier—do engage in a great deal of scummy behaviour, in my opinion.

Posted by: Tom Leinster on January 17, 2011 12:03 AM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Another Editorial Board Resigns

Obviously, Isaac Asimov’s publishers censored and rewrote everything he said about the publishing industry in any of his books; his autobiographies and letters (collected posthumously by his brother in the book Yours, Isaac Asimov) paint quite the positive picture of the business.

Asimov did have less-than-fond memories of Gnome Press, the small house which was the first to print his Foundation stories in book form. The owner of Gnome was always late sending royalty statements and later in sending the royalties themselves. Eventually, the books were shifted over to Doubleday and became quite successful.

I’ve been with Doubleday for 42 years and with Walker & Company for 20 years. In all that time, there have been no changes in their treatment of me. Doubleday is a huge conglomerate, and Walker & Company is a mom-and-pop affair. They both treat me exactly the same. I am also well treated by the 50-odd other publishers I have dealt with directly.

[From a 1990 letter; Yours, Isaac Asimov, p. 39.]

Posted by: Blake Stacey on January 18, 2011 1:12 AM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Another Editorial Board Resigns

Over at sci.research.careers many yrs ago, it was brought up that a researcher could get SUED for posting the paper on the university website (since submitting to journal, gives them full copyright!!??).

Not the case for all journals, though it is a screwy and problematic practice. Copyright transfer contracts are negotiable, and thanks to recent mandates, much work must be made available online after publication.

Open Access journals, institutional archiving policies, the arXiv and the NIH mandate are all working in the right direction. The thorny problem is then inaccurate press releases from university PR offices, uncritical regurgitation of said press releases by so-called “news” agencies (“churnalism”), failure to link news stories to the original research being discussed, news stories about research which hasn’t happened at all, lack of reporters trained in writing about science, the demise of dedicated science sections in a newspaper industry which is failing anyway, “he said/she said” reporting which gets every controversy wrong …

Posted by: Blake Stacey on January 18, 2011 1:42 AM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Another Editorial Board Resigns

Today’s news (via S. C. Kavassalis): the American Physical Society is launching Physical Review X, in order to catch up with the Foundational Questions Institute’s great success at adding X to things. Oh, and also to provide an Open Access journal for the physics community.

Physical Review X (PRX) is a new, global, online-only, open access, primary research journal covering all of physics and its application to related fields. […] Articles in PRX will be published under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 License; authors will retain copyright to their articles. This license permits anyone, without the need to obtain permission from the author(s) or APS, to copy, distribute, transmit, and adapt article content, provided proper attribution is given to the author(s) and to the source of the material. Accepted articles will be published upon payment of an article-processing charge of

Posted by: Blake Stacey on January 19, 2011 6:56 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Another Editorial Board Resigns

I’m pleasantly shocked at the Creative Commons Licence: that’s a genuinely radical move. The 1500 dollar fee… not so sure about that. I appreciate that it costs money to hire professionals and run the computer side of things. I don’t know what “expenses associated with peer review” can mean.

But mostly, I simply don’t believe that their costs can be 1500 dollars per article. They do say that they’re a not-for-profit publisher, so maybe someone can point to some figures to prove me wrong; but at first sight it seems an order of magnitude too much.

If they’re actually using that money to fund the APS, that’s another debate—but that’s not what they say.

Posted by: Tom Leinster on January 19, 2011 7:16 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Another Editorial Board Resigns

1500 dollars per article is within the typical range for journals following that publication model, I believe (see, e.g., the PLoS family), but then again, what is reasonable for one field is not necessarily so for another: people studying the K-theory/D-brane classification of topological insulators do not have to pay for ten-thousand-person double-blind clinical trials as part of their daily work. I’d definitely like to see the line-item breakdown of where that

Posted by: Blake Stacey on January 19, 2011 7:45 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

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