The Education of a Scientist

Why are scientists like me getting so worked up over Elsevier and other journal publishers? It must seem strange from the outside. This cartoon explains it very clearly. It’s hilarious—except that it’s TRUE!!! This is why we need a revolution.

(It’s true except for one small thing: in math and physics, Elsevier and Springer let us put our papers on our websites and free electronic archives… though not the final version, only the near-final draft. This is a concession we had to fight for.)

What can you do? Two easy things:

• If you’re an academic, add your name to the boycott of Elsevier.

• If you’re a US citizen, sign this White House petition before March 9.

Why the problem is hard

Why is it so hard it is to solve the journal problem? Here’s a quick simplified explanation for outsiders—people who don’t live in the world of university professors.

There are lots of open-access journals that are free to read but the author needs to pay a fee. There are even lots that are free to read and free for the author. Why doesn’t everyone switch to publishing in these? Lots of us have. But most haven’t. Two reasons:

1) These journals aren’t as “prestigious” as the journals owned by the evil Big Three publishers: Elsevier, Springer, and Wiley-Blackwell. In the last 30 years the Big Three bought most of the really “prestigious” journals – and a journal can’t become “prestigious” overnight, so while things are changing, they’re changing slowly.

Publishing in a “prestigious” journal helps you get hired, promoted, and get grants. “Prestige” is not a vague thing: it’s even measured numerically using something called the Impact Factor. It may be baloney, but it is collectively agreed-upon baloney. Trying to make it go away is like trying to make money go away: people would not know what to do without it.

2) It’s not the professors who pay the outrageous subscription fees for journals – it’s the university libraries. So nothing instantly punishes the professors for publishing in “prestigious” but highly expensive journals, except the nasty rules about resharing journal articles, which however are invisible if you live in a world of professors where everyone has library access!

So, the problem is hard to solve. The fight will be hard.

But we’ll win anyway, because the current situation is just too outrageous to tolerate. We have strategies and we’re pursuing lots of them. You can help by doing those two easy things.

9 Responses to The Education of a Scientist

  1. I think you posted the wrong link to the White House petition. I see thecostofknowledge twice.

  2. First of all: thanks for your blog, I love it!

    But I don’t completely believe in the A of AGW.. :)

    I think the more physics and mathematics are published in open journals, the quicker the “evil publishers” will go out of business.

    It will be difficult to separate the wriff-wraff and “crackpwuts” from people like me (just kidding); but even bad/random information can create a spark!

    So, the more information, the better; bring it ON!!

    • John Baez says:

      Charles wrote:

      But I don’t completely believe in the A of AGW. :)

      Let’s not talk about that here: I have plenty of blog entries that are more suitable for comments about that. But try reading this.

      I think the more physics and mathematics are published in open journals, the quicker the “evil publishers” will go out of business.

      Indeed! Before publishing papers, people should check out the Directory of Open Access Journals and the stupidly named but actually very useful SHERPA/RoMEO website, which rates journals.

      (Stupidly named, because the acronym does not suggest what the site is about! When you read ‘SHERPA/RoMEO’, do you think ‘open access journals’? No, you think ‘romantic Nepalese mountaineers’. And they don’t even say what the bloody acronym means on the bloody ‘about’ page. But apart from that, it’s a good webapage.)

  3. Ugo Bardi says:

    You said it right, John, papers are “money” for scientists. And scientific publishers have been smart enough to position themselves as “banks”. It is difficult to fight banks, as the Wall Street protesters have learned. But, in this case, the main problem is with the mind of scientists. They are conservative and they tend to stick to the old ways. I know this; I was working at free access publishing already in the 1990s. It didn’t work. Eventually, though, it will.

  4. Tim van Beek says:

    The main point is that today, with the help of computers, authors do a lot of work that once was done by the publishers. Since publishers are provided with LaTeX-files of high quality instead of manuscripts that only experts can decipher, the question is what kind of value do they provide? Not as much as 50 years ago, that’s for sure.

    I think that an online journal would even be safer with respect to archiving the articles, than a commercial company. What happens to the rights of papers published by Elsevier if they go broke?

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