Occupied Scholarly Territory: Which publishers do I trust?


For me the primary concern in scholarly publishing is who do I – and maybe you – trust? This blog will give some personal thoughts and probably upset some, but it shows my thoughts.

If I am getting windows renewed for the house I need to know which builders I can trust. That’s as important as cost. Who has my interests at heart when I pay them for materials and labour? It’s not a silly idea – and in a small city like Cambridge there are many ways to address it – friends and neighbours who have had work done – reports (good and bad) on the Cambridge blogosphere – visiting showrooms and premises, etc.

And almost always talking to the people involved.

And generally it works. When large commercial companies are involved the personal trust is lacking but it’s still possible to read consumer magazines or the grumblepages of the newspapers. Generally you know what is available with some idea of who the cowboys are (a UK term which is not flattering!). And local tradespeople often have the interest of the community as well – they live there!

But in scholarly publishing it’s different. Who can you trust to look after your interests? Either as author, or reader, or institution, or the wider society?

Answer: There are almost no scholarly publishers you can trust. Certainly not when measured by the volume of publications.

The only publishers I trust are those where I know the people involved, talk with them, and we know each other’s desires and limitations. Here are some I do trust:

  • The International Union of Crystallography. They have a society-based ethic, are innovative, have been part of my life for 45 years. I know the editors and the IUCr boards and committees. They are my ideal, followed by:
  • The European Geosciences Union (publishing through Copernicus). They are aggressively Open Access because they are part of the community and have the community interests at heart.
  • Public Library of Science PLoS. Because it was set up by passionate scientists, who wanted to change the world of scholarly publishing. My trust remains as long as the scientists such as Jonathan Eisen are in control.
  • ASBMB – a society publishing biology and molecular biology. I know the editor Ralph Bradshaw well and we have talked long about the aspirations of the journal for Open Data – the need to back the science with data. He insisted on that for Molecular and Cellular Proteomics (MCP) and the rest of the publishing community sneered. Now they have adopted the principles pushed forward by Ralph. MCP isn’t OA, but I trust it. As long as Ralph is in charge.

I trust these because I trust the people. Other people I currently trust are the immediate editors in Biomed Central who have done a great job in promoting Open Access and Open Data.

But BMC are owned by Springer and I totally distrust Springer as an organization to look after my interest, my university’s interests, and my readers’ interests. I may be slightly romantic but I come from a background where companies were ethical and wished to provide a fair product or service for those whose money they paid. It used to be called pride.

But read Richard Poynder’s interview with Springer’s boss http://poynder.blogspot.com/2011/01/interview-with-springers-derk-haank.html . Haank speaking:

“The Big Deal is the best invention since sliced bread. I agree that there was once a serial pricing problem; I have never denied there was a problem. But it was the Big Deal that solved it.

“The truth is that it is in the interests of everyone—publishers and librarians—to keep the Big Deal going.”

I find no mention of “reader” (the enduser of a publisher is the purchasing officer of the university – often the Library)

I find no mention of “author” (other than “author charges”, “author archiving”)

I find no mention of “the scientific community”

The whole article is cold-hearted. About how Springer has designed a product not on its value to the community which is paying for it, but as something artificial that can be manufactured as cheaply as possible and sold at the highest price. It doesn’t matter to Haank whether it helps science – it’s just a commodity. And absolutely no indication of innovation based on what the community wants – oh, no – it’s innovations that Springer thinks it can sell. Like the 35 USD per day rental of papers.

So, sadly, I do not trust BMC long term and it saddens me to say so.

The other commercial publishers (almost all closed access) are all the same. I don’t trust any.

And what about Societies? I used to help run the Molecular Graphics Society as treasurer. We didn’t use publications to subside the society – we used the society to subsidize subscription costs for members. (Shut up, PMR, you are a stupid romantic – we are in the C21 and sentimentality is a thing of the past).

Most of the societies have lost their soul and sold out in one way or another. The American Chemical Society’s anticontributions are well-known. The Royal Society of Chemistry stated that “Open Access is ethically flawed”. OK, 5 years ago – but how can a society say that at all? Many learned societies , especially large ones, are run for the benefit of their senior officers and the bottom line.

Which is a tragedy, because it is the learned societies and international unions who should be the guardians of scholarship. Not profit-oriented business people, whether commercial or not. I’d love to recover their role – I wish I knew how.

And until that happens we are left with a very few organisations we can trust. A few charities (e.g. Wellcome Trust) and a few (not all) funding bodies.

Oh, and if you think that all commercial OA publishers can be trusted, read Richard Poynder on InTech (http://poynder.blogspot.com/2011/10/oa-interviews-intechs-nicola-rylett.html ). Oh for the lost learned societies. Quis custodiet? No one except you and me… We’ll have to do it through the blogosphere.

Because, yes, I can trust the bits of the blogosphere I have learned to trust.

Yes, today seems to be a gloomy start.



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5 Responses to Occupied Scholarly Territory: Which publishers do I trust?

  1. Richard Kidd says:

    It may seem like splitting hairs, but the ‘ethically flawed’ comment was in an interview and has never been repeated as RSC policy. Five weeks after the news item in question we launched Open Science as a Gold OA option for all authors in RSC journals. Speaking personally as a long term employee, I don’t believe the final sentence of that paragraph applies to the RSC.

  2. I think you raise lots of interesting points. As you say, I don’t think ‘commercial’ or ‘not commercial’ actually means very much in terms of whether or not a publisher can demonstrate that they truly have the interests of the research community in mind. There are some great examples of commercially driven organizations who have radically changed markets resulting in huge benefits for consumers, based on a social benefit philosophy.
    Really, the success of any organization, commercial or not, is to deliver value to its customers and do that better than their competitors. This is as true of academic publishing as any other industry. And serving the research community effectively means also serving scholarship.
    I direct a marketing agency called TBI and we work with a whole range of academic publishers (commercial and non commercial). Actually, as an industry, I observe that most people are in it because they want to be a part of making a contribution to society. Most of them (including myself) could all go off and earn much higher salaries in other industries. Perhaps we’re just not very good at communicating this to authors and the wider research community? InTech is an interesting case in point – and subject to much criticism in Richard Poynder’s article. You’ll see TBI gets liberal mentions in this too. Yes, they are a client of ours – so cynics will say I have a bias. Perhaps. But at the same time I see them, and many other publishers, working really hard to innovate and improve the impact of science. Of course there are always exceptions that give industries a bad name.
    I think publishers are actually in a period of evaluation about how best to serve scholarly communications and what their role in this is. Watch this space, but I do anticipate that we as an industry will get better at demonstrating the difference that publishers make in ensuring authors’ work has the highest possible impact. This will help us develop performance metrics that authors can then use to decide which publishers they can actually trust and who is the best fit for them. Those publishers that do this job well should be justified in deriving profits from this. Happy to accept that there is a level of ‘fair profits’ that would make for an interesting ongoing discussion. 🙂

    • pm286 says:

      Many thanks Melinda,
      What concerns me is that publishers do not evaluate what scientists and their organizations want and try to create an appropriate product. They create products they think they can sell cost-effectively. Did ANY scientist go to Nature and say “please create Nature Chemistry, Natire Drug Discovery, etc.” No, I expect it was dreamt up in marketing meetings. (They may have had some tame scientists to bounce it off).
      Science publishing is not lilke mobile phones or processed cheese. It should be for the benefit of science. It isn’t.

    • Mike Taylor says:

      “I do anticipate that we as an industry will get better at demonstrating the difference that publishers make in ensuring authors’ work has the highest possible impact.”
      Melinda, you should definitely concentrate on that. As an author myself, I have to admit that can’t really see at all how publishing as an industry ensures my work has the highest possible impact, so it’s evident that the message isn’t getting out. (Either that, of course, or there is simply no substance to the claim — but it’s your job to persuade me it ain’t so.)

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