Elsevier and Evolution & Human BehaviorPublished 6 February, 2012
Elsevier publishes Evolution and Human Behavior (E&HB), the official journal of the Human Behavior and Evolution Society. Elsevier has recently been the focus of a controversy; last week, it was widely reported that thousands had signed an online petition to boycott Elsevier. The grievances are that 1) Elsevier charges too much for their journals, 2) Elsevier “bundles” journals together, and 3) Elsevier supports measures such as SOPA (the act that some have argued amounts to censorship of the web.) The petition asks people to sign and indicate which tasks – publishing, refereeing, editing – they plan to refrain from.
I’m not going to dwell on these points, and I don’t pretend to know what price Elsevier ought to be charging for its products or what units they should be selling them in. However, given the controversy emerging surrounding the boycott of Elsevier journals, I thought it appropriate to make some remarks and explain my position.
As a co-Editor-in-Chief of E&HB, I might be expected to be biased, and so probably I am. Having said that, I don’t consider myself to be an apologist for Elsevier, and while I am hoping that members of the evolutionary psychology community do not join the boycott, this is not due to any love for Elsevier or concern for their bottom line. (Disclosure: I do get a modest stipend for my editorial duties. By my last calculation, it comes out to less than about $9/hr.)
A tiny bit of history. Michael McGuire founded the journal in 1980, then titled Ethology & Sociobiology. The title was changed with the ascent of Martin Daly and Margo Wilson as co-editors. As with most new journals, impact was initially modest and submissions few. In 1996, the journal was receiving about 70 manuscripts per year. That number more than quadrupled to about 300 in 2011, and the impact factor currently stands at 3.6, up from 2.6 in 2008, helped, I believe, by the general improvement of scholarship in the area in general, but also by the hard work of Ruth Mace, Dan Fessler, Martie Haselton, and Steve Gaulin, who have served the journal as editors over the last decade as editors.
Like many other people, I do find it odd that we find ourselves in a situation in which authors are giving away content and reviewers are giving away time, both of which are then sold at a profit by the publisher, whether it is Elsevier or one of its competitors. This model made a certain amount of sense when publishers produced a service for which they had a comparative advantage, organizing the publication process, printing and distributing journals, and so on. Certainly, in the present technological environment, it makes sense to think about the logic of the model.
These points have been discussed in a number of forums, in other discussions about this topic, including on the AEPS group on facebook, and in this discussion and elsewhere the conversations have frequently given rise to two questions. First, why do people publish in Elsevier journals, and, second, why doesn’t someone generate alternatives?
The second question is easy to answer: they have. This blog is associated with an open-access journal that publishes in the same area as E&HB, and is run frugally by the editors, indeed frugally enough that authors aren’t charged to publish here. There is also Frontiers in Evolution Psychology, which I currently head, though we get almost no submissions, possibly because, unlike Evolutionary Psychology, there are fees to publish. And of course there are other journals as well, such as Human Nature, and so on.
This then makes the first question all the more puzzling; why publish in E&HB, particularly given the open source alternatives? My guess is that the answer is that publishing work in E&HB is valued because it is the official journal of the Human Behavior and Evolution Society, and is widely read by people both inside and outside the field. For scholars who wish to promote their ideas, E&HB is an excellent option. In addition, and perhaps the more important reason for many, the fact of the matter is that Chairs, Deans, and personnel committees look at the impact factor of journals in which faculty place articles. For better or worse, scholars’ livelihood depends in no small part on placing their work in high impact journals. Newer journals tend to have less cachet and lower impact, which discourages some from submitting as a matter of professional strategy, which in turn makes starting new outlets difficult. None of this, I think, is likely to change significantly any time soon, though of course some newer journals do indeed bend upward with some speed.
So, with that as background, here is my view on the boycott. For me, the central issue should be about how we can produce the best scientific papers that reach the broadest audience. Whatever we do should, in my opinion, be in the service of this goal. I say this in part because it seems to me that the goal should not have to do with indulging jealousy. I would rather reach more people with Elsevier making more money than reach fewer people while reducing Elsevier’s profit margins. My business is in communicating scholarship; their business is, well, business. Yes, to the extent that their pursuing their goals interferes with mine, then, sure, we have conflicts to resolve. But my goals have to do with the communication of ideas, not the eroding of margins of our friends in the Netherlands.
Next, I do think it’s important to keep things in perspective. As of this writing, the drop-down menu on the petition web site indicates 80 people in the “Psychology” category as having joined. This is a tiny fraction of scholars in the field. If more scholars sign up, what will the impact be? Holding aside the symbolic value, I take it that the intended impact of the boycott will be that Elsevier journals such as E&HB will get fewer submissions, and the ones that we do get will get inferior vetting by the scholarly community, eventually leading to a decline in the quality of the journal. Will this ultimately harm Elsevier’s bottom line by forcing them to charge less because the quality of their product has gone down? Will they lose market share? Maybe. Certainly while this process is ongoing, the quality of papers could indeed be compromised. For obvious reasons, I would resist this outcome, and so I oppose the boycott as a means to achieve the particular end I have in mind.
Are there other routes to reform? In my view, HBES should work over the next year to consider alternatives to the existing contract. To this end, I will propose to the Executive Council at the HBES annual meeting this year that the Society appoint a committee to investigate alternatives to the present arrangement, and produce one or more concrete proposals. It seems to me that one possibility is going with another academic publisher, such as Wiley or SAGE, though of course many will view this as no better than the current state. Another option would be to try to develop a means of doing without a publisher entirely. I myself don’t know what this sort of option looks like, particularly if we want to continue to have a hard copy of the journal published, but these are the sorts of issues that a committee might look into. (Views differ on the value of having a paper journal. Are there places that we hope to reach that don’t have access to electronic resources that we take for granted? I don’t know the answer to that question.)
In short, I don’t care very much about Elsevier’s profit margins per se. I do care about making papers in our discipline – and other disciplines, for that matter – as good as they can be, and spreading ideas as broadly as possible. Elsevier does do something to advance this goal, including structuring the process of manuscript evaluation and disseminating the journal in print and on the web. Still, the US$31.50 price tag on a single article, or US$477 for a subscription does seem steep, though it’s worth noting that anyone joining HBES gets the journal and pays only a small fraction of that amount. (By the way, my understanding from Elsevier’s statement of policy on preprints, which I grant might be mistaken, is that Elsevier allows authors to post a version of their paper to their own web site, with the caveat that it can’t be the .pdf of the final, published paper itself. So if the issue is getting ideas out, for free, I think, but am not sure, that we as authors can do this. Someone feel free to correct me if I’m wrong about this.)
Can we do better than the present arrangement? It seems like a possibility. Still, having said that, my view, for what it’s worth, is that refusing to submit to the journal and referee for the journal is not a constructive way to proceed. Evolution and Human Behavior is the official journal of HBES, and its current status is due to efforts of people like Margo Wilson, Martin Daly, and the dedicated authors and reviewers who have contributed over the years. It is not perfect, and of course authors, reviewers, and editors have made mistakes along the way. No doubt they will continue to do so, regardless of the means by which articles are published. My view is that we should be working to make our journal, the Society’s journal, as good as it can be, scientifically, while simultaneously working to increase its impact. If there are viable ways to preserve the journal while at the same time reducing the price, then we should work as a community to find those ways. I, for one, welcome any ideas, and any help, in the service of reaching this goal.