Elsevier recently published an interview with Philippe Terheggen, their Managing Director of STM journals, about the importance of trustworthy publishers and journals for the integrity of science, in a world he portrays as increasingly corrupted by disreputable predatory publishers. “Trusted research information”, claims the article “remains an important cornerstone of the scientific process and contributes to the progress of science and humanity”. Hence the importance of trustworthy journals and reputable publishers. This, of course, is an undisguised appeal to authority, one of the first fallacies every schoolchild learns to recognize. No claim should be trusted, whatever its source, until it has been tested, either through reasoning or experiment.
Terhaggen rightly argues that “…An open access (pay-to-publish) model can be misused; it provides an opportunity to exploit the willingness of authors to pay to publish, without providing the full editorial and publication services of a reputable publisher, including a thorough peer review process and commitment to long-term archiving”. True enough.
It doesn’t take very much reflection, however, to see that the caution applies equally to all commercial publishers, regardless of reputation. Reputable commercial publishers contribute little more than disreputable ones. The value Terhaggen claims is provided by reputable publishers, and not by predatory ones, is in fact provided by the academics who donate their time to commercial journals. The editing and the pre-publication reviewing are done by academics, at no cost to the publisher. I do enough of both, I should know. The post-publication reviewing, where the real, long-term vetting of claims happens, through replication, testing, argument, and elaboration, has nothing at all to do with the publishers.
The only thing a reputable commercial publisher provides that a predatory one doesn’t, is the reputation. The public pays a hefty price for access to scholarly content locked away behind that reputation. In a system where the evaluation of claims should be blind to reputation, reputable publishers want to charge us for it, and they want to convince us that it matters.
Unfortunately, they largely succeed. The history of the reputable commercial scholarly publishers, such as Elsevier, has been to capture or create the venues in which scholars want to publish, and then charge us and the public enormous fees for the privilege of accessing our publicly funded scholarship. The desirability for individual academics of publishing (unpaid) in a given venue depends on its prestige. In some fields, this is a fuzzy community sense, in others, a highly quantifiable impact factor. In either case, it has much to do with the fact that the articles are peer-reviewed, and that prominent editors (unpaid) can presumably pull in prominent and competent reviewers (unpaid) to generate reputation for a journal, which will bring the publisher (paid) a hefty profit. Thus, even the reputation that reputable journals claim to provide, if it were even needed, is provided by the academics who edit and review.
Elsevier and other commercial publishers depend on the fact that “For many academics, career progression depends on the research papers they publish”. Sadly, it still very much matters where those papers are published. In fact, in many ways, it matters more than what is in them. The more prestigious the venue, the better, and, as Lenny Teytelman shows, the more expensive for authors.
Although commercial publishers do everything they can to preserve and encourage this state of affairs, academics and the culture we create are deeply complicit in its perpetuation. That is for us, and no one else, to change. For purposes of hiring, promotion, and funding, we must firmly and as a group, commit to evaluating the content of scholarly contributions rather than the reputation of the venues in which they are published.
Unscrupulous predatory publishers and reputable ones alike charge academics to simply make their papers available online and provide them with a journal title, and an issue and page number to put on their CVs. The reputable journals also sell reputation, which they get from attracting high profile academics. At least, some of the predatory publishers forgo that conceit. Another point in their favour is that they generally don’t systematically claim credit for the labour of academic editors and reviewers.
Results and arguments stand or fall on their merits, in the long-term, in application, and not according to the publisher’s market value, the title of their journal, or the illustrious names on its masthead. The source of a claim has absolutely no relevance to its value. Authority should have nothing to do with it, and we shouldn’t pay for it.
Because the propaganda campaign waged by big commercial publishers in defense of their outdated and harmful business model is relentless, we as academics must be relentless in our response to it. Just as we must correct them when they say open access when they really mean APC-based, just as we must correct them when they claim illicit use of “their” content when they really mean technically illegal, we must correct them when they say reputable journals are a cornerstone of the academic endeavour.