Last week, I became involved in a brief Twitter discussion with mrgunn (William Gunn), Director of Scholarly Communications at Elsevier, about how and to what extent commercial publishers such as Elsevier actually contribute to the production of academic journals. This is an important question, because commercial publishers often justify their profits by claiming that they provide essential services to the academic community, and that they are in a unique position to provide them.

Specifically, they have often portrayed themselves as providing quality control because they administer the editorial screening and peer review process that selects and improves academic contributions. On the other hand, many academics argue that review and editing work are done primarily by volunteer academics, and that the commercial journals are now unnecessary, and even parasitic entities. Much of the conversation around moving toward true Open Access (OA) has centered around the role and the necessity of having commercial publishers, whose business models depend either on subscription or author processing fees (APC), mostly paid by public funds.

I initially responded to mrgunn’s retweet of a Scholarly Kitchen piece by Angela Cochran and Karin Wulf, on the importance of editing to scholarly publishing. The article is interesting, and I strongly agree with both the sentiment and the content. It argues that editors play a key role in the production of a journal by screening submissions, finding reviewers, digesting and synthesizing reviewer comments, communicating with authors, and making publication decisions.

Mrgunn tweeted that “If authors knew more about what happens behind the scenes, there would be much less unnecessary unhappiness with the process”. I interpreted that to mean: If academics knew more about what commercial publishers do for them, they would be less critical of Elsevier. His response to my comment, as we will see, confirms my interpretation. It struck me as yet another instance of a commercial publisher claiming credit for other people’s work.

I pointed out that “In archaeology, at least, the publisher is involved in none of what is described in this article. All this ‘behind the scenes’ stuff is done by academics who donate their time. The publisher formats the paper and prints it and/or puts it online”. Here, I should have acknowledged that at least at some journals (mostly society journals in my experience), professional copy editors do the extremely important work of correcting mistakes and querying the authors on inconsistencies, missing information, etc.

Mrgunn responded, perhaps a bit too flippantly: “If that is true, then you need better publishers in archaeology”. Of course, Elsevier, which mrgunn represents, publishes some of the big archaeology journals, including the Journal of Archaeological Science and the Journal of Anthropological Archaeology.

When I asked specifically about whether Elsevier archaeology journals have professional, full-time editors on staff who do the kind of work described in the article, and which in my experience as author, editor, and reviewer, normally falls to volunteer academics, I was told: “I am not familiar with those journals specifically, but I do know Elsevier editorial standards that apply across all journals & they do include the things mentioned”.

Since there is a marked disconnect between my experience and mrgunn’s claim, I set out to find out more. After doing some research, I can confirm that the Elsevier archaeology journals for which information was available do not, in fact, have professional, full-time editors on staff.  As a first clue, none are listed on their Elsevier profile pages.

As I suspected, and as is consistent with my experience, the work listed in the Cochran and Wulf piece, of screening papers, finding reviewers, synthesizing comments, interacting with the authors, and making publishing decisions, is done by academics who also have a regular day job.  I am very much willing to be wrong on this, but it doesn’t seem that I am.

For at least some of the Elsevier journals, the chief editor does receive a small honorarium, so their work is not completely done on a volunteer basis. But from what I have been able to find out, the honorarium is more symbolic than anything else. I don’t think the honorarium extends beyond the chief editor, to the many associate editors and editorial board members. In any case, it does not change the basic fact that, at the end of the day, academics provide the labour. The publisher doesn’t.

I think it would be a better strategy for commercial publishers such as Elsevier to make their case on the basis of what they actually do for the academic community (creating submission handling systems, hosting and archiving papers, indexing, providing analytics, etc). They shouldn’t try to make arguments that not only fly in the face of our experience as authors, reviewers and editors, but that also  insult us by dismissing and minimizing the contributions we make on a volunteer basis, while they profit from our labour, and from the public funding we receive.

We could then, as a community, decide whether the services they do actually provide are worth paying for, keeping in mind that in making that decision, we are the stewards of public funds.

6 thoughts on “What do commercial publishers actually contribute to scholarly publishing? An interaction with mrgunn

  1. Andre, would you be willing to add the “share this” buttons to your blog so that it’s easy to RT your posts after reading them?

    Not that I will do that with every post, mind, but I would like to do it with this one.


  2. Thanks for your thoughtful post, Andre. If I gave you the impression that publishers are trying to take credit for the work of reviewers & academic editors, I’m sorry. Angela, Karin, and I were all trying to say the same thing, which is to highlight what publishers do, and we’re doing this because there’s definitely misunderstanding in the academic community around what “the work” is.

    Let me give an example, which is an imperfect example, but I trust you’ll consider it charitably. I just got back from the dentist. There’s no question that the dentist is the person with the degree and professional qualifications, but they wouldn’t dream of saying they’re the one who does all the work at their office, at least not within earshot of the hygienist and office manager! Likewise, there’s a reason that societies choose to use the services of a professional publishing company to run their journal. Many academic communities hold the Elsevier journal in their field in high esteem, because of the services Elsevier provides. It’s not doing the review, but it’s managing & coordinating the whole process.

    None of this is intended to take away from reviewing & editing the work researchers do, but if you don’t think Elsevier does anything at all, I can only recommend you speak with the editors of the journals in your field to see if they have a different perspective.


    1. Dear William,

      Thank you for your reply. I do acknowledge that commercial publishers play an important role for many journals as they currently exist. I hope my text makes that clear.

      Your initial tweet and your two subsequent responses strongly implied that you believe that publishers handle the editing of journals, in addition to other important aspects of their production. I had to point out that this is not the case in any of the areas in which I have published.


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