Open Access and the Power of Editorial Boards: Why Elsevier Plays Hardball with Deviant Linguists

The recent infight between the world’s largest academic publishing company, Elsevier, and (soon: former) editors of one their journals over attempts to make the journal open access – that is, freely available online – demonstrates the potential power of editorial boards in shaping the digital future of academic publishing.

The academic publishing system runs on reputation. Researchers gain reputation by publishing in reputable journals, which are more read and cited than other journals. The better the reputation of a journal, the more prestigious is it to review and serve as a member of the editorial board. Of course, the related reputation dynamic is self-stabilizing and highly path dependent because prestigious journals get more submissions, have higher rejection rates, more prestigious authors and reviewers, all of which contributes to being cited more often, which in turn is the key reputation metric in most disciplines (see a paper by Jakob Kapeller and myself on this issue for the field of economics).

The path dependence of journal reputation in contempary academic publishing is one of the reasons – if not the main reason – why new open access journals face a steep uphill battle against incumbent journals. The few open access journals that managed to acquire substantial prestige such as some of Public Library of Science (PLoS) journals did so mostly because of the very high prestige of founding editors, including nobel laureates. It is also the reason why simply calling for researchers to switch to open access outlets won’t work. Since careers and funding depend on the proven ability to publish in established “top journals”, researchers in general and early-career researchers in particular have strong incentives to avoid newly founded open access outlets.

But there are groups of people that could make a difference: journal editors and their editorial review boards. A huge part of a journal’s reputation is effectively derived from its editors. If the whole editorial board of a prestigious journal decided to collectivley leave this journal behind and open up a new one, it’s very likely that this new journal would outperform the journal they had left behind. And this is not just an abstract scenario but actually this is more or less what could happen in the case of Elsevier’s journal “Lingua“. When Elsevier had refused to make the journal open access, according to Inside Higher Ed, all six editors and 31 editorial board members resigned and plan to found a new open access journal.

How dangerous collectively acting editorial boards are for the traditional publishing model with its ridiculously overpriced subscription fees (see, for example, Harvard University Library’s “Memorandum on Journal Pricing“) could not have been better evidenced than by Elsevier’s response in the Lingua case. On the company’s blog, Elsevier Vice President and Head of Global Corporate Relations Tom Reller accused Lingua’s executive editor Johan Rooryck that he “wanted to take ownership of the journal” (in the meantime, the post has been corrected to “The editors of Lingua wanted for Elsevier to transfer ownership of the journal to the collective of editors at no cost”).

Reller further argued that Lingua were a “hybrid open access journal”, which means that individual authors can pay (usually prohibitively high fees) for an article to be available open access. Since only few authors can afford this and such open access charges do not offset an institution’s subscription fees, this is more of an additional revenue stream for Elsevier than something that deserves to be called “open access”. Finally, Reller claimed that Elsevier had founded the journal, which was debunked by Johan Rooryck on Facebook:

Lingua was founded in 1949 by Albert Willem de Groot (1892-1963) and Anton Reichling (1898-1986), two Dutch structuralist linguists. It was originally published by North Holland, a Dutch publishing house, that was purchased by Elsevier in the ninetiesearly eighties. Elsevier didn’t build that.

All in all, the whole episode shows that editors and editorial boards may be the best lever for moving academic publishing towards open access. It is them and not the publishing houses that possess the prestige that makes academic journals important and precious. For the overwhelming majority of journals, publisher’s reputation does not matter – and in the case of Elsevier, it would be an increasingly bad reputation anyway.

This post was originally posted at governance accros borders.

A satire on the art business in which art experts and dealers who assess paintings are depicted as donkeys. After the drawing by Trémolières in the Hessisches Landes Museum in Darmstadt (cropped).
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