The movie Speed opens with this memorable dialog between two cops:
Harry Temple: All right, pop quiz. Airport, gunman with one hostage. He’s using her for cover; he’s almost to a plane. You’re a hundred feet away... Jack?
Jack: Shoot the hostage.
The strategy of some scientists to take down for profit publishers, notably Elsevier, keeps edging closer to shooting the hostage. Do anything that is bad for Elsevier, even if a few other researchers get harmed along the way.
The Cost of Knowledge website is gaining traction with its call to not “support” Elsevier journals. Jonathan Eisen went even further towards the “shooting the hostage” strategy. He suggested that scientists not “promote” any article in an Elsevier journal: no blogging, no tweeting, no journal club. He was convinced otherwise, as you’ll see by visiting the post. I complement Jonathan for considering other points of view.
You won’t find my name on that boycott list - yet. I’ve written before that I don’t think it’s fair to refuse to review a paper because I don’t like the journal. (Besides, if I put my name on the list but then reviewed for an Elsevier journals, who would know? Reviews are typically confidential.) I still think the best strategy is slow strangulation. Do not submit papers to those journals. Convince colleagues that there are better venues than those journals.
Shooting the hostage makes for great drama, but such a single-minded “get the bad guy by any means necessary” approach may not be desirable. There’s a reason cops don’t shoot hostages outside of action movies.
Update, 26 February 2016: The attention has turned to pre-prints following the ASAPBio meeting this month. I’m disappointed to see people trying to use the same lever of refusing to review manuscripts to try to change journal policy:
From Casey Greene.
Update, 1 July 2016: When I asked about whether this strategy does anything but harm authors, Erin McKiernan mentioned that this seems to have helped bring the matters to the former editors of Lingua. The editors of that journal famously jumped ship from their Elsevier published journal to start a new open access journal, Glossa. In this article:
UA: Had you as editors and active researchers in the field heard any complaints from your researcher-colleagues about this problem?
Dr. Tessier: Absolutely. You reach out to people and say, “Can you review this paper for Lingua?” Increasingly people said, “Honestly, I’m not willing to review for Lingua or submit work there anymore because I don’t think it’s reasonable to support a model where the research winds up so monetized.”
Several people had mentioned to me that their universities were considering just not buying subscriptions to Elsevier journals anymore for the same reason – that it was cost prohibitive. So, we’ve lost the plot. This is no longer a viable method for research dissemination if we have to bargain as to which of the journals we’re going to be able to subscribe to.
UA: Is it normally difficult to find peer reviewers for Lingua articles?
Dr. Tessier: It’s hard to convince people to review because it’s unpaid work and that’s always been the case. When trying to find reviewers I usually have to ask twice as many people as I need. I need three reviewers so I send out at least six asks. I don’t know how common that is across journals.
People who exclusively said, “I can’t review for you [because of the pricing model],” has only happened in the last year. I think it’s happened probably four times.
But there is no rule that says scientists can only voice displeasure about journal policies when they are making decisions about reviewing or not. Maybe the same consciousness raising can occur without delaying reviews and messing with authors.
Pressuring journals you dislike