Some questions for Elsevier

by Henry Farrell on February 21, 2012

NPR ran a good piece on the Elsevier saga before the weekend. I found one part of the broadcast particularly interesting. A director of Elsevier, Alicia Wise, makes the case for Elsevier as follows.

We have full-time scientific editors, who are mediating the peer review process, and finding editors, and finding reviewers, ensuring those reviews are returned on time. They also are tasked with ensuring that the published articles are bias free. … publishers are doing more work, they have more submissions, and we are incurring the costs of ensuring that peer review and quality control happens.

According to NPR, Wise acknowledges that Elsevier has done a poor job communicating with academics, and has been going online to engage with Elsevier’s critics. I hereby invite Dr. Wise to do so in the comments section here (we are online after all, and a reasonably visible blog) to provide specific answers to a few focused questions. Commenters should feel free to add more questions of their own, but I do ask them to maintain minimum standards of civilty so as to promote debate &c&c.

(1) Which aspect of keeping the academic publishing process ‘bias free’ drove Elsevier’s decision to take drug company money to repackage articles supporting these companies’ products in ways that explicitly suggested that these packages were real academic journals? It’s all very nice that Elsevier’s CEO has expressed his ‘regret’ that this ‘took place’ (rather in the same way that he might have expressed sorrow at an earthquake, a monsoon or a similar natural calamity beyond his control), but did he do anything to reaffirm Elsevier’s stalwart commitment to bias free research, such as e.g. firing the executives responsible?

(2) In a recent Science article on how journals put pressure on academics to cite work previously published in these journals (so as to bump up the journal’s impact factors artificially), four of the five worst journals were Elsevier publications. How does this comport with Elsevier’s purportedly ironclad commitment to quality control and elimination of bias in the peer review process? Skeptics might hypothesize that things have not improved as much as one might like after Elsevier was forced by public outrage among scientists to take action in the notorious “Journal of Chaos, Solitons and Fractals” case, in which an obscure journal managed to become the highest-impact journal in mathematics, thanks in large part to generous, indeed exuberant, levels of self-citation (which were, however, very plausibly not the product of coercion on the part of its editor, who was the co-author of many of the pieces involved).

(3) Why is it that Elsevier obliges libraries buying its products to sign non-disclosure agreements so that they can’t tell anyone what they are paying for their journal bundles without getting sued? Cynics might see this as a textbook example of a semi-monopolist doing everything it can to engage in price discrimination. But perhaps there is an entirely innocent answer.

I would be delighted to see Dr. Wise respond to the particulars of these questions (vague and generic restatements of corporate goals and policies will be greeted with rather less enthusiasm). There is much that remains unknown about Elsevier’s internal processes of decision making, and how they have brought this corporate publishing behemoth, and the academic publishing industry that it has sought so assiduously to reshape) to the state that it is now in.