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As long time readers may recall, I am not a big fan of Elsevier and was a public advocate of the position that no-one should submit to Elsevier journals at a time when it was neither profitable or popular. However, reading this article about Elsevier’s new policy of issuing take-down notices against authors who publish their work on university websites has made me change my mind. Now, I think that everyone should submit as much of their work to Elsevier as they possibly can. Any article that has even a modest chance of success. People should bear through the revise and resubmit process as many times as it takes. Once the piece has finally been accepted, then, and only then, should they withdraw the article from consideration, and then publish it on their university or personal website with an “accepted by Elsevier Journal x and then withdrawn in protest,” together with a copy of the acceptance email (containing the editor’s email address etc).

I do foresee a couple of possible wrinkles in this plan. Perhaps disgruntled elder colleagues might frown upon this (although in some fields at least, disgruntled elder colleagues seem entirely on board with pushing against Elsevier). Non-tenured faculty might want to think a little about the benefits and disadvantages before deciding they wanted to do this. This said, I could imagine senior faculty or tenure letter writers who would find this kind of thing wholly admirable, and to be congratulated, not punished (I know that I would). If this campaign actually took off, Elsevier would doubtless try to disrupt it, by e.g. obliging prospective authors to sign a contract agreeing to publish in the journal if accepted. However, I could also see any such efforts backfiring – most journals would be damaged by such a policy, since many academics (especially prominent and well published ones), would see forced contracts as presumptuous and insulting. Doubtless, there are other flaws that readers can point out.

However, I can’t imagine that the journal’s peer reviewers would have much ground for complaint. Their job is to help improve academic work that is eventually publicly circulated (in other words their loyalty should be to the field, rather than to the journal). Journal editors would probably be unhappy, but really, at this point, no-one should want to be the editor of an Elsevier journal. I’m perfectly OK with academic publishers who don’t try to extract monopoly rents, just as I’m OK with various forms of open publishing (I happily do both). But Elsevier relies both on the willingness of scholars to submit work and their willingness to review it, to make extortionate profits by effectively selling academics’ labor back to the academy. Current proposals to target Elsevier seek to withdraw this labor in one or the other way. Another possibility (which is the one I’m suggesting, albeit without a great deal of serious thought) is to subvert the current system and make it unsustainable in other ways, by extracting the kudos that acceptance in some Elsevier journals can bring out from the obligatory signing away of rights that goes together with agreeing to let the journal actually publish your piece. In a world where ever fewer academics discover articles by actually picking up the journals, this kind of strategy is at least thinkable.

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.

A few years ago, I wrote a post explaining that I was no longer going to referee for, or publish in journals published by Elsevier (and that I was likely only to cite Elsevier published articles with an explicit health warning). This was relatively cheap for me, as I work in a field where Elsevier has little presence (I’ve only had one occasion to turn down refereeing in the intervening period), but I did suggest that other readers might do the same. Now, “Tim Gowers”: has independently had the same idea. Unsurprisingly, famous mathematicians are rather better able to rally support than political scientists of middling repute. So far, nearly 400 academics have publicly committed not to cooperate with Elsevier (I suspect this is an undercount, as they are verifying the credentials of signatories before posting their names). I warmly recommend that CT readers, especially readers in the hard sciences sign up. This is a plausibly effective form of collective action, since these journals, published by a notably rapacious and demonstrably dishonest commercial enterprise, rely on a lot of volunteer work to keep going. If academics stop working for Elsevier journals for free, either because they sign up to these commitments, or because they get the broad feeling that Elsevier is bad news, then the company’s business model collapses.

Via “Michael Nielsen”:

Via “BoingBoing”:, Ben Goldacre tells us that the Elsevier journal scam “went even further then originally reported”:

In a statement to The Scientist magazine, Elsevier at first said the company “does not today consider a compilation of reprinted articles a ‘journal'”. I would like to expand on this ­statement: It was a collection of academic journal articles, published by the academic journal publisher Elsevier, in an academic ­journal-shaped package. Perhaps if it wasn’t an academic journal they could have made this clearer in the title which, I should have mentioned, was named: The Australasian Journal of Bone and Joint Medicine.

Things have deteriorated since. It turns out that Elsevier put out six such journals, sponsored by industry. The Elsevier chief executive, Michael Hansen, has now admitted that they were made to look like journals, and lacked proper disclosure. “This was an unacceptable practice and we regret that it took place,” he said.

You’ve got to love that ‘mistakes were made’ passive-voice shtick. But the interesting question for me as an academic, is how we should treat Elsevier journals going forth? I really think that the base presumption has to be that if Elsevier was pulling manifestly dishonest stunts like this, it has also been up to lots of borderline unethical activities too. When you see the creation of a _complete line_ of astroturf journals, presumably with the sign-off of senior executives in the company, you aren’t just talking about a couple of bad apples. So what do we do?

Most obviously, we shouldn’t publish in Elsevier journals. This is easy for me to say – I am in a field where Elsevier isn’t especially strong – but I hope that I would say it if I were in a field where Elsevier journals dominated. In general, I would prefer my own work not to be used to add cover and credibility to manifestly bogus and unethical publication strategies. Furthermore, I don’t think we should review for Elsevier journals either. There are obviously a lot of honest scholars who edit journals for Elsevier (one would hope that they are in a majority), but they should really be devoting their efforts elsewhere – and polite but firm negative responses to review requests might help generate the necessary norm shift that would encourage them to move. Finally, I am quite attracted to the idea of registering disapproval when one cites to work that has been published in Elsevier journals. Some boilerplate language along the lines of

bq. Timewaster(2009) finds _x_ to be the case. Although these results were reported in a journal published by Elsevier, the company responsible for deliberately publishing pseudo-journals such as _The Australasian Journal of Bone and Joint Medicine_, there is no reason whatsoever to believe that these particular findings are problematic.

might usefully serve to communicate to academics that publishing with Elsevier is a net reputational negative.

Also, and by the way, there is plenty more in Goldacre’s piece about Merck’s response to critics – hitlists of doctors to be ‘neutralized’ or ‘discredited,’ hints of drying up of funds to academic institutions that asked unfortunate questions etc. Discovery can be an awful lot of fun.

Elsevier buckles

by John Q on June 6, 2007

Over at the RSMG blog, Nanni points out that Reed Elsevier will no longer host arms fairs. This has followed a long campaign by academics and others. The case raised a bunch of questions about boycotts. My general feeling was that moral suasion should be tried first, but that if that failed, boycotts should follow. It’s not clear whether the outcome was purely the product of suasion or whether increasingly loud noises about possible boycotts prompted Elsevier to move.

New Year Gifts

by John Q on January 2, 2024

It’s still New Year’s Day in places, but the world of academia seems to be back to work, and sending me a variety of gifts, some more welcome than others. Coincidentally or otherwise, it’s also the day I’ve moved to semi-retirement, a half-pay position involving only research and public engagement.
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Capital, Predistribution and Redistribution

by Thomas Piketty on January 4, 2016

In my view, _Capital in the 21st Century_ is primarily a book about the history of the distribution of income and wealth. Thanks to the cumulative efforts of several dozen scholars, we have been able to collect a relatively large historical database on the structure of national income and national wealth and the evolution of income and wealth distributions, covering three centuries and over 20 countries. In effect, we have been extending to a larger scale the pioneering historical data collection work of Simon Kuznets and Tony Atkinson (see Kuznets, 1953, and Atkinson and Harrison, 1978). My first objective in this book is to present this body of historical evidence in a consistent manner, and to try to analyze the many economic, social and political processes that can account for the various evolutions that we observe in the different countries since the Industrial Revolution (see Piketty and Saez, 2014, for a brief summary of some of the main historical facts). Another important objective is to draw lessons for the future and for the optimal regulation and taxation of capital and property relations. I stress from the beginning that we have too little historical data at our disposal to be able to draw definitive judgments. On the other hand, at least we have substantially more evidence than we used to. Imperfect as it is, I hope this work can contribute to put the study of distribution and of the long run back at the center of economic thinking.

In this essay, I seek to discuss a number of implications of my findings, in particular regarding the optimal regulation of capital and the complementarity between the “predistribution” and the “redistribution” approach. I will also attempt to address some of the very valuable comments made by the participants to the Crooked Timber symposium. First, I will clarify the role played by r>g in my analysis of wealth inequality. Next, I will present some of the implications for optimal taxation, starting with inheritance taxation and then moving with annual taxation of wealth, capital income and consumption. Finally, I will emphasize the need to develop a multi-sector approach to capital accumulation. This will lead me to stress the limits of capital taxation and the complementarity with other public policies aimed at regulating the accumulation and distribution of capital (such as land use, housing policies, intellectual property rights, co-determination and participatory governance). [click to continue…]

Laugh if you like, but death on the tracks is funny

by John Holbo on November 30, 2013

Every year or so we make jokes about trolleys. As an accomplished cartoonist of the subject, and a professional philosopher, I should probably weigh in to set you all straight. How not?

I really said it all (and more!) in this old post about Occam’s Phaser. Do not multiply zap-guns beyond necessity!

Philosophers aren’t bloodthirsty autists, you silly people. They are mildly whimsical. But that’s important. The genre of the analytic philosophy (Anglo-American, call it what you like) thought-experiment is a mildly humoristic one, in that it tends to Rube Goldbergism. Of course the point is always to solve for variables! You never tie another victim to the tracks, or fatten one up, for any other reason than that he/she is strictly needed in that place or shape. Nevertheless, the more outlandish the set-up gets, the funnier it gets. And I think it’s fair to say that philosophers quietly award themselves style points for (plausibly deniable!) whimsy, above and beyond conceptual substance.

The problem with that, I should think, is that mirth is an emotion that may affect our moral thinking. Specifically, it makes us more utilitarian. See this more recent article as well [sorry, Elsevier paywall]. The trolley scenarios are, or may be, used as intuition pumps for utilitarian purposes. (They may be used for other things, of course.) But it is an underdiscussed fact that they may inherently do so, in part, because trolley tragedies can’t help being a bit funny.

UPDATE: for those who can’t read the experiments, basically watching comedy clips makes you more utilitarian. But the experimenters don’t seem to have considered that the trolley cases themselves are short comedy clips, of a mild sort. I should publish this important finding of mine. Seriously. It’s actually important to think about.

My alma mater had a celebrity professor of political science who was principally known for two things. First, for accidentally leaving his wireless mic on during mid-lecture restroom breaks. And second, for the slogan “Politics is a good thing!” which he relentlessly promoted via mediums as diverse as lectures, TV appearances and TA’s t-shirts.

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But it is more or less along the same lines. “Inside Higher Ed reports”:

Elsevier officials said Monday that it was a mistake for the publishing giant’s marketing division to offer $25 Amazon gift cards to anyone who would give a new textbook five stars in a review posted on Amazon or Barnes & Noble. … Here’s what the e-mail — sent to contributors to the textbook — said:

“Congratulations and thank you for your contribution to Clinical Psychology. Now that the book is published, we need your help to get some 5 star reviews posted to both Amazon and Barnes & Noble to help support and promote it. As you know, these online reviews are extremely persuasive when customers are considering a purchase. For your time, we would like to compensate you with a copy of the book under review as well as a $25 Amazon gift card. If you have colleagues or students who would be willing to post positive reviews, please feel free to forward this e-mail to them to participate. We share the common goal of wanting Clinical Psychology to sell and succeed. The tactics defined above have proven to dramatically increase exposure and boost sales. I hope we can work together to make a strong and profitable impact through our online bookselling channels.”

.. Cindy Minor, marketing manager for science and technology at Elsevier … called the request for five star reviews “a poorly written e-mail” by “an overzealous employee.”

The news that NICE has put acupuncture and chiropractic on the list of approved therapies for non-specific lower back pain has led to about the reactions you’d expect – back-slapping and high-fiving from the crystals and “life force” crowd, agonised complaining from the professional skeptics. But it’s actually a sign of something that ought to make us worry, not much but at least a little bit, about the way in which we’re doing medical science in this country.
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Astroturf journals

by Henry Farrell on May 4, 2009

Elsevier already has an awesomely wonderful reputation as an academic publisher, but even by their standards, “this”: (free reg. required) is pretty extraordinary.

Merck paid an undisclosed sum to Elsevier to produce several volumes of a publication that had the look of a peer-reviewed medical journal, but contained only reprinted or summarized articles–most of which presented data favorable to Merck products–that appeared to act solely as marketing tools with no disclosure of company sponsorship.

…The _Australasian Journal of Bone and Joint Medicine,_ which was published by Exerpta [HF-sic] Medica, a division of scientific publishing juggernaut Elsevier, is not indexed in the MEDLINE database, and has no website (not even a defunct one).

… In testimony provided at the trial last week, which was obtained by The Scientist, George Jelinek, an Australian physician and long-time member of the World Association of Medical Editors, reviewed four issues of the journal that were published from 2003-2004. An “average reader” (presumably a doctor) could easily mistake the publication for a “genuine” peer reviewed medical journal, he said in his testimony. “Only close inspection of the journals, along with knowledge of medical journals and publishing conventions, enabled me to determine that the Journal was not, in fact, a peer reviewed medical journal, but instead a marketing publication for MSD[A].”

He also stated that four of the 21 articles featured in the first issue he reviewed referred to Fosamax. In the second issue, nine of the 29 articles related to Vioxx, and another 12 to Fosamax. All of these articles presented positive conclusions regarding the MSDA drugs. “I can understand why a pharmaceutical company would collect a number of research papers with results favourable to their products and make these available to doctors,” Jelinek said at the trial. “This is straightforward marketing.”

… Lurie, in examining two of the issues for _The Scientist,_ agreed that one particularly strange element of the _Australasian Journal of Bone and Joint Medicine_ is that it contains “review” articles that cite just one or two references. “I’ve never seen anything quite like this,” he said. “Reviews are usually swimming in references.”

Elsevier acknowledged that Merck had sponsored the publication, but did not disclose the amount the drug company paid. In a statement emailed to The Scientist, Elsevier said that the company “does not today consider a compilation of reprinted articles a ‘Journal’.”

“Elsevier acknowledges the concern that the journals in question didn’t have the appropriate disclosures,” the statement continued. “It is worth noting that project in question was produced 6 years ago and disclosure protocols have evolved since 2003. Elsevier’s current disclosure policies meet the rigor and requirements of the current publishing environment.”

“Via Summer Johnson”:

More Than Just a Pretty Face

by Belle Waring on August 22, 2006

This post from the Freakonomics blog on why beautiful women sometimes marry unattractive men seems somewhat incomprehensible to me. Maybe you all can help:

…a new study by Satoshi Kanazawa, an evolutionary psychologist at the London School of Economics, suggests it may be a simple supply-and-demand issue: there are more beautiful women in the world than there are handsome men.

Why? Kanazawa argues it’s because good-looking parents are 36% more likely to have a baby daughter as their first child than a baby son—which suggests, evolutionarily speaking, that beauty is a trait more valuable for women than for men. The study was conducted with data from 3,000 Americans, derived from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health, and was published in The Journal of Theoretical Biology.

According to this news article, “Selection pressure means when parents have traits they can pass on that are better for boys than for girls, they are more likely to have boys. Such traits include large size, strength and aggression, which might help a man compete for mates. On the other hand, parents with heritable traits that are more advantageous to girls are more likely to have daughters.”

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Scott Lemieux’s “Tech Central Journal of Medicine”: excerpts a WSJ article that uncovers some pretty nasty practices in medical academic publishing.

bq. In 2001, the American Journal of Kidney Diseases published an article that touted the use of synthetic vitamin D. Its author was listed as Alex J. Brown, an associate professor at Washington University in St. Louis. But recently, that same article was featured as a work sample by a different person: Michael Anello, a free-lance medical writer, who posted a summary of it on his Web site. Mr. Anello says he was hired to write the article by a communications firm working for Abbott Laboratories, which makes a version of the vitamin D product. Dr. Brown agrees he got help in writing but says he redid part of the draft. It’s an example of an open secret in medicine: Many of the articles that appear in scientific journals under the by-lines of prominent academics are actually written by ghostwriters in the pay of drug companies. These seemingly objective articles, which doctors around the world use to guide their care of patients, are often part of a marketing campaign by companies to promote a product or play up the condition it treats.

bq. …

bq. Susanna Dodgson, who holds a doctorate in physiology, says she was hired in 2002 by Excerpta Medica, the Elsevier medical-communications firm, to write an article about J&J’s anemia drug Eprex. A J&J unit had sponsored a study measuring whether Eprex patients could do well taking the drug only once a week. The company was facing competition from a rival drug sold by Amgen Inc. that could be given once a week or less. Dr. Dodgson says she was given an instruction sheet directing her to emphasize the “main message of the study”… That report said the study’s goal “could not be reached.” Both the instruction sheet and the report were viewed by The Wall Street Journal. The higher figure Dr. Dodgson was asked to highlight used a broader definition of success and excluded patients who dropped out of the trial or didn’t adhere to all its rules. The instructions noted that some patients on large doses didn’t seem to do well with the once-weekly administration but warned that this point “has not been discussed with marketing and is not definitive!”

Meanwhile, the backers of the real Tech Central Station may have been involved in the New Hampshire “phone-jamming scandal”:

bq. McGee’s testimony suggested that the DCI Group, a powerful public relations firm which publishes the Tech Central Station website and is closely connected to the Republican party, was involved through lawyer and New Hampshire native Bruce McCabe. He also said he had talked to Darrell Henry of the American Gas Association, who said that he would keep the phone jamming going after it was officially called off.

Books and bombs

by John Q on September 9, 2005

Tom Stafford points to academic publisher Elsevier’s involvement in the international arms trade. Even the legal aspects of this trade are deplorable, given the excessive readiness of governments and would-be governments to resort to armed force, but the boundary between legal and illegal arms trade is pretty porous. For example, there’s evidence that the arms fairs organised by Elsevier subsidiary Spearhead are venues for the illegal trade in landmines. Tom has a number of suggestions for possible responses.