40 editors at a scientific journal just resigned in protest of their publisher's "greed"

Critics say research is hobbled by profit-driven journals. That has far-reaching ramifications for science

By Troy Farah

Science & Health Editor

Published May 10, 2023 5:00AM (EDT)

Closeup of the edge of open book pages (Getty Images/FactoryTh)
Closeup of the edge of open book pages (Getty Images/FactoryTh)

Academic publishing is the bedrock of modern science: a published paper in a respected, peer-reviewed journal is the mark of scientific advancement, the hinge point upon which most technological, medical and social advances rely. Yet the sanctity of the scientific enterprise is suffering due to "greed," according to a growing chorus of voices in the scientific community.

The massive forum of scientific and medical journals known as "the literature" is primarily how researchers and doctors have shared their work for several centuries, allowing others to interpret, build, critique, recontextualize and hypercharge how we understand reality through science and data. The process of peer-review, in theory, holds scientific examination accountable while editors at these publications can curate credible archives of intellect and understanding.

Being published in the journal costs money — a fee known as an article processing charge, which comes in at $3,450 for NeuroImage. 

But access to these archives remains an unobtainable threshold for many people, according to a growing number of voices who have grown disillusioned with at least some aspects of this model. Critics say that modern scientific publishing is structured in a way that funnels money to multi-billion dollar corporations. That has far-reaching ramifications for scientific progress — not to mention public understanding and trust in science.

This came to a boil on April 17, when more than 40 scientists resigned from their editorial positions at a journal called NeuroImage — one of the world's leading publications concerning brain imaging. Founded in 1992, the journal publishes around 1,000 articles per year with an impact factor of 7.4, which is a metric for how often the journal's research is cited by others. NeuroImage has been open access since 2020, a mode of scientific publishing that eschews paywalls, allowing anyone to read the research, share it and build upon it.

Nonetheless, to be published in the journal costs money, a fee known as an article processing charge (APC), which comes in at $3,450 for NeuroImage. The editors requested last June that this fee be reduced to below $2,000, but Elsevier, the journal's parent company, didn't budge. So the editors quit — all 42 of them — and started their own non-profit open access journal, Imaging Neuroscience, which is being published by MIT Press.

"We value very highly our editors and are disappointed with the decision of the NeuroImage Editorial Board to step down from their roles, especially as we have been engaging constructively with them over the last couple of years as we transitioned NeuroImage to become a fully open access journal," an Elsevier spokesperson told Salon in an email. The Dutch publishing company owns many journals, including Cell, The Lancet and the ScienceDirect collection, among others. "In line with our policy of setting our article publishing charges competitively below the market average relative to quality, the fee that has been set for NeuroImage is below that of the nearest comparable journal in its field," the spokesperson said.

The company emphasized its commitment to "advancing open access to research," noting that nearly all of its more than 2,800 journals enable open access publishing, including 700 journals that are fully dedicated to removing paywalls in science.

The editors, who come from universities across the globe including in China, Canada, The Netherlands, France and the U.S., said in a press release that profits aren't necessarily the problem. Instead, it's that they are so high that they are "unethical and unsustainable," as they put it. The parent companies' profit margins can be as high as 40 percent for some publications. The state of the whole industry was once described as a "catastrophe" by Peter Suber, director of the Harvard Office for Scholarly Communication and director of the Harvard Open Access Project, which advocates for open-access scholarly papers.

"Scientists and funders increasingly feel that it is wrong for publishers to make such high profits, particularly given that the publishers do not fund the original science, or the writing of articles, or payments to reviewers, and pay minimal editorial stipends," the former NeuroImage editors wrote in a statement. "As a result, authors and reviewers are increasingly refusing to work with high-profit journals."

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The rogue NeuroImage editors' new journal Imaging Neuroscience claims to have already signed up 1,000 peer reviewers, and state they they are planning to be ready for submissions by mid-July. They aim to make fees as low as possible, with a target article fee less than half of the current NeuroImage APC or even lower. They also plan to waive the fee completely for submissions from scientists in low or middle-income countries.

This is far from the first time that scientists have quit in protest of major scientific publishing companies, including Elsevier. In 2001, all 40 members on the editorial board of Machine Learning, a journal in publication since 1986, quit in protest of high fees.

"None of the revenue stream from the journal makes its way back to authors, and in this context authors should expect a particularly favorable return on their intellectual contribution," the Machine Learning editors wrote in a letter over two decades ago that mirrors the rhetoric of the current Hollywood writers strike. "We think that many will agree that this is an agreement that is reflective of the modern Internet, and is appealing in its recognition of the rights of authors to distribute their work as widely as possible."

Those editors went on to form a new open access publication, the Journal of Machine Learning Research, which is still publishing today.

Five years later, the The Cost of Knowledge protest took place, in which nine editorial board members of the mathematics journal Topology resigned, citing the pricing policies of their publisher, Elsevier as having "a significant and damaging effect on Topology's reputation in the mathematical research community." Their boycott grew momentum, at one point amassing 9,000 signatories that promised not to publish their research in a journal owned by Elsevier. At the time, some called the move an "Academic Spring," in reference to the Arab Spring.

Despite the momentum of these editorial rebellions at their time, it is unclear if anything has changed in the industry since then.

"This all seems analogous to the current situation where energy providers are making massive, largely unearned, undeserved profits," Stephen Smith, a professor at Oxford University, the former editor-in-chief at NeuroImage and now EIC at Imaging Neuroscience, told Salon in an email. "They defend their prices as being driven by 'market forces' — but they could just agree that the huge profit margins are wrong, and reduce them."

"Too many publishers are making too much, largely unearned, profit — from research and writing that they did almost nothing to help produce."

The driving force behind all of this is pressure put on scientists, especially those at universities, to constantly be publishing, as their careers depend on it. In academia, the aphorism "publish or perish" refers to this plight; and this perverse incentive forces researchers to compete for funding based on the number of articles they have published, prompting some to give prominence to insignificant results or distort them entirely.

Smith says there was a very strong consensus between he and the other editors who quit, a decision that came about after numerous discussions. "Everyone agreed that the APC was unethical and unsustainable," Smith told Salon, but emphasized that the choice was made with a mix of regret and complex emotions.

"We really didn't want to see NeuroImage disappear — it has been the top journal in our field," Smith explained. "The editors had dedicated years to making NeuroImage the leading journal, with most of us publishing our own best work there. But, at the end of the day, change is needed — too many publishers are making too much, largely unearned, profit — from research and writing that they did almost nothing to help produce."

By Troy Farah

Troy Farah is Salon's science and health editor specializing in drug policy and pandemics.

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