Journal resignations ‘can drive scholar-led publishing revolution’

Creating new publications for disaffected editors could catalyse a sector-wide rethink on publishing norms, say experts

June 8, 2023
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Recent mass editorial resignations from commercial journals over high publication fees and controversial practices could trigger further defections to the non-profit sector and spark a scholar-led revolution in journal behaviour, academics behind several high-profile walkouts have said.

In recent months leading academic journals from a variety of disciplines have faced a wave of editorial resignations in protest over the conduct of publishers. More than 40 editors from Neuroimage quit in April over Elsevier’s decision to raise open-access fees to $3,450 (£2,776), while several editors at Wiley’s Journal of Political Philosophy recently resigned after the unexplained firing of editor Robert Goodin.

Some 25 editors of the MDPI title Publications also quit in April after the resignation of editor-in-chief Gemma Derrick over what she called the potential “reputational damage” likely to be faced by editors if controversial publishing practices used in other parts of the Swiss publisher, including the rapid expansion of editorial boards and the explosion of special issues, continued unchecked.

The spate of mass walkouts from journals suggests that editors are no longer willing to tolerate the “exploitative” practices seen in some parts of academic publishing, said Dr Derrick, associate professor at the University of Bristol’s School of Education.

“Editorial boards are rightly demanding that the practices of their journals align with their community norms, not the business strategies of the publishing houses,” she said.

Warning that “these types of mass walkouts [are now] more likely”, she added that “these are highly principled arguments and concerns and, where publishing houses do not relent, researchers are responding with their feet”.

This was “a healthy development and essential to reorientate existing power structures that govern research”, she added.

Samuel Moore, a scholarly communications specialist at Cambridge University Library who left the editorial board of Publications last year for similar reasons, said collective action, including the threat of mass resignations, could drive positive change within journals.

“This kind of action can be used to implement editorial policy changes, such as forcing publishers to accept rights retention,” said Dr Moore.

“Resignations themselves require careful management and a great deal of coordination, but really are one of the best tools we have for creating a more ethical publishing landscape,” he continued, adding that funders and institutions should “provide support for editors wanting to do this – a suite of resources, things to consider and advice for striking out on your own and starting your own journal”.

“The important thing is that this requires support, something which we’re now starting to see more of as people wake up to the benefits of diamond open access,” Dr Moore added.

However, the recent resignations had revealed “how hard it is to bring about change in an area where power is so entrenched within commercial publishing models”, he said.

“They are hard work, particularly if the board is launching a new journal, and there is a risk that the new publication simply ends up rehearsing all the problems that led to resignation in the first place – especially if journals bounce from commercial publisher to commercial publisher.

“Ultimately, we need to be encouraging institutions to offer financial and technical solutions within the university that offer real, well-supported alternatives to the extraction of the commercial publishing industry. The publishing process has real scholarly value and could be served well if brought back in-house.”

Chris Chambers, professor of cognitive neuroscience at Cardiff University who helped to organise Neuroimage’s resignations, said funding bodies’ dissatisfaction with high-cost scientific publishing should be translated into support for scholars like himself who were keen to transfer their editorial expertise to non-profit publishers.

With the European Union wanting to introduce a “no pay” publishing model in which readers and authors bear no costs, it should “require that all researchers who use public funds publish their work in non-profit outlets,” said Professor Chambers. “Why should taxpayers subsidise the obscene profits of commercial publishers, especially when there is no shortage of high-quality non-profit alternatives?” he said.

“More radically, all governments should require that publicly funded researchers archive their research articles as preprints in free repositories prior to journal submission, and then update the preprints as their manuscripts go through peer review. This would ensure that the final preprint is identical to anything that appears in a peer-reviewed journal,” he added.

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