Peer review is crucial in this: it gives authority and legitimacy to Elsevier’s journals and it puts clear blue water between it and the host of predatory publishers discussed in my earlier blog.
Elsevier’s publishing arm is not just big; it’s growing fast. The number of articles submitted to Elsevier journals grew by 9% in the year covered by its report. In addition the company wants to launch new journals and expand what it calls (with refreshing directness) “author-pays” and “author’s-funder-pays” journals. In academia we have learned to refer to these as “gold open access” – though we sometimes lose sight of who gets the gold. Elsevier seems a bit less bothered about fully open access journals, though it does have “over 50” of those, partly as a response to academic pressure, discussed below (of course the report doesn’t mention that last part).
So scholarly publishing is not a cottage industry; it’s a global production process, and it’s expanding quickly. Because only the delivery side can be easily automated, the intellectual production side needs more and more workers in order to cope with this expansion. Happily for Elsevier, the largest segment of its academic army of labour – the peer reviewers – works for free. But here lie the roots of Elsevier’s first problem: how to expand that army of unpaid academic labourers.
And Elsevier has a second problem. It is to do with its reputation in the academic world. There have been a string of problems in recent years. These have involved:
- mass resignations of editors of different Elsevier journals over subscription prices and other matters (Wikipedia, 2015a);
- boycotts of Elsevier journals and books because of its self-interested political lobbying and funding;
- controversies about payments to Elsevier for bypassing the peer review route to publication;
- a scandal about fees for publishing non-independently-reviewed articles that favour drugs produced by ‘big pharma’ (Altbach and Rapple, 2012).
The ‘double trouble’ for Elsevier, then, is the imperative to increase the number of unpaid peer reviewers globally in a climate where its controversial history could make this difficult.
Part of the company’s solution to this conundrum is to contribute funds to a charitable body, Sense About Science (SaS, 2015a). Amongst other things SaS runs workshops on peer reviewing for newer researchers (SaS, 2014; 2015b). These are subsidised by further funding from Elsevier and other members of the scholarly publishing oligopoly. SaS has also conducted research (“administered with a grant from Elsevier, who also provided support writing this report” - SaS, 2009, p. 2) on peer review as an academic activity.
No doubt Sense About Science’s motives are good and its research is completely impartial, but the conclusions of that research have been reported as a praise song for peer reviewing. The benefits and virtues of peer reviewing are extolled and the practice of doing reviews is positioned as an essential skill that researchers need, offering them career benefits of all sorts (Global Academy Jobs, 2015). Newer academics are told that engaging in peer review will enhance their critical skills, help them publish good articles and get to know journals in their field.
This arm’s length approach to recruiting its unpaid workforce by Reed Elsevier seems to be working: the benefits of peer reviewing get illuminated through the good works of a charitable body whose workshops also increase the quality of the review process. The bonus is that nobody mentions exploitation of academic labour, high profits, journal subscription prices, the string of controversies or the appropriation of public resources by the scholarly publishing industry generally.
It is undeniable that there are some benefits in doing peer reviews for the reviewers themselves, especially for new academic recruits. But this doesn’t mean that these new academics – who are usually struggling with high workloads and a steep learning curve on a low salary - need to be exploited in this way.
(All websites last accessed 22.5.2015)
Altbach, P. G. and Rapple, B., (2012) Anarchy, commercialism, and “publish or perish”. International Higher Education 67, 5-7. https://www.revistaensinosuperior.gr.unicamp.br/edicoes/ihe/IHE67original.pdf
Global Academy Jobs (2015) Global Academy Jobs weekly bulletin. May. http://globalacademyjobs.cmail1.com/t/ViewEmail/t/DB9C005F90D396E3/1BAEBCAE5682B32D44D0DD5392A9C75A
Reed Elsevier (2013) Annual report and financial statements 2013. http://www.relxgroup.com/investorcentre/reports%202007/Documents/2013/reed_elsevier_ar_2013.pdf
SaS - Sense About Science (2009) Peer review survey 2009: full report. http://www.senseaboutscience.org/data/files/Peer_Review/Peer_Review_Survey_Final_3.pdf
SaS – Sense About Science (2014) Past peer review workshops. http://www.senseaboutscience.org/pages/past-peer-review-workshops.html
SaS - Sense About Science Funding (2015a) http://www.senseaboutscience.org/pages/funding.html
SaS - Sense About Science Funding (2015b) http://www.senseaboutscience.org/pages/april-2014-workshop.html
The Cost of Knowledge Campaign (2015) http://thecostofknowledge.com/
Wikipedia (2015a) Elsevier: criticism and controversies. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Elsevier#Criticism_and_controversies
Wikipedia (2015b): The cost of knowledge. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Cost_of_Knowledge