science politics

The recent call for a GlamMag boycott by Nobel laureate Randy Shekman made a lot of headlines, but will likely have no effect whatsoever. For one, the call for boycott isn’t even close in scale to “the cost of knowledge” boycott against Elsevier and even that drew less than 15,000 measly signatures, a drop in the bucket with 970,000 board members, reviewers and authors working for Elsevier largely for free. Any boycott movement that fails to reach 500,000 signatures is an abject failure. Moreover, even if he had half a million signatures on the GlamMag boycott, it would also be a drop in the bucket, as probably more than ten times as many scientists would simply see their chances of getting a GlamMag publication increase and try even harder to publish there. Furthermore, Shekman only pleaded to ethical sentiments, when it’s quite apparent that such pleas will fall on deaf ears if livelihoods are at stake – which they are as GlamMag publications are perceived to put careers on entire different levels. Shekman failed to base any of his arguments in data and evidence, of which there is plenty, and so his pleas will likely fade unheeded. And as if all this wasn’t enough to lose confidence in the effectiveness of this boycott, there is the obvious conflict of interest with Shekman, as the editor-in-chief of another “luxury journal” pleading for his colleagues to leave the legacy “luxury journals” to publish their work where – in Shekman’s self-professed “luxury journal” eLife?

Devoid of evidence and replete with conflict of interest and at least perceived hypocrisy, as much as I’d want it to be successful, I fear this was the first and last time we heard of this boycott.

Nevertheless, this is just the last in a row of different calls to collective action to show the Evilseviers of science publishing who’s boss over the last decade or so. Moreover, new publishing venues are springing up all over the place and scientists are flocking to them with their publications. The media are picking up on the momentum that publishing reform is currently garnering and increasing. It really does seem as if there is now, after more than a decade, something actually shifting in academic publishing.

In the string of public action, campaigns and stunts, one thing was notably missing: a call to boycott where it would really hurt publishers: cutting subscriptions. The only thing close to this was the threat of boycotting Nature Publishing Group by the University of California system in 2010. That never happened essentially because NPG caved in. Such a boycott, if actually enacted, would certainly put the spotlight on publishing reform as it would get several stakeholders moving at once:

  • Publishers would feel the pinch not in their public image, but in their balances
  • Scientists would consider twice to publish in a journal that hardly anybody can read
  • Given the high cost of subscriptions, huge funds would be freed in the institutions to develop a digital infrastructure that would make publishers obsolete and save a pretty penny along the way
  • An effective boycott of the most expensive publishers would also drive down subscription costs in the remaining corporations as they compete for the remaining subscription funds
  • If such a boycott went into effect, it would actually constitute a significant short-term sacrifice to researchers who would have even more trouble reading some of their literature for a certain period of time, sending an even stronger signal of resolve than some 30k signatures on a website

However, I project that such campaigns are unlikely to find much support, as it would require libraries and their faculty to actually sit down on the same table and defend their common institutions. Why does something so seemingly easy have to be so difficult?

Posted on  at 23:28