On the rapaciousness of scientific publishers, and my refusal to be their slave

I’ve long complained about the bloated profits of commercial scientific publishers, which can be as high as 40%. That’s obscene if you realize that other companies which actually make a product make far less money, that the scientific publishers get that money by not only charging authors to publish there, but having their scientific papers refereed and improved by reviewers who are paid nothing. Those reviewers—and I’ve done plenty of gratis reviewing for journals like Nature and Current Biology, as well as for journals issued by less greedy publishers—are done out of a sense of “public service”. Profit-hungry journals like to play on our sense of duty and public service, all the while raking in huge profits by using scientists to do the journal’s job for free. And remember that these journals charge people for access to papers that are, by and large, funded by government grants—by the taxpayer. It’s reprehensible that the public who funds such research is denied access to the results of that research.  (Some funding organizations, however, allow journals to charge for access for only one year. But even that is too much.) Commercial publishing of taxpayer-funded research is a travesty unless the profits, beyond those needed to pay salaries and run the company, are plowed back into more science.

But young scientists, who need to make their reputations by publishing in well-known journals like Cell and Nature, have no choice, for their hiring, tenure, and promotion often depend on what journals accept their papers. Sadly, many of the “high quality” journals are put out by greedy publishers. And it’s not just young scientists, either: organizations that hand out grants often look at where you’ve published your papers before deciding whether to give you further funds.

I’ve complained about this before, especially about the company Elsevier, one of the greediest scientific publishers around (see here). Eventually I, and 16,383 other scientists (the number is growing), pledged to do no more work for Elsevier until they adopted reasonable business practice instead of gouging scientists. Even editors have fought back: as I reported last November, “all six editors and 31 editorial board members of Lingua, a highly reputed linguistics journal that has the misfortune to be published by Elsevier, have resigned in protest of high library and bundling fees and of Elsevier’s refusal to convert the journal to open access.”

Want to know the obscene level of profits these companies make? From Sauropod Vertebrata Picture of the Week, we have a listing of the profits of well known technical scientific publishers. These are from 2012 and represent profits as a percentage of revenue:


Here’s a comparison of profits from various companies, including nonscientific ones, listed on Alex Holcombe’s blog in 2013:


As pointed out in the article I’ll shortly summarize, Elsevier made a profit of $1.13 billion dollars in 2014—1.3 times the entire annual budget of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.

All this came to mind when reader Ursula Goodenough called my attention to a great new article on the American Society for Cell Biology website called “On publishing and the Sneetches: A Wake-Up Call?” (The “sneetches” are Dr. Seuss’s characters who are arbitrarily given green stars on their bellies—corresponding to scientists who publish in the “right” journals and thereby get special status.) The article is by two distinguished cell biologists from UC San Francisco,  Peter Waller and Dyche Mullins, who are mad as hell and aren’t going to take it any more.

Waller and Mullins first point out the problem of the exploitation of scientists by publishers, describing an enlightening Gedankenexperiment:

Like our intellectual ancestors hundreds of years ago, we still conceive and execute the research, and we write our papers. But now with the advent of electronic word and image processing, we also create our own graphics, proofread our own text, and in some cases typeset it. More significantly, the Internet enables us to easily (and instantly) disseminate our work around the world. Publishers still help provide a measure of quality control by orchestrating the peer review process, but here again it is scholars who do the actual work of reviewing papers. It is thus surprising that despite the diminished (and arguably dispensable) role of the publishing industry, our community remains slavishly committed to century-old traditions that, we will argue, are illogical and in many cases exploitative and harmful to our community.

Of course Elsevier is only one example of several large for-profit publishers of scholarly journals. Members of the for-profit publishing industry subscribe to an ingenious business plan. In an insightful satirical essay, Scott Aaronson describes a fictitious computer game company built on principles similar to those of the for-profit publishing industry, exploiting its patrons to contribute their products and labor for free. In Aaronson’s imaginary scenario, game developers donate their games to the company because they need its “seal of approval” for their games to be recognized. Experts test and debug the games for free when told that it’s their “professional duty” to do so. So for only trivial investment in the products, the company can charge customers high rates for the games it now owns. Aaronson concludes: “On reflection, perhaps no game developer would be gullible enough to fall for my scheme. I need a community that has a higher tolerance for the ridiculous—a community that, even after my operation is unmasked, will study it and hold meetings, but not ‘rush to judgment’ by dissociating itself from me. But who on Earth could possibly be so paralyzed by indecision, so averse to change, so immune to common sense?

Their solution is to abandon these greedy publishers and publish under the model of those university and society presses that plow back profits into scientific initiatives. They also say that scientists and granting agencies need to abandon the use of journal titles as measures of scientific worth, a move I heartily approve.  (As the authors note, “As long as the “gold-stars” associated with authoring papers in, for example, Cell and Nature, are—or even are just perceived to be significant drivers in hiring, promotion, and funding decisions, Elsevier, Springer, et al. will remain untouchable forces.”) Waller and Mullins further recommend that all scientists send their work to non-profit venues that give the public and other scientists immediate online access to journals (e.g., PLOS and eLife). Funding agencies can demand the end of the year’s profit-moratorium on free access, and make that access free immediately upon publication. They note, properly, that the scientists who run and edit the journals are not our enemies: they (and reviewers) are often motivated by a sense of duty and a desire to keep published science of high quality. Our enemies are the greedy companies that employ them.

Finally, they argue that scientists should stop allowing themselves to be exploited by rapacious publishers:

What can we as individuals do to promote change? One obvious action that would help weaken the grip of the for-profit publishing industry on our community would be, whenever reasonably possible, to decline to provide our free labor. One of us (PW) for example, with very few exceptions that can be counted with the fingers on one hand, has not published in and not reviewed for any Elsevier journal for the last 13 years. What is most puzzling is a lack of more widespread anger in our communities regarding the degree of exploitation and abuse by for-profit publishing enterprises that we not only tolerate, but accept and support.  Rather, as Scott Aaronson points out later in his article, “[w]e support the enterprise by reviewing and by serving on editorial boards without compensation, regarding these duties as a moral obligation.

And they show a proposed response to editors who expect us to work for free:


Box 1. Suggestion for a reply when asked to review for a for-profit journal. Note that the suggested rate for professional advice is a bargain. It would be very hard to find a lawyer to work for this rate for a for-profit enterprise.

Coincidentally, I was asked yesterday by one of the Nature journals to review a submission. I agreed, read the paper, and then noticed that the paper was tracked through the “Springer Nature Tracking System.” Springer? I wrote to the editor and asked if Nature was now affiliated with the rapacious Springer. I was told that “Springer Nature. . . formed last year through the merger of Macmillan’s Nature Publishing Group and Springer, both commercial publishers.”

With that, I decided enough was enough. I wasn’t going to work for free to enrich either Nature or especially Springer, which is a gouger. I wrote this response:

Given that Springer makes at least 30% profits, and it is using, through the journals, reviewers and authors as free (and exploited) labor to swell its coffers, I’m afraid I must refuse to do my review, even though I’ve read the paper twice. Nature should, in these circumstances, remunerate its authors and reviewers instead of greedily sucking up profits for Springer. Given that you’re asking all of us to do this for free, I must decline to work further for Nature without remuneration.  I have no doubt that you, [editor’s name redacted], and the other editors are doing your job because you care about science, and are trying your best to maintain the quality of our field; my decision is simply a refusal to work for a system that exploits scientists to make profits for a company.

I’d urge other scientists to avoid reviewing for Nature given its new affiliation, or at least to demand $400 per hour for reviewing, something that no journal will pay, of course. We can all do that, even while recognizing the pressures of our field that drives authors to submit their work to journals like Cell and Nature. It’s not hard, and you have nothing to lose—unless you think that reviewing for a journal will somehow help you publish there in the future (a vain hope, I think). And even if that hope is true, we shouldn’t be cowed by publishers who exploit scientists in the interest of their profits.


  1. Rob
    Posted November 29, 2016 at 10:15 am | Permalink

    Hmmm. Don’t use these journals…

    Uh, seems nothing will change until the hiring process changes. Who will bite the bullet and hire the scientist who has not published in these journals?

    • Gregory Kusnick
      Posted November 29, 2016 at 12:38 pm | Permalink

      This seems to be the nub of it. The product these journals are selling is prestige, which is in high demand and therefore commands a high price. If you want the prices to come down, that’s the product you have to create an alternate source for.

    • Mark Sturtevant
      Posted November 29, 2016 at 1:48 pm | Permalink

      Not an easy thing! But like any movement, this can start to turn around when there is a widespread cultural commitment to do so.

    • Posted November 29, 2016 at 4:09 pm | Permalink

      + 1

  2. TJR
    Posted November 29, 2016 at 10:18 am | Permalink

    You could change your name to “The Scientist Formerly Known as Jerry Coyne”.

  3. Posted November 29, 2016 at 10:25 am | Permalink

    Hear Hear!
    Universities could easily become the publishers. A small fee could cover server use, remuneration of editors and so on. We already have this (Oxford University Press etc) and the academics are already on hand to review and edit and already do this for free. The publishing houses are laughing at us. We could fix this in six months.

    • eric
      Posted November 29, 2016 at 10:35 am | Permalink

      Similarly, scientists could start a not-for-profit publishing organization. I believe legally they are capped at something like a 5% profit margin, and also have limits on their corporate pay structures (also, they can’t be publicly traded, so you don’t have to worry about stockholders demanding more profits).

      I think either of these models (university publisher and not for profit) is probably more sustainable in the long run than free publishing. There *are* costs associated with the document preparation, editing, QA/QC, and technical review (especially if, per JAC’s model, each paper undergoes an hour or two of review by 4-5 reviewers at $400/hr). If an organization has no way to recoup those costs through charging a subscription fee or larding the final product with ads, they aren’t going to be in the business very long.

    Posted November 29, 2016 at 10:28 am | Permalink

    I posted this before. A university librarian complained to an Elsevier rep that he would probably have to cancel his library’s subscription to a certain journal because of price. The rep said Elsevier did not care. When they lost subscribers they just raised the price for those who remained.

    • eric
      Posted November 29, 2016 at 10:38 am | Permalink

      Meh. Of course the Elsevier rep would say that; their entire job is to represent the financial interests of the company and you don’t represent your clients as being weak. The fact that some rep says Elsevier won’t negotiate, doesn’t care, isn’t bothered by people dropping them, etc., however, doesn’t make it true.

  5. Posted November 29, 2016 at 10:47 am | Permalink

    Thank you for writing about this. I think it’s important to keep bringing this state of things to people’s attention until there is enough momentum to change the system.

    As a young researcher who doesn’t want to continue on in academia, I am free to rebel and choose where to publish based solely on the scientific and operating merits of the journal. However, as you write, this isn’t the case for most young researchers. Indeed, the system has to change from the top-up, so as a senior researcher yourself, I’m so happy you’re taking this position.

    Of interest to the discussion might be these articles by neuroscientist Bjorn Brembs, showing that journal impact factor (prestige) actually doesn’t correlate with a journal publishing the best research. Indeed, the competition between researchers to ‘publish or perish’ might actually incentivise poor scientific practise:




  6. Kevin
    Posted November 29, 2016 at 11:10 am | Permalink

    Physicists can still make a career never preening the feathers of prestigious journals. I cannot help but think that the biological sciences are tied to different economic burdens than the physical sciences. Still I do dislike the pretentiousness of the premier private publishers.

  7. Steve
    Posted November 29, 2016 at 11:24 am | Permalink

    Excellent article. Academic publishing is a business ripe for disruption. I would caution, however, against the use of imagery of slavery and exploitation is describing the plight of faculty in this system. This is unlikely to garner sympathy outside of academia, and particularly with the politicians who ultimately support much of the system. The sense outside higher education is likely that faculty are well remunerated and that research, publishing and peer review are among the things that their Universities already pay them for. While this general perception may not by true, particularly for contingent faculty, the economic argument more likely to strike a chord with those that fund higher education (government and students) is that the publishers are charging the colleges and universities an outrageous amount of money for the research and peer review the colleges and universities *have already paid for* in paying their faculty. Put that way, some form of open publishing would likely become a state mandate …

  8. Paul
    Posted November 29, 2016 at 11:25 am | Permalink

    Why not get rid of the entire concept of “scientific paper” completely? This was a method of doing science in 19th and 20th century that is no longer needed in the age of internet. Research now moves much faster and many scientific field are intereconnected. We need a type of “Facebook wall” where experimental results can be published immediately and anyone can review them and contribute to the results/conclusions. E.g., a grad student puts experimental results on the “science wall” in the morning, postdoc/PI comments on them in the afternoon, other scientists around the world add their thoughts to the “wall” in real time in their respective time zones, etc. Experts in the field are given higher-level editorial authority for certain “walls” and their impact on research can be tracked an measured in real time.

    • Posted November 29, 2016 at 11:49 am | Permalink

      Scientists are busy and do not have time to read everything posted on a “wall.” They want a filter, hence the need for editors and referees. Perhaps a Google type of algorithm that ranks postings on the wall by referencing cross links (the analogue of citations) could substitute for the editing and refereeing process.

      • Posted November 29, 2016 at 12:24 pm | Permalink

        They also want quality control.

        Editing and refereeing ensure some measure of quality control.

        Remember Sturgeon’s Law and that the Internets is Sturgeon’s Law squared or cubed.

        • Gregory Kusnick
          Posted November 29, 2016 at 12:29 pm | Permalink

          Sturgeon’s Law cubed says that 73% of everything is crap?

        • Posted November 29, 2016 at 12:38 pm | Permalink

          Yes, and unfortunately the crud is harder to detect than religious BS. Errors are often hidden in a web of obscurant technical matter that takes hours to wade through.

  9. Posted November 29, 2016 at 11:38 am | Permalink

    In this age of electronic publishing, I do not see why the “greedy companies” cannot be cut out of the process. The quality of the journal and its imprimatur is determined by the editors and referees who filter the articles. Everything–the editing, the refereeing and the research itself–is done by the academics. Academics make the tenure decisions and review grant applications.

    So what does the company provide other than printing and distribution? Printing isn’t needed and electronic distribution is low cost. Academics should seize the day and establish cooperative high quality electronic, open-access journals. What is stopping them?

    • Posted November 29, 2016 at 12:23 pm | Permalink

      “Academics should seize the day and establish cooperative high quality electronic, open-access journals. What is stopping them?”


      Seems inevitable in the next few years.

    • c emerson
      Posted December 6, 2016 at 8:28 am | Permalink

      Hear hear! [and btw, paying $400/hr like lawyers would turn academia into just another failed commercialized profession]

  10. Merilee
    Posted November 29, 2016 at 11:52 am | Permalink


  11. Posted November 29, 2016 at 12:03 pm | Permalink

    As a colleague of mine from IACAP pointed out, oddly it is largely the *European* publishers who are extreme, with the university presses of the US universities (Pittsburgh, MIT, etc.) being more reasonable. (With the UK in the middle.)

    I for one always feel a sinking feeling when I find a review or the like of something that I want to read and then see it is from Springer or Elsevier …

  12. Werner H Baur
    Posted November 29, 2016 at 12:20 pm | Permalink

    ever heard of sci-hub? see at

    • Posted November 29, 2016 at 12:41 pm | Permalink

      Yes, the paper under discussion talks about that. I like it, as it was intended to make science papers available to people who didn’t normally have access, like those in countries without library subscriptions or penurious scientists.

    • Posted November 30, 2016 at 11:30 am | Permalink

      Do they have book contents, too? I must confess I haven’t paying attention much to it.

  13. Posted November 29, 2016 at 12:21 pm | Permalink

    Bam! Well said, Jerry!

  14. Carl
    Posted November 29, 2016 at 12:57 pm | Permalink

    A 40% profit margin may be fondly remembered when “knowledge” is being dispersed by the “scientific” counterparts of today’s hard news purveyors like Salon, Cenk Uygur, and Rush Limbaugh.

    The financial problem is minor compared to the authority and prestige problem we are already beginning to see and which will only get worse.

    • Carl
      Posted November 29, 2016 at 1:05 pm | Permalink

      Walter Cronkite vs. Glenn Beck
      Nature vs. Templeton Foundation

    • Posted November 29, 2016 at 1:54 pm | Permalink

      Good point. Truth should have greater value in a world filled with lies. So why isn’t PCC rich?

      • Posted November 30, 2016 at 11:32 am | Permalink

        That presupposes that the value of truth can be interpreted as an amount of money. I am not sure that’s true. (How much is *that* worth? :))

  15. Posted November 29, 2016 at 1:03 pm | Permalink

    “They note, properly, that the scientists who run and edit the journals are not our enemies: they (and reviewers) are often motivated by a sense of duty and a desire to keep published science of high quality. Our enemies are the greedy companies that employ them.”

    Employ? I think you misspelled “exploit”.

    • Filippo
      Posted November 29, 2016 at 8:50 pm | Permalink

      Is it in fact mostly “the scientists who run and edit the journals . . . .”?

      Or is it rather that the journals are run by the business and journalism majors who genuflect before their capitalist Masters of Mankind?

      • infiniteimprobabilit
        Posted November 29, 2016 at 8:57 pm | Permalink

        Oooh. Deeply cynical. Probably correct.



  16. nicky
    Posted November 29, 2016 at 1:16 pm | Permalink

    As a young researcher I was often asked to review papers. Never such prestigious papers as Nature, but still quite prestigious enough within my field. I was flattered by the honour and it never occurred to me they should have been paying me for the substantial time and effort.
    Jerries ideas are long overdue. I’m in a practical field now, so not appliccabe to me, but if an Elsevier or Springer owned paper (or other for profit one) asks you, as a young researcher, for your review, however flattered you feel, charge them. Paying you is the least they should do.

  17. Christine Janis
    Posted November 29, 2016 at 2:00 pm | Permalink

    I used to think that I made good money out a textbook that I write ~ 40% of. Well, it still *is* good money, but when I saw the yearly sales figures I realized that my royalties, for a book that retails at > $150, was about a buck a book.

  18. Posted November 29, 2016 at 3:30 pm | Permalink

    I graduated med school in 1977 and have been a public health physician and now a practicing pathologist since 1987. The research “racket” as I refer to it was why I was never attracted to doing research. Much of this “racket” was the hierarchy exemplified by what everyone is describing.

    Now with what I see from the compiling of cases that sites such as “Retraction Watch” document I have no doubt at all that the whole system of research is as corrupt as any bureaucracy or government tends to be.

  19. infiniteimprobabilit
    Posted November 29, 2016 at 3:44 pm | Permalink

    “Eventually I, and 16,383 other scientists…”


    That number sounds familiar.

    2^14, to be exact.


  20. Posted November 29, 2016 at 4:41 pm | Permalink

    A problem I find with many Open Access journals is that they cover their costs by high charges on authors, charges that I have to pay out of my pocket.

  21. Pete
    Posted November 29, 2016 at 4:45 pm | Permalink

    Well, when your profit-revenue share is in Apple territory you know you’ve reached excess margin nirvana. Wow.

    It seems that if most of the high-quality researchers chose alternative publishers for their research profit margins would have to drop in order to attract back those researchers. However, it requires that a critical mass of researchers stop sending their papers to those journals pretty much simultaneously. There’s a coordination problem to resolve in doing this. If it’s only a few researchers, then those researchers suffer due to the perceived subpar journals they’ve published in. Not sure how that can be resolved. Perhaps if enough already notable scientists act as first-movers in choosing alternative journals (presumably those already with tenure).

    And the idea of page charges for authors I find reprehensible.

  22. Hempenstein
    Posted November 29, 2016 at 9:38 pm | Permalink

    … but having their scientific papers refereed and improved by reviewers who are paid nothing.

    FWIW, a good while back I was on the European Journal of Biochemistry’s Editorial Review Board, and also for some time after it turned into FEBS Journal – a name I hated. Anyway, reviewers were reimbursed “for expenses” which was about $15 a manuscript, as I recall, but it was at least something. Those are Wiley journals, and as far as I know that system continues. Whether that was a Wiley thing across the board, or just for journals related to the Federation of European Biochemistry Societies, I don’t know.

  23. Posted November 30, 2016 at 12:21 am | Permalink

    Printed papers and their publication are old technology. There is an alternative that is easily available to everyone and orders of magnitude better. It’s not very well known or used yet for publication, which seems strange. It’s Mathematica notebooks backed up by Mathematica applications. Perhaps they should more properly be called Wolfram Language documents backed up by Wolfram applications.

    The reason they are far superior is that they can contain not only textual discussion, equations, charts and graphics, but also dynamic displays and active calculations. The application can contain packages of routines, style sheets, palettes, documentation, data files, tutorials and multiple papers. And color is free. A reader might add his own calculations or apply his own statistics to data. It is also a great way to build capability and to collaborate with other workers. An application might contain different material for general publication and for collaboration and for private development.

    There could be different repositories for free distribution and perhaps boards of editors to approve the applications.

    It really is a far better medium and available right now. (I don’t work for Wolfram, and I don’t agree with everything they do, but the medium is plenty good enough – better than anything else around.)

    • infiniteimprobabilit
      Posted November 30, 2016 at 2:39 am | Permalink

      And the application is free and runs on any computer? And doesn’t require a broadband Internet link?

      I’m just a bit cynical about the ‘easily available to everyone’ bit.


      • Posted November 30, 2016 at 10:30 am | Permalink

        It’s not free, but perhaps less expensive than normal publication charges. Most universities have it for staff and students. Home editions are about $250 and gave full capability.

        I make applications available from Dropbox. Most papers could be attached to emails. Most printed papers either come by mail, or are also downloaded from the web. An application could be sent by a DVD disk but I thought that almost everyone in the scientific world had high speed internet.

        And, as I argued it has capabilities far superior to static papers.

        • Gregory Kusnick
          Posted November 30, 2016 at 1:23 pm | Permalink

          On the other hand, Mathematica it is a proprietary technology. I’m no information-wants-to-be-free fanatic and have nothing against Wolfram, but it seems to me that we should be wary of making any private corporation the de facto gatekeeper of scientific publication. Isn’t that the problem we’re trying to solve?

          If there were an open-source equivalent of Mathematica (or if Wolfram were willing to spin off an open-source version of it), then I’d agree it would make an excellent publication medium.

          • Posted November 30, 2016 at 2:45 pm | Permalink

            Wolfram is not a gatekeeper. They have nothing to say concerning what documents and applications you distribute – just as Adobe has nothing to say about what PDF documents you produce and distribute.

            I know there is a lot of resistance to this but I don’t think the reasons are very solid. I don’t think the disadvantages are any greater than already exist. It is not reasonable to say that an improvement to an existing costly and imperfect method must be perfect and free.

            Especially if the ability to develop and communicate are far superior.

            I have an example of the kind of things you can do part way down at the following link. Unfortunately it’s a physics, not a biological example. Discusses the advance of the perihelion of Mercury in general relativity.


            I have a biological notebook example on a possible mechanism for cellular differentiation if you want to contact me.

            I have a discussion of how one constructs Wolfram applications at the Mathematica section of my web site.


            • infiniteimprobabilit
              Posted November 30, 2016 at 3:06 pm | Permalink

              “Wolfram is not a gatekeeper. They have nothing to say concerning what documents and applications you distribute – just as Adobe has nothing to say about what PDF documents you produce and distribute.”

              Yes but I have a number of applications on my computer that will read and create PDF files, and none of those applications are written by Adobe. (And also, of course, Adobe distribute their reader for free).

              PDF has become a de facto standard in that way.


              • Posted December 1, 2016 at 11:27 am | Permalink

                I note that the complaints about the open standards or lack of same were originally leveled at PDF/Reader format itself, before (from what I gather) the standard was published.

              • infiniteimprobabilit
                Posted December 1, 2016 at 3:03 pm | Permalink


                Yes, those criticism certainly were levelled at PDF, as I recall, and a number of third parties reverse-engineered the format to produce their own readers. Probably was part of the reason why Adobe opened up the standard.


            • Gregory Kusnick
              Posted November 30, 2016 at 3:09 pm | Permalink

              You don’t need to sell me on the usefulness of Mathematica; I use it myself.

              But the point is that in order to create or view Mathematica notebooks, you must enter into a contractual relationship with Wolfram and obtain their permission to use their product. That permission is (in principle) revocable at any time, and without it your ability to participate in scientific discourse would be restricted.

              This is not true of PDF files. PDF is an open standard that can be read and written by a wide variety of applications. You don’t have to be an Adobe customer to use it.

              Again, if Wolfram were to open up Mathematica in the same way that Adobe opened up PDF, then my reservations would be satisfied and I’d be comfortable endorsing it as an open standard for scientific publishing.

          • infiniteimprobabilit
            Posted November 30, 2016 at 2:57 pm | Permalink

            I tend to agree with those reservations.

            (For similar reasons, I object to people who distribute documents as (Microsoft Word) .doc files, though in practice Open Office / Libre Office does a fair job of reading them).


    • Posted November 30, 2016 at 3:35 pm | Permalink

      Alas, from the comments I suspect it will be a long time before active and dynamic documents will be adopted by the scientific community. There is always a reason, and if one answers that reason there is another reason.

      Even most users of Mathematica are not aware of its usage as a publication medium. They just use it as a graphical calculator and copy results, often by hand, to their LaTex files.

      • Gregory Kusnick
        Posted November 30, 2016 at 4:27 pm | Permalink

        Sorry you feel we’re being needlessly obstructionist. As I said, I’m all in favor of active and dynamic documents, and in fact in one of my previous jobs I was lead architect on a project developing a dynamic format for software source code. In addition to the project code, I committed much of my own personal code to this proprietary format, believing (as you do) that it was the way of the future. That code is now lost since the company pulled the plug on our project, rendering the file format unreadable by any currently existing tools.

        See also this NASA project for recovering data stored in obsolete formats on old magnetic tapes.

        This is not some hypothetical bogeyman invented to disparage your proposal. It’s a real problem with potentially very serious consequences that can only be addressed by open standards supported by multiple providers.

        • infiniteimprobabilit
          Posted November 30, 2016 at 4:39 pm | Permalink

          My feeling too. The points that we raised weren’t just ‘invented’ objections, they were and are inherent in any proprietary format.


  24. nicky
    Posted December 1, 2016 at 9:06 am | Permalink

    Reviewres spend time and effort for free. Peer review generally is anonymous. Maybe it would be a good idea not just to remunerate reviewers, but also mention on publication who reviewed it.
    I mean : eg. reviewed by Jerry Coyne, Donald Prothero, Carl Wieman, Yoichiro Nambu or some other widely respected reviewer (there are many), would enhance the paper itself.

    • Gregory Kusnick
      Posted December 1, 2016 at 12:14 pm | Permalink

      Reviewers have to be able to give free and honest criticism. Publishing their names would have a chilling effect on that by exposing them to the possibility of intimidation and payback from influential authors who didn’t like the criticism they got.

      • Posted December 1, 2016 at 12:25 pm | Permalink

        That is one half of the equation, and there is certainly truth in it. But the other half is that reviewers can and do treat submissions with indifference, lassitude or downright hostility, all under a cloak of anonymity. Ending those behaviours is also important.

        • nicky
          Posted December 1, 2016 at 9:07 pm | Permalink

          Yes, that is another thing, downright hostility, maybe because it ‘usurps’ the work of the reviewer? All the things you mention are oossible. I guess peer review is the worst system, with exception of all others.

          • Posted December 2, 2016 at 3:23 am | Permalink

            To be honest, I am not even sure about the “… with the exception of all others” part. Richard Smith, who for 13 years was the Editor-in-Chief of the British Medical Journal, makes a compelling case in this article, based on multiple studies, that the benefits of peer review are much less than assumed, and the costs much greater.

            It’s a conclusion that I naturally tend to revolt against — but I eventually came to realise that my objection is essentially faith-based, and that the evidence marshalled by Smith (in this article and elsewhere) is compelling.

            • nicky
              Posted December 2, 2016 at 9:09 pm | Permalink

              However, he only proposes ‘after publication review’. That is not practical. Who or what decides what gets published? We are already inundated.

              • Posted December 3, 2016 at 4:34 am | Permalink

                I don’t want to speak for Richard, but my take is: publish it all. There is already too much published work for anyone to follow it all, so we already have to filter. Nothing fundamental changes if the volume that we’re filtering increases. I am increasingly of the opinion that the only editorial filter that we need is: “Is this science, and is it not clearly nonsense?”

            • Gregory Kusnick
              Posted December 3, 2016 at 12:44 pm | Permalink

              Interesting article on the failures of pre-publication review.

              Maybe post-publication review can do a better job of identifying valuable contributions, as Smith claims. But as far as I can see he presents no evidence for this claim, but simply asserts it as a self-evident fact:

              “The sooner we can let the ‘real’ peer review of post-publication peer review get to work the better.”

              “Interesting papers will rise above the noise.”

              Maybe those claims ought to be studied empirically as well. There have certainly been cases where important work has gone virtually unnoticed for years or decades after its original publication.

      • nicky
        Posted December 1, 2016 at 5:33 pm | Permalink

        Yes, you’ve got a point there. I guess that is the main reason they are anonymous.
        But if only on publication and with consent?
        And yes, even then, it might influence the review, of course. There clearly is no ‘good’ solution.

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