Elsevier, science, & how to deploy one’s moral effort

Stimulated by this thread

There’s a wide-spread argument in academia that Elsevier is egregious. There’s a second argument that even if they’re not evil incarnate, that doesn’t matter: they’re vulnerable to public pressure, and we can all gang up on them and make them do what those in the gang want.

This post addresses two points. Where Elsevier stands, on the moral dimension on which they are being judged (Jesus-like to deplorable). Second, I argue that principles of consistency (“the worst must come first”) and proportionality matter when choosing moral acts.

What are the “charges” against Elsevier?

Let’s start here as the facts anchor our questions about consistency and proportionality of responding.

The claims are listed all over the internet. Here’s three that commonly get brought up:

  1. It used to be possible, by dint of effort, to pay for articles which were free to download.
  2. The event mangagement arm of Elsevier helped organize an event for arms sales.
  3. Once, a handful of journals among thousands pandered to pharmaceutical companies.

There are others, like enforcing copyright, but they’re similar in magnitude and scope, so let’s look at these three.

Anurag Acharya is the key inventor of Google Scholar

The first seems to be grasping at straws “the web site wasn’t always perfect at coping with the novel un-expected change to including CCC and © articles in the midst or more restrictive licenses”. The question I would ask instead is “overall, how effective is the website? How are new practices adopted and errors corrected?”.

Publishing has yet to have its disruptive Uber-style entrant: No publisher is as hard-working and relentless in improving as, say, Google (did you know all of google scholar was built by just 10 people, and continues to improve to this day?) That said, Elsevier’s authoring services are best in class — authors prefer them by far to any other company, and they have leading edge support for R and supplementary material.

The second claim in fact seems to me a Good-Thing™ – I don’t want event-managers making moral decisions about what events are good, and which are bad. But you might be morally opposed to any support for arms. I will cover what people in this category should be doing below. Or perhaps one just wants to make life harder for some countries (and not others) — in this case opposition to Elsevier is part of agitprop. I’d say in that case, be honest, but of course, manipulation is core to agitprop. At any rate, all pretence at morality is lost for these people.

The third claim (half a dozen journal mis-managed (update: I am told that Elsevier created them as a kind of “managed publication” for some pharmaceutical companies) is, like the other two, in the receeding past. Of course if so, one can see how a publisher with expertise in making journals might create journals. One can also see how they quickly learn this is not in the interests of their business: that it undermines trust. Now, how should we respond to a company in 2017, who 20 years (?) ago made a mistake and corrected it? This takes us neatly on to consider proportionality and consistency of responding.

Agitprop: “Hasten to join the shock brigades of exemplary labor
Would you like all journals to be stalwartly and expertly edited and reviewed by folk who are expert and dedicated to the truth?

Me too. And Elsevier has some of the best in the truth-seeking business: From Evolution and Human Behavior’s Professor Rob Kurzban, to Professor Rich Lucas at Journal of Research in Personality, or Professor Rich Haier at Intelligence, and many dozens more I know less about. Elsevier is also good at backing their editors and supporting associated societies.

If you really care about publisher integrity, many argue you should boycott Frontiers instead, as Dorothy Bishop and many more (including me) have critiqued them as being a publication mill. They’re now part of multi-national Nature Publishing Group (or is that Springer?, or Springer Nature? or Palgrave, or Macmillan Science and Education? or Holtzbrinck Publishing Group?). Shall we boycott them? They charge two arms and at least one leg for open access.

Perhaps your still-favorite publisher’s web-site has an error or bad link? Perhaps they once (make that “nearly always”?) published an article that didn't replicate? Boycott them too?

Or perhaps you want to “shop local”, claiming to abhor large companies. In that case, go ahead and boycott Nature, but I hope you boycott Apple also? And use Twitter because it’s smaller than FaceBook?

Or if banning arms is your raison d’etre, instead of a publisher that long ago stopped helping even organize a trade fair in this area (AFAIK), you should stop flying: Both Boeing and AirBus are both major suppliers in the arms business). Or perhaps you should boycott Russia, or China, or the UK?

Is it moral to boycott one arbitrary target, knowing others may be worse?

My argument above was that Elsevier may be not a bad publisher. That they have many laudible qualities which in toto make them a better-than-average publisher, and likely a net benefit to the world. But even if one disagrees with that assessment there are certainly many, many, much much worse actors in the world much more deserving of our limited capacity to punish.

One response to this argument is that it is irrelevant that there are worse publishers, or worse people, or worse nations: Elsevier have been picked out, and who cares why? By piling on we can destroy them, or co-opt them, which would be a moral victory.

Apart from not personally liking witch hunts, I disagree with this argument both as a moral principle, and in practice. Let’s get practice out of the way first, then look at why inconsistent behavior is immoral as well as counter-productive.

Just imagine if US police forces were to say:

“Until further notice, we have decided to devote all resources to a campaign of minor harassment of the “E-street gang”, well known for littering, which, while it might not be the worst crime, is acknowledge by all right-thinking people as undesirable.
E-street members operate openly, so we have decided to devote all our resources (the principle of concentration) to a campaign of blogging. We also will not respond to calls from E-street members or their associates to the police, at least for minor crimes.

Here’s another translation, this time into the effect of this policy on our world:

Dear MS-13, Los Zetas, 18th Street Gang, Russian Mafia, Bloods, and Crips: Please feel free to operate your slaughter-house empires and expand with impunity.” :-(

In practice, boycotting one group, and not others that are worse rewards those that are worse, and makes a mockery of justice.

OK, but why is it immoral to boycott capriciously?

We also run the risk, by offering up easy-options, of tricking people into feeling moral while the world gets worse. Elsevier boycotts smack of “Everything must fall” so-called virtue signalling, with the side benefit of extracting folk from doing a unwanted task (reviewing). To me, most “virtue signalling” in fact signals self-interest and what economists call foolishness in the signallers.

There’s no space here to develop a complete moral code, so let’s just take the example of law as a moral system. It is agreed that laws must apply equally to all, and that punishments should be proportionate.

If we capricioulsy focus resources on minor offenders but not major offenders we violate the principle of proportionality. If two groups are similar, but we punish one and aid the other, we violate the equality principle.

Belgium: Home to the EU and FN Herstal

If you won’t review for Elsevier, who now have nothing to do with the arms industry, and you think selling weapons is evil (rather ambiguous or good), you should be expending all your efforts protesting outside the embassies of countries with actual arms industries, like Russia (or China, or the UK). If not reviewing was coherent, then you also shouldn’t attend any conferences in any countries that sell arms: No more latte in Brussels (or Berlin, Beijing, Paris, or San Francisco. Good news for Auckland, New Zealand, perhaps :-))

If you won’t review or publish in Elsevier, but will for Nature, I think for consistency one should either refuse all commercial work, or go back to reviewing for Elsevier as well as Nature. Peer-review is a core aspect of cumulative science (possibly invented circa 1731 in Edinburgh): Harming peer-review is harmful to all of us.

Frank Ramsey

This principle goes much further: In nearly everything about life, we should be asking ourselves “How can we make the world most-better?” Is this grant really a “breakthrough, revealing never-explored new territory”? or just a way for two people to pay their mortgage, with little chance of meaningful progress? Should I leave my assets to my kids when I die? or to impoverished countries? or gift it to an exciting corporation like SpaceX to advance our off-planet survival? How much should a nation save to maximise well-being for all generations? (Ramsey’s answer was 60%!). Those are meaningful and important questions.

Mickey Mouse has grown up a cow

What matters, then, when choosing a publisher and advancing science?

My main requirement for an academic publisher is easy submission, high-quality review, and easy access. What that means today is changed beyond recognition from just 20 years ago, or even 2-years. Keeping up requires innovation and publishers need to invest and take risks to create that added-value. It seems to me that existing publishers compete reasonably well. Opportunities for improvement lie in getting public-good research funders to pay publishers to make all this work CCC (this is happening, which is good, but doesn’t currently have enough downward pressure on the fee, mostly because it is not linked to transfering current library subscription dollars into automatic CCC publishing), or create their own open post-publication peer-reviewed journals (this is happening too, which is also good, so long as it doesn’t become a monoculture in terms of reviewing).

Open access groups like PLoS and PeerJ argue (and charge) the real costs of publishing are pretty much what Elsevier is charging (US $1,500–$3,000 per article). So a wide-spread switch to a Dutch model in which research funders all agree to pay up front rather than annually in exchange for global perpetual CCC is a goal that is within reach. Let’s pursue that!