Who owns journals?

September 14, 2013

Suppose you’re working on a Wealden sauropod — for example, the disturbingly Camarasaurus-like isolated dorsal vertebra NHM R2523 — and for some reason you desperately want to publish your work in Cretaceous Research.

bmnh-r2523-orthogonal

But it’s published by Elsevier, which means that if you’re committed to open access, you have to find an exorbitant $3300 for the APC. Since Elsevier’s profit margin is 37.3%, you know that $1230.90 of your APC is going to be sliced right off the top. I’ve heard it said (but don’t have a reference for this) that barrier-based publishers spend something like 40% of their costs on marketing subscriptions. So there goes another $827.64. And because legacy publishers have to spend a fortune on paywalls, authentication systems, lawyers, spin-doctors, lobbyists and the like, that could well account for, say, half of the remainder. If that’s correct, then only $620.73 of your APC — 19% of what you give them — is actually paying for publishing services such as copy-editing, typesetting, Web hosting and archiving.

You could be forgiven for thinking that’s not the best way to spend your $3300.

it would of course be much cheaper to publish in PLOS ONE, or PeerJ, or eLife, or F1000 Research, or one of the relevant BMC journals. But let’s suppose that your heart is set on Cretaceous Research.

I don’t know how common it is for people to find themselves in this situation, but I’m guessing it crops up more often than somewhat. Often enough, maybe, that the editors wish that the journal they run was published by someone other than Elsevier.

So my question is this: who “owns” journals? For example, we know JVP could move away from T&F if they wanted — at least, when its four-year contract expires — but could Cretaceous Research move from Elsevier? Do the editorial board “own” it? Or does Elsevier? If the CR editors hypothetically wanted to keep running their journal but as (say) an open access Ubiquity Press journal with a £250 APC, would they be forced to start The New Journal of Cretaceous Research, leaving the old one to wither with no editors?

And just to be clear: this isn’t a question about Cretaceous Research, Elsevier and Ubiquity. They’re just examples. It’s about the broader problem of who controls what journals, and what the people who actually run those journals can do about it.

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12 Responses to “Who owns journals?”

  1. Panagrellus Says:

    And once again, an example how systemic stupidity in the current science publishing world is preserved by the Journal Impact Factor.

    Of course, the quality of a journal is almost entirely determined by its editorial board, its trusted reviewers and its loyal authors – all else (admin, typesetting, copy-editing, archiving etc. ) are, in comparison, petty technicalities that can be taken car of by a number of providers.

    If editorial board, reviewers and authors leave the “Journal of Cretaceous Research” to fire up a more scientist-friendly “New Journal of Cretaceous Research” – so what’s going to stop them?

    Yeah, the Impact Factor is! I don’t know the details of the deal in this particular case, but in general, I think it’s fair to say that subscription publishers try as hard as they can to lock in their journals and the societies that run them. The archives and previous citations could probably not be transferred to a new journal without the publisher’s consent.

    “New Journal of Cretaceous Research” would need to wait at least two years for a JIF.

    So, that’s it then for any revolutionary agenda – as long as JIF is so over-valued.
    Or, to say it positively: Crush the JIF and you crush the profiteering.

  2. Mike Taylor Says:

    Well, to be fair the impact factor of Cretaceous Research is nothing to write home about. At 2.024, it’s very much comparable with JVP (2.214), Acta Pal Pol (1.577) and Palaeontology (1.652); and about half that of PLOS ONE (3.730). I think there are legitimate reasons to want to publish something in CR, just because it’s a good solid thematic match for certain papers. I wouldn’t use them myself, but I can see why others might.

  3. Panagrellus Says:

    Sure, there are many good reasons other than JIF to publish in solid “community journals”, even if they are not open access.

    My point was: Most of these reasons could be quite easily transferred to another publisher, or an independent endeavour, in theory at least. Not so the JIF.

    And 2.02 might me a low IF, but many authors would just never consider publishing in a journal that is not even tracked by Thompson Reuters .

    (I should add that I am not familiar with CR at all – just jumping on your example….)


  4. FWIW I’m pretty sure the fastest any new journal would gain an Impact Factor would be in year 4.

  5. pcastrom1 Says:

    There are clear issues with editing excellent journals on a shoestring from learned societies or faculty departments. A large number of scholars keep doing this work out of sheer passion for their disciplines, but at some point the workload becomes overwhelming and if a nice-looking offer arrives from one of the big four, it will be really hard to reject it even if it means giving away control on publishing policies such as the one on article processing charges you mention. It would be useful if editorial boards could be made aware of the fact that other platforms besides the big four might be available for providing support when facing this dilemma. Even if it may get a bit touchy now and then, it’d be really interesting to gather some best practice in this regard from editors that have actually gone through the experience.

  6. Mike Taylor Says:

    Yes, it would be excellent to hear from editorial boards that have gone through this. I know there are open-access publishers that take on existing journals — e.g. Ubiquity Press, who I mentioned in the post — but I’ve not talked with anyone whose been through the process.


  7. The answer to your question is: it depends. Let me take a few examples in maths.

    * Topology : the title was owned by Elsevier, and when the editorial board decided to move away, that had to resign and start “Journal of Topology”, now pretty much the same level than Topology was, only cheaper. Topology is now discontinued.

    * Annales Scientifiques de l’ÉNS : the title is owned by the ÉNS (École Normale Supérieure), and when the editorial board decided to move away from Elsevier, they could do it without legal problem. But they had a good bit of luck: they got the list of subscribers somehow, probably by Elsevier’s mistake, while these are usually kept secret by the publisher. Now the Annales are published by the french mathematical society.

    * Compositio Mathematica : the title is owned by the eponym fundation, so again the journal was able to move away from its publisher to another, more academic one.

  8. Mike Taylor Says:

    Thanks, Benoît, that’s useful. So there’s no one answer.

    Do you know what the history was, that made it so that Elsevier owned Topology but not Annales Scientifiques de l’ÉNS? What happened differently back in the day that resulted in these journals’ situations being different?

  9. Matt Wedel Says:

    There are bunch of break-away stories in capsule form with links here. The canonical example from evolutionary biology is Michael Rosenzweig taking the entire editorial board of Evolutionary Ecology away from Kluwer to found Evolutionary Ecology Research. Rosenzweig has written a lot in various places about that process; here’s one link.


  10. @Mike: I do not know the exact stories, but there are two differences between *Topology* and *Annales scientifiques de l’ÉNS*. First, Topology was born at Elsevier, while Elsevier got the second one when it bought a French scientific publisher. Second, *Annales scientifiques de l’ÉNS* is old and contains in its name “ÉNS”, which is an established institution. It seems that this feature prevents a publisher to claim it owns the name just because it publishes the journal, even if the name is not deposited by anyone. This is, as I was told, what also made an IHP (Institut Henri Poincaré) journal to leave Elsevier easily.

    Interestingly, *Comptes-rendus de l’académie des sciences*, which clearly refers to an established institution, has its subscription lists kept secret by Elsevier. An academician once told me, amazed, that the French academy of science do not know who gets its journals!

  11. Mike Taylor Says:

    An academician once told me, amazed, that the French academy of science do not know who gets its journals!

    That is absolutely outrageous. On what possible grounds can Elsevier claim that is acceptable?


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