After a bit of a hiatus, I’m finally back to putting out in blog form what I find interesting in the world of brain imaging. I like the idea of keeping up a more regular pace in putting out incompletely finalized thoughts out there. There are a few things I want to write about. Some are controversies, some are book or reviews, some are summaries of activities in my group, some cover new areas, and some are attempts to frame areas of the field in ways that are used. I am also writing a book on the challenges of fMRI, and will be posting each chapter as it is completed in rough draft.
I thought I would start with something that happened to me earlier this week. I will frame the situation briefly. In 2017, I stepped down as Editor in Chief of the journal, NeuroImage after two very satisfying 3 year terms. Before that I was Senior editor, and before that going back to the early 2000’s, I was Handling editor. It was just a wonderful, stimulating experience overall.
After that, Michael Breakspear took over as EIC and then Steve Smith took over. My term ended before the exciting upswing in Open Access journals that allow free access to readers, but charge those submitting papers with an article processing charge (APC). Most traditional journals have embraced this, but these fees are generally pretty high – too high for many. Hence the controversy that ensued and Elsevier which owns NeuroImage struggled at first to offer an open access option, but then set an APC that many felt was too high.
Last year Steve Smith and his editorial team at NI resigned after it was clear that while Elsevier charges an APC which is about the going rate for other similar journals operated by for-profit companies, it is much higher than what costs are and prohibitive to many groups in the brain mapping community, so Steve rightly pointed out that NI was overcharging and told them the entire NI team would resign if they didn’t lower their fees. Elsevier didn’t budge, so Steve and the entire editorial team resigned and quickly moved to start the journal Imaging Neuroscience with the non-profit MIT press.
I welcomed and encouraged all of this as I feel that the landscape of academic publishing is changing and that these fees should be able to be lowered considerably – a first step towards the inevitable direction towards new models for curating and distributing scientific research – something that I’ll write more about later.
About 6 months after this happened, NI is struggling to find people to replace this team as Imaging Neuroscience is well on its way to thriving. Many kudos to Steve and his group for pulling this transition off so masterfully. Last week, I was surprised and, I have to admit, bemused, to received the following email: (modified slightly to keep the sender anonymous):
I hope this email finds you well…
(We)..are currently recruiting a new editorial team. We are looking for experienced, well-established academics with the skills and expertise to help us continue supporting the neuroscientific community by publishing high-quality neuroimaging research. In fact, Y has just joined us for his expertise in translational research and MRI acquisition methods.
Therefore, as an fMRI expert and former Editor-In-Chief for NeuroImage, would you be interested in becoming an Associate Editor for NeuroImage? I’m not sure if things have changed since you were Editor-in-Chief, but currently, we are offering Associate Editors the following:
- $2000 yearly compensation for handling approximately 40 manuscripts per year
- If you run a special issue, authors get a 30% APC discount, and you will have ten free publication credits to share between you and your guest editors.
- Free access to NeuroImage publications, Science Direct and Scopus
If you are potentially interested, I would be happy to answer any questions over email, or if you would prefer, we could schedule a call at a time to suit you.
Looking forward to hearing from you.
With best wishes, X
This was surprising and a bit odd on several levels but rather than just reply “no thanks” I decided that it was a useful way to thrash out my thoughts a bit. I also felt the editors who joined NI should clearly understand the context of what they are doing from the perspective of a former Editor-In-Chief.
Here is my reply:
I appreciate your reaching out…
When I stepped down as Editor-In-Chief of Neuroimage back in 2017 after two 3 year terms and over 17 years of being associated with NI as an editor, I was very satisfied and am still happy to say that I’ve moved on to other things – one of which is being editor in chief of a small open access journal Aperture Neuro, with an APC no higher than $1000. Therefore, I will have to decline your offer. My reaction to your letter is mixed. On one hand, I appreciate your reaching out and generally want you to be successful. On the other hand, I’m bemused that you think that my 17 years of loyalty – not to NeuroImage but to the editors of NeuroImage and to the brain mapping community – is an insignificant factor in the face of the wider context of what happened last year such that I would re-start as an associate editor at a journal that my former team, my dear colleagues, and my friends all resigned from based on a principle that I agree with.
In full disclosure (and it’s all public), I’ve been in close contact with the NI team before, during, and after they have resigned. I encouraged Steve Smith (EIC at the time) to engage with Elsevier about lowering their APC, and when they would not engage in any meaningful discussion with him, I encouraged him and the entire editorial team to follow through with resigning (..as Steve had clearly told them he would if fees were not changed). While I fully understand that Elsevier is a business and it is generally good practice to set prices based on market forces, I also realize that these fees are being propped up by limited competition, captive audience, and funding sources that are, so far, agnostic to what labs pay for publishing. In the context of scientific publishing, charging APCs that are two or three times higher than what they need to be is exploiting a customer that does not yet have leverage to change anything as there are not many other high quality options (i.e. this situation is a an oligopoly of a few big publishing companies relying on well funded researchers’ need to publish in reputable journals). This is changing though. What Steve did by resigning is open up another option, thus helping to catalyze change in a positive, inevitable direction.
In general, the current publishing model made sense, to a degree, when a printed journal was published monthly. This was a high-overhead service that was extremely valuable. Now, with electronic publishing, the overhead costs are much lower and the labor by editors and reviewers has always been essentially free. The reliance is on reputation and such intangibles as impact factor. As more non-profit low cost open access publishers start establishing high-impact, reputable journals, the publishing business, as it is, will go the way of the horse and buggy or perhaps more accurately, the blackberry, which became less competitive because it didn’t change when it could have.
I personally recruited at least half the team that resigned, so feel a strong loyalty to them and fully support their decision as it helps catalyze what at least to me, is an inevitable process that Elsevier is not willing to fully adapt to yet.
While it can be argued that Elsevier’s current APC is in line with or less than that of other journals, such business models are being challenged by non-profit, low overhead cost, yet still high-quality publishing. So, my reaction to your invite is complicated in that I totally understand that Elsevier is a business and businesses want to thrive, and that you (as with most editors – and this is fine) just care about recruiting good people to help publish good articles wherever you are. It does seem that this inevitable change will have two driving forces: 1. Grass root efforts like that fostered of Steve Smith when they moved to Imaging Neuroscience, and 2. Top down changes in how funding agencies allow researchers spend their money on publishing. Regardless of the catalysts, the change does seem inevitable, and while it certainly has its flaws and challenges, it will be for the better in the long run.
I do hope that Elsevier will change sooner than later in their policies. There exist many business models that would allow more low-cost publishing in high quality journals. As an editor, I know you just care about getting the best papers through, and with that effort I wish you the best.
So, these are my thoughts.. I could add so much more, and will do so in later blog posts. I’m curious what you think about this. If you have any insights or agree/disagree with me, please email me.