There are many unfortunate ways in which our scientific publishing system is broken. Much of it is path dependence, unfortunate but mostly unavoidable to get to where we are today. In this category: research output in paper-sized chunks; professional merit given disproportionally to material readable by humans as opposed to material readable by humans and computers. Some of the unfortunate things, on the other hand, are just greed and rent-seeking. For a long time, now, closed-access journals have jumped from the former to the latter categories. We should try to fix all of the problems with this system, but greed and rent-seeking deserve, in my view, more direct actions.

For this reason, I have pledged to not submit, referee or serve in editorial boards for Elsevier (and generally refuse to do so in other for-profit, closed-access venues). On a regular basis, I get requests to review or submit work to these journals, and I automatically decline. But there’s declining and there’s declining.

How to decline kindly

I can’t in good conscience help perpetuate a system that ultimately deprives the public of the science they pay for. At the same time, I understand that there are people on the other side of the email that says “please review this” email. And these people, in all likelihood, have not designed the system. They possibly even dislike it and agree with me, which means that they could even be allies! So every time I get an email like that, I fret about how to respond: I want to help fix this mess. Annoying the people that are helping perpetuate the system is a price I’m willing to way, but annoying people who could be helping us seems foolish.

So today I decided to write this public response, saving me many future keystrokes and minutes, and hopefully increasing the chance of convincing the next person over that they, too, should help putting knowledge back into the human commons.

The Letter

Dear editorial board/program committee,

Thank you for your offer to review/submit a manuscript to your venue. I appreciate your willingness of having my name represent the venue in some form. Unfortunately, your publisher currently stands against free and open access to the hard work put in by authors and reviewers. I cannot in good conscience help perpetuate the perversity of the current system, and so will decline your request.

I will be happy to participate in the future, should your publisher choose to change their policies. I understand that in some cases circumstances deprive you of the power to enact these changes yourself. At the same time, if people like myself, who have the choice to act differently, do not try to change the situation, then certainly publishers will be happy to maintain the status quo.

I encourage you to forward this letter to your supervisors and executive boards.

For the same reasons described above, I cannot in good conscience recommend anyone else to perform these duties under unacceptable terms.

Yours, Carlos Scheidegger

Further reading: The Cost of Knowledge

If you’re just joining us and don’t know what’s been going on, let me take this opportunity and point you to the Cost of Knowledge, a place where you can publicly pledge to stop helping Elsevier destroy the commons we all work hard to create. If you don’t know about the war Elsevier has been waging against libraries, that’s probably because librarians are contractually forbidden from discussing the pricing strategies employed by Elsevier. Yes, really. You can read the full statement here.