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Burning bridges

In The Matter of Facts [1], Rhodri and I gently chided the commercial publishers of scientific journals: “Journals joined the scientific body as symbiotes, evolved into parasites and corrupted it, and perhaps it is time to disinfect.” (P292).


On June 10th 2020, I tendered my resignation from the Editorial Board of Neuroendocrinology, as did many others. Nearly all members of the Board had written in protest to Karger, the publishers of Neuroendocrinology, and Karger’s dismissive response has merely stoked the anger. The rebellion was prompted by the decision of Karger, summarily conveyed to the editor-in-chief, Professor Bob Millar, in late May, to relieve him of his position with effect from the end of 2020. They gave no reason, except that they had decided that it was time for a change, and they didn’t think it worth the trouble of consulting with either Bob or the rest of the editorial board, who had been conscientiously developing plans for the journal for the coming years, either about Bob’s successor or about any succession plan.


Bob has been in post for 15 years and obviously didn’t expect to continue for ever, but his tenure has been remarkably successful. If you like impact factors (I don’t), you might note that the impact factor has risen from a respectable 2.2 at the start of his tenure to over 6 today. My perception, for what it’s worth, is that the quality of submissions to the journal has improved, that the editorial standards have improved, and that the respect with which the journal is held in the community has never been greater. That, in his view, is in large part due to the extraordinary energy of Bob Millar himself. I wrote to Karger as follows:

“I won’t linger on Bob’s achievements – the facts that witness his success are clear. What I must point out here is how Bob achieved that success.
Bob recognized from the beginning of his tenure that, to turn the fortunes of Neuroendocrinology around, he had to win first the respect of the community that it serves, then their trust, and then their affection. These three things would win their loyalty, and ensure that each author, each editor, each referee and each reader would, from their own experience of the journal, become advocates for it.
Bob brought to the task exceptional academic authority, a personal commitment to rigor and integrity, a vast experience across a wide and changing scientific landscape, an inspiring enthusiasm, and a frankly daunting energy. He, a citizen of the world, has tirelessly walked the world to promote the Journal, building patiently, relentlessly, an image of the journal as the partner of science not a parasite upon it.
The fact, timing and manner of this announcement puts all that he has achieved into doubt. Indeed, I must put it more strongly –you are treating the Editorial Board - and the communities that each of us feels that we represent – with contempt. Meaningful consultation comes before decisions not after them, and it reaches a successful outcome only when respect, trust and affection have been earned by both sides in that consultation.
You, I think, do need the loyalty that Bob earned, but seem to think it nothing. We have given our services freely to the journal without reward other than the satisfaction of serving our community well. You make us feel that because we have asked for nothing, our views are worth nothing and our continuing loyalty can be taken for granted.”

Commercial publishers make outrageous profits from publishing scientific journals. It is time

that we authors, referees, editors, readers - we scientists – take responsibility for, and take control of, the journals that are so indispensable to our science but so often have let us down in so many ways.


In The Matter of Facts, we raised many problems that are facing science – from dissemination biases to shoddy statistics – but a common theme that runs throughout our book is that the quality of scientific work, in any area, depends on the community of scientists who contribute to that area. This isn’t a woolly feel-good phrase, it’s a literal truth – we all of us build on the work of others before us, seize on the insights and technical advances made by our contemporaries – and, critically, depend on the constructive criticism, the ‘organised skepticism’ of colleagues to preserve rigour at the heart of the flawed yet fantastic common endeavour that is Science. And journals are both the means of production of our scientific outputs, and the medium through which we interact.


And so we write the papers that journals publish without payment. We edit them and referee them, without payment. We advertise and promote those journals without payment. We urge our institutions to subscribe to them. And commercial publishers make outrageous profits from our naïve good nature.


Commercial journals need to learn that the only justification for their existence is to serve the community of researchers who contribute to that journal as authors and readers, and to learn that they cannot treat those communities with disdain, but must listen to them and nurture them. Some have risen up already [2].


Neuroendocrinology, an update.

As I indicated was happening, virtually the entire editorial board of Neuroendocrinology, including the Editor–in-Chief and the senior editors, has now resigned. Most have resigned with immediate effect and their names have already been removed from the journal website, others have resigned with effect from the date of completion of their responsibilities to manuscripts assigned to them which are still under review. Effectively, Neuroendocrinology is now without a functioning editorial board. Many of the resigning editors, including myself, have declared that they will neither submit papers to nor referee papers for this journal in the future while it remains owned by Karger.


The former Board members see this as an opportunity to launch a new journal to reoccupy the niche formerly filled by Neuroendocrinology. The new journal will be owned by the Neuroendocrinology community (through one of several of its existing Societies), and managed by that community to meet the needs of that community, not the interests of owners or shareholders.


Author: Gareth Leng | 11.06.2020 | Updated: 08.07.2020


Notes

[1] Leng, G., Leng, RI. (2020).The Matter of Facts: Skepticism, Persuasion, and Evidence in Science. MIT Press: https://mitpress.mit.edu/books/matter-facts. For recent reviews of the book, see Sarah de Rijcke's review in Nature - https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-020-01680-3, and Philip Lewis' for the Physiological Society - https://www.physoc.org/magazine-articles/book-review-the-matter-of-facts-skepticism-persuasion-and-evidence-in-science/

[2] See Lindsay McKenzie's article 'Editorial Mutiny at Elsevier Journal' at https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2019/01/14/elsevier-journal-editors-resign-start-rival-open-access-journal