The quality is assured by the process of peer review. Each submitted paper is carefully read by two or three experts in the field who will only allow it to be published if it achieves a minimal level of coherence, clarity and, well, correctness. These publishers therefore need to be differentiated from 'predatory publishers' who will print any ould shite so long as the authors pay a few hundred dollars. Some papers in these bottom-feeders may contain good science but they haven't been critically reviewed. Now that everything is digital, the overheads are modest and lots of entrepreneurs from, say, Bangalore, with a cousin in, say, Buffalo NY to check the PO box will set up in business with a spam-shot to e-mailing list lifted or purchased. Last year I shared some of these nonsense solicitations.
Elsevier is said to operate on a 30-40% profit margin, not least because all their intellectual effectives - the editorial boards and the peer-reviewers - work pro bono for the good of their narrow community. Being on the Editorial Board is a feather in the cap of those seeking promotion or a new job in a different university. They say that it should take a day and a half to adequately review another person's submitted manuscript. It's more than checking for typos and ensuring that all the citations in the text are referenced in the bibliography . . . and all the references are cited. Referees should: check the calculations and statistics; make sure the graphs are labelled sensibly; see that the columns of the tables add to the row and column totals; know if the substantive results are novel; insist that their own papers are acknowledged. This is why editors send manuscripts out to 2-3 referees: one is bound to say it all looks okay having spent 25 minutes scanning through it.
The current editor of Proceedings of the Royal Society, the world's oldest still running scientific publication, explained that the purpose of scientific publication is four-fold:
- To maintain an archive of findings
- To register who did what and who has priority
- To disseminate scientific finds so that we all know what has been established and by whom
- Finally, verification of findings or publication of contrary data is vital for the mission.
The Privilege of Patriarchy is paramount. The three most prestigious medical journals are The Lancet; JAMA [Jo Am Med Assoc] and NEJM [New England Jo Med]. Tallied reveal that 40% of the authors in NEJM live within 150km of the NEJM office in Boston. They probably play golf together and make dynastic marriages among their offspring too. The prestige of a pub or two in NEJM ensures continued access to the grants that fund the research, the NEJM referees also work pro bono for the NIH to allocate money to the best and most interesting research. That's just an example, the in-group of any paywalled journal operates in similarly incestuous ways and sincerely believes that they are completely objective in their judgement.
resigned in protest against owner Elsevier's access policy. The rebels immediately launched a new journal Glossa, more in keeping with their business ethical views. Elsevier considered these do-goodniks financially naive; but they would, wouldn't they? Here's an interesting graphic showing the distribution of costs at Ubiquity Press the publishers of Glossa.
Watch the Profiterole Publishing vimeo; it's the horse's mouth.