Wednesday, May 1, 2024

Encouraging ethical publishing

Scientists establish their credentials and reputations by publishing in peer-reviewed articles. Participating in the act of asking answerable questions, collecting unbiased empirical evidence to evaluate those questions, and passing through the gauntlet of peer-review to publish findings are the hallmark of science. Essentially, publishing in peer-reviewed scientific journal means that you are a scientist. However, the publishing landscape is replete with ethical, moral, practical, reputational, and economic decisions. 



Deciding where to publish is a complex and multifaceted decision process. The considerations about where to publish typically include:


1) Journal impact factor (and there has been a lot written about this).

2) Breadth of journal/topic area (is your article of general interest or better suited informing a more specific audience).

3) Cost to publish (Open access charges, page charges, etc.).

4) Article match (does the journal tend towards robust experiments, observational data, theory).

5) Editorial board (people you respect or are knowledgeable about your area of research)

6) Experience with journal (a place you’ve published before).

7) Who is doing the publishing and realizing the benefit of your work (we don’t discuss this enough)


The recent article by Receveur and colleagues, titled “David versus Goliath: Early career researchers in an unethical publishing system”, published in Ecology Letters, makes the argument that better publishing decisions need to be made by individual researchers in order to support a more ethical publishing landscape. They come at this from the point of view of early career researchers (ECRs), who are more impacted by publishing, but nothing in their article is exclusive to ECRs. In fact, I’d say that these discussions about publishing are best served by including the entire community.


Before I dig a little more into Receveur et al.’s suggested path forward I will say a bit about my publishing philosophy. I now only send my articles to society owned or non-profit journals. My more general-appeal manuscripts are sent to Science or PNAS (both society journals). I do not review for Springer-Nature, Wiley, Elsevier, etc. unless the publication is a society one. I do not want my labour, effort, and creativity to be turned into someone else’s profit, rather if indirect benefits arise, I want them to serve academic communities. I came to this philosophy slowly over time, but it solidified probably about five or six years ago seeing Nature journals created without any meaningful contribution back to the communities they purportedly serve. As those in working groups or collaborations I am in can attest, I do make my perspective known, though I won’t hold up others’ publishing decisions.


The Receveur et al. general guidelines are a good set of rules to follow, though some aspects could use more detail. For example, they state that decisions should be made on whether publications are ethical or not. But they don’t really set the parameters on what is ‘ethical’ or not. They do cite profits as one consideration. They do highlight some of the profits made by publishers, and Elsevier profits were two orders of magnitude higher than Wiley’s profits. Does this mean Wiley is much more ethical than Elsevier? Maybe, or maybe not.


What does ethical publishing look like?

- The journal follows the prescribed ethical guidelines laid out in COPE. This means that the publication has transparent processes and business practices, bases decisions on anonymous peer-review.

- Academics/researchers should be the ones making both the operational and strategic decisions for the journal.

- Editorial boards are populated by active researchers in the field, and these boards should be diverse and representative (gender, geography, career stage, etc.).

- The journal’s primary mandate is not to generate profits for a company, but rather to advance scientific knowledge.

- Proceeds made by the publication feed back into the scientific community.


As a result of these ethical imperatives:

- Journals should be society owned and managed. Even if the journals are published by for-profit publishers, society ownership indicates that oversight is likely not profit-driven, and that proceeds go back into supporting the community.

- If the journal is not owned by a society, then non-profit publishers again ensure that profits are not the primary motivation which could influence decision-making.


For an example that I am intimately familiar with[i], the British Ecological Society, who own eight ecological journals plus a grey literature repository, partner with Wiley to publish. Wiley obviously has a profit mandate, but the Society negotiates publishing contracts that prioritize benefits to the BES members, and they retain all decision-making power over their publications.


Moving forward

As Receveur and colleagues argue, there needs to be a culture change. I wholeheartedly agree. Right now, many academics support a perverse system that does not have our best interests in mind. Building on the Receveur et al. recommendations, what should we do as individuals? 


- Publish in society or non-profit journals.

- Publish in journals that adhere to ethical standards.

- Evaluate quality of the contributions of candidates for positions or promotion.

- Choose to serve on society or non-profit journal editorial boards rather than on publisher-owned for-profit ones.

- Only review for society or non-profit journals.

- Value service to society or non-profit journal editorial boards and reviewing in hiring, promotion, and annual progress evaluations.


Finally, Receveur and colleagues point to an invaluable resource for determining which journals are owned by societies or non-profit organizations: the DAFNEE database of ethical journals 


This is a discussion that needs to be had by academics more broadly, and needs to influence hiring, tenure, awards, and grant committees, so that we are cognizant of individual and shared ethical publishing behaviour.


[i] Note that I am the Editor-in-Chief of Ecological Solutions and Evidence and the Chair of Applied Ecology Resources, two newer BES publication projects. Before this, I was the Editor of Journal of Applied Ecology. So, I have been intimately entangled with the BES-Wiley relationship for years and might not have a completely objective perspectives and I have developed friendships with people on both sides of this.

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