Courtesy of Sarang Dalal
Sarang Dalal, a neuroscientist at Aarhus University in Denmark, studies the tiny magnetic signals that the electrical activity in our brains produce.
For the last 15 years, Dalal published his research in the journal NeuroImage, among other places.
“It’s the leading journal in our field,” he said. “It was highly respected and got me visibility for my findings, and allowed other people to build off of what I had created.”
But this month, Dalal and over 40 other editors from NeuroImage and another leading neuroscience publication, NeuroImage:Reports, said they were leaving their posts and starting a new journal in the same field.
Courtesy of Sarang Dalal
In a statement that the freelance journal editors released on April 17, they wrote that they believe that Elsevier, a global publishing company based in the Netherlands that puts out the journals, was overcharging researchers to publish their work.
Since a researcher’s standing at a university often comes down to being published, including how often and where, and impacts hiring, promotions and funding, the editors’ collective action has gained attention in the academic community.
This isn’t the first time Elsevier’s pricing policies have prompted a group of editors to leave en masse. It happened with one of their linguistics journals in 2015 and an informetrics journal in 2019.
Audrey Fan, a neuroscientist at the University of California, Davis, said she thinks that what happened with NeuroImage is part of a broader backlash against models like Elsevier’s.
“It’s a great loss to the community to lose that venue, but I think it’s for a good reason,” said Fan, who also served as one of NeuroImage’s editors. “[This] has the ability to maintain our commitment to open access to our science.”
Until early 2020, Dalal said, it was free to publish in the journal. Costs were covered by subscriptions mostly paid by universities. But smaller institutions, including many in the US, said they couldn’t afford the high fees of publications like NeuroImage.
So Elsevier switched the journal over to a different model called open access, making it free to read the articles. But now, researchers front publication costs; they pay the journal $3,450 to publish a paper, and NeuroImage publishes hundreds of articles each year.
Courtesy of Audrey Fan
“It’s, from my view, quite excessive,” Dalal said. “It’s kind of out of the reach of even well-funded scientists in many cases. And then, there’s plenty of other scientists from countries where science is generally less well funded and it’s out of the reach of them as well.”
Dalal has been one of the journal’s 40-some freelance editors, who each earn $1,500 per year for their work. He joined the team about a year ago and was tasked with helping organize reviews of submitted articles, which involved asking scientists to evaluate the quality of a paper. But scientists kept turning him down.
“They didn’t want to review for NeuroImage anymore because it cost so much,” Dalal said. “Or because they couldn’t afford to publish in it themselves. We don’t compensate our reviewers, and yet, it requires a lot of their time and they were understandably getting frustrated that the publisher was profiting enormously off of the work of the entire editorial process.”
Amid this growing chorus of discontent, Dalal and the other editors, who felt similarly frustrated, said they finally approached Elsevier. They told them that if they didn’t lower their fees, they would all resign.
“I can see that they would want to make some profit,” said Maastricht University neuropsychology department head Sonja Kotz. “But the question is, what’s the margin here?”
Courtesy of Sonja Kotz
Kotz served as an editor for the journal for the last 19 years.
“In the end, Elsevier simply did not budge,” Kotz said. “I think it’s unheard of that over 40 senior editors and all handling editors of a journal step down. So this was a very collective decision.”
Cheryl Olman is a neuroscientist at the University of Minnesota. She’s published in NeuroImage, but hasn’t served as an editor. She admits the high fees were making her look for other publishing options even before this all unfolded.
“We spend our time for free reviewing all of our peers’ papers, and then, it’s our turn to publish, and we get a bill for $3,500,” Olman said. “Academic publishing to me feels fueled off of uncompensated labor for editors and reviewers.”
With finite funds, she said that paying so much to publish papers keeps her from funding other opportunities for her lab, like sending her students to an academic conference to present their work.
“I don’t have that kind of money,” she said.
Elsevier declined to comment for this story, but instead, they forwarded a statement maintaining that NeuroImage will continue to function at the same, high-quality level and remain committed to open access. They said they are disappointed with the editors’ decision to step down, especially given “our policy of setting our article publishing charges competitively below the market average.”
Courtesy of Kim Weldon
As for what comes next, Kotz said the editorial team is helping handle any previous submissions to NeuroImage, but no new ones. And they’re partnering with the nonprofit MIT Press to launch a new journal this July called Imaging Neuroscience.
“The outpour of the community has been incredible,” Kotz said. “Within a few weeks, we had 850 people signing up to review for us. Some authors even have asked whether they can pull out of their current publication at NeuroImage and transfer over. If that momentum continues, I think it’s going to be very good.”
She said that the goal is for the new journal’s fee to be roughly half what Elsevier was charging. They intend for it to replace NeuroImage as the field’s top publication.
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