First, it was the questionable decision to give a platform to Lukas Koube’s mysoginistic rant about “publishing only on quality”—a subject Kelly Hills has covered here. Then, it was the outing of pseudonymous science blogger Dr. Isis by senior editor Henry Gee. All of this after Bora Zikovic’s resignation from Scientific American—also owned by the Nature Publishing Group (NPG)—last year.
The upper management within NPG has offered some attempt at an apology. Philip Campbell’s response to the outcry about Koube’s article was, I felt, inadequate, but at least ticked some of the relevant boxes for an appropriate apology outlined by Hills. The “statement” regarding Gee’s actions by NPG—to say nothing of Gee’s own “apology”—however, were completely unacceptable.
NPG have a lot of work to do if they are going to set things right. They are going to have to institute new policies, give more sustained and considered attention to the issue of representation in science, and I daresay fire at least one person. And though the organisation itself may not be totally corrupt, that shouldn’t dissuade us from holding NPG accountable for the actions performed on its platform, by its people, and in its name. As NPG, apparently, has little interest in changing by themselves, a community response is warranted.
Today, I’ve seen calls for a boycott. Not everyone is comfortable with boycotting organisations, and I’m sure that collective acts like boycotts will resonate with people according to their context. For my part, growing up in a country with a strong union movement, I see the merits. Boycotts are a lot like quarantine: they require cooperation and discipline, which are two things that human beings aren’t great at. Industrial action of any kind involves sacrifice. But they can get things done.
So what would a boycott of NPG look like? From where I sit, it could entail three things taken individually or together.
1. Don’t publish with NPG
The first is to not publish with NPG. Academic publishers need articles to thrive, and though there are more people looking to be published with NPG than there are pages on which to publish them, denying a publisher access to quality publications can hurt their ability to market their product. It can also hurt their impact factor (which I’ll talk about more in a moment).
Don’t be fooled, however about the scope of this commitment. Nature publishes sixty-two journals, and has a controlling stake in the Frontiers open access publisher. They also, again, own Scientific American. For some fields, not publishing with NPG will mean more than in others. For science writers, especially those who freelance, this will also involve an economic decision. It is something that should be the subject of respect and support as people decide on how they are going to act.
2. Don’t review for NPG
Reviewing is a professional service that serves the community, but also gives a publisher quality assurance for its publications. Peer review is, in the main, a free service, and in this reviewers are a store of labour on which a publisher relies. Refusing to review can seriously disrupt operations in a journal, as anyone with experience in the editorial process will tell you. Refusing to review for NPG would effectively stymie their ability to fulfill one of the benchmarks of the scientific process.
It is also worth nothing that NPG has an editor who has no qualms about violating the privacy of individuals based on a grudge—not a ringing endorsement for peer-review at NPG. In his “apology,” Gee asserts that he’d never violate this professional obligation, but there’s no reason at this stage to believe him. That’s a kind of trust that needs to be re-earned, and his apology doesn’t exactly instill one with hope about that happening in the future.
3. Don’t cite NPG
This last one is perhaps the most controversial, as, done as a collective act, the effects can be wide-ranging. Citation affects a journal’s impact factor, which is a key currency of academic publishing. When one journal surpasses another in impact factor, it is a big deal, and when a journal’s impact factor decreases it is cause for concern. Academics also depend on the impact factor of journals for their own careers, and whether or not they will be cited informs choices about where to publish.
Not citing papers, however, is a tricky business for researchers. Using results of research without citation constitutes plagiarism, and so academics will need to be careful about how they write, and even what they can research, should they choose to boycott NPG in this fashion. That will hurt some more than others.
For science writers, I suspect this is a completely different—but equally important—set of considerations. Promoting one’s work (and those of one’s colleagues) is a means to a livelihood in a very direct way. In this, I think that again science writers and journalists will need to assess what this means in terms most appropriate to their fields, as publication influences their lives in a different way to academic researchers.
Boycotts aren’t easy. Participating in one may mean dealing with your institution wanting to know why you won’t be taking your research to a publication like Nature. It may mean resigning from editorial duties, or even pulling existing publications from review. It might strain professional relationships.
The newly-minted PhD is more likely to suffer from participating in a boycott, as individual articles—and potential articles—are more important to their job prospects. A central component of Gee’s wrongdoing is how pseudonymity and anonymity insulate against abuses of power, and how removing that safety leaves people vulnerable to harm. Those who are starting their careers have the most to lose when this abuse of power is turned against them. More established faculty will need to support junior members in such an industrial action.
Individuals will need evaluate what they can reasonably tolerate in terms of the costs of a collective action. I think something a lot of people can agree on, however, is that standing by while one of the largest publishing groups in the scientific world allows its editors to give voice, or act on their own, to perpetuate injustices is unacceptable. We ignore NPG’s actions at our peril.
I’m grateful to Kelly Hills for helping me put this together from an earlier draft. Credit also goes to her for the incisive point about the scope of NPG’s reach, the full extent of which I was not aware.