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An Interview with Tom Reller, Vice President, Global Corporate Relations, Elsevier

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September 2012
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This did NOT occur at SSP 2012.

At the 2012 Annual Society for Scholarly Publishing meeting, one session garnered much pre and post-meeting buzz.  “Publishers! What Are They Good For?” was not only covering topics of great interest such as business models, metrics, and disruption within the scholarly publishing industry, but the panel (not to mention some audience members) was comprised of individuals who have been among those at opposite ends of an often heated debate over how to best serve the scholarly community.  The potential for hyperbole, rhetoric, table flipping and chair throwing seemed ripe.  Fortunately (or unfortunately, depending on your tastes) what transpired was a thought provoking, respectful, intelligent discussion.  As one ninety minute session allowed the participants to only scratch the surface of the topics discussed, I wanted to explore several of the ideas mentioned during the session further.  To do so I reached out to various members of the STM publishing community to ask some questions.  I was pleasantly surprised to find that more agreed to be interviewed than I anticipated, so what follows is the first in a series of interviews.  All interviewees were asked the same questions.

Much of the discussion centered on the Open Access movement in scholarly publishing, the peer review system, as well as the various methods by which researchers and publications are measured.  Many participants at the session came away feeling that while academic publishing will evolve, publishers will still have an important role to fill in serving the research community.  Those supporting the Open Access model have done a far better job of communicating their message than traditional publishers.  Publishers need to educate the community on the value they add to the process in order to correct some misconceptions and improve awareness.  I approached all those interviewed with this in mind and was not surprised to find they all had some valuable insight and thoughts on the matter.

Tom Reller, VP, Global Corporate Relations, Elsevier

First up is Tom Reller, Vice President, Global Corporate Relations at Elsevier. Tom is a veteran of the scholarly publishing industry who as Elsevier’s primary media spokesman, is responsible for the company’s relationships with media, analysts and other publishing and health-related communities. Tom also collaborates with many organizations to promote Elsevier’s contributions to Health and Science. These include partnerships developed through the Elsevier Foundation, where he’s responsible for running programs benefiting the global nurse faculty profession. He holds an MA in Legislative Affairs from George Washington University and a BA in Government and Politics from the University of Maryland.

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ADAM ETKIN: Let’s start with the subject of Open Access vs. traditional publishing models.  There was a lot of buzz recently due to Nature’s editor-in-chief Philip Campbell stating that open access to research “is inevitable.” However he also said:

“You hear it said that the public has paid for it, the public should have access to it for free,” said Campbell. “At that point, I draw back and say, what do you mean by ‘it’? You mean something that has got quality in it that has been selected and copy-edited. Somebody has got to do all that stuff, so the ‘it’ you want usually has involved somebody acting like a publisher to make it useable and comprehensible.”

Who, other than existing publishers, could or should “act like a publisher?” What are the pros/cons of some alternate “publisher” or self-publishers taking on this role?

TOM RELLER: For starters, just to be technically accurate, Philip said ‘in the long run,’ and was discussing a gradual evolution to more open access publishing.

Keep in mind that despite the attention, author-funded articles make up a small percentage of the scientific literature.  It’s growing quickly, but from a small base.  That’s mainly for the reason you note in your next question, which is while everyone thinks OA is a great idea, once you get past the principle, the reality is that costs still exist.  There’s an affordability gap at present whether one pays on the author side or the reader side because information budgets are not keeping pace with the increase in global research and development investment.  That’s $1.2 trillion, and grows at around 4% per year.

To your question, it largely depends on which field you’re talking about, which is a rather lost aspect of the OA debate. Not all science is the same. It’s not funded the same, conducted the same, or published the same. In some fields, like high energy physics, it can be argued that because much of the science is collaborative in nature, the number of co-authors acts as a process of peer review itself. The research develops in stages, and is shared throughout so by the time the final article is ready for submission, there is less value a publisher adds to it. Here, publishing overlay services or something like arXiv may make sense. I’d add though that this is certainly not a proven model yet in physics, and even in high energy journals which are 100% available on the arXiv, there’s still a demand to publish in peer reviewed journal.

In most other fields, I don’t know of any one other mechanism providing the level of filtration, quality and other assurances that publishers provide. And that doesn’t even get into dissemination, which is vastly more complex than just being available on the internet.  So the cons to any other models are risk to the core attributes of science itself.  It stops being science, and just opinion or other forms of unverified research, and it’s not nearly as accessible in actual researcher workflows.

ADAM ETKIN: Continuing on this topic:

“If gold open access became the norm for the primary literature, Campbell said that the cost per article could be in excess of $10,000 to publish in highly selective journals such as Nature, Cell or Science.”

I think that it seems a safe assumption that no author or funding agency will be willing to pay publishing fees of $10k (or even $4-$5k) per article.  In order to drive this fee down OA publishers such as PLoS have adopted a peer review “light” system and publish 65-70% of articles submitted to them.  What is your opinion of this model? 

TOM RELLER: In the end the market will decide what the price will be.  But the key is that maintaining the quality of the scholarly communication system is important to researchers, funders and publishers and other stakeholders too.  It’s pretty important to us all that there should not be a race to the bottom on price or quality.

ADAM ETKIN: Do you think there is a business model where journals could maintain a selective acceptance rate (using more rigid peer review) which allows for the publication of the top research in the field while at the same time results in author fees which are reasonable?

TOM RELLER: As I said in response to the last question, the market will decide.  But what has me concerned as it pertains to author-pays journals, is that some publishers will come up with arbitrary or artificial acceptance rates that are based upon economics, and not peer review or quality filtration.  The beauty of the reader pays model, particularly in an online era, is that journal editors publish articles based on what deserves to be published, not what needs to be published to meet revenue needs (or fulfilling a specific number of articles per issue).

ADAM ETKIN: The traditional peer review system seems to constantly be criticized, yet at the same time studies and surveys show the large majority of researchers view it as essential to any publication system.  Do you agree with the criticism? How would you improve the current system?

TOM RELLER: I think first that ‘seems’ is the right way to characterize this. That is, it more a function of the vocal minority and broader society’s focus on the negative, than reality. The truth is that for the vast majority of science, peer review works well, which you note scientists themselves agree. No one thinks peer review is perfect, it is after all an inherently human system and humans aren’t perfect, but people shouldn’t buy into the notion that a few mistakes means the whole system is flawed.

I would also add critics tend to focus on certain aspects of science, while ignoring others. For example, there may be small, intimate communities, where everyone knows each other, and don’t need to call upon much work from other disciplines, where the value of peer reviewed academic journals may lessen. But most communities are global and interdisciplinary, reliant on the work of others, who they may not know.

The system will be continually improved in two ways, the first being technology. New software programs and other detection systems are being developed and increasingly utilized during the peer review process. The second is more natural, in that because of increased access, more people are reading more papers, and pointing out more flaws; reviewers are more aware of problem areas than ever before.  There’s a role as well for other alternative forms of peer review, like post or open peer review but broadly speaking I think the traditional method of peer review serves us well and will continue on for some time.

In terms of improving the system, it’s not widely known but we run a program of peer review innovation projects at Elsevier:

  1. Article Transfer Service which with author permission an editor can expedite to another more relevant journal without the requirement for full re-submission.
  2. PeerChoice enables reviewers to select articles that match his/her academic interest.
  3. Scientific Screening by professional editors to help academic editors manage the large number of out of scope and substandard papers that would otherwise require peer review.
  4. Open Peer Commentary published review articles are accompanied by five one-page comments from other scientists along with the author’s statement/rebuttal of these comments.  While successful in attracting attention to a journal, it is very time intensive.  How scalable this is remains to be seen.

Some have suggested that the process of review by experts could be replaced and potentially bettered by social networking approaches, leveraging the “wisdom of crowds.” Publishers have experimented with open peer review models. So far the outcomes do not support the view that review by selected experts can be replaced to sustain the production and dissemination of high-quality science over the long term.  This may, of course, change in future and we will continue to encourage innovation in peer review practices.

ADAM ETKIN: Another target of much criticism is Impact Factor.  Do you foresee a time when IF is less important? If so, how soon do you think this might be the case?

TOM RELLER: While we recognize the Impact Factor at Elsevier, we also nurture the idea of using other indicators of journal performance.  Alternative metrics should and will develop, and become rather prominent – within some fields sooner than others.  It’s hard to say exactly how soon though, there’s a great deal of inertia behind using it.

ADAM ETKIN: Related to IF, Academia has created a culture where in order for researchers to gain tenure, promotions, grants etc. they must publish in high IF journals.  Do you see this changing any time soon?

TOM RELLER: I think this is nearly the same question, but I’d add that publishers didn’t invent the current system, rather just provide services that support it.  We will continue to do so as that system evolves.

ADAM ETKIN: How important do you see social media measurements such as altmetrics being in the future? Are you concerned that such measurements have the potential to be “gamed” by purchasing tweets, likes and so on.  How might those concerns be addressed?

TOM RELLER: It’s hard to say, though as previously noted there is a role for them and they’ll advance in some fields more than others. I think concerns about gaming such systems is legitimate, but that’s true of the Impact Factor as well.  Personally, I’m more concerned about sample bias. Which is to say that papers authored by, or noticed by, people favoring altmetrics will be noticed (biased) over those papers authored by people not participating in them. This is a big concern for 2nd and 3rd world researchers that are still quite far behind in terms of technology and communication than some in the technology class. The innovators are crucial, and cool, newsworthy, etc., but they are still a small minority of the global research world. We should take care to not over-promote, or over-advance, forms of measurement the entire world isn’t able to participate in.

ADAM ETKIN: What are the services that scholarly publishers offer that are the most valuable?  Are there services these publishers provide which are not easily replaceable due to cost, expertise, efficiency or other reasons?

TOM RELLER: There are a lot of valuable services provided by publishers, but two areas strike me as particularly important. One, is the recruitment and staffing support for editors and editorial boards.  The second is what publishers are doing to bring in new classes of researchers from 2nd and 3rd world countries.  There’s sometimes a false impression put forth that research is only conducted in North America and Europe, and that technology enables all to publish. The reality is that the growth in research output is to come from new areas of the globe that have not yet been fully assimilated, and only publishers have the infrastructure and support systems in place to assure the integrity of such research.  The neutrality of international publishers – who do not have an agenda in terms of promoting or protecting particular ideas, countries, institutions or ideas – is of particular value here.

Are publisher’s services easily replaceable? In considering that question, keep in mind that at Elsevier we compete with other publishers to attract and handle 950,000 submissions each year, we publish more than 300,000 of those articles, and we enable the discovery of not only that content but also the content of around 5,000 other publishers. We manage 600 terabytes of data in electronic warehouses, full of articles neatly edited, expertly tagged, structured and preserved in perpetuity.  We then market this information and promote articles that contain really interesting science.

We also organize conferences that bring academic communities together and provide workshops for authors and editors.  What we as publishers do is actually quite complex and scaled.  Unfortunately, one of our communications challenges is that when we do our job well, then our value is often invisible.  What unfortunately tends to get more noticed is the occasional error, and not the hundreds of thousands of articles that flow through our system easily and come out the other end improved, ready to impress, and widely available, cited, and used.

ADAM ETKIN: Do you have anything else to mention regarding the scholarly publishing industry and what publishers in this field are “good for?”

TOM RELLER: I think publishers have been great for creating a science ecosystem that is largely taken for granted. That’s good in some ways; people should trust science and not know or care much why they trust it.  But now the technology and communications environment has evolved, publishers need to create a new science communications ecosystem, where people not only share research, but have a better understanding of what publishers did to ensure its integrity.

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I hope you’ve enjoyed this interview with Tom.  See, not everyone at Elsevier worships Satan (as far as I know).  In the coming weeks I’ll continue this series of interviews with members of the STM publishing community. I look forward to any comments you may have.

Publishers! What are they good for? Say it again, Ya’ll!

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2 Comments

  1. […] more about why I’ve conducted these interviews you should read my previous conversation with Tom Reller of Elsevier.  All interviewees were asked the same questions. David Crotty, Senior Editor with Oxford […]

  2. […] more about why I’ve conducted these interviews you should read my previous conversation with Tom Reller of Elsevier and David Crotty of Oxford University Press. All interviewees were asked the same questions. Kent […]

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DISCLAIMER: All opinions are my own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Academy of Management.
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