If only I were Michael J. Fox, a letter I would send back in time.
First of all let me tell you want an honor it is to write to you from the future. Your work is so important in my time that we have named the main theorem which you proved in your paper “Megamathematical functorial categories which nearly commute” after you. Yes the JoeRandomName theorem is well known and used every day in my field. Thank you for thinking it up and proving it!
But I’m writing to you today, not because of this great piece of work. Instead I’m writing to you because a related piece of work which you published. I believe this work could would be useful in my own research. I’ve seen references to this paper which seem to indicate to me that it could be useful in my research. But, and here is the problem, it seems that I cannot get access to your work online nor at my library.
I know, I know. You published your work in a journal. I should have access to that journal. (And by the way, holy cow who typeset all the equations back in your day? Those typewritten equations are amazing. Today we have a computer program called LaTeX which has spread the tyranny of computer modern font, but is really rather awesome. Yes us future folk are spoiled.) Back to the issue, yes, I should have access to your work. But, you see, and here is the problem, the journal that you published in is now owned and operated by Elsevier. Oh, you know Elsevier, yes they have been around for a while, eh.
So what’s the problem, exactly? Well you know when you wrote that paper you probably didn’t think much about the value of the work you created. You just shipped it off to the publisher, got a referee report back, made some changes and didn’t think about it at all. But you see, now in order for me to see your paper I need to pay 35 dollars. Okay so this is not much of a price to pay, you say, but I really don’t know if the content of your paper is at all relevant to my work. Oh yes, you liked to browse journals in your day? Well libraries are increasingly no longer keeping paper copies around (we’re really fucking up with the environment these days, could you please also tell your friends to work on better car fuel efficiency?) The reason I have to pay, you see, is that my library does not subscribe to the journal you published in. Why don’t they? Well it turns out that the journal you published in costs $4000 per volume. Yes that’s for one volume of one journal. And today is particularly bad for universities, as we’re in economic bad times, so libraries are already cash strapped. So recently my library decided that it could no longer afford to pay for the particular journal you have published your result in.
Even worse, when I look back at the biography of you written by George Johnson (oh yes you are famous enough to warrant a popular biography: don’t let it go to your head. But do make sure to keep generating humorous anecdotes.) I see that you were funded throughout your career by the National Science Foundation. So while some researchers at well funded schools have access to your paper, the amusing thing is that the people who paid for your work, also known as tax payers, don’t have access to your work. A public good that’s no longer public, because somehow the academic community has decided to let a company charge way too much for work they did not perform. (What percentage of the value of a journal is in the editorial value and what percentage is in the actual intellectual contect: yes you dear researcher who are reading this are being fleeced.)
Even worse, today we live in an academic culture which is overflowing with papers. Wait, this is good, isn’t it! It means lots of good stuff is going on, right? Well, actually I hate to break the news, but today we live in a world in which number of publications substitutes for quality of publications. Indeed it is so bad that there are journals which publish absolute rubbish. And amazingly they still charge a huge amount for this rubbish!
Take for instant the a case which has recently come to light of the same publisher which now owns the journal you published in, Elsevier. This is the case of M. S. El Naschie. El Naschie, it seems is the editor of a journal called Chaos, Solitons, and Fractals published by Elsevier. El Naschie has an amazing publication record in this journal: 322 papers. Yeah I know, that’s quite an astounding amount of work (I know you only published ten papers in your lifetime: of course five of these turned out to revolutionize the world.) But even more amazingly, it seems that many of these papers are, at best, silly numerology. It is even claimed that this was brought to the attention of the people responsible over a year ago, but alas no action was taken.
Even more astoundingly Elsevier publishes a “journal” on homeopathy. Hereyou find articles which explain homeopathy via nonlocal quantum correlations (and this somehow this renders homeopathy controlled studies impossible) Pure and utter pseudoscience as far as the eye can see.
So, yes, its sad to say that there are many of us who are very peeved at Elsevier. Not only are they charging an huge amount for work which was paid for by the taxpayers, they are also pushing pseudoscience.
And yeah, I’m glad you asked. Its tough for me too. I’m not even a real professor (just a pseudo professor) so I feel a tremendous pressure to publish in all the top journals in my field (prl for example) and most of these are not angels. One consolation I take is that these days many journals allow me to publish my early version of the paper on a thing called the ArXiv. Indeed, for many in my field, posting onto the arXiv is sort of the real publication event. But this is sort of like a puppy killer who sometimes volunteers at the animal shelter: I’m still giving away the stuff paid for by the public so that a private company can profit and keep it away from the prying eyes of everyday people. Recently I’ve begun to think a lot about whether I can continue to function in his messed up system. Do I really want to be a referee for journals which are part of this system? Can I find suitable places which will widely disseminate my work without charging an arm and a leg? I don’t know, but I’m working on it.
So, here’s what I’m saying, old researcher. I’m really sorry, but your decision to publish in that journal isn’t going to go well. I know enough about time travel to know that there is nothing you or I can do about it, but really I’d like to at least push some of my own guilt back to your time, so that you can know how poor a choice you are making. Maybe you can write a letter about this problem and hide it somewhere so I can discover it and use it as ammunition against the evil science publishers?
Pseudoprofessor from the Future