A couple of days ago Peter Civáň wrote an excellent account of why he’s given up refereeing for academic journals. I quite understand. The system is broken and referees are slave labour. Their only recompense is being able to write “Referee for Journal of Futile Endeavour“, on their C.V., hoping this improves employability. It doesn’t, I promise. I’ve sat on numerous appointment panels and only recall one interviewer taking the slightest interest in a candidate’s refereeing efforts. “This chap reviews for a lot of journals; but doesn’t publish much himself,” he observed. The candidate didn’t get the job.
I’m sure that’s not Peter’s problem, but – forgive me, and I hope this isn’t taken badly – I do rather sense a shocked innocent recoiling from the brothel curtains. So, let an old roué and sometime Editor for three mid-ranking journals (Journal of Antimicrobial Chemotherapy, Journal of Medical Microbiology and International Journal of Antimicrobial Agents) take you on a tour. As for my further credentials, I’ve published over 500 papers and appear on Clarivate’s ‘Most cited‘.
The model I entered, late in the 1980s, was the one that Robert Maxwell built. Maxwell’s genius, with Government help, was to establish new journals or to agree, for a cut, to manage those owned by professional societies. His vehicle, Pergamon Press, recruited senior academics as editors and lesser ones as sub-editors. The subs batted the papers to and from referees and the senior put the journal together. Pergamon promoted itself as ‘the place to publish’, taking trade stands at conferences and ear-bending librarians. They didn’t need to work too hard. The Senior Editor pressed his staff and friends to publish in his new journal. Authors insisted that their university library subscribe. Even if it was still ‘society-owned’ the journal charged libraries far more than an individual subscription. Members could be blackballed for sharing their private copy.
Academics, who did most of the work, were recompensed by status and hospitality. Journal of Antimicrobial Chemotherapy dined me at the Savoy when I finished my three-year stint; Journal of Medical Microbiology had glorious two-day meetings at a hotel near Tintern Abbey. I shudder to recall how many hours I spent to earn these treats.
Maxwell prospered until he over-reached himself elsewhere and walked off the back of the Lady Ghislaine. Subscriptions, subscription rates and journal numbers rose. Pharma companies learnt that a journal’s name added respectability to promotional copy and sponsored supplements on their new drugs, paying handsomely for mountains of reprints. Elsevier entered the fray, bought out Pergamon and became far the largest scientific publisher.
Even so, there were costs. Journals had to be typeset, printed and distributed. At Journal of Medical Microbiology we bickered with Churchill Livingstone about how to balance the number of papers accepted with the costs of page allocation. If we increased the page count it cost the society and increased the postage bill. Alternatively, we could reject more papers, or adopt a narrower typeface. As we did.