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One of the most common recently used marketing clichés in STM publishing — one used frequently to launch new initiatives — has been the claim, “By scientists, for scientists.” It has been used by the now-defunct SEED Media, by F1000, by eLife, by Elsevier, and by Frontiers (a usage perpetuated by Nature Publishing Group as the two entities came together.) A version of this is used by PeerJ (“Your Peers, Your Science”). It sounds like a reasonable message. However, it’s fraught with problems once you deconstruct and analyze it a bit.

The first problem with the concept of “by scientists, for scientists” is that it implicitly asserts a contrast with established journal or publishing ventures, as if saying, “Finally, a journal or company that is run by scientists and run for scientists.” This is misleading and wrong, as most STM publishers are run by scientists and for scientists — non-profits, university presses and journal initiatives, and even large commercial publishers with scientific editors and trained scientists as executives. The illusion that scholarly or scientific publishing has been taken over by heartless business tycoons may be useful as a marketing wedge, but it is not based in reality. Rockefeller University Press, University of Chicago Press, Oxford University Press, and a long list of professional society publishers may find this presumed contrast the slightest bit offensive and certainly misleading. All the editors who are current or former scientists may also take umbrage.

A second problem occurs when such a statement is used by an open access (OA) publisher like eLife or PeerJ. After all, a premise of OA is that the works published via OA and CC-BY are not just “for scientists.” That has been one of the complaints about subscription publishers — they weren’t allowing taxpayers or the general public access to what they’d supposedly paid for. A more accurate marketing line for OA might be, “By scientists, for everybody,” but that may put too fine a point on things — after all, most of the OA literature is written for scientists, not for everybody, so this might be a promise OA can’t really keep. So, the cliché seems better, because it doesn’t make a false promise, yet maintains the elite status of the works, which is where OA publishers’ focus remains. (Have you ever seen a direct-to-consumer OA initiative?)

A third problem is that this marketing parallelism can obscure the commercial ambitions of its bearer, essentially providing the sheep’s clothing for a venture capitalist wolf — whether this is SEED Media’s use of the term or the way in which venture-funded PeerJ is using the statement in discussions with reviewers to get them to donate their time. In these situations, the more accurate phrase may be, “By scientists, for large-scale venture funding payback.” That may be a satisfactory bargain for an author or reviewer or editor, but it’s a different bargain.

In short, “By scientists, for scientists” is not only a worn out cliché, but it is a misleading cliché. It doesn’t truly differentiate any new initiative, it actually argues against one part of the spirit of OA, and it conceals true motivations. In short, we should stop using it.

(Hat tip to PMD for the idea and many of the links.)

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Kent Anderson

Kent Anderson

Kent Anderson is the CEO of RedLink and RedLink Network, a past-President of SSP, and the founder of the Scholarly Kitchen. He has worked as Publisher at AAAS/Science, CEO/Publisher of JBJS, Inc., a publishing executive at the Massachusetts Medical Society, Publishing Director of the New England Journal of Medicine, and Director of Medical Journals at the American Academy of Pediatrics. Opinions on social media or blogs are his own.


12 Thoughts on ""By Scientists, For Scientists" — Deconstructing a Misguided, Misleading, and Thoughtless Cliché"

So, the cliché seems better, because it doesn’t make a false promise, yet maintains the elite status of the works, which is where OA publishers’ focus remains. (Have you ever seen a direct-to-consumer OA initiative?)

How about MedlinePlus for one of a million examples.

That is a taxpayer-funded public health set of articles, not an initiative from an OA publisher. It doesn’t meet the criteria. If PLoS or BMC were to create one with their surpluses, that would qualify as what I’m talking about.

You can choose to define publishers however narrowly you want but the Public Health Service publishes a number of scientific journals and at least one or two even charge APCs. I don’t think OA publishers claim to publish material designed for general public consumption but small but significant segment of the public does read and make use of the material for a whole variety of reasons and making it easily accessible provides value to the public. It is only one, in my view not necessarily the primary value of moving to open access funding models.

The point I was making is that OA publishers are explicitly appealing to an internecine model of thinking (“By X, for X”), rather than an expansive and inclusive model of thinking (“By X, for Y”), which is part of the OA argument. That’s why I dubbed use of this cliche “thoughtless.” I think my alternative is actually better and more appropriate given the goals, but then we get into the whole issue that most of what is published by OA publishers isn’t written at the proper level for broad public consumption. And that’s something that no business model or slogan can solve.

I think the Company of Biologists use of the phrase may predate any of those you mentioned above.

Yes, the phrase was “A charity — run by biologists for biologists.” And, rumor has it that the publishing manager in charge of marketing at the time was Mark Patterson, currently of eLife. If so, the recycling angle becomes clearer.

If memory serves that terminology was used in the early 70s too,

I took over a journals program and the first thing I did was call in the marketing department and said: “No more hype in the ad copy! Just say what the journal does and never say it is the latest or most current. Never lie to smart people.”

You’re right Kent, the ‘by scientists, for scientists’ mantra is a little bit lazy and I confess to having used it myself.

Having admitted that, it’s a clumsy short hand for a real phenomenon that has and is changing academic publishing in a number of ways that aren’t just about business models. At this year’s ER&L in Austin, Jason Price gave a lightning talk in which he highlighted companies like Dublin 6, SIPX, PubGet, Callisto, and the company that I work for, ReadCube as being founded and driven by people who got fed up with specific issues in the academic publishing industry and set about trying to change them. It just so happens that many of us doing this happen to be people with very recent backgrounds in science, which inform and shape our perceptions of the challenges that we faced as working scientists. This is why it’s a bit too easy to fall back on the cliche.

Hopefully, I don’t sound too naive here. I certainly don’t want to suggest that none of the folks involved in these new approaches are motivated primarily by a desire to get rich or to protect business interests, which are both legitimate aims, but some of us really are first and foremost trying to make a difference.

This phenomenon isn’t new, of course. There have always been people who left one career to start another out of a desire to be the ‘last person who has to put up with that’ and it’s certainly not new in academic publishing, but there does seem to be a lot of it about lately. Perhaps we just need to express ourselves a little more clearly.

There are two other facets to how this cliche is sometimes used that have always struck me as hollow (in the first case) or offensive (in the second):

1. Some publishers have used this as a straw man to use against other publishers, like Nature, that have full-time editors who, as such, are no longer “real scientists.” Without commenting on whether a scientist who becomes a full time is a real scientist or not, the reality is that there are very few journals that have full time editors. So to say that “we’re better because we have editors who are still practicing researchers/physicians” is to say that your journal is set up like 99% of the journals in the industry. Not exactly a differentiator.

2. I’ve heard this cliche used to insinuate that scientists can run things better than publishers because scientists, being scientists, are smarter than publishers. I’m not sure how splicing genes or studying neurons (both worthy pursuits, don’t get me wrong) trains one to run a complex, technical business with global supply chains better than someone who runs a complex, technical business with global supply chains for a living.

Of course, as soon as a scientist leaves his or her lab to run a publishing enterprise, they become publishers (see point 1) and hence lose all their smarts, negating the advantage they had in the first place…

Great points.

To your Point #1, it brings to mind something someone told me recently about Zipcar drivers — “I get nervous because there is someone who drives part-time.” Editors who edit part-time are, in my experience, devoting exactly that much attention to an increasingly complex endeavor.

To your Point #2, I couldn’t have said it better.

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