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.)