If it ain't broke, don't bin it

March 1, 2012

Timothy Gowers recently wrote about his decision not to work with Elsevier and his wish for an alternative to the academic journal as a tool for evaluating, sharing and preserving scholarship ("Occupy publishing", 16 February). While we may disagree with much that has been said, we recognise the depth of feeling among some in the research community and are taking it seriously.

However, Gowers also calls for a wider change - the replacement of scholarly journals with something new and untested. This comes at a time when the wish to publish in high-quality, well-recognised journals is growing unabated.

Submissions to virtually all academic journals are increasing year on year, in many cases by as much as 20 per cent, as the global academic community uses them to share and test their research. Elsevier alone will publish more than 250,000 articles this year, and for every one published, two others typically will have been rejected.

What drives the wish to publish is the need to register, review, disseminate and preserve new research. There is little merit in throwing away a system that works in favour of one that has not even been developed yet.

Gowers champions alternative approaches and looks to new technologies, many of which are being developed with the active support of journal publishers. We welcome this challenge and believe that competition can be good for scholarly communication, but only if the merits of the current system, and its particular place in the UK scholarly community, are kept in mind.

Publishers, particularly UK-led ones, have invested more than £2 billion to migrate their industry, building online communities and sophisticated systems to support the academy. This is an activity supported by significant and sustained investment at levels beyond what any single country or institution could sustain: for example, Elsevier was one of the first publishers to retrospectively digitalise its entire publication archive, a huge undertaking.

As a result of these investments, access to journal content has never been better. Despite difficult economic times, Jisc Collections, which represents more than 100 UK universities, entered into new five- year agreements with Elsevier and Wiley Blackwell in December, welcoming the new and improved terms offered by both publishers. This is a different world from the 1990s, when journal articles were only available in the print libraries of major research universities.

Despite this, there is undoubtedly more that we can all do and we look forward to working with the community both to develop the existing system and to explore new and alternative approaches.

David Clark, Senior vice-president, Physical sciences, Elsevier

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