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On toxic effects of scientific journals


The advent of online publishing greatly facilitates the dissemination of scientific results. This revolution might have led to the untimely death of many traditional publishing companies, since today’s scientists are perfectly capable of writing, formatting and uploading files to appropriate websites that can be consulted by colleagues and the general public alike. They also have the intellectual resources to criticize each other and organize an anonymous peer review system. The Open Access approach appears promising in this respect, but we cannot ignore that it is fraught with editorial and economic problems. A few powerful publishing companies not only managed to survive, but also rake up considerable profits. Moreover, they succeeded in becoming influential ‘trendsetters’ since they decide which papers deserve to be published. To make money, one must set novel trends, like Christian Dior or Levi’s in fashion, and open new markets, for example in Asia. In doing so, the publishers tend to supplant both national and transnational funding agencies in defining science policy. In many cases, these agencies tend simply to adopt the commercial criteria defined by the journals, forever eager to improve their impact factors. It is not obvious that the publishers of scientific journals, the editorial boards that they appoint, or the people who sift through the vast numbers of papers submitted to a handful of ‘top’ journals are endowed with sufficient insight to set the trends of future science. It seems even less obvious that funding agencies should blindly follow the fashion trends set by the publishers. The perverse relationships between private publishers and public funding agencies may have a toxic effect on science policy.

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  1. 1. .

  2. 2.

    To be truthful, some scientists occasionally stumble upon some freaky invention, the discovery of penicillin, a cure for poliomyelitis, the production of fertilizers from atmospheric nitrogen, the invention of transistors and lasers, etc. This was in the happy days of serendipity!

  3. 3.

    Refer to the list of funding agencies in the abbreviations.

  4. 4.

    AM is a member of the ‘comité de rédaction’ of the Journal de la Société des Américanistes. GB is one of the five editors of Progress in Nuclear Magnetic Resonance Spectroscopy (Elsevier), member of the editorial boards of the Journal of Magnetic Resonance (Elsevier) and Solid-State Nuclear Magnetic Resonance (Elsevier), member of the advisory board of Applied Magnetic Resonance (Springer), and former member of the editorial board of Chemistry, a European Journal (Wiley.)

  5. 5.

    SNSF may be an exception that confirms the rule. Martin Quack, who served about ten years on its Research Council, wrote in Bunsen-Magazin 5 181–189 (2012): ‘…it may be noted that [the Research Council of the SNSF] is composed of selected scientists who, in the manner of the Swiss army where every citizen is a part-time soldier [‘Milizsystem’], is willing to cooperate in the committee for a limited fraction of his time (and for a limited period), without giving up his active participation in scientific research. Such a committee is, by its very nature, guided by scientific arguments, and less lured by bureaucratic bean-counting [‘weniger anfällig für bürokratische Masszahlen’]’ (freely translated with our italics).

  6. 6.

    For the definition of impact factors, see . For a discussion of their perverse consequences, we refer the reader to our earlier paper (Molinié and Bodenhausen 2010). See also Ernst (2010). These can be downloaded from .

  7. 7.

    See . For the impact of this manifesto, see . See ‘Impact Factors, Open Access, and 125 Years of Angewandte Chemie’ by Peter Gölitz 2012 Angew. Chem. Int. Ed. 51 9704–9706.

  8. 8.

    The Editor of Angewandte Chemie told us that his front office comprises no less than 17 people, all of them in possession of a PhD degree. Could it be that journals of lesser reputation employ people who do not even have a PhD?

  9. 9.

    Submitting papers has become a frustrating and time-consuming task. A few years ago, one of our papers was accepted by a ‘top’ magazine (Pelupessy et al. 2009 Science 324 1693–1697). Despite its flashy title (‘High-Resolution NMR in Magnetic Fields with Unknown Spatiotemporal Variations’), it is technically so challenging that even its most senior author found it hard to understand. To our surprise, the granting agencies loved it. A more mature paper on MRI was rejected by several journals and ended up in Journal of Magnetic Resonance More recently, we submitted a paper on drug screening to Nature Methods, then to PNAS, then to a respected member of the National Academy, then to Nature Physics, and finally to JACS. Only then was the paper actually sent out for review (N Salvi et al. 2012 J. Am. Chem. Soc. 134 11076). Another recent paper on high-resolution NMR was initially submitted to Science, then to Nature Physics, and finally printed in Physical Review Letters (S. Chinthalapalli et al. 2012 Phys. Rev. Lett. 109 047602-1-4)

  10. 10.

    See : ‘On 10 August 2006, after months of unsuccessful negotiations with Elsevier about the price policy of library subscriptions, the entire editorial board of the journal handed in their resignation, with effect from 31 December 2006. (…) Subsequently, two more issues appeared in 2007 with papers that had been accepted before the resignation of the editors. (…) In early January the former editors instructed Elsevier to remove their names from the website of the journal, (…) but Elsevier refused to comply, justifying their decision by saying that the editorial board should remain on the journal until all of the papers accepted during its tenure had been published.’

  11. 11.

    For a telling example of the struggle between those in favor and against Open Access journals, see

  12. 12.

    ‘The Faculty Advisory Council to the Library [of Harvard University], representing university faculty in all schools and in consultation with the Harvard Library leadership, reached this conclusion: major periodical subscriptions, especially to electronic journals published by historically key providers, cannot be sustained: continuing these subscriptions on their current footing is financially untenable. Doing so would seriously erode collection efforts in many other areas, already compromised. (…) Prices for online content from two providers have increased by about 145% over the past six years. (…) Even though scholarly output continues to grow and publishing can be expensive, profit margins of 35% and more suggest that the prices we must pay do not solely result from an increasing supply of new articles’ ( ).

  13. 13.

    Some excepts of a typical contract between a well-known publisher and one of the authors of this paper: ‘Your role as Editor of the Journal includes acquiring Review articles of high scientific standard and sufficient copyflow to meet the publication goals of the Journal. As Editor you will have responsibility for the timely coordination of editing, refereeing, submissions, and communications with authors, as well as ensuring that such activities are done in conformity with the Editorial Policies and good publishing practices (the ‘Editorial Services’). Good publishing practices also involve using all reasonable efforts to ensure that published papers and their authors abide by scientific standards for integrity and objectivity, do not infringe the proprietary rights of others, do not defame others, and do not cause damage or harm to persons or property or to the good reputation of the Journal. Such practices also include efficient, timely and confidential administration of the process of receiving papers and submitting the papers for the review, using Elsevier’s electronic submission system. All material submitted to you is intended for, and is the property of Elsevier. You hereby assign and transfer to the publisher, to the maximum extent possible, all right, title and interest you may have in and to the Journal, including without limitation the selection, compilation and/or the editing of the material published therein, and authorize use of your name, biography and professional affiliations (at the Publisher's discretion) for purposes of promoting the Journal’ (our italics).

  14. 14.

    Unsolicited self-advertisement of journals is a new curse. Although it is easy to track the number of downloads from a server, it is obviously impossible to know if an article has actually been read. Nor can a publisher monitor the numbers of papers that are passed on between colleagues. We reproduce a few examples of inappropriate self-advertisement (our italics): (a) Dear Dr Bodenhausen, On behalf of the whole Physical Chemistry Chemical Physics (PCCP) Editorial Team, we wish you a very Happy New Year. And what better way to celebrate than by reading all the exciting content in Issue 1 of 2012 which is free to access all year! Not only that, but you can now enjoy free access to Issue 1 of every volume of PCCP right back to the year 2000. You can find some of the highlights from this year’s first issue below including our latest Perspective articles, a Communication on utilising urine for fuel (which has already made the headlines!) (b) Dear Colleague, I am pleased to announce the release of The Journal of Chemical Physics Editors’ Choice for 2011. These articles were selected by the Editors as representative of the many high quality and influential articles published in JCP in 2011. I invite you to read these articles and explore what JCP has to offer at the forefront of Chemical Physics research today. These seminal articles are freely available online until the end of 2012. (c) The Journal of the American Chemical Society introduces JACS Spotlights beginning with the first issue of 2012. Spotlights will highlight several recent publications in the Journal, summarizing the key findings but, more importantly, communicating the impact and significance of the work in a way that will be relevant to non-experts.

  15. 15.

    We wrote 29 reviews since 2004 for Elsevier’s Journal of Magnetic Resonance, 22 reviews since 2004 for Wiley’s Angewandte Chemie, 33 reviews since 2006 for the Journal of the American Chemical Society, 13 reviews since 2006 for the Journal of Chemical Physics published by the American Institute for Physics, etc. This is by no means exceptional.

  16. 16.

    In a survey by the AMS, it was found that 7 of the 10 most expensive journals in the field of mathematics (based on their 2007 price per volume) were published by Elsevier ( ).

  17. 17.

  18. 18.

    For a public library like EPFL’s, Elsevier’s license represents nearly 30% of the annual budget for journal subscriptions. It is impossible to reduce costs by keeping only the most useful titles: the rule is take-all or leave. This policy threatens other subscriptions. Mathematicians may be more exposed to this threat since they produce many journals that are published by small societies and institutes. But chemists should also be concerned. By way of example, access to the journals of the Royal Society of Chemistry might be endangered by Elsevier’s pricing policy. Elsevier has been buying up many independent journals that were in financial difficulties. The ‘backfiles’ of these journals are then offered in overpriced packages.

  19. 19.

    Elsevier sued Washington State University to try to prevent release of similar information. A group of economists collects data on journal prices, citations, numbers of published articles, and estimates of the value of about 7000 journals ( ).

  20. 20.

    The mathematician Scott Aaronson ( ) refers to a report by the investment firm Exane Paribas who estimates that the current boycott has caused Reed Elsevier’s stock price to fall, but presents this as a great investment opportunity, since the price is expected to rebound once this boycott fails!

  21. 21.

    One cannot use a trademark without permission of its owner, but one can create a new name, as shown in the case of the Journal of Topology, which is the new incarnation of Topology.

  22. 22.

    ‘Muscle from Brussels as open access gets an 80 billion Euro boost’ ( ): ‘An official at the European Commission, which is drafting proposals for the Horizon 2020 programme, said that for researchers receiving funding from its programme between 2014 and 2020, open-access publishing “will be the norm”. A pilot [programme] under way in seven areas of its current funding programme will be extended to become a mandate across all peer-reviewed research in the new scheme, which will cover fields ranging from particle physics to social science.’



American Association of Anthropologists


American Chemical Society


Agence pour l’Evaluation de la Recherche Scientifique [France]


American Institute of Physics


American Mathematical Society


Agence Nationale pour la Recherche [France]


American Physical Society


Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council [UK]


Centre National pour la Recherche Scientifique [France]


Committee for Technology and Innovation [Switzerland]


Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft


Department of Energy [USA]


Ecole Normale Supérieure


Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne


Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council [UK]


European Research Council [EU]


Framework Programme [EU]


Journal of the American Chemical Society


Journal of Magnetic Resonance


Max Planck Institute


Medical Research Council [UK]


Natural Environment Research Council [UK]


National Institutes of Health [USA]


National Science Foundation [USA]


Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences [USA]


Swiss National Science Foundation


Université Pierre-et-Marie Curie


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The authors thank Isabelle Kratz, director of the library of the EPFL, formerly associated with the UPMC and CNRS, Caroline Bosia and Alain Borel, also at EPFL, Roland Kunz (Swiss Chemical Society), Jérôme Lacour (Chimia), Peter Goelitz (Angewandte Chemie), Libero Zuppiroli, Jacques Dubochet, Malcolm Levitt, Clare Grey, Martin Quack, Ray Freeman and Richard Ernst for constructive suggestions. This paper was supported neither by the Swiss National Science Foundation, nor by the Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne, nor by the Swiss Commission for Technology and Innovation, nor by the French CNRS.

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Correspondence to Geoffrey Bodenhausen.

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[Molinié A and Bodenhausen G 2013 On toxic effects of scientific journals. J. Biosci. 38 1–11] DOI 10.1007/s12038-013-9328-5

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Molinié, A., Bodenhausen, G. On toxic effects of scientific journals. J Biosci 38, 189–199 (2013).

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  • Editorial policy
  • impact factors
  • publishing companies
  • science journals
  • science policy