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Emails I never bothered to answer

So, this came in the email one day:

Dear Professor Gelman,

I would like to shortly introduce myself: I am editor in the ** Department at the publishing house ** (based in ** and **).

As you may know, ** has taken over all journals of ** Press. We are currently restructuring some of the journals and are therefore looking for new editors for the journal **.

You have published in the journal, you work in the field . . . your name was recommended by Prof. ** as a potential editor for the journal. . . . We think you would be an excellent choice and I would like to ask you kindly whether you are interested to become an editor of the journal. In case you are interested (and even if you are not), we would be glad if you could maybe recommend us some additional potential candidates who could be interested to get involved with **. We are looking for a several editors who will cover the different areas of the field.

If you have any questions, I will gladly provide you with more information.

I look forward to hearing from you,

with best regards


Ummm, don’t take this the wrong way, but . . . why is it exactly that you think I would want to work for free on a project, just to make money for you?


  1. Shravan says:

    Reasonable point.

    But what about the journals you submit papers in? Those papers get published because there are editors doing exactly what you refuse to do.

    • Andrew says:


      I do a lot of things for free and a lot of things for money. If JASA and all the other journals where I publish can’t find anyone to edit them for free or for money then I guess those journals should fold up or reconfigure themselves so they can pay their editors a reasonable amount, or motivate qualified people to do their editing for free.

      The email in my post above was interesting only in that it was so (inadvertently) clear that the publisher was offering a simple exchange: I do the work and they get the money. Sure, I understand the point that the middlemen in management take their cut, but when the cut is 100% . . . ummm, at the very least they should try to reconfigure their pitch.

      The funny thing is, a few months later I got a mass email from the sucker who took the bait and agreed to be the editor of the journal. The email was sent asking people for submissions. I replied:

      no, we stopped doing this journal because it became non-free. We switched to a new, free, journal, **. I recommend you do this, rather than wasting your efforts on an old-fashioned non-free journal. If you just became the editor, maybe it’s not too late for you to quit and save your efforts for more useful endeavors!

      I’m not completely consistent on this point, as I do continue to publish in non-free journals when it is convenient. But I certainly won’t go out of my way to send my articles for free to a non-free journal when other options are available.

      • Shravan says:

        I understand the argument. So you would be editor of a free journal?

      • Rahul says:

        Exactly. It’s all about convenience: A younger Prof. might take up this offer just because an Editorial position looks nice on his CV or tenure application.

        Older Profs. take it up because it gives them visibility & perhaps an occasional power trip. Sometimes you are forced to say yes because you don’t want to offend the senior Prof. requesting you to join the board. Or perhaps you’ve been publishing a gazillion articles in that journal over the years. Et cetra.

        Basically, everyone in the business wants their pound of meat. This is all about academia’s unique flavor of non-monetary quid pro quo that’s had decades to evolve to its present form.

  2. Kirk says:

    It is like a chain letter for academics. You feel guilty for saying no. So you “recommend” other academics who receive the same email saying you recommended them. It grows exponentially until every academic in the world has been invited to be an editor. Everyone feels happy because they all feel wanted. What is the curse for breaking that chain and denying happiness in the world?

  3. Abhi says:

    well, they are used to it. :/

  4. Peter says:

    Maybe of interest here: University of Chicago biologist Jerry Coyne’s recent blogpost: On the rapaciousness of scientific publishers, and my refusal to be their slave

    • Martha (Smith) says:

      Bad link. Take the close quote mark off the end and it will work.

    • Shravan says:

      I think that when my work reaches 26,000 citations, as Coyne’s does, I will also take the gloves off.

      Until then, I will work behind the scenes to improve the state of affairs. If I refuse to review for Elsevier journals, even more garbage will get published than it does already. I feel that I am helping the broader enterprise by doing reviews for these journals and contributing to improving the quality of the papers that do get published.

      An alternative strategy is to do that (take the gloves off) right away. I tried this in 2008 and that experiment taught me a lot. Some colleagues and I published a paper in the open access and free Journal of Eye Movement Research, and at the same time some other colleagues of mine published a very similar paper in Cognition (a top Elsevier journal). Our paper appeared first. The Cognition paper has 245 citations according to Google Scholar, and our work has 128. One reason for this discrepancy could be that the Cognition paper was evaluating the models on English, whereas our paper was evaluating on German, which not many people care about (I regret not keeping all the reviews in which expert psycholinguists asked me why I work on Hindi and German and not English).

      I then met a CNRS researcher in Paris who cited the Cognition paper in a talk but not our work; I asked him if he knew about the German work. He said yes, but the other paper had appeared in Cognition (said with contrastive focus). The Cognition paper was great; no question about that. But I couldn’t see why ours was worth only half as many citations when it was exactly on the same topic and had similar conclusions. I think that a major reason for this discrepancy, even more than the Anglocentric focus of psycholinguistics, is that the other paper appeared in Cognition and ours appeared in a supposedly worthless open access and free journal.

      When evaluating research, people tend to look at where a paper appeared. Punkt. They don’t read it, or if they do, they rarely get past the title and/or abstract. Of course, some people do read papers. I just don’t think that proportion is very high. It doesn’t help that people write papers with titles and abstracts that don’t even match what’s in the paper.

      In a German NSF proposal review, a reviewer recently wrote that it was a bad idea to publish the papers in open access journals (we had mentioned that) except as a last resort, because, “as is well known, the quality of the reviews in open access journals is poor” (this is not my experience, BTW—both Elsevier and other open access journal reviews have basically the same mix of good and bad quality of reviewing).

      As a third example, someone recently asked me why I didn’t publish one of our latest cool results that came out in Frontiers in a regular journal. We could have published it in a top ranking Elsevier journal. Even the recognition that the result is cool is not enough to attach inherent value to the work; it needs that extra Colbert-bump.

      So, I’ve considered just keeping my head down and doing the best I can as far as research goes. But tends to have no value if it doesn’t have a brand-name associated with it. Sort of like the credibility Cuddy gains by attaching Harvard to her name. So I continue to publish in these journals for now, even though they are so damaging to academia. Maybe I will bite the bullet one day, but I don’t feel like it makes any sense right now, because I can’t act consistently once I start boycotting etc.

      However, when I become as famous as Andrew Gelman (this is imminent I guess), I am going to kick some ass. There, I pre-registered my intent!

      • Keith O'Rourke says:

        Its appropriate that those in Coyne’s position _lead_ the charge for academic reform.

        I do sense the academic status quo is crumbling (sure the top tier journals are offering to good salaries to those who might be able to slow this done and re-position them to end up on top regardless.)

        It does make it difficult for not quite yet established researchers as they are starting their careers in _interesting_ times ;-)

        I also liked this post by Coyne which ends with

        “Further—and I don’t know how to do this—we need to relax the relentless pressure on younger researchers to accumulate large numbers of publications, and we need to concentrate more on quality than quantity of papers. One reason for this pressure is the growing number of advanced-degree students being produced by academics—students who have trouble finding jobs and therefore are compelled to pile up large numbers of papers to outcompete their peers. (“They may count ’em but they won’t read ’em.”) The combination of an increasing number of students and an ever-shrinking pot of grant funds from federal agencies—thus increasing competition, since grant proposals are awarded in part on the basis of an investigator’s past publication rate—is toxic.”

  5. mark says:

    I am very sympathetic to the opposition to for-profit scientific publishers like Elsevier but the non-profit journals can be worse for authors in some ways. To offer purely anecdotal evidence, in this past year I co-authored a paper that was accepted for publication at an APA journal. We submitted our proofs in early March and it took nine months (!) before the paper was available to readers on the journal’s website. Even that took quite a few e-mails to the editor. Hard to call yourself a scientific discipline when that happens. Two other papers also accepted at APA journals have also taken an unacceptably long time to be available after the proofs were submitted (still waiting on one of them). My experiences with the for-profit companies (e.g., Elsevier, Taylor&Francis) have been much much better in this one regard this past year. As a tenure-track researcher the speed with which papers are distributed is one aspect of the for-profit publishers that I do appreciate.

  6. Rahul says:

    >>>why is it exactly that you think I would want to work for free on a project, just to make money for you?<<<

    Umm….have you stopped being a reviewer? Isn't that unpaid work too that's making money for the publisher?

  7. Shravan says:

    On a related note, in case any of the statisticians here have suggestions for Candice Morey on what would be good to have in an open access cognitive psychology journal, please comment here:

    More background and context is in her blog post.

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