Stephen Leeder. The takeover of the Medical Journal of Australia.

Sep 15, 2015

A quick glance at the last page of the most recent issue of the MJA reveals that there is as yet no replacement editor-in-chief and that two of the most senior medical editors – Janusic and Armstrong – are missing in action, as is the Editorial Advisory Committee. There is an interim editor. Many of the assistant editors have gone as well – replaced in the AMA president’s memorable words on ABC Radio because all they did was move words around on the page. This they had been doing, together with checking facts, assertions, arithmetic, grammar, syntax, clarity and originality of submitted papers and keeping the faith in the MJA community some for 20 years. This activity was now to be done by anonymous staff employed often overseas by the publishing giant Elsevier.

How this role for Elsevier allows them to claim copyright if all that they are doing is moving words around on the page as you will find they do in the fine print at the bottom of the back page of the MJA describing the editorial staff, I do not know. I assume that it is part of the commercial deal done by the Australasian Publishing Company, AMPCo that used to be the sole publisher of the MJA on behalf of the Australian Medical Association. If you publish in the MJA now, copyright over your paper is held in part by Elsevier.

The large publishing companies that have scooped up and repackaged knowledge and science are like giant fishing trawlers. I leave it to you to contemplate the similarities.

When I took on the job as editor-in-chief a little over two years ago I did so understanding the risks because AMPCo has a grim reputation as an employer and because the AMA and I are not natural bedfellows, but those risks did not extend to working with or for Elsevier. I do not propose to rehearse today the many reasons why I consider Elsevier to be an untrustworthy company – you can read about the rebellion of the Dutch and French governments over their pricing policy in selling subscriptions to their journals on the Web site and a Google and Wikipedia search will lead you down into the dangerous and murky canyons of their dealings with research workers, pharmaceutical companies, universities and libraries. They are not the kind of organisation that you would consider taking home to meet mother, assuming that you get on well with your mother.

Few academics know the details of what the big publishers have been up to for the past 20 years and anyway many scholars have vested interests in not rocking the boat because they need to publish to progress. I am 73 and at a point in my career where these things no longer matter. But this aside, what does matter is what happens to a journal, 101 years old that has belonged to the premier medical association in Australia. Despite lots of ups and downs and complex dealings with advertisers and its owner it has been a good custodian of professional values, committed as promised in its first issue, to the publication of research and policy. What happens when it becomes part of the Elsevier stable?

A quotation to outsource production of the MJA was obtained from three companies of which Elsevier was one and presented to the AMPCo board in November last year after I had left the meeting and without my knowledge. The bid had been prepared with no consultation with me or the editorial staff but with the AMPCo management staff. I disagreed with the generous estimates the bid contained of how much could be saved and my colleagues and I offered detailed alternatives. These were not accepted.

On April 28, without discussion of alternatives, I was summonsed to meet the chairman of the AMPCo board at midday who issued me with a letter of termination. I was then accompanied to my office by the HR manager to identify my goods that were to be packed and sent to me. The shocked editorial staff who had gathered outside my office and I repaired at 1 pm to a local coffee shop for an hour. This event was described by the AMA president at the AMA Conference in Brisbane recently as the staff taking the afternoon off to go to the pub with me and that AMPCo paid. AMPCO indeed DID pay (I had offered), all of $100 but for coffee. The receipt is on file. A PR company was hired, I assume at a generous rate, to handle this debacle, all remaining staff being prevented from public comment. AMPCo’s second sacking of an editor-in-chief in the past four years – there have been several before us as well – proceeded with surgical precision and the guillotine blade did not squeak through disuse as it fell. I was not warned about dismissal or given a chance to resign. All these details and more can be read in full detail on our Web site You will be relieved to know it is open access.

Like my predecessor, whatever our faults, I was passionately committed to the future of the Journal and all the editorial staff – not just the medical editors. These people were my professional colleagues who participated in planning substantial changes to the journal following reader consultation. We were doing well. But the bottom line is what matters. What lessons can be drawn from this?

First, corporate values rule in publishing at present. Others will speak about this. The effects of the commodification of knowledge – where a publisher asks to be paid to publish your paper, keeps the copyright, limits access to the paper and charges libraries a king’s ransom for bundled subscriptions, is scandalous. Universities pressed on all sides to conform to bureaucratic and mangerialist principles to maintain their funding base, judge the performance of their academics by publication citations and indices of unproven validity about research productivity, provided by the publishers.

Second, academics have let this happen under their noses and I do not believe that the indifference to what has been happening in libraries and journals has been ethical or impressive. Colin Steele, a research fellow at ANU who has taken a detailed and long-standing interest in this process, has written:

There are two competing, and at the moment, irreconcilable forces operating in scholarly communication. On the one hand [there is] the recognised need for scholarly exchange and, on the other, the increasingly embedded publishing system, and the rewards enshrined in the dominant Thomson and Elsevier article metrics used for research assessment and University league tables.

Specialty journals have profited from aligning with big publishers every bit similar to the snouts-in-the-trough behaviour involved in accepting sponsorship for conferences and travel from the pharmaceutical industry. We academics and universities are far from blameless.

Third, information technology is transforming the collection, collation and dissemination of knowledge. This offers hope. Knowledge has been commodified in recent decades but this will not last. The big publishers had best make their bucks during the remaining fat years because the lean years are coming when now forms of information dissemination out will displace them. Neoliberal managerialism and commercialisation will pass as surely as older faded ideologies have done. Think of open access and new forms of electronic information management as being like a vaccine against polio. When we have it we will not need the iron lung corporations with metal pumps to help us breathe.


Stephen Leeder is the immediate past Editor-in-Chief of the MJA. He is Emeritus Professor of Medicine at Sydney University. Professor Leeder presented the above speech at a recent symposium ‘Reclaiming the Knowledge Commons: The Ethics of Academic Publishing and the Futures of Research”. The speech was published in the Weekly Report Issue 15 of the ‘Friends of the MJA‘.

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