Open letter to the E-MRS Executive Committee

Dear  Members of the Executive Committee of the E-MRS

I’d like to thank you for offering me the opportunity to act as one of the 2014 Spring Conference Chairpersons : I was invited by Paul Siffert, Secretary General, acting on your behalf, on the 29th of November 2013.

I was honoured and pleased to be given the chance to participate to the success of a major international conference and the life of the E-MRS.  I was also surprised: I am relatively new to the E-MRS: my first encounter dates to my participation as an attendee to the 2009 spring conference; in 2011, I organized, with colleagues, a bionano symposium; and I am on course to organize a second one in 2013. I have truly appreciated the quality of the infrastructure provided by the E-MRS and in particular the hard work of its two employed staff that make such an event possible. I presume that the success of ‘my’ 2011 symposium  and the desire of the E-MRS to expand its activities in the bionano area contributed to my selection as a Conference Chairperson.

Since my nomination on the 29th of November, I have done my best to fulfil what I considered being my duties in that role: contributing to the selection of symposia, generating suggestions for plenary speakers, and more generally, ‘getting things done’, i.e. planning and organising conference calls with the other co-chairs, coming to Strasbourg for an ad hoc meeting about E-MRS bionano activities (the latter was timed to coincide with your executive committee meeting and gave me the opportunity to meet some of you).

These two and half months also gave me insights into the workings of the E-MRS; the E-MRS as an organization needs to become more representative of its scientific community (for example by improving the gender balance at all levels) and it needs to become more efficient, transparent and democratic in its working methods.  I sincerely hope and expect that this will happen in the coming years leading to a better, stronger E-MRS that can continue to serve the materials research community.

As part of my role as co-chair, I was asked to enforce an E-MRS policy which forces all symposia organizers to publish proceedings/special issues. When attendees register for the conference, they can choose to receive the proceedings of one symposium of their choice.  One proceedings is included in their fees: they cannot opt out. Symposia organizers are asked to ensure the publication of proceedings. The E-MRS then buys from the publishers those proceedings/special issues. Print copies are sent to conference attendees.

I fundamentally disagree with this forced* publishing policy for a number of reasons.

  1. In many (but certainly not all) cases, proceedings are not high quality science: they are a way to publish *something* that can’t be published anywhere else.
  2. In that model, attendees are forced to buy special issues (it is part of their registration fees) whereas they may well prefer do something else with this money.
  3. The symposia organizers are forced to do an editorial job which they may not want to do and which, if done correctly, can be a considerable amount of work.
  4. The main beneficiaries of this system are not the attendees (who have nowadays a considerable number of options to publish their work) but the publishers who have unpaid Editors (the symposia organizers) and guaranteed buys of several thousands of copies (bought directly by the E-MRS – I have not been able to learn the total amount of money that go directly from attendees registration fees to the publishers).
  5. The evolution of publishing practices towards open access has brought a number of interesting questions about who pays what to publish and access the scientific literature. In this particular case, the E-MRS attendees, through their registration fees, are forced to buy print issues of journals even though in most cases their institution may well already pay to access those journals.

Because of this fundamental disagreement, I have asked for a minor policy evolution: that the 2014 symposia organizers would be “encouraged” rather than “forced” to publish proceedings. That request was met by a call to “respect the rules or leave”, i.e. with a complete refusal to engage in any kind of discussion.

I thank you again for the honour of selecting me but I regretfully have to offer you my resignation from the role of Conference Chairperson.

I wish you best for the continuation of the organization of the conference and I sincerely hope that this open letter will contribute in some minor ways to the long term well being of the society.

Raphaël Lévy, 27/02/2013, Liverpool

* forced refers to symposia organizers and to attendees being forced to buy through their fees; of course attendees cannot be forced to submit papers.

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One comment

  1. This is simply the consequence of institutional inertia. We have mechanisms to acquire funding for a conference, which often still involves publication of papers. I agree that this is entirely archaic and does not make sense in a world where:
    (i) “Quality” (note the quote marks, please) of papers is assessed by various means to determine in part levels of funding to individuals and institutions, e.g., REF in the UK.
    (ii) Open access is being promoted by funding agencies, which costs money and I suspect means fewer, but more comprehensive papers (cash is limited).

    However there are caveats. A symposium can be a good way to produce a set of timely reviews in a subject area, but this would be every few years, not every year. There also have to be ways to bring the cash in, how else are young scientists to attend? “Young scientists also includes new PIs who may not have access to the same funding streams as established ones.

    Like

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