Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Elsevier's Chaos, Solitons & Fractals: Risen phoenix or missed opportunity?

As I reported on 16th March, after a period of quiescence the journal Chaos, Solitons & Fractals (CS&F) is back in business — complete with two new co-editors-in-chief, a brand new editorial board, refined aims and scope, and a new look. Former critics of the journal appear to have been appeased. But CS&F is only one of several Elsevier journals to have attracted criticism in the past few years. In having, as a result, to constantly adopt fire-fighting mode has Reed Elsevier lost sight of the big picture? A recently published report by equity research firm Bernstein Research, for instance, suggests that Elsevier is currently "in denial" about Open Access (OA), a growing movement that the report's author argues poses a significant threat to the company's future profitability. Ironically, were Elsevier to embrace OA, and more transparent publishing practices like open peer review, it might avoid future controversies like the one to engulf CS&F, and succeed in warding off the threat to its profitability at the same time. Perhaps the re-launch of CS&F was a missed opportunity?

Those who have been following the story of the nonlinear science journal Chaos, Solitons & Fractals will recall that in November 2008 Elsevier announced that the founding editor of the journal — M. S. El Naschie — was stepping down.

The announcement came at a time when El Naschie was being subjected to a barrage of criticism, most notably in a series of critiques posted on the n-Category Cafe blog. The most significant of these were posted by a theoretical physicist at the Ruđer Bošković Institute in Zagreb called Zoran Škoda, and John Baez, an American mathematical physicist at the University of California, Riverside (UCR).

The controversy came to a head the day after the announcement of El Naschie's retirement, when Nature published an article containing a number of allegations about the editor.

The article appears to have become the subject of a libel action: In November last year The Press Gazette reported that El Naschie had begun proceedings in the English courts against Nature. As The Press Gazette put it, "According to a writ filed with the High Court by legal firm Collyer Bristow, El Naschie claims the story alleges he used his editorial privilege to self-publish numerous papers he'd written, which would not have been published elsewhere as they were of poor quality and had received no peer review."

Currently we do not know the outcome of the libel action. When I emailed Nature's head of press Ruth Francis about the case in March she replied: "We have no update at present. I've got your email on record though and will let you know if that changes."

An email enquiry sent to El Naschie at the same time remains unanswered.



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