Hold Elsevier’s Metaphorical Feet To The Fire!!!

Before I get started, if you are a non-native speaker of English who publishes in English-language journals I want you to know that you are not the object of my criticism, although you are most certainly the catalyst. In fact, you are clearly as much the victim in the process that I am decrying as are the subscribers and the earnest unpaid colleagues that make up editorial boards. Elsevier makes all of us ‘look bad’ and it’s time we did something about it.  


An open letter to the following members of the scientific community regarding the poor standards of Elsevier, publishers of, among others, Quaternary International and the Journal of Archaeological Science.


To the INQUA Executive Committee 2011-2015:

President Dr Margaret Avery (South Africa)
Secretary General Dr Julius Lejju (Uganda)
Treasurer Dr Marie-France Loutre (Belgium)
Vice President Dr Frank Audemard (Venezuela)
Vice President Dr Fabrizio Antonioli (Italy)
Vice President Professor John Lowe (United Kingdom)
Vice President Professor Koji Okumura (Japan)
Past President Professor Allan Chivas (Australia)

the editors and editorial board of

and the editors and editorial board of the Journal of Archaeological Science

Editors
C.O. Hunt, R.G. Klein, Th. Rehren, and R. Torrence
Associate Editors
E. Asouti, K. Brown, M. Canti, J. Fassbinder, H. Huisman, S. J. Lycett, M. Martinón-Torres, D.R. Piperno, J. Sealy, and I. Whitbread
Editorial Board
R. Coard, P. Degryse, K. Edwards, R.P. Evershed, I. Freestone, Y. Goren, D.K. Grayson, E.M. Hedges,  C. Heron, A. Howard, G. Jones, D. Killick, H. Lechtman, J. Mei, J. O’Connell, D. Pearsall, M. Pollard, B. Pyatt, M. Regert, C. Roberts, P. Schwarcz, and B. Turner

Esteemed Colleagues:

I write to bring your attention to a disconcerting lack of editorial oversight on the part of Elsevier, the publisher of INQUA’s flagship journal, Quaternary International and Journal of Archaeological Science. Both journals are of interest to palaeoanthropologists and archaeologists, as well as to other members of the physical sciences community.

In brief, Elsevier is happy to publish papers that do not meet the minimum requirements of English grammar and expression that befit the vanguard journals of our several disciplines. I have previously pointed up this shortcoming of Elsevier’s oversight in a piece published on the Subversive Archaeologist: “What, Exactly, Do The Elsevier Editors Do? Judging From Lahaye et al. (JAS 40:2840–2847, 2013) They Do Boom All!”

Here is the message that I sent to the four editors of JAS regarding Lahaye et al.

Dear Editors: 

I write to express my profound disappointment in the quality of diction and scientific presentation in the recently published article by Lahaye, et al., “Human occupation in South America by 20,000 BC: the Toca da Tira Peia site, Piauí, Brazil.”

You may or may not already have seen my public statement on the matter, the substance of which appears below.

What follows is not intended to embarrass the authors or the journal. However, I think you’ll see that the issues I’ve raised in just the first few sentences of that paper are myriad and ultimately embarrassing to the Editors of Journal of Archaeological Science, and to the unsuspecting team who wrote the piece. [In the interest of disclosure and transparency in this age of digital ‘publishing,’ I must say that I’ve redacted the next few lines because, in my zealousness, I went over the line of collegial civility in favour of diction exemplifying my frustration with the circumstances. I later apologized to the editors, who graciously accepted.]

With all due respect,

Rob Gargett 

ABSTRACT, line 1.

“Numerous data, from archaeological researches

That’s simply incorrect grammar. “Researches” is the third-person present form of the verb “to research.” The plural of research is “research.”

ABSTRACT, line 6.

“all our observations … tend to prove the good integrity of the site and the anthropological nature of the artifacts.”

I’m gonna guess that, by “good integrity” the authors mean stratigraphic integrity, and that the artifacts with an “anthropological” nature are those attributed to human behaviour and not geofacts [as stone that has been fractured in such a way that it is difficult to rule out either nature or human agency.

ABSTRACT, line 8.

“The results bring new pieces of evidence of a human presence”

I’ve heard of “pieces” of a puzzle and”pieces of eight,” but I’ve never encountered “pieces” of evidence. If taken literally, the use of “pieces” in this context would indicate that not much had been recovered—only pieces of what they might have hoped to obtain.

TEXT, line 1.

“Understanding the dynamics, knowing the age and the way the first peopling of America took place is, more than ever, a challenge for research, and is closely linked with societal issues.”

Given that “Understanding” is part of what appears to be a compound subject [of one sort or another], one has to assume that the verb in this sentence is “is,” which is followed by “a challenge for research … [that is] … “closely linked with societal issues.” “Understanding” what, exactly. The “dynamics.” But, the “dynamics” of what? If one is to make any sense out of this sentence, whatsoever, one must infer that “the age” and “the way” of the peopling of America are the dynamics alluded to in the first part. And, speaking of firsts, this is the first sentence in the article.

TEXT, line 3.

“Different theories have been in contradiction for a long time, and the paradigm of a post-11,500 years BP occupation has remained predominant for a long time.”

I can’t help from suggesting that the first part, in a very awkward way, is telling us that “contradictory theories” have been around “for a long time.” “Years” is simply redundant. A certain “paradigm” has “predominated,” we are told,  AGAIN “for a long time.” I wouldn’t let this sentence stand in an undergraduate essay.

TEXT, line 6.

“Nevertheless numerous new pieces of data question the initial acceptance of a theory of a migration from Siberia to Beringia, and then from the north to the south of the American continent.”

Okay. Let’s see if we can sort this one out. The subject is “pieces.” Those “pieces” question something. That’s impossible. A “piece” of something is incapable of “questioning” anything. [I’ll ignore the use of the term “migration,” which implies that these people knew where they were going.] This “migration” is said to have taken place beginning in Siberia, continuing across Beringia, and from there, “from the north to the south” of a “continent” that doesn’t exist on the map. As to the direction taken once on the continent that has no existence, it would have been difficult for the first people to have travelled in a SOUTH TO NORTH direction!

This paper is heading for a failing mark, and we’re not out of THE FIRST PARAGRAPH yet!

TEXT, line 9.

“Maybe, most of all, these new data question the values of the terminus post-quem imposed by a chronological limit fixed to the Last Glacial Maximum (LGM).”

In this example I’ve highlighted the words that are the frame of this sentence. I’ll condense it for you. “These data question the values of the LGM.” Somehow I don’t think that’s what the authors wanted to say. Once again, we have an inanimate object—in this case “data”—questioning “values.” We won’t find out until much later in the paper why the LGM is mentioned in the introductory paragraph.

TEXT, line 11.

“As far as the southern part of the continent is concerned, until recently it was admitted that it had been quickly colonized after the diffusion of the Clovis culture in the north.” There’s that mythical continent again! In this, the last sentence of the first paragraph, we are told that someone has “admitted” [South America] was colonized after some diffusion in the north. I doubt that anybody “admitted” anything.

Phew! We’ve now made it through the first paragraph.

The JAS editors responded as expected in a publishing world that places more emphasis on the ‘bottom line’ than on the quality of written expression. And I cannot fault them for the present circumstances. Here is how they put it

Hi Rob,
Thanks to alerting us to the problems with the manuscript.  We have been struggling with Elsevier over issues regarding English and editing and your comments will provide good ammunition.
Elsevier took the editing of English out of our hands since our work load is so high.  We process in excess of 800 papers per year.
Hopefully this will lead to a good outcome.
Bestest,
Robin

Dr. Robin Torrence
Senior Principal Research Scientist
Anthropology

So, in response to the high work load expected of unpaid scholars, Elsevier took over the task of editing to correct for non-standard English expression submitted by those whose first language is not English. As you can see in the screen capture below, Elsevier already offers pay-as-you-go editorial help to those whose “poor English” might cause “delays and initial rejections.”

But, what about those papers whose publication has not been ‘delayed’ or ‘initially rejected?’ I’m talking about those papers that have been approved by the editorial boards, but whose English expression is ambiguous or murky. Despite Elsevier’s taking over the task of editing for standard English expression, it would appear that they have done nothing beyond taking the task out of the editors’ hands. The latest example that I have noted is the paper by Policarp Hortolà and Bienvenido Martínez-Navarro, “The Quaternary megafaunal extinction and the fate of Neanderthals: An integrative working hypothesis.” Quaternary International 295:69–72, 2013. I think we can be certain that the two examples I have pointed to are not the first, nor are they the last to make it into print. Both are rife with expressions that leave one scratching one’s head, and are often so ambiguous or murky that the authors’ intent needs to be interpolated rather than read and understood.

And what does the publisher have to say about this issue. Here is the response

Dear Prof Gargetti [sic],

Thanks for your message regarding the article recently by Lahaye, et al., “Human occupation in South America by 20,000 BC: the Toca da Tira Peia site, Piauí, Brazil” recently published in Journal of Archaeological Science. I am the publisher for the journal so your message was forwarded to me by the editors.

We take on board your comments and we’ll take any appropriate action if needed [emphasis added].

With best wishes,
Ilaria

Dr Ilaria Meliconi
Publisher

This is an amicable enough response. However, I think you’ll agree, the words “we’ll take any appropriate action if needed” do nothing to engender confidence.

As I said above, this issue is not about gruff, stuffy, old English speakers lording it over non-native speakers and expecting them to ‘sound’ well to the English-speaking ear. Rather, it’s about published research containing non-standard expression that gets in the way of interpretation. Rather like the person in a bar after too many shots, Elsevier is content to publish works whose authors think are perfectly adequate, but who are in effect saying, “Well, you know what I mean. If, that is, you look at my incoherent statement in the light of whatever else I might have said earlier on the matter.” Is this what individual and institutional subscribers expect for the pound of their flesh* handed over to Elsevier? I strongly doubt it. 

And so, dear colleagues, isn’t it time to stand up to the amiable fraud behind the curtain instead of kowtowing to the Great and Powerful Elsevier? We have been turned into the ‘man behind the curtain,’ even while the publisher exists only as an apparition of our own making. In this day of digital submission and [mostly] digital publication, we might ask Elsevier, “Just exactly what do you do besides nominating an unpaid gaggle of earnest academics to sift through your submissions for content that is relevant and then pressing the Enter key that sends the bits and bytes to the pdf-maker and on to the subscriber?

I often entreat the readers of the Subversive Archaeologist to comment on what I put up here. This time I’m asking for a different kind of response. Send me links to material published by Elsevier that you think suffers from inadequate editing of non-native English expression.

* In [William Shakespeare’s] The Merchant of Venice, Shylock is a Jewish moneylender who lends money to his Christian rival, Antonio, setting the security at a pound of Antonio’s flesh. When a bankrupt Antonio defaults on the loan, Shylock demands the pound of flesh, as revenge for Antonio having previously insulted and spat on him. [Colloquial use of the term “a pound of flesh” persists despite the suspicion of antisemitism that hangs over Shakespeare’s characterization of Shylock. I use the term here simply as a short-hand way of highlighting the onerous cost of Elsevier’s refereed journals.]  

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