The future of Emu and Birds Australia?

To: birding-aus <>
Subject: The future of Emu and Birds Australia?
From: Phil Gregory <>
Date: Thu, 10 May 2001 22:15:10 +1000
Hi folks,
I am copying a message from Jared Diamond, who is very concerned over what is happening with both Emu and Birds Australia. I think this could be a stimulating thread somehow, so here goes:
Phil Gregory
Cassowary House,

Dear Colleagues,

You have undoubtedly encountered, or heard of, the difficulties building up
around the Australian ornithological journal Emu and its parent organization
Birds Australia (formerly Royal Australasian Ornithologists Union = RAOU).
Here is what I have been able to learn from conversations and correspondence
with colleagues in Australia and overseas, beginning last June:

Birds Australia/RAOU is in turmoil for many reasons: it became overextended,
encountered financial and administrative difficulties, recently fired its
chief executive, took up publication of a glossy newsletter (Wingspan) aimed
at birders, adopted a controversial renaming as Birds Australia, and
offended many professional ornithologists by what they perceived as a shift
from science towards bird-watching.  Recently, Birds Australia/Emu steeply
raised its membership and subscription fees, which will cause new problems
by making it even harder to attract members/subscribers.  Birds
Australia/Emu is now grossly overpriced for what it delivers.  For instance,
as a comparison, the American Ornithologists Union provides annual
congresses, an outstanding monograph series, and a journal (Auk) with on
average 1150 text pages per year and color plates, all costing only U.S. $42
per year; but Birds Australia provides no annual congresses, no monograph
series, and a journal (Emu) with on average only 333 text pages per year and
no color plates, all now costing U.S. $140 per year (overseas subscription
to Emu) or A$112 = U.S. $57 per year (within-Australia membership).  That
is, measured against the discrepancy in journal text pages alone, members or
subscribers pay 5 - 12 times per page more for Emu than for Auk.

Until recently, Emu was under the capable editorship of the distinguished
ornithologist Dr. Ian Rowley and remained insulated from Birds
Australia/RAOU's problems .  However, when Dr. Rowley recently retired after
10 years, Birds Australia was (not surprisingly) unable to induce another
professional ornithologist to take over as editor.  The result was adoption
of a clumsy arrangement unique among scientific journals with which I am
familiar.  Emu has a so-called managing editor, who is not an ornithologist
but a professional editor employed by Emu's publisher, and who lacks the
authority (as well as the technical competence) to make major decisions.
That authority is instead vested in a 7-member Editorial Advisory Committee,
whose members are scattered from Perth to Brisbane.  Compounding these
difficulties, Emu is operating under new guidelines and definitions of scope
adopted by the Committee, but not yet made available to authors.

As a result, my own experience indicates that manuscript processing at Emu
is now chaotic.  I encountered retroactive application of unpublished
guidelines, commissioning of new reviews after the receipt of unanimously
enthusiastic initial reviews, deferral of decisions from the managing editor
to the scattered Committee, and no decision reached more than 7 months after

Emu's present problems extend beyond inefficient operation to problems of
policy.  Emu was until recently the premier journal for papers on birds of
New Guinea and other Pacific islands, and that was the intent of the parent
organization, which renamed itself Royal Australasian Ornithologists Union
to emphasize a focus aimed beyond Australia to the whole Pacific and
Australasian region.  Because the avifaunas of Pacific islands are much more
poorly known than are those of Australia itself, Emu's papers included
species accounts reporting new information on poorly-known populations.
However, the Committee has now adopted (though not announced in Emu) a new
policy no longer to publish such accounts, which are dismissed as mere
annotated bird lists.  Ironically, at a time when it is abandoning faunistic
studies of the Australasian region, Emu is trying to market itself as a
journal for the whole Southern Hemisphere (see the latest issue for Emu's
new name "Austral Ornithology").

What is being done about this tragic mess?

Some colleagues tell me that they have not yet lost their patience with
Birds Australia and are trying to improve that organization.  Personally, I
doubt that Emu can regain its stature until Birds Australia reforms itself
and can attract again as editor an ornithologist of recognized distinction
like Dr. Rowley, to whom authority can be delegated and who will run Emu
like a normal scientific journal.

Other colleagues tell me that they have already lost patience and confidence
with Birds Australia and Emu, and are launching efforts to found a new
journal and new society.

In the meantime, what publishing outlet is most suitable for ornithological
studies of Australasian birds, especially of the Australasian region outside
Australia itself?  One possible solution is the journal Pacific Sciences,
devoted to the biological and physical sciences in general for the Pacific
region.  Pacific Sciences is edited by a distinguished scientist and has a
reputation for rapid and fair processing of manuscripts.  Further
information is available from recent copies of the journal, or from its
editor (Dr. Gerald Carr, Botany Department, University of Hawai'i, Honolulu,
Hawai'i  96822).  I have not published in Pacific Sciences and cannot speak
from firsthand experience; instead, colleagues with recent experience of it
recommend it; you may judge for yourself.


Jared M. Diamond
Professor of Physiology
UCLA School of Medicine
Los Angeles, CA  90095-1751

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