Academic Publishing – added cost is not added value

I was having a quick plough through the evidence submitted to the recent House of Lords enquiry into Open Access and found the following interesting exchange relating to the arXiv. The italics in the response by Steven Hall, Managing Director of the Institute of Physics Publishing company, to the question from Lord Rees of Ludlow, are mine:

Q44 Lord Rees of Ludlow: We know that things are discipline-dependent, even within the physical sciences. I have a question for Mr Hall, really. In physics and space science, as you know, there is a well­organised archive and repository, which is used by almost all of the community. It would seem that that has coexisted with journals to a surprising extent.I wonder if you would like to comment on that as an example.

Steven Hall: Yes, thank you for the opportunity. When I speed-read the pile of submissions on the train last night I noticed at least three references to the success of the arXiv and its lack of impact on physics publishing. There are a number of myths about the arXiv and it would be good to deal with those here. First, it does not at all cover all of physics. There are certain sub-disciplines where there are very high levels of deposit in the arXiv; there are others where there is none whatsoever. To come back to your point, even within a discipline like physics there are real differences of approach. The other thing about the arXiv is that it is essentially a workflow tool. Much of physics is highly collaborative. Physicists will deposit early versions of their paper so that they can be looked at by their colleagues. It is a means for physicists to distribute to their immediate peers those early results of their research. It is a sharing tool. Most of the content of the archive is pre-print, though. It is not accepted manuscripts; it is not works that have gone through peer review. My own company’s policy there is the author can do whatever he or she likes with the pre-print, before we have added any value to it. We take a different view once we have added some value to it. The arXiv cannot be compared directly to, say, typical institutional depositories, which might have lots of accepted manuscripts in them. It coexists with formal publishing. The vast majority of physicists who use the arXiv would say that it is complementary to formal publication.

Lord Rees of Ludlow: Formal publication gives the accreditation, but I think most read the arXiv and would like to see it extended to other fields. It seems to be a rather good model, which, one would hope, would extend a bit more to other areas of science.

It will come as no surprise to hear that I’m right behind Martin Rees in his praise for the arXiv; the comments about it by Steven Hall are notable only for their irrelevance. Extending the arXiv to cover other branches of physics, and indeed other disciplines, would be much less expensive for the research community than the model he favours. I’d say that the arXiv needn’t be viewed as complementary to formal publication but that the arXiv gives us a way to make formal publication entirely redundant.  It’s only a small step to turn that potential into reality, which is why IOPP wishes to dismiss it.

Steven Hall has repeatedly argued that Gold Open Access is best, which I suppose it is if you’re a publisher interested in making easy money rather than a scientist wanting to disseminate your work in inexpensive and timely a fashion as possible. However, I was struck by the totally misleading phrase in italics relating to “added value”. IOPP does not add value to research publications, it merely adds cost. Any value that is added derives from peer review, which in most case costs nothing at all and can in any case be done independently of any publisher.

I’m afraid this is yet another example of publishers putting their own profits before the needs of researchers. The fact that IOPP’s profits also support the activities of the Institute of Physics is beside the point. I hope that before long the IOP remembers what it is actually for and changes its modus operandi to support the community it purports to serve, rather than exploiting it. The days of the traditional publisher are numbered in any case, and the IOP along with the other learned societies will have to find a way of surviving that doesn’t rely on income from the academic journal racket.

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7 Responses to “Academic Publishing – added cost is not added value”

  1. Bryn Jones Says:

    I have never submitted a draft version of a research paper to the ArXiv: every submission I have made was of a final version of a research article after acceptance by a journal, but before publication. Many other researchers do that.

  2. Adrian Burd Says:

    I agree wholeheartedly with Peter’s comments and position on Open Access. I wish that things like ArXiv were prevalent in other fields, but they are not. Although there is a small section in ArXiv dedicated to Earth Sciences, most oceanographers and earth scientists that I’ve come across are unaware of ArXiv.

    However, having recently become aware of the finance model of certain scientific societies, I think that the discussion on Open Access publishing needs to happen in parallel with a discussion on the role and funding of scientific societies. In the case I’m familiar with there is vigorous discussion about the role the society should play and how to fund the resulting activities, and this discussion is taking place without a discussion on Open Access — the society already sees its revenues falling dramatically as a result of the move away from print copies of journals. I suspect that for many societies, journal revenues fund many, if not most of the activities of the society.

    To be clear, I firmly believe that open access is the way to go, but in doing so we will likely have to rethink the roles and funding models of scientific societies.

  3. Anton Garrett Says:

    A long time ago a friend of mine joined a national canoeing organisation because it campaigned for greater access to off-limits rivers and canals. (Fisherman don’t want that, but both sides are entitled to their opinion.) He said that this organisation gradually changed to something whose certification he was required to pay considerable sums for simply in order to run and insure his canoeing business. He complained that the organisation, while claiming to represent his interests, had shifted to something of benefit principally to its own bureaucracy. Is that what scientific institutions have done with their publishing arms?

    • It’s not that bad. It’s more like all activities are more or less beneficial to the members, but some generate income and some don’t and there is some cross-financing.

    • Adrian Burd Says:

      I don’t think that applies to the case I’m most familiar with. They have a quite small bureaucracy, which is actually shared with other societies, and that handles the day-to-day running of the society. The scientists involved in the running of the society are, as far as I am aware, all volunteers and do not get paid for their contribution.

      Apart from publishing three journals (two of which are only available online) the society provides resources for students and early career scientists, arranges two large(ish) meetings a year, and a host of other quite valuable services.

      Ironically, the declining journal revenues may result in an increase in bureaucracy in that one suggestion is for the society to hire a professional “executive director” who would be answerable to the board (made of society members) but whose job would be streamline the functioning of the society and, potentially, fundraise. We’ll have to see if that is indeed the direction that is taken, but it would be an interesting one.

      So I think scientific societies and their members are trying to find ways to do things, but it does involve the active participation of the membership.

  4. telescoper Says:

    Here’s an old post of mine that might be relevant:

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