Science Publishing: What is to be done?

The argument about academic publishing has been bubbling away nicely in the mainstream media and elsewhere in the blogosphere; see my recent post for links to some of the discussion elsewhere.

I’m not going to pretend that there’s a consensus amongst all scientists about this, but everything I’ve read has confirmed my rather hardline view, which is that in my field, astrophysics, academic journals are both unnecessary and unhealthy. I can certainly accept that in days gone by, perhaps up to around 1990, scientific journals provided the only means of disseminating research to the wider world. With the rise of the internet, that is no longer the case. Year after year we have been told that digital technologies would make scientific publishing cheaper. That has not happened. Journal subscriptions have risen faster than inflation for over a decade. Why is this happening? The answer is that we’re being ripped off. What began by providing a useful service has now become simply a parasite and, like most parasites, it is endangering the health of its subject.

The scale of the racket is revealed in an article I came across in Research Fortnight. Before I give you the figures let me explain that the UK Higher Education funding councils, such as HEFCE in England and HEFCW in Wales, award funding in a manner determined by the the quality of research going on in each department as judged by various research assessment exercises; this funding is called QR funding. Now listen to this. It is estimated that around 10 per cent of all QR funding in the UK goes into journal subscriptions. There is little enough money in science research these days for us to be paying a tithe of such proportions. This has to stop.

You might ask why such an obviously unsustainable situation carries on. I think there are two answers to this. One is the rise of the machinery of research assessment, which plays into the hands of the publishing industry. For submitted work to count in the Research Assessment Exercise (or its new incarnation, the Research Excellence Framework) it must be published in a refereed journal. Scientists who want to break the mould by publishing their papers some other way will be stamped on by our lords and masters who hold the purse strings. The whole system is invidious.

The second answer is even more discomforting. It is that many scientists actually like the current system. Each paper in a “prestigious” journal is another feather in your cap, another source of pride. It doesn’t matter if nobody reads any of them, ones published output is a measure of status. For far too many researchers gathering esteem by publishing in academic journals has become an end in itself. The system corrupts and has become corrupted. You can find similar comments in a piece in last week’s Guardian.

So what can be done? Well, I think that physics and astronomy can show the way forward. There is already a rudimentary yet highly effective prototype in place, called the arXiv. In many fields, including astronomy, all new papers are put on the arXiv, and these can be downloaded by anyone for free. Particle physics led the way towards the World Wide Web, an invention that has revolutionised so many things. It’s no coincidence that physicists are also ahead of the game on academic publishing too.

Of course it takes money to run the arXiv and that money is at the moment paid by contributions from universities that use it extensively. You might then argue that means the arXiv is just another journal, just one where the subscription cost is less obvious.

Perhaps that’s true, but then just take a look at the figures. The total running costs of the arXiv amount to just $400,000 per annum. That’s not just for astronomy but for a whole range of other branches of physics too, and not only new papers but a back catalogue going back at least 15 years.

There are about 40 UK universities doing physics research. If UK Physics had to sustain the costs of the arXiv on its own the cost would be an average of just $10,000 per department per annum. Spread the cost around the rest of the world, especially the USA, and the cost would be peanuts. Even $10,000 is less than most single physics journal subscriptions; indeed it’s not even 10 per cent of my departments annual budget for physics journals!

Whenever I’ve mentioned the arXiv to publishers they’ve generally dismissed it, arguing that it doesn’t have a “sustainable business plan”. Maybe not. But it is not the job of scientific researchers to support pointless commercial enterprises. We do the research. We write the papers. We assess their quality. Now we can publish them ourselves. Our research is funded by the taxpayer, so it should not be used to line the pockets of third parties.

I’m not saying the arXiv is perfect but, unlike traditional journals, it is, in my field anyway, indispensable. A little more investment, adding a comment facilities or a rating system along the lines of, e.g. reddit, and it would be better than anything we get academic publishers at a fraction of the cost. Reddit, in case you don’t know the site, allows readers to vote articles up or down according to their reaction to it. Restrict voting to registered users only and you have the core of a peer review system that involves en entire community rather than relying on the whim of one or two referees. Citations provide another measure in the longer term. Nowadays astronomical papers attract citations on the arXiv even before they appear in journals, but it still takes time for new research to incorporate older ideas.

Apparently, Research Libraries UK, a network of libraries of the Russell Group universities and national libraries, has already warned journal publishers Wiley and Elsevier that they will not renew subscriptions at current prices. If it were up to me I wouldn’t bother with a warning…


31 Responses to “Science Publishing: What is to be done?”

  1. […] “The argument about academic publishing has been bubbling away nicely in the mainstream media and elsewhere in the blogosphere; see my recent post for links to some of the discussion elsewhere. I’m not going to pretend that there’s a consensus amongst all scientists about this, but everything I’ve read has confirmed my rather hardline view …” (more) […]

  2. That 10% figure is truly astonishing — any idea what fraction of it is journal subs as opposed to database access charges?

    With regard to arXiv — one argument for maintaining journals and peer review is that is prevents loads of dross ending up in the public domain. Is this perceived as a problem for arXiv users? How do you filter the good stuff?

    • I did email for a breakdown of the costs but haven’t got a reply yet. I’ll post the information if and when I get it.

      There is some restriction on who can post on the arXiv. You have to register, for example. I did think years ago that it would die under the weight of crackpot papers, but it seems not to have happened. On the other hand, anyone can download papers whether they have registered or not. That’s the main thing.

      There is some dross on the arXiv, of course, but it’s not a major problem. The good stuff gets noticed, the rubbish just dies. What I would like to see, as I explained above, is the whole community doing continuous peer rview, by commenting on papers and/or voting them up or down. That’s open to abuse also, but a lot of the probllem there would disappear if users were not allowed to be anonymous. That would make it easy to identify miscreants.

  3. There are two issues being conflated here, for some reason this is actually a pretty common confusion which to a certain extent works for the benefit of the publishing industry.

    One issue is disseminating research results, for which the internet is the cheaper and more convenient than paper journals. The model for that is not necessarily the ArXiv, I’d think that online journals like JHEP and JCAP are a better comparison. Their business model is still developing, but they promise to be a cheaper alternative which makes more sense than relying on for-profit big publishing houses.
    I think those of us who care about this issue should contribute to the development of such journals.

    The other issue, completely independent, is how research is evaluated. What academics like myself find indispensable is some sort of significant quality control, peer review or something else. The ArXiv doesn’t have that, and some small deformation (comment systems or some such) will not achieve that in any significant way.

    Much of the argument for the present system relies, misleadingly, on the second point, as big publishers rely on the argument that the current system is the only way to ensure quality control. Presenting the journal/ArXiv dichotomy works to substantiate this false argument. The real choice is between the current system and much cheaper system of online journals run by non-profit organizations in which peer review is strengthened, no weakened.

    • I disagree on both points.

      1. The current subscription rate for JCAP is £954 pa, a lot less than many journals but still not all that cheap when you consider that it’s online-only, and certainly not open access. IOP publishing is a big business and will ensure its revenues are protected.

      2. Research is best evaluated by other researchers, either directly or indirectly through citations. The latter aren’t perfect, but they’re a much better guide than peer review by an individual. Refereed journals still publish a lot of rubbish, and referees sometimes hold back good work for nefarious reasons. The best approach, in my view, is “Publish and be damned” – put it out on the internet and let your peers decide.

      I hardly ever even look at official journals these days. I use the arXiv every day. Simples.

      • I am only making the point that these are two independent issues, and you can worry about fixing one without the other. For example, I think we both agree that we should streamline and make the dissemination of research results more efficient, but we disagree about the second issue. I agree that current research dissemination is still too expensive, but tying this issue to the much more controversial issue of peer review is counter-productive.

        As for that other issue, I suspect we will not reach an agreement. I also do not read journals but use the arXiv, but when it comes to evaluate research the hierarchal system of journals (with varying degrees of reputation) is irreplaceable. As a person who had to evaluate research and allocate grants I find many suggestions to modify the current evaluation system completely naive (which is a shame because that system probably could use some revamping). In the real world there is a need for some systematic and efficient way to evaluate large volume of research output and make funding decisions; science would not function without such a system. Suggestions to dismantle the current system, imperfect as it is, and replace it with something you make with duct tape in your back yard will not resonate much in the wider community I am afraid.

      • Just as a point information, I am heavily involved in reviewing grant applications myself. This process has strengthened my view that whether papers are refereed or not is almost irrelevant. What counts is whether people cite them.

      • Jonny Nichols Says:

        At the risk of slightly diverting the thread… Citations are a pretty blunt instrument, since papers get cited for all sorts of reasons, and not all of them are good. I can’t see why we don’t have a citation weighting system, such as this:

        0 points: Disproving or otherwise negatively citing a paper (e.g. in a comment)
        1 point: Intro padding
        3 points: Using results and/or formulas from the cited paper in the new work

        The points would be allocated by the author on submission (probably 15 minutes work), and this would be scanned by the reviewers to ensure it’s reasonable (5 mins work). Any hyperlinked references in the final typeset article could then be colour-coded (e.g. R,G, or B) depending on weighting. Weighted citation counts could easily be kept track of by, e.g. Web of Knowledge. I think this system would be a much more accurate measurement of impact?

      • It’s a lot more work than 15 minutes for a paper with lots of references!

        Also not all references in an introduction are padding…

  4. A few more points for the necessity of journals, as way of evaluating rather than disseminating research:

    1. Part of the peer review process, when it works well, is to improve the published product. I certainly had cases where useful comments from anonymous referees were very useful in improving my papers. Perhaps this is not working as well as it should in physics or astronomy, but there are other fields (math, biology) where this works much better.

    2. I was around when AdS space became suddenly an interesting object to study, and a whole slew of 30 year old papers became indispensable knowledge. I am very grateful for the system which vetted those papers, made sure all the t’s are tied and i’s are dotted. I shudder to think what would happen if I had to wade through the much more vast literature which was written at the time and decide for myself what is right and what is wrong (and where are the 2\pi’s exactly). Science is a cumulative process and big part of that is some systematic community effort to distinguish the right from the wrong.

    3. I think any one metric is not very accurate for evaluating research. (citations is probably one of the most inaccurate ones). But, this is then an argument for having many independent metrics. Whether a paper is published, and where, is a good indicator of quality.

    Finally – given that (I think) the majority of scientists think that strong quality control is indispensable for good science (and if the current system is not satisfactory then we need to improve it), maybe it is then a good idea not to tie the issue of efficient dissemination of research output to the much more controversial idea of dismantling our system of peer review. Those issues are independent.

    • 1. Can be done much better and cheaper in the way I suggest.

      2. 30 years ago was before the internet.

      3. Absolutely agree that citations are not the only metric, but they’re better than any other. Choice of journal is irrelevant. Many good papers appear in less favoured journals. Nature has a lot of rubbish.

      Finally, I’m not sure I agree that it the majority agree, but your comment gives me the idea that one day I should do a poll on this…

      • I’d be interested in the results of this surgery. But, please make the distinction I keep harping on: it is trivial and obvious that we no longer need journals in order to have access to research results and I suspect everyone will agree to that point. The point that is much more contentious is that we no longer need a rigorous and dedicated peer review system and we can crowd source that job. I’d be surprised (and disappointed) if this view is held by any significant fraction of the scientific community.

  5. survey, not surgery, turned off the spell checker…sorry about that. At least I held off the bit about statistical reasoning in response to your point 3…

  6. What about the role of scientific societies and institutions in all this? Most of the popular journals in astrophysics are run by private publishers on behalf of scientific organisations such as the RAS, ESO and the AAS. When their contract with U. of Chicago Press expired, the latter had a chance to take complete control over AJ and ApJ, turn them online only and so cut out the middle man, but instead they decided to continue with the current situation and give a contract to IoP Publishing. The decision was made by scientists, not big bad capitalist publishers…

    A comment concerning peer review and the ArXiv: you will notice that most new papers posted on astro-ph outside cosmology are already accepted for publication. In fact, many of my non-cosmologist colleagues don’t even bother looking at papers on astro-ph which have yet to be accepted, others just look at ADS. This seems to show that many people in the community still value peer-review.

    • Albert Zijlstra Says:

      I agree. Peer review, with all its faults, is essential. Just knowing that the paper will have to pass peer review makes me put in more effort to find the holes. Astro-ph benefits from peer review but doesn’t do it self.

      But, as some reviewer will point out shortly, the publishers don;t do the peer review. It is done by the (unpaid) referees being selected (and judged by unpaid editors, both from the community. Where editors are employed by the publishers, the journals are not at the same level. (I am waiting for the review on that statement..) How much value do the publishers add to the system? It would survive quote well without them.

      And publishers require that we _give _ them the copyright in order to get published, without paying anything towards the cost of producing the paper.

    • This characterization of the AAS decision or the ‘ownership’ of AAS titles is not correct. The AAS contract with the University of Chicago did not expire, it was terminated. Management at UCP has changed since this action was taken.

      After an open search for a new publishing services provider, the Society selected IOP based on quality, technical competence, speed of processing and price.

      The Society maintains complete control over the publication of our journals, with oversight from a Publications Board composed of elected members of the Society and complete financial operations and oversight managed by the Society’s Executive Office.

      We have found the partnership with IOP To be tremendously beneficial for our journals, increasing the speed of publication for our authors and allowing us to reduce our author charges and keep our subscription fees low.

      As a final note, all AAS content is freely available 12 months after publication. We feel we operate our journals in the truest sense of the non-profit motive and in line with our mission to enhance and share humanity’s understanding of the Universe.

      Kevin Marvel, Executive Officer, American Astronomical Society

  7. […] not to let the momentum dissipate about the discussion of scientific publishing, I thought I’d try a quick poll to see what people think about the issue of peer review. In […]

  8. philliplord Says:

    I think that the problem is that we have a bespoke system. Even discounting the 30-40% profits that some publishers are making, we still have a very expensive system. Scientific publishing costs something like 2 billion dollars a year, compared to Wikipedia which costs around 10 million. These figures are rough, of course, but at 2 orders of magnitude rough is close enough.

    We’ve built built on WordPress, and are attempting to add the bits we need for doing science, but don’t use for general blogging (maths, references, archiving, peer-review, this sort of thing). It feels very like journal publishing. Except easier for the author and the reader, and far cheaper. I really like the idea of reddit or slashdot type systems as well, although I think it might be too much, too fast for many academics.

    • What I’d really like to do is set up a small-scale prototype, as a sort of proof of concept. But that would require some money and, more importantly, time…

  9. There are several improvements on the arxiv that are publicly available. One in particular, is heavily used, particularly in the US. It allows comments, voting, and a facility to organize literature discussions on a department by department basis. You may want to check it out.

    Unfortunately, there are very few comments and active discussions, perhaps due to the very public nature of the commenting system.

  10. As somebody who deals with both journals and arXiv on a regular basis, let me add a comment or two about the “value added” material that the editoral process produces in the creation of a paper. Astronomy editors and the publishers spend quite a bit of effort in correcting and formatting things like data tables, references, and provide additional curation and annotation to the material which is deposited with the manuscript itself.

    For instance, in order to maintain our database updated and to provide accurate values for the metrics that have been mentioned above (citations), we rely on receiving machine-readable article metadata from the publisher. Being able to parse this content (rather than scraping it off of the LaTeX or even worse PDF from the arXiv) can make a world of difference, and is what allows us to be so complete.

    Similarly, the data tables published in journals which make their way to Vizier have often been curated and reformatted by the editorial staff so they can be ready to be ingested in a database. And we haven’t even begun talking about issues related to long-term preservation of this borne-digital content. As research articles evolve from PDFs to rich collections of multimedia electronic assets tied together by a textual narrative, there will be need for more, not less, curation. The only question in my mind is what is the fair price for this curation effort, not whether we should have it.

    Just wanted to bring this to everybody’s attention so we don’t overlook some of the pieces of the puzzle.

    Alberto Accomazzi, Program Manager, Astrophysics Data System

  11. Unfortunately, IOP Publishing is a commercial enterprise which was hived off from the IOP itself some time ago. It publishes some of the most expensive academic journals and is doing very nicely for itself. Likewise, MNRAS earns a tidy profit for the RAS so I don’t see them changing. The whole business has become so corrupt it virtually owns the learned societies too.

  12. […] Peter Coles is Professor of Theoretical Astrophysics at Cardiff University where he has worked since 2007. This blog post was originally posted on Peter Coles’s own In The Dark blog. […]

  13. […] Science Publishing: What is to be done? (In the Dark) ‘academic journals are both unnecessary and unhealthy.’ […]

  14. […] Science Publishing: What is to be done? (In the Dark) ‘academic journals are both unnecessary and unhealthy.’ […]

  15. […] mistaken and quite possibly unemployed. Many scientists complain that the pressure to publish is a flawed system that hands too much power to the journals, but for now it’s the way things are […]

  16. […] mistaken and quite possibly unemployed. Many scientists complain that the pressure to publish is a flawed system that hands too much power to the journals, but for now it’s the way things are […]

  17. […] Andrew questions why we trust the reviewing of a paper to one or two individuals chosen by the journal when the whole community could do the job quicker and better. I made essentially the same point in a post a few years ago: […]

  18. […] others argue that even these costs per paper, of around £3ooo, are beyond the pale, and propose a model based on the physics arXiv, supplemented by suitably moderated off-line and online peer revi…, as a low-cost […]

  19. […] 1 This is not to say that preprint archives can be run for free but their operating costs are miniscule compared to most journals. […]

  20. […] I posted a poll to see what people think about the issue of peer review. In previous posts (e.g. this one) I had advanced the view that, at least in the subject I work in (astrophysics), while in its usual […]

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