Academic Spring Time

Catching up on the last few days’ activity on the Twittersphere I realise that at last the Academic Journal Racket has made it into the mainstream media. The Guardian ran an article on Monday reporting that the Wellcome Trust had weighed in on the side of open access to academic journals, and followed this up with an editorial this morning. Here are the first two paragraphs.

Some very clever people have put up with a very silly system for far too long. That is the upshot of our reporting on scholarly journals this week. Academics not only provide the raw material, but also do the graft of the editing. What’s more, they typically do so without extra pay or even recognition – thanks to blind peer review. The publishers then bill the universities, to the tune of 10% of their block grants, for the privilege of accessing the fruits of their researchers’ toil. The individual academic is denied any hope of reaching an audience beyond university walls, and can even be barred from looking over their own published paper if their university does not stump up for the particular subscription in question.

This extraordinary racket is, at root, about the bewitching power of high-brow brands. Journals that published great research in the past are assumed to publish it still, and – to an extent – this expectation fulfils itself. To climb the career ladder academics must get into big-name publications, where their work will get cited more and be deemed to have more value in the philistine research evaluations which determine the flow of public funds. Thus they keep submitting to these pricey but mightily glorified magazines, and the system rolls on.

These are the points many academics, including myself, have been making for several years apparently with little success. What seems to be giving the campaign against the racketeers some focus is the boycott of rapacious publishing giant Elsevier I blogged about earlier this year, which was kicked off by mathematician and blogger Tim Gowers; the petition now has over 9300 signatures. Elsevier is one of the worst of the racketeers, which is deeply ironic. When Galileo, having been forced to recant by the Inquisition, wrote the Dialogues concerning Two New Sciences and got them published in non-Catholic Leiden, by Elsevier…

Elsevier has since withdrawn its support for the infamous Research Works Act, but I hope that doesn’t mean the campaign will dissipate. For the sake of the future of science, the whole system needs to be systematically dismantled and rebuilt free of parasites.

Today I see there’s a related piece in the Financial Times (although it’s blocked by a paywall) and I gather there has also been coverage on BBC Radio over the last few days, although I didn’t hear any of it because of my current location.

The fact that this issue  has garnered coverage  from the mainstream media is a very good thing. Academics have put up with being ripped off for far too long, and it’s to our shame that we haven’t done anything about it until now. Now I think the public will be asking how we could possibly have accepted the status quo and sheer embarrassment might force a change.

Another thing that we need to realise is the extent to which the Academic Journal Racket is feeding off the monster that is Research Assessment, specifically the upcoming Research Excellence Framework. The main beneficiaries of such exercises are not the researchers, but  the academic publishers who rake in the profits generated by the mountains of papers submitted to them in the hope that they’ll be judged “internationally leading” (whatever that means).  If the government is serious about Open Access then only papers that are freely available should be accepted by the REF. If that doesn’t shake up the system, nothing will!


26 Responses to “Academic Spring Time”

  1. Anton Garrett Says:

    Wellcome news…

  2. Anton Garrett Says:

    Ah, you know more about it than me Phillip. Please say more about Elsevier’s history. And originals of what – I genuinely don’t understand that comment?

    • Modern day druids share the name of their forebears. And while they may not have a direct line of descent, they (I believe) operate according to an optimistically oriented view of how their forerunners conducted themselves. Elsevier share only the name of their original journal, and as such they are even less faithful to it than druids are to their originals.

      At least, that’s how I read the comment 😉

  3. I agree with the sentiment, but there is one problem – where does the money come from to pay for the publication costs? The problem with open access is that only those with research money can pay, or, there becomes a system where the university has a veto over what is published and what is not. I’m a young researcher and this problem prevents me from supporting this cause wholeheartedly. Finding several 100 quid to pay for publications in the current climate is not a laughing matter.

    Solve this, and I’m 100% behind you; it is a big premium we pay to ensure academic freedom at the moment.

    • telescoper Says:

      I don’t think this is a serious issue. Online publication costs are actually very low, or at least should be. In my discipline, astrophysics, virtually all articles published by institutions all around the world appear free of charge on, the annual running costs of which are $400,000 dollars. There are around 100 universities in the UK alone, so that works out about $4K per university, much less than a years’ subscription to a single journal for a single institution. And of course that’s just the UK…

      The digital age has actually made online publication easy. The reason why it hasn’t also become cheap is that the academic publishers have battled very hard to maintain their profits. It’s ludicrious that the cost of subscriptions has continued to climb above the rate of inflation for a decade when it should have been falling steeply because of new technology. More powerful computers are now available at a fraction of the cost they were a decade ago. Why haven’t journals got cheaper at the same time? The answer to that is twofold: publishers’ greed and academics’ inertia. Now at last it looks like the system is eating itself.

      The Open Access model academic publishers favour is that authors pay upfront to offset the dent in their profits caused by loss of subscription revenue. What you’re paying for in such cases is clearly not the cost of publication, but the publisher’s profits. The solution to this “problem” is simple. Cut out the publishers entirely. They’re the problem, and can’t be part of the solution. Universities should pool their resources and run their own free-to-submit, free-to-read repositories. The arXiv is a prototype. It would cost some money to do this across all disciplines, but nowhere near as much as we currently fork out to the publishing houses.

      • Peter, are you in fact suggesting something similar to the arXiv, but containing only those papers which have passed peer review (with the peer review system being run by universities) and therefore conforming to some minimum standard?

        That’s what I thought you meant, and surely that cuts out any of the problems of too much “noise”, while keeping the costs basically the same as for the arXiv.

    • I am completely familiar with arXiv (I’ve switched fields but started in Mathematical Physics) and I became frustated with it for precisely the reasons noted by Philip; to much noise. Mainly too many articles which did not meet the minimum standards. It is not an answer, but it could be part of an answer.

      Anyway, I don’t want to give the impression of defending publishers, merely that I am yet to be impressed by any offered alternatives. The current system both ensures meritocracy and academic freedom whilst maintaining quality, arXiv gives the former but not the latter, upfront charges can give the latter, but endangers one of the former. Its a difficult problem.

      • telescoper Says:

        Almost everything on arXiv ends up in some journal or other. I don’t see noise as too great a problem anyway, but journals don’t help much in my opinion.

  4. High charges for access seems to run counter to the core objective of publishing! However, it’s not just Elsevier – in my work I come across paid-for access (aka paywalls!) to IEEE papers and suchlike.
    However, beware of some of the pitfalls of other siolutions… In the days when I was publishing as an academic, the field I was in was dominated by a highly respected US journal which even in the 80s had large page charges (and large subscriptions). This led to the publication of hundred-page papers with little content – not a long way from vanity publishing. The reviewing quality was very poor, because a small group of authors reviewed each others’ papers.

  5. Bryn Jones Says:

    It might be worth stating that the Guardian’s Wellcome joins `academic spring’ to open up science article was the main article on the front page of the newspaper on Tuesday (10th April), continuing on to page 15 inside. There was more inside the paper on the subject too.

  6. telescoper Says:

    Of course I’m now getting attempted comments from commercial publishers advertising their wonderful journals….

    …all caught by my spam filter!

  7. Does the open access model mean that those of us who don’t have a convenient university to pay journal fees might get access to academic papers? I can see a problem there, as one of the big selling points of researching in a Uni rather than privately is ‘access to other research’. Open up access to anyone and you risk losing the exclusivity of academic access.

    • telescoper Says:

      That’s entirely the point. The products of scientific research – largely paid for by the taxpayer – should be available to anyone who wants to access it. The main point of researching in a University is not “access to other research”, it’s access to facilities and other researchers.

  8. Bryn Jones Says:

    I have a few diverse points to make, so it might be best to list these in turn.

    1. I am fairly open minded about the future of research publishing, but I do feel that refeering imposes a useful quality control, and a barrier to an inflation in the number of papers through a dilution of significant content in each.

    2. One significant issue is the total futility of printing on paper. Electronic-only publication is the obvious way forward.

    3. Free access for everyone interested in original research is strongly preferred by many. There are arguments about rights of citizens – and taxpayers – in democracies.

    4. It is not clear to me why researchers choose to publish in journals operated by commercial publishers when there is already a diverse range of journals published by learned societies.

    5. Learned societies play the for-profit game as much as private companies, and that is done for the benefit of the societies’ members and the benefit of the research community. Journal costs are used to support activities such as hosting conferences and funding fellowships. This is effectively a process of moving money around within the community (perhaps for modest ultimate benefit).

    6. There is some recognition within learned societies that making large profits from journals is unsustainable and will end in the near future, either through greatly reduced charges on their journals or through their journals becoming unsustainable if cheaper electronic-only alternatives become available.

    7. Page charges can be a substantial barrier for researchers who are not established academics. Postgraduates, postdocs and fixed-term academics in some countries tend not to have access to funding to pay page charges and are forbidden from applying for grants from funding bodies. (I know this: it happened to me all the time.)

    8. The research community, particularly in science, is as equipped as any sector in society to publish using an electronic-only model. (After all, the web was invented at CERN, not by Faber and Faber. Scientists routinely use LaTeX; Mills and Boon presumably do not.)

    9. Peter’s main recommendation in his free-access (!) essay above that the Research Excellence Framework procedure should recognise only open-access papers is a sensible one. (Perhaps this might be through insisting the nominated best publications should be accessible without charge to all people, either through being published in open-access journals or though copies also being available in free-access repositories. In fact, this might involve no practical change over what happens at present: most papers in the physical sciences would have been deposited in the Arxiv archive already.)

    10. An alternative way to encourage open access might be for all research councils to insist that research funded by them is published freely, such as in free-access archives.

    11. The option of dropping journals and refereeing altogether is present, though is very radical. This would involve a switch to using very-low cost article repositories, such as the Arxiv, as the only method of publication. Many researchers will be reluctant to embrace this model for fear of the unknown – I myself have many reservations. However, it is one of the options available.

    • Bryn Jones Says:

      (And some of those points have already been made eloquently by others here.)

    • Bryn Jones Says:

      Yes, I’m sure other fields are more dependent on commercial publishers than astronomy is. However, those fields will have learned societies that could take on the task of publishing journals, if they realised the opportunity existed and got their acts together.

      And, yes, it is absolutely the case that societies do not claim all the profits of their journals. They often work with commerical publishers, particularly for the task of printing on paper. Indeed, some societies have their own commercial printing divisions and act much in the same way as commercial companies.

      I too feel that what appears on the ArXiv today is constrained by what currently is accepted by journals. Perhaps using citations as a measure of quality would lessen problems with an inflation in the number of papers: researchers would only bother to cite important results from others once and ignore articles of less significance.

    • But wait, I don’t understand. Why do we need to bring up the option of dropping refereeing altogether? Everyone seems to be agreed that referees aren’t paid, and editors are either not paid or paid only nominal amounts, so why the assumption that it is the refereeing costs a vast amount of money?

      Is it not possible to run a system that is exactly the same as the arXiv in most respects, but where every paper must be refereed before being uploaded with the refereeing system being run on a not-for-profit basis by universities? Every university pays a small fee towards running costs, and requires its employees to serve as referees when requested.

      Is there something obvious I’m missing that means such a scheme cannot work? I’ve asked this question before here and elsewhere, but haven’t received a satisfactory answer.

      • Thank you Sesh, that same question was also on my mind. I also wonder why people start to question the quality of open source alternatives. I must admit I have no idea how quality is controlled, being ‘just a postgraduate’ at this moment, but I hope and expect open access journals are and will be giving as much attention to quality as the ones currently published by Elsevier and the likes. And I wonder why they should not be able to do so?

      • Bryn Jones Says:

        Of course, refereeing can be kept, saving much cost by publishing electronically only. However, that model does still incur some appreciable costs.

        The process of running a journal requires quite a lot of administrative work. The tasks of receiving submitted papers, sending papers out for refereeing, chasing referees, passing comments to the authors, negotiating between authors and referees, proof reading, correcting text and passing (electronic-only) proofs to the authors require support staff. The RAS, for example, employs a few administrative staff to support Monthly Notices and also has support from a commercial publisher.

        The very-low cost model that Peter mentioned in his original essay above involved the use of a papers archive only, without refereeing. It is that simple, basic, system that would be very cheap. Maintaining refereeing means keeping the journal system we already have, which incurs costs unless researchers would volunteer to do the everyday administration, as well as the work on the editorial board and refereeing that they now do. There would be relatively little career benefit in taking on a substantial voluntary support role that does not require high-level skills, so it is not clear that members of the research community would do it.

        Learned societies could use members’ subscriptions to support open-access journals without page charges, rather than selling journals to make profits as at present. This would require a substantial increase in subscriptions which might in turn lose members. The alternative of having universities make contributions is perhaps rather similar to what we have with subscription charges now, although electronic publishing only would save costs.

  9. […] broadly supportive of this movement. I also kinda like the thinking behind a proposal by Peter Coles, a theoretical astrophysicist who says only open-access research should count towards the Research […]

  10. […] of the wider relevance of research, we’re going to have to look a lot harder than that.   Peter Coles‘ suggestion that only freely available papers should be accepted by the REF is looking […]

  11. […] that populist rebellions have a place within the information-sharing community, says Barbara FisterOnly papers that are freely available should be accepted by the REFTheoretical astrophysicist, Peter Coles makes the connection between the Academic Spring and the […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: