Desperate Publishers

I’m on campus to get some work done but before that I thought I do a quick postette as I eat my lunch. A good topic for a short contribution is a story I heard last week from one of my colleagues in the Department of Physics & Astronomy here at the University of Sussex. It seems he gave a talk at a conference a while ago.  As is far from unusual in such circumstances he was asked to write up his contribution for a special edition of a journal.

Before I go on I’ll just digress a bit to mention a less well-known aspect of the Academic Publishing Racket, the Conference Proceedings Volume. For a long time you couldn’t attend a conference in astrophysics without having to contribute an article to one of these books. Although usually produced on the cheap, using camera-ready copy, and with minimal editorial oversight, these were sold to participants and (more lucratively) to university libraries at enormously inflated prices, often over £100 a go. It wasn’t unusual for funding agencies to insist that a conference talk be followed up with a publication, so this racket flourished for a while. I’ve actually got a shelf full of such volumes accumulated over the years, although I don’t really know why I kept them as it is in their nature that they date very quickly.

Anyway, as time passed, and the internet expanded and improved, most conference organizers began to realize that it was much better just to keep their own record of the conference: putting summaries, and even full presentations, on the web for interested persons to download gratis. No doubt it is still de rigueur in some subjects to produce books of this type, but  most in astrophysics don’t bother any more.  Quite rightly, in my opinion. I think they’re a waste of time, money and shelf space.

The original thread of this post, however, isn’t about standalone books of conference proceedings but special editions of a regular academic journal; for an example of one such see here. Note the unsubtle and entirely gratuitous  link to one of my own papers! I’ve always thought this format was just as bad as putting them in a book, with the additional disadvantage that people might misinterpret the journal reference as meaning that the paper had been refereed. The paper I linked to above was not refereed, for instance. In any case they’re a bit of a chore to write, and are just as likely to be of ephemeral interest, but if one is invited to give a talk one generally feels obliged to play ball and deliver the article requested.

Which all brings me back to my colleague here at Sussex. He did his talk and wrote up the obligatory article for the special journal edition of the conference proceedings. But times have changed. When he tried to submit his article via the web upload facility he was directed to a screen asking whether his work was funded by the Science and Technology Facilities Council. When he answered “yes” he was told he was obliged to pay $3000 for the privilege of publishing his paper in Gold Open Access mode….

When he asked me if the School of Mathematical and Physical Sciences would pay the $3000 I nearly had a seizure. It’s bad enough getting landed with a hefty bill for writing an article as a favour to the conference organizers, but it’s even worse than that. The publisher was deliberately and disgracefully misleading the author about the RCUK policy on open access in order to take money from them. There is no requirement for researchers to pay for Gold OA in such a case. Sharp practice is too polite a phrase to describe the actions of this publisher. And of course nobody mentioned the $3000 fee when he signed up to give a talk at the conference.

Unfortunately, I think this sort of questionable business practice is bound to proliferate as publishers seek to maximize their revenue from Gold Open Access before the academic community rumbles the scam and cuts them out all together. So let this post be a warning. Do not trust academic publishers who try to charge you up front. Check the rules very carefully before committing yourself or, preferably, declining to publish with them. There are sharks out there and they’re after your funding.

Oh, and the name of the publisher involved in the scam I just described? I’m sure you can guess it before clicking this link to check.

16 Responses to “Desperate Publishers”

  1. Bryn Jones Says:

    Hmm. IOP Science wants me to pay £24 to see the “Future of Extragalactic Observations” article that Peter linked to above.

    At least I can read the title of the article for free. I should be grateful for that.

    • telescoper Says:

      I’ll tell you what. I’ll undercut them. Send me £23 and I’ll forward a PDF file free of charge.

    • Bryn Jones Says:

      That’s a much better deal than the one offered by the publishers.

      The cheque’s in the post.

      • telescoper Says:

        I can assure you it’s well worth it. It’s only 12 years out of date.

      • Bryn Jones Says:

        I once bought a big book called Problems in Astrophysics for £1 in a library clearance sale. The book discussed contemporary research problems in detail.

        Admittedly, it was published in 1903.

  2. i agree with philip (for once) – i think we have lost something from the decline of conference proceedings. the discussions recorded at the end of the presentations is far more interesting than “dry” post-refereeing journal papers and moreover the papers themselves tend to be more relaxed in tone and more opinionated… people said what they thought – not what they thought they could prove to a referee.

    as a young postdoc at caltech i read all the post-1980 conference proceedings in their library – irrespective of the subject – and learned a lot more than i had during my PhD. one useful fact was that some interesting problems from the 80’s – which people had forgotten about – are now technically tractable due to instrument developments.

    the replacement of proceedings by collections of PPT/PDF on the web can be useful – especially as a resource when writing your own talks – but they can’t replace the old conference proceedings (you need to know the subject to understand what is contained in the PPT).

    i often wondered if the decline in conference proceedings is a root cause of the rapid increase in the number of journal papers – which according to ADS have risen 60% since 2000. instead of writing up an incremental result as a conference proceeding and waiting to complete the study for a journal article, the incremental paper also goes to the journal.

    • People have and will publish incremental papers. The ‘least publishable increment’ (as it was called in my editorial days) hasn’t changed over time. The main point of conference papers is the fact that they are not refereed., so indeed people can write opinions without risking their reputation. A second point is to show others that work is progressing – useful for telescope time and grant application Nor is there any point in paying fees – if the added value of the publishers is in the refereeing, for a non-refereed paper there can be none. I believe that the citation indices (Scopus, WoS) exclude citations from and to non-refereed papers.

      I have noticed a trend by some publishers to organize conferences. This probably an obligation on the speakers to pay for the paper. But a non-refereed paper can be published anywhere – ADS can associate it with the right meeting. There is no point in publishing a conference paper which is not free to read!

      The printed conference book is something of the past. The circulation was never big enough to warrant printing them anyway (one reason for the high prices).

    • telescoper Says:

      It seems to me that some papers are more decremental than incremental…

    • “It seems to me that some papers are more decremental than incremental…”

      Yes, the LPI can certainly be negative or imaginery. Maybe the publisher open access cost should reflect this. Payment per citation?

  3. Bryn Jones Says:

    My view is that some conferences proceedings were really useful, but most were not. Most proceedings contained short (several page) summaries of review talks, which were not detailed enough to be of real value, plus short summaries of talks and poster papers.

    The really useful proceedings were the ones that contained longer, critical, reviews of research fields. This usually happened because of decisions taken by the editors. These volumes were of particular value to those people who could not attend the conference, and to people attempting to learn about fields outside of their immediate specialisms. They would supplement what appeared in publications like the Annual Reviews.

    Of course, putting copies of the conference review talks on the web as PDF files is an adequate modern alternative.

  4. wisealic Says:

    Hi all – Elsevier’s open access agreement with RCUK, including gold and green options, is described here:

    With best wishes,
    Alicia Wise
    Director of Universal Access

    • telescoper Says:

      That may well be your stated policy. It does appear, however, that it differs significantly from your actual practice.

  5. Jean Tate Says:

    I’m a zooite, a citizen scientist whose clicks have contributed to ~40 published scientific papers ( I wondered if I could get a copy of these; imagine my shock on learning that even the most important of these papers is behind a paywall! Thus began a steep learning curve; do regular readers of this blog realize just how, um, corrupt the current ‘standard practice’ seems to outsiders like me?

    If you’re interested, I am continuing to write up what I have discovered in a Galaxy Zoo forum thread entitled “Why must zooites who created the GZ data *pay* to access the key paper on it?” (

    @Alicia Wise: thank you for being so honest about how corrupt you are! “For a list of Elsevier journal-specific embargo periods, please click here” Go ahead, click the link …

    • telescoper Says:

      The answer to your question is yes! Some of us insiders also realize it is profoundly wrong.

    • Jean Tate Says:

      A follow-up note, to point readers of this blog to yesterday’s Zooniverse blog post, by Chris Lintott, “(Many) Zooniverse Papers Now Open Access”:

      How unprecedented would you say this is?

    • Bryn Jones Says:

      I would say it’s normal today for versions of research papers to be uploaded to the ArXiv preprints archive. Many research teams have a policy of posting their papers to the archive. So the Zooniverse project is operating in a fairly similar way to many other research projects.

      Perhaps the issue is what fraction of refereed research papers in astronomy are put in the Arxiv. Is it 50%, 70% or 90%? I would guess that the figure would be greater than 70%.

      Another important issue is whether researchers could manage to do their work today without having access to standard journals. That is to say, whether enough papers are placed on the Arxiv for researchers not to need to look at versions of papers in expensive journals. This issue matters, for example, for researchers in universities and institutes that do not have enough funds to pay for access to journals beyond a core number. It also matters for people who do not have regular access to university libraries.

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