Enough of the Academic Publishing Racket!

There have been some interesting developments this week in the field of academic publishing. A particularly interesting story concernes the resignation of the entire editorial board of the linguistics journal Lingua, which is published by – (no prizes for guessing) – Elsevier. Not surprisingly this move was made in protest at Elsevier’s overpricing of “Open Access” options on its journal. Even less surprisingly, Elsevier’s response was considerably economical with the truth. Elsevier claims that it needs to levy large Article Processing Charges (APCs) to ensure their Open Access publications are economically viable. However, what Elsevier means by “economically viable” apparently means a profit margin of 37% or more, all plundered from the tightly constrained budgets of academic research organizations. In fact these APCs have nothing to do with the actual cost of publishing research papers. In any other context the behaviour of publishers like Elsevier would be called racketeering, i.e.

Racketeering, often associated with organized crime, is the act of offering of a dishonest service (a “racket”) to solve a problem that wouldn’t otherwise exist without the enterprise offering the service.

Let me remind you of the business model that underpins the academic publishing industry.  We academics write papers based on our research, which we then submit to journals. Other academics referee these papers, suggest corrections or improvements and recommend acceptance or rejection. Another set of academics provide oversight of this editorial process and make decisions on whether or not to publish. All of this is usually done for free. We academics then buy back the  product of our labours at an grossly inflated price through journal subscriptions, unless the article is published in Open Access form in which case we have to pay an APC up front to the publisher. It’s like having to take all the ingredients of a meal to a restaurant, cooking them yourself, and then being required to pay for the privilege of eating the resulting food.

Why do we continue to participate in such a palpably  ridiculous system? Isn’t it obvious that we (I mean academics in universities) are spending a huge amout of time and money achieving nothing apart from lining the pockets of these exploitative publishers? Is it simply vanity? I suspect that many academics see research papers less as a means of disseminating research and more as badges of status…

I’d say that, at least in my discipline, traditional journals are simply no longer necessary for communicating scientific research. I find all the  papers I need to do my research on the arXiv and most of my colleagues do the same. We simply don’t need old-fashioned journals anymore.  Yet we keep paying for them. It’s time for those of us who believe that  we should spend as much of our funding as we can on research instead of throwing it away on expensive and outdated methods of publication to put an end to this absurd system. We academics need to get the academic publishing industry off our backs.

All we need to do is to is dispense with the old model of a journal and replace it with a reliable and efficient reviewing system that interfaces with the arXiv. Then we would have a genuinely useful at a fraction of the cost of a journal subscription . That was the motivation behind the Open Journal of Astrophysics , a project that I and a group of like-minded individuals will be launching very soon. There will be a series of announcements here and elsewhere over the next few weeks, giving more details about the Open Journal and how it works.

We will be starting in a modest way but I hope that those who believe – as I do – in the spirit of open science and the free flow of scientific ideas will support this initiative. I hope that the Lingua debacle is a sign that change is on the way, but we need the help and participation of researchers to make the revolution happen.

32 Responses to “Enough of the Academic Publishing Racket!”

  1. Bryn Jones Says:

    The reason researchers continue to publish in some established journals is, of course, because the refereeing process over decades has created an expectation of quality for the research published in them. In the UK that is believed by many to feed into REF assessments, and hence into funding.

    Any new open journal will need to establish its reputation over time. It will take some years to build up. Rejecting mediocre papers will be necessary for that.

    • Phillip Helbig Says:

      Indeed, on both counts. The reputation could increase quite quickly if the board and/or the editors are respected members of the community who also publish in the journal.

    • Everything @Bryn is correct about the current system, as for what any future system has to do — well it’s hard to make predictions especially about the future.

      Fundamentally, what people need is some reasonably good filter when they go browsing for abstracts. That doesn’t have to be a journal-like rejection system, perhaps a webbish system of upvotes/downvotes combinded can do the trick. StackOverflow does an excellent job of “peer/review” but it hardly evern “rejects” anything.

  2. Phillip Helbig Says:

    “I suspect that many academics see research papers less as a means of disseminating research and more as badges of status…”

    Perhaps true to some extent, but when the number of papers, or the number of citations, is the primary criterion for being hired, they really have no choice. And who hires them? Other academics, often those who, by their own criteria, would never have been hired.

    I think a paper is still the best means of disseminating research, and, rightly, confers status (at least if the paper is good). How that paper is published is another matter.

    • If publishing evolves, papers might evolve with them. Right now you need cross t’s and dot i’s to preempt objections from an imagined referee. In a different system, you might simplify the paper and then answer objections more interactively — a little like a blog post with a comment thread.

      Over a 100 years, the two concepts might merge.

  3. Phillip Helbig Says:

    “I’d say that, at least in my discipline, traditional journals are simply no longer necessary for communicating scientific research. I find all the papers I need to do my research on the arXiv and most of my colleagues do the same. We simply don’t need old-fashioned journals anymore.”

    The last sentence does not necessarily follow from those coming before it. The main reason for the quality of arXiv (as opposed to the content of other websites) is that most papers there are submitted to traditional journals. Simply doing away with the good things about traditional journals as well and sticking stuff on the web would lead to something like the Journal of Cosmology, which, despite some otherwise respectable names on the editorial board, publishes mainly crackpot stuff.

    • telescoper Says:

      I stand by what I wrote. Journals add nothing.

      • Phillip Helbig Says:

        High-quality journals do add something, namely allowing few if any crackpot, wrong, or even mediocre papers to get through. Yes, it is possible to have good refereeing without a traditional journal, but a) I’ll believe it when I see it and b) this doesn’t mean that traditional journals add no value at all, even if they have some serious shortcomings.

        Do you check viXra every morning to see if there are any good papers there? Q.E.D.

      • Anton Garrett Says:

        They provide coordination, but they charge inordinate sums for it. The internet now provides a way out and let us support those who, like Peter, are pioneering the way.

        In retrospect, it is a disgrace that the journals published by the IOP, AIP etc cost nearly as much to publish in as commercial journals. The organisations that are meant to represent scientists turned into parasites, instead of keeping journal prices so low that commercial competitors had little interest in competing. WE let that happen. Where were the campaigners for IOP or AIP President in the last 30 years who said “Enough!”

      • Phillip Helbig Says:

        “They provide coordination, but they charge inordinate sums for it. The internet now provides a way out and let us support those who, like Peter, are pioneering the way.”

        As I mentioned in a later comment, I explicitly announce my support. Again, no-one can seriously claim that the prices of many journals are inflated and bear no relation to any services they might provide. This does not imply, though, that traditional journals add no value at all.

        “In retrospect, it is a disgrace that the journals published by the IOP, AIP etc cost nearly as much to publish in as commercial journals.”

        In astronomy, there are no direct charges to the author for publishing in A&A> or MNRAS (except for colour figures in the printed version). ApJ and AJ have had page charges for a long time. (Interestingly, they are electronic only now.) MNRAS is supported by subscriptions and, I believe, from RAS dues. A&A is supported by the states sponsoring it. Of course, one can argue that these costs are too high as well (though not as blatant as those of Elsevier and their ilk) and that they indirectly siphon off funds from authors. Still, it is better than the “pay to play” model.

      • Bryn Jones Says:

        Journal subscriptions provide a large part of the income of the Royal Astronomical Society. So, rather than my subscription funding the publication of MNRAS, MNRAS (and other journals) reduce the subscription I have to pay. Alternatively, we could see this as meaning the RAS is able to do a lot more than it could out of our subscriptions alone.

      • telescoper Says:

        But does the RAS do more for astronomy than institutions could do if they weren’t being subjected to a stealth tax of thousands of pounds per year, which is what a journal subscription is?

      • Phillip Helbig Says:

        I had it backwards. 😦

        One could argue that this is not as bad as the money going into the profits of a commercial company.

        What are the annual RAS dues?

      • Anton Garrett Says:

        Phillip: I should have said that it is a disgrace that learned-society journals cost academics about as much as commercial journals, whether the money is paid by contributors or in library fees. That is the point.

        Bryn: I’m cynical re the IOP, RAS, AIP etc. Did they ever ask us if we preferred costs as high as commercial publishers permitting them to do more, or whether we’d rather have lower costs? And do they provide value for that money?

      • Phillip Helbig Says:

        “I should have said that it is a disgrace that learned-society journals cost academics about as much as commercial journals, whether the money is paid by contributors or in library fees. That is the point.”

        I agree, but, at least in astronomy, the fees are moderate (but still too high) compared to some other fields, especially those where Elsevier dominates,

      • Phillip Helbig Says:

        “But does the RAS do more for astronomy than institutions could do if they weren’t being subjected to a stealth tax of thousands of pounds per year, which is what a journal subscription is?”

        A valid point, especially considering that even some journals published on behalf of a learned society do make a profit for the publisher, even if some of the money goes to the society (I think this is the case with MNRAS and the RAS).

        Again, what are the annual dues?

      • Bryn Jones Says:

        The RAS annual subscription is £108 (but with reductions for some people a few years from completing university education).

        The RAS is very aware that its economic model is close to its end. The expectation is that new cheap, electronic-only, journals will undermine income from journal subscriptions. The RAS seems to be waiting until it has to change before doing anything.

        Of course, as Anton stated, we might have expected learned societies to lead the transition to cheap, electronic-only journals. Instead they seem to be waiting for new entrants to force the change.

        However, learned societies employ staff to handle their journal activities. These staff support the work of the editorial board, and the administration of the submission, refereeing and publication processes. Library subscriptions for journals pay the salaries of these staff. It will be interesting to see how new, cheap, electronic-only journals can keep these administrative processes while minimising costs.

      • Phillip Helbig Says:

        “The RAS annual subscription is £108 (but with reductions for some people a few years from completing university education).”

        About the same as membership in the German Physical Society. Of course, for comparison one needs to know the number of members in each, what they offer, etc. (As an example, the school I attended in 2013 in Bad Honnef where Peter gave some lectures cost me, as a DPG member, only EUR 100, including full room and board.)

        “However, learned societies employ staff to handle their journal activities. These staff support the work of the editorial board, and the administration of the submission, refereeing and publication processes. Library subscriptions for journals pay the salaries of these staff. It will be interesting to see how new, cheap, electronic-only journals can keep these administrative processes while minimising costs.”

        We’ll see. At least some of the costs could be avoided by cutting out the in my view completely unnecessary step of not producing the final manuscript directly from LaTeX. AFAIK, A&A does produce the final manuscript directly from LaTeX, and I don’t think the quality is worse than that of MNRAS.

      • Bryn Jones Says:

        Phillip, you mean MNRAS still does not produce the final, published, versions of papers from the authors’ LaTeX versions?

      • Phillip Helbig Says:

        “MNRAS still does not produce the final, published, versions of papers from the authors’ LaTeX versions?”

        As far as I can tell, no. Indirectly, in that one is required to submit the source files as well as a PDF (so they probably at least avoid rekeyng it), but they don’t actually use it directly.

        When correcting proofs, it would be much easier to correct the source files. Rather, one gets their PDF output, and an additional PDF where the changes are marked. (The latter didn’t exist in the past, meaning that one had to compare both by eye, especially since the format conversion sometimes had introduced new errors which had to be corrected as well. At least this save a bit of time.)

        Of course, if the final version is not produced by some standard LaTeX engine, it is difficult to get the output to match exactly with what the MNRAS LaTeX class file produces, but the matching could be better than it is. A new class file has been out for a few months, but apparently there are still some bugs in that it doesn’t do all it claims to do. (In particular, the MNRAS is one of the few journals specifying citing all three authors of a three-author paper at the first citation but just the first with “et al.” afterwards. I actually see the logic of this, but it is not standard, and if they want it, the software they supply should support it, rather than requiring the \cite* workaround (which one has to correct if one revises the paper and introduces an earlier citation).

      • Bryn Jones Says:

        I remember being puzzled by the MNRAS practice of retyping papers, rather than using LaTeX code, 20 years ago. I had no idea that it still continues.

      • Phillip Helbig Says:

        “I remember being puzzled by the MNRAS practice of retyping papers, rather than using LaTeX code, 20 years ago. I had no idea that it still continues.”

        Maybe instead of retyping it is done by software these days, but it is still unnecessary and a potential source of error.

  4. Phillip Helbig Says:

    “There will be a series of announcements here and elsewhere over the next few weeks, giving more details about the Open Journal and how it works.”

    Please make sure that two things are implemented: Refereeing of a standard at least as good as that of the leading journal in the field, and some fallback mechanism for people who should be able to submit to the journal but cannot submit to arXiv. Yes, such people exist. You might also consider publishing the name(s) of the referee(s) along with published (i.e. accepted by the journal) papers. While there are good reasons for anonymous refereeing during the refereeing process, and perhaps afterwards if the paper is rejected, I see no reason not to publish the name(s) of referee(s) in the case of accepted papers, something like the “Communicated by H. Bondi” in MNRAS back in the day, and many reasons to do so: visible credit for those who do the work, more pressure not to let questionable papers through, and so on.

  5. Phillip Helbig Says:

    “We will be starting in a modest way but I hope that those who believe – as I do – in the spirit of open science and the free flow of scientific ideas will support this initiative.”

    I think two things would massively increase the probability of success: having a board and/or editors of well respected members of the community (who actually contributes something other than their names) and these people publishing all of their papers in the new journal.

  6. Phillip Helbig Says:

    Just to be clear, as I have noted here many times before, I fully support this endeavour; I am just worried that some essential details might be overlooked. Others have expressed similar concerns.

    If arXiv is to be the main, or even the only, submission mechanism, then in some sense you are relying on arXiv to separate the wheat from the chaff. While arXiv doesn’t do refereeing, they do have moderation, which keeps out crackpots etc. This is worth doing because there are many good papers put on arXiv, and they are good at least in part because they are also submitted to traditional journals. I’m not saying that it is wrong to rely on arXiv (though I think that there should be at least an alternative submission path), but arXiv has quality for a reason and part of that is due to the fact that most stuff on arXiv is submitted to traditional journals.

    arXiv was originally a “preprint” server. By definition, a preprint is intended to be published by a journal. It is now a respected “brand”, and it is good that there is a one-stop shop. There is nothing wrong with combining this with refereeing and bypassing traditional journals. At one level, all you need is a web page with links to accepted articles. (In addition, it would be nice if there were some level of quality control with regard to language, format, and so on.)

    I just hope it works out and doesn’t fail because some small but essential details were overlooked.

    Che Guevara attempted to instigate a revolution in Bolivia and, hopefully later, all of South America, arriving in Bolivia with an army consisting of just 44 people. He expected to be greeted as a liberator, with the locals voluntarily joining his ranks (in this sense he had a remarkable similarity—which both would probably detest—to George W. Bush in Iraq), but only two people joined him. Whatever one thinks of Che, I hope you don’t meet a similar, if only metaphorical, fate. 😐

    • Bryn Jones Says:

      I suspect the problem we have here is that we don’t know what the proposed new open journal will look like. We hope that it will adopt the best practice of traditional journals, but we have no idea whether it will.

      • Phillip Helbig Says:

        Right. What confuses me is that it is hard to believe that it will adopt the best practice of traditional journals if the founder believes that traditional journals add nothing at all.

        As always, the proof in the pudding will be in the eating.

      • telescoper Says:

        You’re confusing “peer review” with “journal”. Some traditional journals have good peer review – though some clearly don’t – but you don’t need a traditional journal to do peer review.

      • telescoper Says:

        We’re not going to adopt “best practive of traditional journals”. We’re going to do much better than that.

      • Phillip Helbig Says:

        “You’re confusing “peer review” with “journal”. Some traditional journals have good peer review – though some clearly don’t – but you don’t need a traditional journal to do peer review.”

        I agree with your last sentence. The only point where we perhaps disagree is your claim that journals add nothing. Certainly some traditional journals do add good peer review, and pre-publication peer review is difficult to organize otherwise (apart from asking a colleague to read a paper). This doesn’t mean, though, that a traditional journal is the only way.

  7. And as a minor point of interest (or of minor interest), we have had some problems convincing university finance to pay page charges for journals that have no pages. Apparently, whatever you call the charges, it has to be a word that appears in the open access funding guidelines.

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