The Great Science Publishing Scandal

There was a programme broadcast on BBC Radio 4 yesterday called The Great Science Publishing Scandal. It is now available on the interwebs here, which is how I listened to it this morning.

Here’s the blurb that goes with the programme:

Matthew Cobb, Professor of Zoology at the University of Manchester, explores the hidden world of prestige, profits and piracy that lurks behind scientific journals.

Each year, hundreds of thousands of articles on the findings on research are published, forming the official record of science. This has been going on since the 17th century, but recently a kind of war has broken out over the cost of journals to the universities and research institutions where scientists work, and to anyone else who wants to access the research, such as policy makers, patient support groups and the general public.

Traditionally journals charge their readers a subscription, but since the start of the 21st century there’s been a move to what’s called open access, where the authors pay to get their articles published but anyone can read them, without charge. In Europe Plan S has called for all research funded by the public purse to be open access, by 2020. If and when this is implemented it could have downsides on learned societies who depend on income from journal subscriptions to support young researchers and on scientists in the less developed world.

Some universities, and even countries, have recently refused to pay the subscriptions charged by some of the big science publishers. This has lead to some scientists using a service run by a Russian hacker, which has effectively stolen the whole of the scientific literature and gives it away, free, on the internet.

Matthew Cobb looks back at how the scientific publishing industry got to its current state and asks how it could change. He argues that scientists themselves need to break their addiction to wanting their articles to appear in a few well known journals, and instead concentrate on the quality of their research.

I think this programme is well worth listening to as it makes many of the right criticisms of the status quo. I did, however, find it very frustrating in that it doesn’t really even touch on any of the viable alternative ways of disseminating peer-reviewed scientific research. I didn’t expect a mention for the Open Journal of Astrophysics specifically, but this is one model that at least tries to challenge the status quo. I’m assuming that at least part of the reason for this is the presenter Matthew Cobb works in Zoology, and that is a field that perhaps does not have the established practice of sharing papers via repositories that we have in physics and astronomy via the arXiv. Anyway, it felt to me like he missed an open goal…


14 Responses to “The Great Science Publishing Scandal”

  1. Anton Garrett Says:

    Yes, this Radio 4 programme misses the point. It considers whether there should be a “journal-subscriber-pays” model of scientific publishing or an “author pays”model. Either way a lot of money is involved: in the first model a university has to pay via its library for journal subscriptions; in the second the university has to pay whenever one of its scientists gets a paper accepted in a journal. Either way it is costly – academic publishing is bigger than the music industry worldwide!

    The internet is a game changer. For 200 years a scientific journal had two purposes: dissemination, and quality control (via the peer review system). The internet now allows instant dissemination. Hard copy journals are consequently out of date, but they continue because scientist and continue to rely on journals for peer review, while journal editors continue to publish hard copy journals perhaps because their huge profits can be hidden behind the cost of on-paper publishing. Scientists need to organise their own comprehensive electronic archive and work out their own peer review system. In physics and mathematics there is already an electronic archive supported by multiple universities worldwide, the arXiv, to which any academic scientist can upload a new paper and declare the journal to which he has submitted it. He can then add a comment if the paper is accepted after peer review conducted by the journal, stating the journal reference. That archive was a first fightback by scientists against expensive publishers, as it renders innocuous the iniquity of surrendering copyright in one’s own work – anybody can go to the arXiv version of the paper. The next step is online-only journals that sit atop this archive and provide peer review on request of the author (“submission to the journal”). Peter is leading from the front with Open Journal of Astrophysics (OJA). Authors are charged for administrative costs,I understand, but only a few tens of dollars, rather than the hundreds that on-paper journals provide. I am nowadays an independent scientist and I have no problem with that. Biologists and others need to set up their own archive.

    What has been crazy is the UK government going to academic publishers and saying “we want taxpayers to be able to read papers, since they pay for it, so the model by which people and libraries subscribe to your journals has to go. How much money do you need if *we* carry the page charges in an open access model?” The reply is going to be obvious: Loads. Government should instead be seizing the opportunity provided by the internet, and encouraging online-only journals. OJA is not necessarily the only model and in 50 years a consensus will have emerged on how best to do these things.

    On-paper journals are published either by commercial publishers, or learned societies (eg Institute of Physics). The former must go to the wall like any 19th century factory using an outdated process in the face of superior competition. As for the loss of revenue to learned societies, I believe that the truly necessary things they do in support of their subjects will get done by others.

    The radio progamme mentions Sci-Hub, which subverts the paywalls behind which many published academic articles lie. I am not going to condone lawbreaking in print… but I don’t need to condemn it either. Remember that scientists do the work and nowadays even the typesetting, then we sign away our copyright and have to pay huge sums to access it once it has been peer-reviewed (for free)! Sci-Hub’s founder is welcome to a bottle of champagne from me anytime.

    • telescoper Says:

      Actually the OJA is completely free to authors and readers. The (small) administrative costs are paid from a charitable donation from the Moore Foundation.

      • Anton Garrett Says:

        Thank you for the correction and good on Moore! If other online-only journals charge a few tens of dollars then as an independent scientist I can say that this does not concern me in the way the enormous sums required to submit to some journals do.

      • telescoper Says:

        When the grant has gone we may have to charge to cover costs but, as you say, it will be tens of dollars not thousands.

    • Albert Says:

      Hardcopy journals published in the UK do not pay VAT. Electronic journals do. That is another reason hardcopy journals survive. Publishers would probably prefer not to have hardcopies around since without them you need an annual subscription even to read old stuff.

  2. stallphill Says:

    How does that joke go “…if you stack scientific journals at the current publication rate, the stack-front (wavefront) would propagate faster than c. However, no physical laws would be broken since very little information is transferred…”

  3. Anton Garrett Says:

    Do I disagree? I couldn’t possibly comment.

  4. Anton Garrett Says:

    I recall someone from one of the learned societies on the radio programme saying that 80% of their revenue came from publishing – but you can check.

    • telescoper Says:

      Both the RAS and the Institute of Physics derive the bulk of their operating revenues from publishing (in the case of the RAS that means MNRAS).

  5. “Biologists and others need to set up their own archive.”

  6. Matthew Cobb Says:

    Thanks for highlighting the programme. Preprints haven’t eradicated the commercial model of publishing, nor undermined our addiction to journal brands. I discussed this with one of the keading advocates of biological preorints (including explaining what they were) at the end of the programme. The history of preprints is far richer and deeper than most people think:

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