Archive for IOP Publishing

Surplus Value, Exploitation and Scientific Publishing

Posted in Open Access, Politics with tags , , , , on August 11, 2013 by telescoper

The August edition of Physics World – house organ of the Institute of Physics – contains an article about Open Access Publishing which is available online here.  In fact, I get a mention in it:

Another vocal critic of the science-publishing industry has been astronomer Peter Coles from the University of Sussex. “Publishers want a much higher fee than [the real cost of publishing a paper on the Internet] because they want to maintain their eye-watering profit margins, despite the fact that the ‘service’ they provide has been rendered entirely obsolete by digital technologies,” Coles claimed on his blog In the Dark earlier this year. Yet publishers have been fighting back, pointing out that scientists often do not understand how the publishing industry operates and highlighting the many valuable – and expensive – functions they provide to the scientific community. In addition to the often complex process of managing peer review, these include everything from developing and maintaining IT systems to checking papers through plagiarism detection software – none of which comes cheap (see “The value publishers bring”).

Publishers have indeed been fighting back, but you’d expect that of vested interests.  You can read the rest of the article yourself to see if you’re convinced. I’m not. I think it’s a desperate piece of propaganda.

The last comment in the quoted paragraph (in parenthesis) points to a box purporting to explain why scientific journals should be so expensive. The explanations presented in that box  are so obviously  disingenuous that they don’t merit a detailed debunking because the argument can be refuted without any need to refer to the box: note the deliberate confusion between cost (“none of which comes cheap”) and “value” in the last paragraph quoted above.

IOP Publishing (along with  other profiteering organizations of its type) insist that it brings value to scientific papers. It doesn’t. The authors and referees do all the things that add value. What the IOP does is take that value and turn it into its own profits. The fact that enormous profits are made out of this process in itself demonstrates that what the scientific community is being charged is nothing whatever to do with cost.

This reminds me of many discussions I had in my commie student days about surplus value, a concept that I believe was first discussed by Friedrich Engels, but which was explored in great detail by Karl Marx, in Das Kapital. According to the wikipedia page, the term “refers roughly to the new value created by workers that is in excess of their own labour-cost and which is therefore available to be appropriated by the capitalist, according to Marx; it allows then for profit and in so doing is the basis of capital accumulation.”

Engels is quoted there as follows:

Whence comes this surplus-value? It cannot come either from the buyer buying the commodities under their value, or from the seller selling them above their value. For in both cases the gains and the losses of each individual cancel each other, as each individual is in turn buyer and seller. Nor can it come from cheating, for though cheating can enrich one person at the expense of another, it cannot increase the total sum possessed by both, and therefore cannot augment the sum of the values in circulation. (…) This problem must be solved, and it must be solved in a purely economic way, excluding all cheating and the intervention of any force — the problem being: how is it possible constantly to sell dearer than one has bought, even on the hypothesis that equal values are always exchanged for equal values?

Marx’s solution of this economical conundrum was central to his theory of exploitation:

…living labour at an adequate level of productivity is able to create and conserve more value than it costs the employer to buy; which is exactly the economic reason why the employer buys it, i.e. to preserve and augment the value of the capital at his command. Thus, the surplus-labour is unpaid labour appropriated by employers in the form of work-time and outputs.

In this context of academic publishing, the workers are scientific researchers and the employers are the publishers. The workers  not only produce the science in the first place, but also carry out virtually all of the actions that the employers claim add value. The latter are simply appropriating the labour of the former, which is exploitation. It has to stop.

Academic Publishing – added cost is not added value

Posted in Open Access with tags , , , , on March 19, 2013 by telescoper

I was having a quick plough through the evidence submitted to the recent House of Lords enquiry into Open Access and found the following interesting exchange relating to the arXiv. The italics in the response by Steven Hall, Managing Director of the Institute of Physics Publishing company, to the question from Lord Rees of Ludlow, are mine:

Q44 Lord Rees of Ludlow: We know that things are discipline-dependent, even within the physical sciences. I have a question for Mr Hall, really. In physics and space science, as you know, there is a well­organised archive and repository, which is used by almost all of the community. It would seem that that has coexisted with journals to a surprising extent.I wonder if you would like to comment on that as an example.

Steven Hall: Yes, thank you for the opportunity. When I speed-read the pile of submissions on the train last night I noticed at least three references to the success of the arXiv and its lack of impact on physics publishing. There are a number of myths about the arXiv and it would be good to deal with those here. First, it does not at all cover all of physics. There are certain sub-disciplines where there are very high levels of deposit in the arXiv; there are others where there is none whatsoever. To come back to your point, even within a discipline like physics there are real differences of approach. The other thing about the arXiv is that it is essentially a workflow tool. Much of physics is highly collaborative. Physicists will deposit early versions of their paper so that they can be looked at by their colleagues. It is a means for physicists to distribute to their immediate peers those early results of their research. It is a sharing tool. Most of the content of the archive is pre-print, though. It is not accepted manuscripts; it is not works that have gone through peer review. My own company’s policy there is the author can do whatever he or she likes with the pre-print, before we have added any value to it. We take a different view once we have added some value to it. The arXiv cannot be compared directly to, say, typical institutional depositories, which might have lots of accepted manuscripts in them. It coexists with formal publishing. The vast majority of physicists who use the arXiv would say that it is complementary to formal publication.

Lord Rees of Ludlow: Formal publication gives the accreditation, but I think most read the arXiv and would like to see it extended to other fields. It seems to be a rather good model, which, one would hope, would extend a bit more to other areas of science.

It will come as no surprise to hear that I’m right behind Martin Rees in his praise for the arXiv; the comments about it by Steven Hall are notable only for their irrelevance. Extending the arXiv to cover other branches of physics, and indeed other disciplines, would be much less expensive for the research community than the model he favours. I’d say that the arXiv needn’t be viewed as complementary to formal publication but that the arXiv gives us a way to make formal publication entirely redundant.  It’s only a small step to turn that potential into reality, which is why IOPP wishes to dismiss it.

Steven Hall has repeatedly argued that Gold Open Access is best, which I suppose it is if you’re a publisher interested in making easy money rather than a scientist wanting to disseminate your work in inexpensive and timely a fashion as possible. However, I was struck by the totally misleading phrase in italics relating to “added value”. IOPP does not add value to research publications, it merely adds cost. Any value that is added derives from peer review, which in most case costs nothing at all and can in any case be done independently of any publisher.

I’m afraid this is yet another example of publishers putting their own profits before the needs of researchers. The fact that IOPP’s profits also support the activities of the Institute of Physics is beside the point. I hope that before long the IOP remembers what it is actually for and changes its modus operandi to support the community it purports to serve, rather than exploiting it. The days of the traditional publisher are numbered in any case, and the IOP along with the other learned societies will have to find a way of surviving that doesn’t rely on income from the academic journal racket.

Time to go it alone on Open Access

Posted in Open Access, Science Politics with tags , , , , on September 10, 2012 by telescoper

Not at all surprisingly, the government has announced  that existing research council budgets are to be raided to provide funds (to the tune of £10M) to pay for “Gold” Open Access to scientific research. This is the model of open access in which most authors will have to pay publishers a whopping fee up front in order to disseminate their work. The figures being talked about are in the region of £2000 per paper by way of an “article processing fee”.

I put “article processing fee” in quotes there because a fee of that size bears no relation to the actual cost to the publishers of processing an article: articles in most physics journals are typeset by the author, and refereed for free by other academics suggested by the editor (another academic).  What it really represents is the amount of money researchers will have to pay to maintain the humongous profit margins currently enjoyed by the academic publishing industry. Currently they rake in the cash through subscription charges after papers have been published in their journals . In future they will get the dosh in advance, which will probably make their business even more lucrative. And who will pay for maintaining their profitability? Researchers, of course. It’s clear who is going to benefit from the provisions of the Finch Report, and it’s not us.

Not surprisingly the publishing racketeers want to try to make us think they provide a worthwhile service for all the money they sting us for. For example, in this month’s Physics World, there’s a response from Steven Hall (Managing Director of IOP Publishing) to a letter from a certain Dr Garrrett. The original letter pointed the facts of the current state of affairs that I have bemoaned on many occasion on this blog:

Currently, researchers have to typeset their own work, sign away the copyright to publishers and referee the work of their peers – all for no remuneration. They then pay large sums in publication fees or library subscriptions to buy that work back in refereed and collated form.

Steven Hall’s response includes the following paragraph:

Researchers do not perform peer review alone: publishers organize and manage it, invest in people and systems to facilitate it, appoint and support editorial boards to oversee it and develop journals to meet the needs of scientific communities.

This is very far from being an accurate or fair representation of the way things work, at least not in physics. Researchers do carry out peer review alone. And unpaid. The main system that facilitates it is email (which, to my knowledge, was not developed by the academic publishing industry). And the journals that IOP develops are less to do with the “needs” of scientific communities than they are with the desires of a profit-making company to exploit said communities for even greater commercial gain.

Don’t you think it’s very strange that in a time of shrinking library budgets the number of journals seems to be growing all the time? Do we really need new ones? Do we even need the old ones? I think not.

And for those of you who think that IOP Publishing, as a part of the Institute of Physics, must be acting in the best interests of physics research, that’s simply not the case. It’s run as a private publishing company that behaves in exactly the same unscrupulous profiteering manner as, e.g. Elsevier. The IOP’s Open Access journals already charge £1700 per paper in article processing fees. They’re also in the habit of peddling meaningless “impact factor” statistics when trying to market their journals, many of which have lamentably poor citation rates despite their extortionate costs. Hence the IOP’s practice of bundling journal subscriptions in order to force institutions who want the good stuff to pay for the dross as well.

Having looked carefully into the costs of on-line digital publishing I have come to the conclusion that a properly-run, not-for-profit journal, created for and run by researchers purely for the open dissemination of the fruits of their research can be made sustainable with an article processing charge of less than £50 per paper, probably a lot less.

There’s only one response possible to those who’ve hijacked the Finch committee to serve their own ends, and that is to cut them out of the process. I think we can do it better (and cheaper)  ourselves. And very soon I hope to prove it.