The academic publishing model is broken

For some reason I never blogged about the Boycott Elsevier movement, though I signed up early on. Today the 10,000th scientist signed up to it, so it is a good time to bring it to your attention.

Why boycott Elsevier? Because of their obnoxious policies as listed on that page. Specifically, exorbitant prices; bundling, which makes it impossible for libraries to buy only the journals they want; support for retrograde legislation designed to protect their business model. To which I might add, publishing journals that range from merely obscure to:

  • purely self-promoting — the journal Chaos, Solitons and Fractals was edited for years by Mohamed el Naschie, who published and self-cited extensively in that journal, driving its impact factor up to over 4;
  • promotional material disguised as science — The Australasian Journal of Bone & Joint Medicine, published by Elsevier, was marketing material for Merck disguised as a scientific journal;
  • outright quackery — the non-peer-reviewed Elsevier journal Medical Hypotheses gave a respectable platform to much dubious speculation and some outright pseudoscience;
  • frankly hilarious. (The author in question has several other mirth-making works, but Elsevier is the only “respectable” publisher on the list.)

Think of these points in combination. If you want to buy a “good” math journal, you are likely forced to buy a bundle that includes “Applied Mathematics Letters” with its joke-papers too. And pay through your nose for it.

Are other academic publishers better? Marginally, but the entire model seems to be broken, as Michael P. Taylor argues powerfully. Quote:

Let’s take a look at the flow of money in the production of research. The government takes tax revenue from citizens and uses it to fund university research groups and libraries. Researchers obtain government grants and use the money to conduct experiments. They write up the results in manuscripts that are destined to become published papers. Manuscripts are submitted to journals, where they are handled by other researchers acting as unpaid volunteer editors. They co-ordinate the process of peer-review, which is done by yet other researchers, also unpaid. All these roles—author, editor, reviewer—are considered normal responsibilities of researchers, funded by grants.

At this point, researchers have worked together to produce a publication-ready, peer-reviewed manuscript. But rather than posting it on the Web, where it can contribute to the world’s knowledge, form a basis for future work, and earn prestige for the author, the finished manuscript is then donated gratis to a publisher: the author signs away copyright. The publisher then formats the manuscript and places the result behind a paywall. Then it sells subscriptions back to the universities where the work originated. Well-off universities will have some access to the paper (though even they are denied important rights such as text-mining). Less well-off universities have access to varying selections of journals, often not the ones their researchers need. And the taxpayers who funded all this? They get nothing at all. No access to the paper.

It’s pretty outrageous.

Yes, it is. George Monbiot, activist-journalist who likes to back up his assertions with scholarly references, thinks so too.

What is the alternative? Two have already manifested themselves. First, physicists, mathematicians, computer scientists and others have been using the preprint (“e-print”) server since the 1990s, often depositing their works there before even sending it to a journal. The system is so successful that many journals in those fields accept links to arxiv preprints during the submission process. But this is only a partial solution: the journals are still closed-access, and many authors simply forget to upload the “final” pre-publication version on arxiv.

Second, in the biological sciences, “open access” journals have caught on: publishers like BioMed Central (BMC) and Public Library of Science (PLoS) have pioneered an alternative “author pays” model of publication, where the author pays the processing charges for a manuscript to be published, but accepted papers are made available free on the internet, under a Creative Commons licence. This has grown so popular that many traditional publishers now offer an open-access option, while many funding agencies have requirements that the full text of papers from research funded by them must be deposited in a public repository like PubMed. The Wellcome Trust is going a step further and starting its own journal.

Ultimately, the feeling among many scientists is that in the internet age, post-publication peer review is much more useful, and much more effective, than the pre-publication anonymous review that has characterised the academic model so far. Therefore, why not get the journal out of the way — or, at least, have a journal that considers only correctness as a criterion, and leaves issues of “importance” to its readers? That is the thinking behind PLoS ONE, an online-only journal that has published a surprising number of newsworthy papers during its short existence.

And this clash between the old and new worlds perfectly illustrates the situation. John Bargh, psychology professor at Yale, published a study in 1996 suggesting that people’s movements are slowed down by infusing the concept of age in their minds. Stephane Doyen and colleagues recently tried and failed to replicate these results, despite (or because of) using a larger set of volunteers and being much more careful in certain aspects. They published their negative results in PLoS ONE. Bargh responded with an intemperate criticism of the authors, their methods, and, of course, the journal (“which quite obviously does not receive the usual high scientific journal standards of peer-review scrutiny”). He has been quite nicely rebutted in the comments on his own post, as well as elsewhere: Ed Yong’s overview, that I linked to above, summarises it well.

The new ways of communicating science will undoubtedly show up their problems, but they are already working better than the old ways. Now the academic community (especially in fields untouched by the e-print and open-access revolutions) needs to recognise this.

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1 Comment

  1. Its ridiculous… Unfortunately, there is no well reputed open access journal in my branch of the geosciences.


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