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Today’s post is a rant about the research publishing industry – explaining the hole they have dug for themselves and us (via profiteering and a lack of innovation), discussing how the research community supports the system, and exploring efforts to solve the problem.
You will be forgiven if you don’t read on, but understand that this subject is important.
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A reader recently emailed me regarding the 500th post with a list of questions. One of which was: if you were not doing Parkinson’s research, what would you be doing?
In a previous SoPD post I have discussed my “Plan B“, but that involves Parkinson’s subject matter so it doesn’t really count here.
If I’m honest, and I wasn’t working in the area of Parkinson’s, I would be doing one of two things:
OPTION #1: I would be working for Eric Eisner.
Eric Eisner. Source: Yes
In 1998, Mr Eisner quit a high-flying career in Hollywood deal-making and walked into a forgotten corner of Los Angeles education system.
In the Lennox School District – with the support of the Richstone Family Center – he sat down with a group of 7th graders with the simple goal: identifying underserved academically promising students. Once identified, Mr Eisner would equip them with resources and support to facilitate their success through high school, college, and beyond.
In 2010, a not-for-profit program had grown out of his efforts and it became known as the Young Eisner Scholars (or simply “YES”).
I first learnt about this amazing initiative from an episode of Malcolm Gladwell’s podcast, Revisionist History, called “Carlos doesn’t remember” (seriously, you should listen to that episode).
Mr Eisner’s YES program is now nation-wide in the US, and in 2017 they were supporting more than 500 students from elementary school through to graduate school (source).
YES is my kind of capitalism, but Mr Eisner needs to think globally – the next Ramanujan is out there.
OPTION #2: I would be working to help solve the problem of scientific research publishing.
This is a constant source of frustration for yours truly.
At present, large publishing houses control the dissemination of most of the research being generated around the world by keeping it behind pay-to-view paywalls (they also charge researchers an “administration fee” to publish in their journal and insist that they sign over the copyright of the publication to the publisher).
Charging a fee on what should be public information is the worse kind of capitalism: It is rent seeking.
And this week one of the big academic publishing companies made an announcement that made me shake my head.
What did they announce?
On the 24th November, the publisher Springer Nature announced the terms of their “landmark open-access option“.
“From 2021, the publisher will charge €9,500, US$11,390 or £8,290 to make a paper open access (OA) in Nature and 32 other journals that currently keep most of their articles behind paywalls and are financed by subscriptions” (Source).
In effect, the publisher was saying that researchers can pay them (the publisher) a huge fee to make an individual research report openly available to society. What a wonderful gesture, Joe Public will have the opportunity to click and download that piece of science for free.
And the “opportunity” will only cost the researcher almost €10,000.
That’s a lot of money, isn’t it?
It is. And it is a solution to a problem that shouldn’t exist.
The vast bulk of the research being published in the academic journals that are produced by companies like Springer Nature is funded by tax payers (Government awarded grants) and charitable organisations – like the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Wellcome Trust, and The Cure Parkinson’s Trust :). The publishers simply come in at the end of the process and profit by selling the research back to the scientific institutes that produce it.
It doesn’t make much sense.
And many of these publishing companies, however, are privately owned (Springer Nature is 53% owned by Holtzbrinck Publishing Group & 47% owned by the investment firm BC Partners).
On the Holtzbrinck website, the CEO Mr von Holtzbrinck is quoted as saying that:
“Holtzbrinck is passionately dedicated to the progress of science, education, and the culture of reading – all fundamental for the future of humanity. Inspiring creative minds and empowering entrepreneurs is the basis for creating long-lasting works, novel tools, and meaningful networks”
The problem with this statement (beyond the obvious “public money, private profit” situation – Nature Springer had revenues of US$1.72 billion in 2019 – Source) is that publishers like Springer Nature have paywalls which limit “the progress of science” and “empowering entrepreneurs” by blocking access to the “long-lasting works, novel tools, and meaningful networks”.
What happens if people don’t pay the paywall fee?
This has recently been happening.
There are approximately 28,000 scientists working for the University of California across 10 different campuses. They generate 10 percent of all the academic research papers published in the United States (source).
But on the 10th July, 2019 all of those researchers lost direct access to a large chunk of the world’s published research, because the University decided to drop its $11 million annual subscription to Elsevier – the world’s largest publisher of academic journals (Source). Elsevier owns approximately 3,000 academic journals, and accounting for ~18% of all the world’s research output (Source).
Users of Elsevier. Source: Elsevier
They were charging the University of California $11 million per year to access the research that they were taking part in producing.
Stop and think about the stupidity of that situation for a second. The university needs to find money every year to do research and then it needs to find more money to access the product of that research (?!?).
Germany, Sweden, Hungary & Norway also cancelled their subscription contracts with Elsevier after prolonged negotiations failed to find common ground (Source).
But how do researchers in these countries access the research if they can’t get inside the paywall?
It’s a bit cumbersome, but they simply email the researcher who published the research and ask for a reprint (or PDF) – which has always been the tradition.
Why do scientific research publishers charge so much?
The editors at Nature Springer suggest that “A large proportion of their production costs come from evaluating manuscripts that are ultimately rejected; when revenue can be collected only from the few articles that get published, the fee per article is high” (Source).
Now ignoring the fact that the publishers already charge an “administration fee” to cover the costs for research reports being published in their journals, the publishers do employ a lot of people around the world to support the publishing of research.
BUT the bulk of the “evaluating manuscripts” activity is conducted by a process of peer-review. That is to say, other scientists working in a specific field of science are asked by editors to annonymously review a manuscript before it is published.
How much do the researchers get paid for that?
Do they get a discount on access to paywalls?
Not even a happy meal voucher?
It is always done for free by the researcher. Typically outside of their hours of research and teaching time. It is considered a necessary duty within the research community.
So publishers charge for access to the research that other people have generated after they have asked additional people to freely edit for them?
Yep. And don’t forget the admission fee and the signing over of copyright parts of the deal as well.
I thought researchers were intelligent people. This is crazy. How did we get ourselves into this idiotic situation?
It is generally accepted that the title of “first academic journal ever published” goes to Journal des sçavans. It was first published on Monday 5th January 1665, and it was a 12-page pamphlet that contained a mixed bag of content, including obituaries of famous people, legal reports, and church history.
A couple of months later, however, the more scholarly the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society went to press for the first time on the 6th March and it has been publishing ever since.
The publishing of academic ‘research’ during this period, however, was not terribly fashionable and those who did actually publish were usually ridiculed. New discoveries were more typically announced by monograms and in large books years after the fact, which caused raging disupts in the 17th century over who actually made specific discoveries. The adoption of publishing research discoveries in journals gradually helped to solve this problem (…sort of).
The early scientific journals embraced a basic business model of being run by a single proprietor (or small group) who had full editorial control over content. The peer review process didn’t really become a standard operating procedure until the mid 20th century. Around that same time, large commercial publishers began to acquire the more prestigious research journals, which had been previously maintained by academic societies.
And this is where things started to go down hill.
The large publishers brought methods of efficiency to the mix, but due to the inelastic demand of these journals, the publishers were able to rapidly raise subscription fees. And this ability to print money only encouraged them to absorb more journals. By 2013, the “big five” academic publishers (Elsevier, Nature Springer, Wiley, Taylor & Francis, and Sage) accounted for 50% of the academic published industry (Source). And the profit margins of the industry are believed to be around 40% (Source).
But why do researchers tolerate this?
Primarily because there are few measuring sticks of success (or “impact factor”) in research. And an easy method is look at the number of journal papers a researcher writes within a period of time and balance that with the prestige of the journals those reports are published in. Thanks to the nature of the peer review process, this is presented as a fair measure of output.
What is the “impact factor”?
Impact factor is a measure that is used to evaluate the importance of a journal or scientist, by assessing the frequency with which any article within that journal (or written by that researcher) has been cited during a particular period of time.
The impact factor of various journals. Source: Nature
It is a crude, gameable measure, that researchers love to hate. But at the same time, they slave after it. Their careers depend on it, and it is a source of terrible stress for them, as impact factor can also influence if one gets funding to do the research.
This is crazy. What is the solution?
Well, it is not a simple situation.
The easy answer is that researchers should stop publishing their research with these academic journals. But to do this, alternative methods of disemination or measures of output must be in place.
And there have been efforts to set up alternatives. Preprint servers (such as bioRxiv), for example provide a wonderful means of openly sharing research before publication, but it is A.) pre-peer review (meaning that the research has not been independently checked), and B.) not everyone’s cup of tea (some researchers are scared to share their research pre-publication as they might be “scooped” by another researcher who could publish their similar results first – remember their careers are on the line).
So researchers are just going to have to pay £9,000 to make their research open access?
This is the part of the equation that I don’t understand.
There are now so many avenues for preprint open access manuscripts of research to be made available that I don’t understand why the publishers at Springer Nature are making this move. They appear to be doing it to appease the supporters of “Plan S”, but there is limited imagination or innovation being applied to this move by the publishers.
What is Plan S?
Plan S is an initiative that was launched in 2018 by “cOAlition S” to make open-access science publishing the norm. “cOAlition S” is a group of major national research agencies and funders, including UKRI, the Gates Foundation, WHO/TDR, and the Aligning Science Against Parkinson.
So funding bodies are now applying pressure?
Plan S requires that any recipients of research funding from any of these cOAlition S member organisations must make the publication of their results immediately and openly available (without embargoes). This can be done either on open access platforms/journals or through open repositories that fulfil certain conditions.
These requirements are forcing change on both the research community and the publishers.
To their credit, some publishers (including Springer Nature) have agreed to join a pilot scheme. But as the recent announcement from Springer Nature suggests, they seem to be reluctant to give up any control in the process (no matter how detrimental it may be).
So what does it all mean?
Scientific research should be thought of in the same context as lighthouses. A public good that helps to guide members of society when needed. The idea of charging people for access to a lighthouse on a those-who-can-afford-it basis sounds idiotic, but this is exactly what we are currently doing with most published research.
A common question is “why are scientific reports behind paywalls at all?” The answer is inevitably “because it costs money to produce the journals“. But this is not an answer, rather more a justification for the medium – one which is increasingly irrelevant as everything moves online. One could predict that journals will go the way of horses in the age of automobiles, but their riders seem to be reluctant to let them go.
When the first issue of the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society was published, the learned organisation was steadfast in its belief that science could only move forward through a transparent and open exchange of ideas backed by experimental evidence. Some where along the way, however, the society fell into a “free-1-year-after-publication,-then-subscription-paywall-again-between-11-and-70-years” business model that still applies today (Source). The learned organisations seem to have made way for the corporations, but those corporations need to be more dynamic and evolve/innovate.
Perhaps some of Mr Eisner’s young scholars might have some ideas on how they could do that.
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6 thoughts on “EDITORIAL: Paywalls”
Oh how I love this post.
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I published five papers in the original Nature during the ’80s and am still expected to fork out cash to access them (which I would never do). I find that an email to the corresponding author of paywalled articles almost always results in a pdf.
George Monbiot, a UK environment-focused campaigning journalist, lambasted profiteering in scientific publishing nine years ago: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2011/aug/29/academic-publishers-murdoch-socialist
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pretty upsetting when your university library stops paying to access – then how to you do a real study without contrasting and comparing equivalent material to progress your work and others – citizens united has led to this quandary and needs to be overturned so that true democracy can resolve to fix these particular types of issues after it fixes the financial system!
When I worked as a science librarian at a university back in the 90’s (and simultaneously pursued an MSc) I t tried to get faculty interested in this problem. My proposal was simple – once upon a time, scientific societies handled the publishing and they could do so again, especially since electronic publication actually makes things quite a bit easier. Nope – not interested. The Maxwell name is now in the news again; wonder what Robert’s daughter learned from her dad?
Happy to be retired and now and reading in pursuit of my own interest, I am unfortunately often stymied by paywalls. Books are also a problem – I can’t afford to spend $300 for a 200 page book. Sometimes I use the ILL services of my local public library, but not since the pandemic hit. It seems to vary a bit by topic – some topics I can’t seem to find any free content – e.g., agmatine. Speaking of which, sake apparently contains appreciable levels of agmatine. Could that explain the PD sex ratio flip in the Japanese population (but perhaps it is a misconception that Japanese women do not drink much compared to men)?
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It’s not just a problem for researchers; individuals looking to research the conditions of themselves or their sick family members are also deprived of access to research that is largely funded by their own tax dollars.
There should be a role for government to provide the basic server infrastructure for a Wiki of sorts that allows for not only paper uploads and downloads, but also for a peer review process for accounts provided to researchers who are taking on that responsibility. Pre-print on that server would just be a paper that had not yet received a review, and there could also be a category for papers that were rejected, with reasons for the rejection appended to those.
I’m fortunate to have a library nearby which has arranged with local universities to obtain articles requested by its members. Not everyone has that convenience, and even with it, it is a lot less convenient to physically appear to request an article than it would be to obtain it online.
Thank you for highlighting this important issue. And I completely agree with the high moral tone of your article.
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