Science's Parasitic Overlords?
    By Oliver Knevitt | January 13th 2012 12:45 PM | 5 comments | Print | E-mail | Track Comments
    About Oliver

    In a nutshell: I like fossils. But even more than than that, I like arguments about fossils. Which is why my current occupation as a PhD researcher...

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    [Their] monopolistic practices make Walmart look like a corner shop and Rupert Murdoch a socialist - George Monbiot

    Want to know where a huge amount of taxpayers' money invested into science goes?

    Straight into the pockets of publishing companies' shareholders.

    This is probably old news to most people, but the reason why I'm writing about it here is because
    Heather Morrison has released some figures in part of her open thesis (Morrison 2011), and it's best to take this sitting down.

    Around 1/3 of the money that you pay to access a journal goes is profit. For Elsevier, who is the titan of publishers, it is 35.74%. So, if you pay $37.95 to view a journal, about $13.56 is pure profit.

    Safe to say that it's a business model that works well. These are Elsevier's profits over the past few years, found by Mike Taylor
    • 2006: £465m profit on £1521m revenue – 30.57%
    • 2007: £477m profit on £1507m revenue – 31.65%
    • 2008: £568m profit on £1700m revenue – 33.41%
    • 2009: £693m profit on £1985m revenue – 34.91%
    • 2010: £724m profit on £2026m revenue – 35.74%

    Scientific publishing, then, is big money, and moreover, it's easy money. Because, really, they have very little to do. We do the research, we write the papers and we review the papers. The only part that the publisher is involved in is just that; publishing.

    The thing is that, in days of yore, the printed word was the only way of disseminating information about the globe. So, it didn't hurt so much.

    However, it is a little bit more difficult to stomach the fees to get your paper published these days when the paper is simply uploaded to a web page. For palaeontology, Andy Farke put together a list of the various fees that you have to pay, and some of them are a bit unpalatable.

    You might wonder why we, as scientists, put up with it. And to be honest, it's a pretty good question. Why would we ritually insist, year on year, on sending our papers off to publishers who charge us through the nose?
    It is always the gripe du jour in coffee rooms across the world. And, there are open source journals, after all.

    The problem is, if you want your work to be noticed, you have to publish it in a high impact journal. Which then attracts naturally attracts more credence. It's a bit of a self fulfilling prophecy. Many people I know are very suspicious of open journals, and I have to say that, if my paper was accepted by Nature or Science, or even JVP, it would be difficult to refuse. Some people, like Mike Taylor, have said that we should refuse to review manuscripts submitted to non-open publications. But ultimately, it's a slow solution; a bit like trying to kill a diplodocus by giving it thousands of paper cuts. And, as Andy Farke has pointed out, the people who really suffer are the authors.

    I do think that it's very easy to blame the publishers, however. It's partly a natural consequence of the laws as they are. George Monboit has some ideas on how we can resolve this, which I'll leave you with, (making this article a bit of a Monboit sandwich):

    In the short term, governments should refer the academic publishers to their competition watchdogs, and insist that all papers arising from publicly funded research are placed in a free public database. In the longer term, they should work with researchers to cut out the middleman altogether, creating – along the lines proposed by Björn Brembs of Berlin's Freie Universität – a single global archive of academic literature and data. Peer-review would be overseen by an independent body. It could be funded by the library budgets which are currently being diverted into the hands of privateers.

    Morrison, Heather (2011). Chapter two: scholarly communication in crisis. Freedom for scholarship in the internet age.

    These are my views, not those of the organization that I'm associated with


    Indeed, and open access is only an interim solution - it isn't all that great to shift the burden of payment from subscribers to scientists by making them pay to have their articles published.

    I have long advocated an open publishing model - no charge to scientists, no charge to readers - but there is really zero interest.  People want their impact factor - if they can get it free for themselves, great and free for the audience, okay, but few are advocating anything that really fixes the problem.   Some pioneers get arrows in the back - and not many want to be pioneers in publishing, since they are already trying to be pioneers in science.
    we should refuse to review manuscripts submitted to non-open publications
    You start that and those editors won't look at your submissions again (apart from the fact that your paper does not get reviewed if others start refusing to review).

    The solution to this problem should be political. What is politics for if it does not help where a system badly needs reform but internally cannot reform itself due to positive feedback loops? Science apparently cannot reform itself much like the financial system.

    Maybe the problems in science will ever worsen until China clearly has the leading role in the majority of science. They did not let their bankers ruin their economy; they recently preemptively burst their real estate bubble; they mostly know what they are doing. They often put the foot down and radically reform - not like your usual Obama type Western politician who promises such just to be elected and ensure business as usual. Let us hope the Chinese leadership, filled to the brim with secular people knowledgeable about science after all, will tackle the publish-or-perish-journal-funding-etc devil's spiral. The Chinese counterpart of Elsevier could be turned reasonable with open peer review according to strict scientific standards over night. Who would want to publish anywhere else after that?
    Thor Russell
    I agree with most of what you are saying (and I'm pretty sure I understand you, which is not always the case). Out of interest what is your idea of how a society should be structured with the current technology etc? Its clearly not the model western democracy "pseudo-democracy" as you call it. What would you call a real "democracy" and do you think it is a useful term?
    P.S. Don't you know that bubbles can only be identified in hindsight? This law, like many others (the planet can only support x billion people etc etc) is built into the very fundamentals of the universe.

    Thor Russell
    what is your idea of how a society should
    This depends on the aim that you are after. I gave mostly up to talk about "shoulds". My rant there is just a relapse into old times when I was still naive and though I could change the world. ;-)
    What would you call a real "democracy" and do you think it is a useful term?
    Maybe "Democracy and the Wisdom of Crowds" answers this. And this may be interesting, because after all, China is a democracy and decides democratically on all levels, as is mandated in its constitution.
    P.S. Don't you know that bubbles can only be identified in hindsight?
    I suppose this is sarcastic - yes? I certainly knew it is a bubble and so did the Chinese government. Everybody in their right mind knew it was a bubble, especially those who invested by "dance until the music stops" (but stop faster than most of the others). If office spaces are empty and the prizes multiples of what they were before (above average inflation and no value added whatsoever), it is a bubble.
    Its all down to prestige and readership numbers of the journals, but there does need to be some gating and critism of what is published, and that usually goes to the journals. If it was a government funded body, desciding they might be to much secrecy or two acquasions of censorship. On the internet any fool can pick out papers that they like from arXiv, (and today, this fool did), but where does the incentive or authority come from, the number of google link? or the technorati ranking, I think not, nor is joe blogs facebook plus button, as worthy as a cititation from paul erdos. May be science2.0 will be the new paradigm, and top score for prestige as having a very low paper number at Vixra. The present system doesn't work to badly, the universities still pay to by the journals while I can happy read the latest research at arXiv without paying a penny. The journal profits does go back into wages for the staff somewhat, plus the meeting the journals run.
    BDOA Adams, Axitronics