Scientific publishing – what a con…

I have a confession to make… I have an addiction. I just can’t live without it, no matter how much it hurts me… My drug is scientific publishing.

As a young scientist I must have papers to be competitive in my field.  They are the currency that we exchange for grants and jobs which then (if all goes well) produce yet more publications which we then exchange for bigger and better jobs and grants.  It is often said that an academic’s career lives and dies by their publications. The problem is that this dependency has made us all reliant upon an industry that exploits our need.  The system works like this:

The grant

Most research is taxpayer-funded, and the funding bodies that get a cut of the taxes pass this money on to the scientists who submit the best grant proposals.  The idea is that taxpayers are funding research that will benefit them, whether it be through tangible improvements to their quality of life or intellectual edification through blue skies research.

The science

The dedicated scientist obtains a grant and then carries out their project and finds something interesting (or not) and writes the results up for publication.  The time between the application for the grant and the final paper writing is rarely less than a couple of years and can be more like 5-10 in the case of larger grants so this stage represents a not-insubstantial investment of time and effort.

The peer-review

Now we get to the exciting bit.  Scientists send off their candidate manuscripts to journals in an attempt to get them published.  What follows is a brutal, though civilised, exchange where people who know almost as much about your work as you do attempt to tear your precious study to pieces.  Huge amounts of time are spent by authors, editors and peer-reviewers to ensure that at least the worst mistakes are caught prior to publication (if that is the verdict).

The publication

Hurrah!  You’ve received that email from the editor informing you that “we are pleased to be able to accept your paper for publication in our journal”!  Confetti falls from the ceiling and your career is one step further along while that next job/grant application is going to be strengthened still further.  The editors sends that manuscript, gleaming in all its intellectual splendor, to the publisher for them to do the simple job of arranging the words on a page…

The dissemination

…and for that privilege the publishers make you sign away your rights (“copyright transfer forms” or “exclusive license forms” are mandatory for publication in most journals) to your own work and lock it away behind a paywall.  Individual articles cost between $20 and $40, while a subscription costs in the $100s if you are an individual or in the $1000s or even $10,000s for institutions.  Profit margins are upwards of 20% (more like 35-40% in the case of Elsevier), but these publishers still claim that their exorbitant fees are necessary to produce top-quality publications.

Conclusion

Academic publishers represent a barrier to knowledge, skepticism and healthy discourse by ensuring that the general public cannot afford to test, verify or investigate claims.  They are handed a free product by an industry that is reliant on its publication, only to claim ownership of said product and charge an arm and a leg for others to see it.  There is a wealth of information out there on the interwebs, but much of it is of questionable quality.  Peer-reviewed literature represents a bastion of vetted, high-quality data, interpretation and analysis but its value is proportional to its accessibility which, as a result of the actions of a handful of monopolistic, greedy publishers, is currently limited.

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