The racket of academic publishing

September 1, 2011 • 9:22 am

I’ve always thought that two of the most overpriced things in the world are lattes at places like Starbucks, and the prices of some academic journals.  Most laypeople, whose taxes go to fund scientific research through institutions like the National Institutes of Health or the National Science Foundation, aren’t aware that if they want to have access to the results of their largesse—the scientific articles that emanate from that research—they have to pay huge amounts of money.  And some of those journals turn huge profits from the bloated subscription fees and prices for journal articles (the latter can reach more than $50 US to buy and read a single article online!).

In Monday’s Guardian, author George Monbiot reveals the sordid and grasping capitalism of academic publishing in a piece called “Academic publishers make Murdoch look like a socialist.

If you’re a scientist, read and weep: Elsevier, one of the most notorious offenders, turned a profit of 36% last year.  As Monbiot shows, the journals claim that these exorbitant profits reflect the value added by the journal, but that’s hogwash.  Remember that virtually all of the scientific vetting of the papers published is done for free: as a public service by other scientists!  We get nothing for our close scrutiny that decides which papers get published and which are put in the cylindrical file. 

Further, the subscription rates to libraries are often equally exorbitant (though cheaper online): Monbiot notes that a paper library subscription to Biochimica et Biophysica Acta is an astonishing $20,930 per year.  Of course, if you belong to a university that can afford such a subscription, you can get the papers for free, either in the library stacks or online, but that still leaves the layperson—and scholars at the many institutions that can’t afford these subscriptions—out of luck.

Open-access publishing, free for everyone, is a better deal, but it’s still somewhat of a scam, for in many such journals the authors have to pay thousands of dollars in “publication fees” just to get their articles to appear.  Where does that money come from? From taxpayers, for it’s simply taken out of the part of research grants devoted to “publication.” The taxpayer gets the results online free, but also unknowingly foots the bill.

Monbiot’s solution, at least the first part, is eminently sensible.

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.

It outrages me as a scientist that I review papers for free (and this often takes an enormous amount of time), while the journals for which I review rake in huge gobbets of cash.  It’s unfair to scientists, and it’s unfair to the taxpayers.  I’m not sure how good a suggestion a single global “publication,” is, though—it would be nearly impossible for a scientist to winnow for good research, for we often direct our attention to those journals known to have stringent quality control and a history of publishing good papers. But at the very least, the public should have low-cost or free access to the research it funds.

Academic publishing is the Starbuck’s latte of science, and the scam has to stop.

h/t: Matthew Cobb

88 thoughts on “The racket of academic publishing

  1. Yes – librarians were crying over this. Universities are still getting ready top scrap libraries and replace them with ‘learning hubs’. This includes the medical library – quite what they think students will do to find information I do not know – “oh, but it is all on line!” Yes, in your dreams and those of Elsevier…

    1. And the funny thing, when they say “its online” they really mean “you can pirate it”. I can wonder if the scientific publishers have ever looked to see just how many of their $200 texbooks are a click away, and how long it will take before they realize they can sell more books directly if they aren’t scalping people.

      1. Where, may I ask, would I “pirate” them (I believe by “pirate”, you mean “torrent”)? Demonoid? Pirate Bay? Is there a special torrent site specifically for scientific papers?

        1. I’ve seen issues of Nature and Science up on both of those sites, along with big lists of textbooks of all stripes. Even more than that though, a lot of researchers put pdfs of their papers on their personal websites, so you can frequently find a pdf of a paper just by searching on its name. And then there is just going to the library with a USB stick. I’d not call that “piracy” per say, but once you have the pdfs, you can keep them and trade them as often as you like, and the high price gives a lot of incentive to do that rather than buy them. Its just a smaller population of people right now… but given the younger generation is much more accustom to this sort of thing, I can imagine it being a bigger problem in the future.

          1. I’m always so appreciative when authors post PDFs at their own sites! I wonder if there’s any way to encourage this?

            1. I think it would usually be a final draft rather than the full thing from the journal, or they would be breaking copyright. It is a tricky area. I certainly think backfiles from say 10 years ago ought to be made freely available. After all, academics get nowt for putting their work out – except of course the kudos etc.

              1. I routinely get email requests for reprints, and I’m always happy to oblige with a pdf. Posting pdfs on an author’s homepage is ok, under some circumstances. It depends on the terms of the publishing agreement the author must sign with the journal.

  2. The way science publishing works has a direct impact on a lot of small universities and companies, which simply cannot afford the subscriptions to a diverse lot of journals. This is a particular problem when you consider that, for a particular field, important articles can be published in many, many journals. For molecular biology alone there must be hundreds of journals (if not thousands), and a lot of times, you only need a tiny fragment of the article (like its methods and materials, or some of its data). Even worse, you cannot evaluate a paper through the abstracts that they give you.

    I honestly think that the publishing companies, as large as their profits are now, are screwing themselves out of much bigger profits, since a lot of people simply go to universities (or borrow someone else’s accounts) rather than buy. If they made articles 25 cents a pop, the people who use the university system would just buy them, and the general public might too. But ultimately, I think this isn’t something that should be farmed out to companies for profit. The whole point of science is to produce information for everyone, and putting it all behind a pay wall makes us all poorer.

  3. Totally. And then, to add insult to injury, journals usually expect authors to find every typo and reformat the figures into whatever graphics format they like to work with. What’s the point of having professional publishers, and paying excessive costs for them, if they don’t even do half the work you’d expect from a regular publisher?

    The big problem is, all the time performance review is linked to Impact Factors and publishing in “High Impact Journals”, the publishers have scientists over a barrel, and they know it.

  4. If scientists like yourself are curating the content, would it be a stretch to start a wikipedia style site where only only scientists like yourself are allowed to curate the content?

    (Would be great to have a hyperlinks to supporting articles…)

  5. I understand why the peer review can’t be paid for, since that would taint the review

    but I didn’t know that there wasn’t a general salary or stipend available to the peers to compensate for their time and skill for reviewing

    that does seem rather criminal to make profit off the volunteer – sort of like if blood donors weren’t paid for blood, but the collecting agency would sell the blood and profit from the collection

    perhaps the journals should have to put those profits into research grants or into universities to offset research?

    1. a very few society-published journals do pay a small honorarium for peer review. The Journal of Experimental Biology is one.

  6. Yes, I agree that this is a scam.

    At times past, before there was an Internet and before desktop publishing software was readily available, the publishers did add value to the process, though they overcharged even back in those days.

    By now, we should have completely open publishing of all academic research. If there is a cost for some editorial services still needed, then ways can be found to pay for that. We would be better of without having to pay huge ransoms just to access research publications.

  7. I’m paid by taxpayers so in my case they’re paying twice: for what I’m supposed to be doing and for the dozens of hours a year I spend reviewing papers.

    And then people who want to read the papers I review have to PAY AGAIN.

    It’s madness. And it is an outrage that the people who pay for the research can’t see the results for free.

    I’m so embarrassed when someone asks what I do for a living and I refer them to a paper they can’t even see. It just cements the idea the public already have about scientists swanning around – on actual swans – in ivory towers.

    1. So, give them a copy of the paper. Do you really believe you cannot give them a copy of a paper you wrote, edited, etc.? Can you imagine a judge anywhere who would deny you that right? Yes, you probably should not give them a pdf of the published version (the journal probably “owns” that “look”}, but I can’t see how you could not distribute your own paper as freely as you wish. Yes, the journal may get upset, but so what?

      The USA military gets an automatic pass on these silly “copyright” handovers (i.e., members of the military, when publishing as such, cannot sign over the copyright): we just need to extend that same restriction to all academics.

      But, it is even simpler than that. My university board (and yours) could simply mandate that restriction, and I (and all my colleagues) would then be constrained from signing off on these ridiculous (and probably unenforceable) copyright hand-overs. Any journal that refused to publish an article just because of that restriction would, I think, disappear within a week, including (one hopes, or especially) Science and Nature.

      That said, be your own board: and just refuse to sign over copyright. If a journal than says it cannot publish your article because of that, let the world know. The difference now is, you can: the internet makes that possible.

  8. Other online discussion sites have addressed the problem of separating the wheat from the chaff.

    Before I get started, the Wikipedia model is horridly broken. Don’t even think about doing anything like Wikipedia.

    First, anybody anywhere would be permitted to submit a paper for review.

    The paper then gets double-blind reviewed by so many people in the pool of reviewers. This can be set up in multiple tiers, akin to how today there are the reviewers and the publishers — a paper might get glowing reviews but the publisher still might not decide to use ink on it.

    After sufficient review, the paper is published with its overall score. Low-ranking papers get filtered out of all but the broadest searches; the highest-ranking papers come to the top of search results (and might be something for the print magazines to use ink on).

    Each author gets a score associated with the overall ranking of all papers, with older papers getting lower scores as they age. Once an author’s score reaches above a certain threshold, that author then becomes a reviewer. Privileges are revoked if the score drops too low, as would happen if the author started publishing bogus papers or stopped publishing altogether.

    The system should be primed from any of the existing rankings of scientists, such as one that assigns a score based on the number of citations. And, obviously, the calculation for scoring would need to be adjusted to keep a healthy ratio of reviewers in the system.

    Anybody who wants to run with this idea, please do so.



  9. What about college schoolbooks? My Intro to Macro-Economics book was $265! It’s only $100 if I want an e-text, so the printing and delivery of an actual book is worth an extra $165?

    Luckily I found a place I can rent it for $60.

    1. Textbook prices are also ridiculously inflated. We need to encourage students and their parents to look for cheaper alternatives and stop feeding into this high margin publishing racket.

      Just as an example, a very popular introductory textbook on linear algebra by Gilbert Strang costs between $70 and $80, whereas a very good, even superior, alternative (Matrices and linear transformations, by Charles Cullen) is only $15. Of course you don’t get a hardcover or flashy pictures but that doesn’t add anything to the quality of the content. It only adds physical weight and the sad feeling of throwing money away at the end of the semester.

    2. There is a model for buying textbooks that we are using at the (mega)university first year chemistry program for which I am the Director. I’ve negotiated a eBook/on-line-homework price with the publisher and for an additional $10, the students get a full color loose leaf version of the text (for just under $100). This has a number of potentially positive side-effects:

      (1) The publisher evens out their revenue stream and becomes less tied to the (typically 3-year) revision cycle for the text. There is a time limit on the eBook/homework access (24 months), but the students obviously can keep the loose leaf copy of the text. Bookstores won’t buy it from them, so the used book market doesn’t eat their lunch after the first year of the revision cycle.

      (2) Given (1), maybe the total BS being foisted on the students in freshman chemistry texts (or physics, or biology, etc.) in having texts in their 10th, 11th, 12th (!) editions will stop. These introductory texts just don’t change in any substantive ways from one edition to the next.

  10. Reddit is a distributed, social application for posting information and voting on it. It’s also open source.

    Maybe someone should put up a special reddit, and work the permissions out for moderated posting & voting and global reads.

    And then you can have a “subreddit” simulate the journal, where the set of moderators (reviewers) is also public – and in that way, establish reputation.

  11. I have to disagree. Academic publishing is not a scam like Starbucks latte. For that to me true, Starbucks would have to require you to pick and dry the beans, milk the cow, cut down the tree for the cup, process the paper, boil the water etc. etc. etc. And even then, even if they charged you 30 bucks, Starbucks would not be scam-artists in the league of academic publishers. For that, they would have to make it illegal for you to get latte anywhere else.

  12. As far as making papers available to the public, isn’t that what the NIHMS system was supposed to achieve? We all now have to submit accepted manuscripts – at least those funded by NIH – so they can be put online (many journals do this automatically). One of the stated purposes of this was to make taxpayer-funded research freely available to the public. I have to admit I have no idea how user friendly the system is, but I know I’m compelled to put things into it on a regular basis.

    I would love to get paid for reviewing, but it would just raise everyones costs – since I can’t see the publishers cutting into their own share, it would be added to the publication charges.

    For what it’s worth I’d also like to be paid a living wage for doing grant reviews too! Given the time involved I don’t think that thankless task even makes minimum wage, and it definitely makes you enemies – if you are on the panel then even the people who you didn’t review will decide it’s down to you personally that they didn’t get the money.

  13. Thank you, thank you, thank you to Monbiot and to Coyne.

    The Academic journals and books are outright theft. (Forty percent ROI is even better than the thieving health care industry manages.)

    And you two make the case excellently.

    $31.50 to access a paper that I paid for (via taxes) and scientist reviewed for free?

    Stop the economic parasitism!

  14. Check out this. Keep in mind this is a page of protocols from CDC. Click on Escherichia coli O157:H7.

    Now contemplate that. A group of CDC and Washington State scientists choose to publish a standardized protocol in a journal that charges an exorbitant access fee.

  15. How come now one has made a go of starting an open access journal, like PLoS without charging ridiculous publication fees? Just enough to fund the operating expenses and salaries of a small professional staff.

    I’ve thought about this but it seems like the hardest part is initially, having start-up money and getting enough initial publications to really get started. Just seems to me like online only open access journals shouldn’t be terribly expensive. Hell if you make authors use a template for submissions like say, Bioinformatics does, you don’t even necessarily need to do much in the way of typesetting for the final PDF.

    1. Professional editors don’t come cheap. And really, running even an Open Access journal isn’t something that can both be free and deliver high value added from editors. That being said, I suspect that prices can be driven down. However, as things stand, prices aren’t all that high right now. Only $1,000-$3,000 to publish Open Access. Given how many man hours (time=$) are spent on a paper and, for experimental fields, how much money is literally flushed down the drain (after first being converted to reagents), this is a relative pittance.

      However, if we compare PLoS Biology to Nature for example, it is clear which journal is more efficient. According to ISI, PLoS Biology published 266 “Research Articles” in 2010 (this may be a slight over or underestimate). Considering that their current submission fee is $2,900, that’s only ~$770,000 / year. If you count office space, salaries for editorial staff, expenses, etc., that’s a very small operation. Certainly, PLoS Biology takes in far far far less money from authors than does Nature from subscribers. In fact, if I recall properly, PLoS Biology doesn’t even operate in the black by itself. You have to consider interest, grants, donations, and revenue from PLoS One before PLoS Biology can pay its obligations. All in all, PLoS Biology delivers very high quality publications for very cheap, and as soon as they are published everyone has access. This model is far more cost effective for the consumer than is Nature’s model.

      I don’t think the Open Access model is all that bad. Unless we dump professional editors altogether (and some people think that is a fine idea) and somehow erase the operating overhead of running a journal we really can’t slash prices to near zero. The money to pay the journal staff and pay for other journal expenses has to come from somewhere. If not subscribers (the paywall model) or from authors (the pay to publish model), then where?

      1. I’m not advocating free publishing, but I will point out that the extra publishing cost can be prohibitive.

        The extra “value add” of the journals doesn’t always seem to be there when much of the work is unloaded to the authors themselves and the associate editors.

        Surely a leaner model could work just as well, and much cheaper.

      2. I’ll stick my neck out and suggest that we can abandon copy-editing, and have editors only to manage the peer-review process. I’d suggest that most scientists can do a decent enough job of producing a camera-ready manuscript (they largely do for conference proceedings), and that anyone who can’t can either get help from co-authors or can pay a copy-editor privately.

        So what do you need journal staff for? A secretary, and an IT guy to run the website and upload the pdfs, and …?

        1. Or, simply, instruct the reviewers to reject papers not up to proper editorial standards — be they grammatical, typographical, or whatever.

          The submitters are grown-ups who should be able to write as well as a college graduate, and the reviewers are typically university professors. It should be a non-issue, and the few illiterate geniuses out there are perfectly capable of hiring editors for themselves.



          1. I highly doubt it’s only the illiterate geniuses who will fall through the cracks in this scenario.

            What about non-native English speakers doing good science and rightly wanting to publish in high impact journals, most of which are written in English?

            This current language bias is already a problem for them and suggesting we reject manuscripts for reasons that have little or nothing to do with the science exacerbates the problem needlessly.

            Nixing coypeditors isn’t the solution. They’re underappreciated and underpaid as it is.

        2. I have to strongly disagree. Copy editing (as well as professional editing) simply cannot be abandoned. Even in the most extreme model of shifting all of the responsibility to the author (dissertation publishing — the author formats everything, prints everything, writes everything, buys the paper, etc.) oversight is still required. People are lazy, (and sometimes even dishonest) and if there were no gatekeeper like a copy-editor, the quality would suffer. There would be mixtures of formats, illegible figures, etc.

          Sure, there are ways to shift the responsibility to authors in a way that doesn’t overburden them (for example, moving to a real type-setting language and an interface to make using it easier — see LyX eg). But ultimately, publishing is all about clarity, consistency, and transparency. And not only in typesetting. There also need to be professional editors to check that data submission guidelines are adhered to, image manipulation standards aren’t violated, that attribution is done properly, that conflicts of interest are disclosed etc. These sorts of things can’t easily be shifted off onto the reviewers which are already volunteers.

  16. I have to agree, but I’m going to be the selfish one here.

    There are so many papers in the fields of cosmology, physics, astronomy, cultural anthropology, and evolution that I’m dying to read. I’m trying to create my own library of scientific papers on subjects I’m interested in.

    But it’s very hard when the vast majority of the papers I want are not available except for $30 or more US dollars. This is pathetic.

    I’m a poor college student, not some rich elite with time on his hands who finds these papers good light reading over a glass of coffee and a warm toasted muffin with butter and jam. I want the papers so I can read and (attempt to) understand the evidence for many scientific ideas I like to talk about (evolution, multiple universes, the Theory of Everything, black holes, time, Quantum Mechanics, anything about our visible universe, the Big Bang, etc).

    This stuff should be free.

    1. Also, I apologize for being pedantic and a bit pathetic, but I do have to comment on the Starbucks point.

      I happen to like Starbucks.

      Of course, if all you’re getting at Starbucks is a plain cup of coffee or just your average latte, then you obviously missed the point.

      If all you want is some coffee with cream and sugar, that’s what your coffee-maker is for. I would not go *anywhere* for just a plain old cup of coffee. Even lattes have become easy enough to make at home that getting a Latte at McDonald’s is no longer justifiable.

      When I go to Starbucks, I usually order a White Chocolate Mocha, and usually a Frappuccino because I live in Florida where it’s hot more often then cold. I always get a caffeine (read: expresso) shot or two in it. And it’s really damn good.

      I go to Starbucks for the coffee drinks you can’t make at home without some level of preparation and a number of syrups that are rather over-priced. I don’t go to Starbucks for just coffee. And if you do, you have no right to complain about their prices. It’s called a coffee-maker… make your plain old cup of Joe at home. It’s really not that hard, and if you have a programmable one (which I’m pretty sure is standard these days), you can even set it up the night before and only worry about pouring the coffee into a cup and adding whatever it is you like (if anything at all).

      I very nearly punched the moron in front of me in line at my college’s Starbucks (students get a really awesome discount that allows me to go a bit more often than once in a blue moon… I really don’t go to Starbucks that often because it is expensive) who spent over 5 minutes trying to figure out what he wanted before ordering a small black coffee.

      I mean…


      1. I agree that the Starbucks business model is not to sell plain old coffee. It’s to sell coffee-flavored milkshakes to people like you who like a little caffeine with their sugar blast.

        Personally, I prefer it black. But I still go out to coffee shops (usually not Starbucks) because it gets me up and moving and out into the world to interact with other people instead of sitting by myself staring at a screen until my butt goes numb.

        1. You know, it might be because of Starbucks, but I frickin’ *hate* black coffee. I drink coffee for the caffeine, because without caffeine, I would be unable to wake up in the mornings, and coffee is the cheapest and easiest way I know of to get it.

          And just so you know… a friend actually brought back some expensive, can’t-normally-get-in-the-states, supposedly ultra-high rated, “not-bitter-at-all” coffee from somewhere across the Atlantic (from the US)… and I hated that, too.

          Even when I do make coffee at home, I usually use quite a bit of Irish-Cream-Flavored Creamer and a lot of sugar…

          I will be probably be diabetic soon, and I’m only 24…

          But I need the damn caffeine! 🙁


          (And for the record, I put sugar in my tea, too, unless it’s an herbal, decaffeinated tea… it’s because of the bitterness… in my experience, coffee and tea are just too damn bitter)

          1. There’s some quite interesting research about peoples’ varying ability to taste certain bitter flavours, and how ‘tasters’ are more likely to dislike vegetables and other bitter foods. Usually if you add enough sugar these things become acceptable. Mostly behind paywalls though …

            If you gave up the caffeine you’d soon be back to square one and be just the same without it as you are now. Probably sleep better too.

            1. Gave up caffeine?

              Been there, done that. I have an 8 am class. For a college student, that’s early. The only reason I can stay awake thru it is because of the caffeine.

              I don’t drink caffeine all day… just in the morning when I first wake up, assuming I have to wake up earlier than 9, which only happens 3 times a week…

              1. We all have differing biological clocks. My colleague drinks sweet black tea all day. I ditched the sugar in tea many years ago but cannot ditch the milk, however I like black unsweetened coffee as long as it is from ground coffee not instant – a relict of living in Norway!

    2. “There are so many papers in the fields of cosmology, physics, astronomy, … that I’m dying to read. … the vast majority of the papers I want are not available except for $30 or more US dollars. This is pathetic.”

      Actually, astronomy and cosmology is one of the better fields in this regard. All the major journals are run by scientific societies, so there aren’t private publishers raking in profits. Nearly all astronomy papers are available free from NASA’s ADS when they 6 months old ( ) and most newer ones are free on the arXiv preprint server ( ).

      Physics and astrophysics pretty much has this issue sorted. It’s other fields where the problem is. What surprises me is that scientists don’t just sort it themselves by cutting out the expensive private-sector publishers. It’s in scientists’ hands: where they submit papers to, who they referee for, and whether they deposit papers on public archives.

      1. Thank you!

        I knew about arXiv and totally forgot about it. I thought I bookmarked it, but apparently not.

        I did not at all know about NASA’s ADS. That’s also been bookmarked…

        So how’s about them evolution papers?


        Also… neurology papers… I’ve been looking for papers that detail evidence about the faultiness of the human brain; the hypothesized causes of hallucinations, why our memories can be mistaken, and so on…

        1. It strikes me as odd that you’re interested in the primary research from so many disparate fields. If you’re not just interested in the review papers (and even if your are) much of the research is written in hyper-specific jargon. Won’t pop-science books written by experts quench your initial intellectual thirst?

          If so, I recommend Joseph E. LeDoux’s “The Emotional Brain” for memory research and “Synaptic Self” for a general overview of cog sci.

          1. My interest comes from a few areas:

            I’ve read a lot of pop-sci books and watched the programs: I have all of Stephen Hawking’s programs, I have the entire “The Universe” series, and so on.

            I’d like to read the papers behind a lot of this stuff.

            As far as in the cognitive sciences, it’s purely for a debate I’m having with someone who’s convinced that they had a supernatural experience, and vehemently denies how faulty our brains are; he says if I can provide convincing evidence he’ll consider it. And just so you know, he’s proven his honesty about that:

            I, along with others, got him to accept the old age of the earth when he believed in a young earth, we got him to accept evolution when he was a creationist, and then we even got him to accept the Big Bang when he didn’t. We managed to peek his curiosity on the Universe, in fact, and he’s voraciously eating up the pop-sci books and shows on the universe and physics and such.

            So he has a good track record of actually accepting the evidence and changing his views to fit into reality. I’m just looking for the actual papers and actual evidence to show him how our brains pretty much play tricks on us all the time.

            As for evolution… I’m a narcissist… I love debating YECs… but I’m also sick and tired of using Origin of Species and pop-sci books on evolution. I’d like to start using the actual science itself: the papers and so on.

            1. You might make more headway with your friend if you stop trying to convince him that his brain is “faulty” or playing “tricks” on him. In all likelihood his brain is doing exactly what it’s supposed to do — interpreting reality — but those interpretations are being colored by his religious preconceptions. He saw what he expected to see. This is usually a good heuristic and not a trick or malfunction, but sometimes it leads us astray.

              1. He claims that a couple others saw the same thing.

                I’m not trying to convince that his brain is faulty persay, but that the chances of him actually seeing what he saw are ridiculously slim and there is most likely a natural explanation.

                He’s rejected hallucinations induced by drugs, poor health (I’m including even bad headaches, here), physical trauma, and all of that, so I’m stuck basically with the brain itself, which he insists is perfect.

          1. I’ve yet to find them and the couple people who’ve had time for me looked at me like I was a Martian when I asked…

            I go to Florida Atlantic University, so you’d think so, but…

  17. The time is long past for the academic disciplines to get rid of the commercial publishers. Get rid of them – do it online. Not like Wikipedia of course.

    Run the journals like they always have been run – with editors, referees, an editorial board, and so on. Keep the same standards of scholarship as before.

    All the publishers have are the names. There is nothing keeping scholarly societies from founding these new journals – indeed a good fraction of the best-known journals were founded this way.

    Before long, people will stop submitting to the ‘traditional’ journals. Lots of money saved, and added convenience. Indeed, getting rid of the publishers might enable journals to offer a modest stipend to editors and referees. This can be got by charging reasonable subscription fees.

    My fantasy: over the next few years, members of the American Philosophical Society vote to create these new journals. The professors go back to their home institutions and tell the librarians to cancel the subscriptions to all the rip-off journals. Within a short time, virtually all philosophical research could be given in these new online journals, which quickly would recover the prestige that formerly went to the traditional journals.

    Most proposals for reforming scholarship seem very difficult – what I’m proposing here seems in contrast quite feasible.

    For those of you wondering – the philosophy journals are not quite the rip-off the science journals are, but they run the same way – volunteer labour, parasitic profit.

    The publisher of my only philosophy article (who made me sign over the copyright to them) also is a noted organizer of arms trade shows, and I have no desire to reward this commercial activity.

    Get rid of the parasites!

    1. I think one of the impediments to new journals getting off the ground and displacing established ones is the primacy of the Impact Factor in determining the perceived significance of published findings. It may not be the case in all disciplines, but in biochemistry/molecular biology it certainly is. In fact, my dept. P&T guidelines include an average impact factor of the journals in which one’s work is published as a benchmark. Older, more established (but not necessarily more rigorous-not by a long shot) journals garner higher impact factors, and new ones have very low impact factors for several years before starting to accumulate significant citations. Due to the pressure to maximize IF, the favoring of a limited set of journals is self-reinforcing.

    2. Libraries are already cancelling journals – we have no choice because money is so short & the prices so high, so effectively these people are taxing knowledge, which must be wrong.

  18. There are (at least) two distinct models of scientific journal publishing: the society/university press model, and the commercial publisher model.

    The former are usually a lot less expensive. Copeia, for example, the journal of the American Society of Icthyologists and Herpetologists, has an annual subscription of $100 for individuals and $200 for libraries.

    The Journal of Molecular Evolution, published by Springer, a commercial publisher, is $2546.

    (These two journals have different numbers of pages per year, but not an order of magnitude different.)

  19. What would happen if you just posted preprints of your papers on your website? Would the journals actually do anything?

    Most papers in computer science are available this way, in my experience. Though the ones published in Elsevier journals tend to be harder to find, it’s true.

  20. What I don’t understand is why the subscriptions for online access for individuals are so ridiculously high. Surely they could make more money with a service that people could actually consider paying for? What Jo Bloggs is going to pay $30 per article for their own amusment? But a buck each and suddenly there are thousands who’d be interested. And this is electronic content. The added cost burden would be almost nothing, it’s all jam. I don’t get it.

    1. In my line of work, it’s 100% online citation retrieval. I have a source that collects them for me.

      There are a lot of businesses that depend on online citations. Joe Blogger is the least of the worries of the publications companies. Big Pharma is who they cater to.

  21. However, I’m pretty sure that if the research was US government funded, the paper has to be available online for free.

    At least that’s been my recent experience.

    It’s the PubMedCentral link on PubMed. There are other sources of free citations, but the PubMedCentral link is always something that was NIH-funded (I do believe).

    I agree 100% about Elsevier. A scuzzier publishing organization you cannot find.

    Perhaps the solution is simpler than a wholesale throwing the baby out with the peer review. Avoid the bad publishers and use the good.

    I have no problem with the New England Journal of Medicine holding a paper for 6 months behind a pay wall until they open it up for free viewing. JAMA does the same, I believe. As does Archives of Internal Medicine, and several others.

    Surely, someone has a list.

  22. I am not a scientist. I’m an American taxpayer with an inflamed curiosity bump. I’ve been pissed off more than once when my enquiries ended in a pay-per-view publically-funded study.

    Not right. Knowledge needs to be free (in every sense of ‘free’).

  23. The scam of science publishers looks like franchising to me:

    You do all the work, they sell you the packaging and charge fees for the right to use the packaging. Not exactly, but something like that. If scientists wouldN’t be so hooked on getting their stuff packaged in prestigious journals the scam could not work.

  24. One more thing – if you have a library, ask them about getting a copy of an article as an interlibrary photocopy. Universities & colleges usually subsidize these for staff/students, but public libraries ought to be able to obtain material for you as well, & if for private use they are in the UK at least not going to be more than the British Library cost. This may be cheaper than getting it online from the publisher. They send a link to the paper (or a hard copy).
    Worth checking you local & national libraries for this.

  25. My wife’s been talking about this actually – she wants to access Nature Geoscience, but the library just can’t afford a subscription to it. I’m not sure which is worse – the fact that Nature Geo is an online publication and thus presumably has near-zero operating costs and yet still charges enough that the library can’t afford it, or the fact that the library of one of the Universities of California can’t afford a subscription to an online journal!

  26. This is also an issue with science journalism – and one of the reasons why a lot of science journalism is based off of PR.

    Journalism isn’t well paid and a lot of newspapers, due to cost cutting, do not maintain a budget that can be used to cover journals.

    Which means you end up with the original study which could be flawed, filtered through PR which could be flawed, filtered through laymen of varying quality.

    And an editorial process which often, due to cost constraints, can’t do a proper fact check.

    There may not be any malice at any point here – and still the news can come out so badly wrong as to almost be opposite to what the original study found.

    Add to this the news media instinct towards sensationalism and you have a recipe for distrust of science amongst laymen, who are getting their science news via this game of broken telephone.

  27. I agree its scandalous but you can’t see it in isolation – it is part of the culture that venerates publications in traditional high impact factor journals (Nature, Science etc) as the arbiter of academic careers. Its all very well saying we should all publish in free online archives, but tell that to a postdoc with kids who needs to make it pay and knows full well that big ticket publications are the way to keep their careers afloat. To change that culture, then academic hiring policies need to change, and (at least in the UK) the way research departments are ranked and judged needs to change – academics play the game according to the rules that are set – change the rules and the behaviour will change, but until then…

  28. better late than never :

    1. there’s some journals from Elsevier’s Cell Press that are free after a couple years or so. perhaps that’s true for others too. check it out.

    2. being a reviewer is in fact important enough for many PI’s (perhaps not all) to put on their CV if not the NIH biosketch. You can Google up a few to see. also I imagine reviewing papers is a good way to keep one’s finger on the pulse.

    3. I have heard tenured professors complain about how reviewing papers is a “thankless” job. Perhaps that’s like postdocs complaining about being postdocs.

    4. I still see no clear solution to paying it back the taxpayer. This is a tricky problem I think.


  29. I too know the frustration of attempting to access journals I need for one reason or another, but I am surprised that no one has yet mentioned the EBSCOhost ( and/or the ProQuest ( databases. The sites above also have lists of the journals/publications they index and what the frills are (e.g. full-text pdf, charts, graphs, figures etc.).

    Access to these online databases is (usually) free through the local public library, all that is needed is a library card and a computer at home. The Journal of Molecular Evolution mentioned by Gregory C. Mayer in comment #20 is indexed by EBSCO and has full text pdf’s for issues over 12 months old (this is also the case for Nature and Science). Both EBSCO and ProQuest can export references to bibliographic citation software packages like EndNote (I am currently playing around with Zotero and will see if it does too). It is not perfect, but it works well enough for me and I hope others find it helpful.

    1. That’s right – I can also recommend to publish scientific texts (papers, thesis) at ProQuest or (online/offline-)publishers as GRIN ( E.g. at GRIN you can market your texts or publish it in the free area, if you want to let other users profit from your knowledge for free. Everyone has open access and can read and print out your papers for free. As an option you can publish the same work as a book and get 10% royalties of the book sales. And all texts are published with a DOI/ISBN for free.

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