The good, the bad, and the ugly ingredient of the academic publishing business

“If things were half as bad as some people persist in believing, I’d have retired with a bottle of Scotch and a pistol a long time ago.”

― Robert Maxwell


Last week I came across an excellent article in the Guardian’s long read section about the business model of scientific publishers. It was packed with a lot of interesting information on the publishers’ profit margins and how publishers (all upfront Robert Maxwell) first built up the market that survived until the modern digital age (you can read it here).

Especially the history of setting up the business model “academic publishing” which only starts soon after the second world war and the tangential role Robert Maxwell played in setting it up were very insightful to understand the publish-or-perish culture we are currently living in as academics. Making profit out of scientific papers was a central ingredient to the exponential rise of publishing and accessibility of new knowledge. I learned that setting up more and more (profitable) journals were initially good for scientific progress. This progress results from a solid financial basis – that was lacking in many society-based journals – and assured the timely and steady publication of journal issues and hence new academic content. However, our most pressing problems with academic publishing start with introducing a second ingredient – the Impact Factor – into this business model many years later, and the decision of journals to actively boost their IF by selecting the content they accept to publish (Cell was the first who did it). Combining these two ingredients led to a sudden shift in the academic publishing culture that persists and worsens until today as it set the scene for the final ingredient, which is greed. Greed is ever-present in the academic publishing system. It starts with the publishers’ exorbitant profit margins, even tech companies such as Google or Apple could only dream of. And greed ends at the scientists aiming for publishing in higher ranked journals where some would sell their grandmother.

Taken together, pairing a profitable business model with addictive metrics and greed result in the broken publish-or-perish culture academics are currently living in. Unfortunately, there is not an easy way out. Publishers dictate the prizes for subscribing to their journals. And they have an enormous leverage, which is knowledge published in the past. Publishers sit on millions of academic articles, and once libraries are not willing to pay for the subscriptions, access to this knowledge gets locked. Even worse, imagine one of those publishers get broke in the future (even though that seems to be an unlikely scenario in the current system). All of a sudden humanity may risk to loose significant amounts of world’s knowledge. Of course losing this information in the digital age is almost impossible but locking people out from accessing knowledge is daily practice – if you can’t or are not willing to pay the prize greedy publishers dictate. However, this kind of utopic worst case scenario of losing scientific knowledge made me think of an alternative: Why not declaring world’s knowledge (i.e. peer-reviewed primary academic literature) a UNESCO World Heritage? Why not saying that, after a fixed amount of time (say five years?), all academic papers and scholarly books become detached from the publisher and freely accessible and managed by the United Nations? Setting up an archive that systematically stores all these journals, issues, and single articles will indeed also cause costs, but this amount will be little compared to the maintenance of other UNESCO World Heritage objects. Because setting up a digital platform is scalable and much can be automatized.

Apart from such large-scale solutions each of us can contribute towards a better system. Because in a market the customer has quite some power over the market. Moreover, in the academic publishing world, we are both the customer AND the product which multiplies the power each of us has. So, if you don’t like a particular journal or publisher:

–    don’t submit your work to them!

–    don’t review papers for them!

–    don’t serve as an editor for them!

Journals have huge problems in finding appropriate reviewers that look over the articles submitted to them which causes delays in handling each submission and extend the time from submission to acceptance for the successful paper. If you worry about the business model of the publisher, you already have much power by declining review requests. Over time the journal will receive a poor reputation if handling times increase and other scientists will decide to submit their next work somewhere else. Bonus: by rejecting review queries you save much time (thinking of Pareto here).

Speaking of submitting your work, here is also an immense source of power. Each citation your paper receives serves the journal’s Impact Factor (the bad ingredient). So instead of thinking: “which journal has the highest impact factor for my manuscript?” you should ask “which journal deserves to benefit from my citations?”. Personally, I shifted my preferences to society-based journals. These, of course, are also often run by one of the big publishers, but at least I know that some of the profit goes back to the societies which they then use to finance their local bulletin or put it into research or travel grants (to name a few). In this form, the publishing business turns into a win-win for the publisher and the research society – definitely worth to support, even if you’re not a member of the society that benefits from it.

Next to these personal-level decisions which may change the publishing system bottom-up, there is also a top-down approach which should come from the major grant organisations. If these authorities would devote less attention to the journal Impact Factor one is publishing when evaluating grant proposals, we would live in a less greedy system as it would rapidly cut-off one of the main forces that foster greed now: Aiming for the best (read: highest IF) journal.

I think we need to accept that big publisher will take profit from academic output. A switch to open access don’t change the general business model, only the direction from where the money flows. And as Tim Vines, former Managing Editor of Molecular Ecology and Mol Ecol Resources puts it: Running a journal (and here, in particular, the editorial process necessary to get the content) costs money! Those who argue in favour of free science for everyone need to outline a business model that covers these expenses. Exorbitant profit margins are one thing, but even without profit or reserve assets, each paper will cost money! Where should the money come from if not from the subscribers (traditional model) or the producers (open access model)? In the end, money is not the biggest problem. However, greed is. So let us do more against this ugly ingredient in the publish-or-perish system!

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