You want it, you pay for it

Via a tweet from Chris Surridge (Chief Editor and Associate Publisher, Nature Protocols) I found Richard Poynder‘s potted history of PLoS ONE. Fair warning though: that link goes to a short teaser; the full, 42-page analysis is available as a PDF.

So no, I haven’t read it all.

Neither has Björn Brembs, but he has made a response on his own blog, and no doubt there’ll be more to come. (I have however read enough to sound a note of warning: physicists tell me that by no means all their papers go into arXiv—it varies greatly by discipline, and any paper that has a chance of getting into Nature, for example, won’t go to the arXiv first.)

Björn makes some interesting and downright provocative points (I wouldn’t expect anything less, to be honest). Unfortunately, and perhaps this is PLoS’s fault for muddying the water, no discussion of Open Access seems to be able to avoid running aground on the rocks of peer review. I often find myself explaining to people that open access does not mean poor, or non-existent, pre-publication peer review. Peer review itself has been getting a bit of a kicking recently, and it’s quite heartening to read his defence:

Peer-review is essential to science, whether it happens before or after publication and it is as alive and kicking today as it has ever been, as we can see whenever a ‘bad’ article is published: no matter where it appears, in Science, in Nature, in PLoS One or in the Journal of Cosmology: scientists spring to the fore and rip it to shreds.

Peer review in and of itself is a good thing: how it is done appears to be what is upsetting people these days. Richard Poynder is somewhat disparaging of peer review at PLoS ONE, and with some justification: the pledge that review would be transparent seems to have floundered in the swamps of ambivalence. We at F1000 have some ideas of our own about doing peer review in new ways, and our Posters archive is part of that project.

Björn claims that we need to cut out the middlemen: “for-profit publishers have become obsolete. All the libraries need in order to archive scholarly communications today is a $500 PC – not a 5 billion publishing industry.” Now while that may be true, I do wonder who is going to pay for the hosting; who is going to administer and pay for the DOIs; who is going to provide linkouts, citation tracking (as in ‘who has cited this paper?’), and, actually, who is going to copyedit and format your paper so that people don’t feel like tearing their own eyes out when they try to read it?1.

And of course, who is going to administer peer review in a clear, open and accountable way?

I still think2 all this is going to cost money, and within reason I don’t see why people shouldn’t attempt to run that as a business, just as the coffee shop across the road provides me with a valuable service and attempts to make a bit of money in the process. It’s easy to say ‘Evilsevier’, but we are a in a capitalist economy and history tells us it does better than the alternative, like it or not.

What do you think?

1 I should point out, here, that Peter Murray-Rust is running a hackfest in Cambridge that might address data publication, bibliography management and the formatting issue.
2 I also read enough of Richard’s article to know that what I say here might turn round and bite me on the arse in five years’ time. Oh well.

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Filed under Literature at Large, Open access.


  1. And oh yes, I also meant to ask, who is going to take responsibility for archiving and where is my assurance that this paper is what the authors intended?

  2. nando boero says:

    Economists say that the value of something is linked to the willingness to pay for it by those who want it. So, the work of reviewers is deprived of any value. Of course all this goes into the issue of altruism. I review your papers, so you will review my papers. But, since reviewers are anonymous, who should care? And there is no “punishment” for those who refuse to review papers. Here at F of 1000, at least, we have the satisfaction of appearing as responsible for the review. But I keep receiving kind invitations to review papers (for free) for journals that want me to pay if I want to see in print what I did review for free for them. I have written a book chapter (for free) for a major publishing house. They even sent me a leaflet to circulate, so as to publicize the book, but when I asked for a pdf of the chapter I wrote, they said that it is not in their policy to do so. I even had to buy the book I partly wrote. Of course, publishing in good journals enhances the status of the authors, and we should be satisfied with that. The rewards are the grants we should receive for having made such a fine job, and the enhancement of our career. There is a return, but also the time we have to spend writing grants is overwhelming. Not to speak about the administration that oppresses us when our careers “advance” (apparently, the more we advance the more we turn into clerks, or is it just my impression?).
    It might be interesting to make a cost-benefit analysis and see who is gaining from this publisher-author-reviewer interaction. I bet on the publisher!
    And I go back to the times when I used to go diving in coral reefs in Papua New Guinea (and other exotic places) looking for jellyfish. Now I push paper off my desk all the time. And most of it is manuscripts I review for publishers who sell them once they are printed. Enough to spend the rest of the day scratching my head…

  3. Thanks for the comments, Nando.

    apparently, the more we advance the more we turn into clerks, or is it just my impression?

    –that, my friend, is the subject of a whole other rant!

  4. In principle, I’m skeptical about corporate profits made off of taxpayer funds. These need to be well-justified and never given out lightly. Why shouldn’t non-profit organizations perform the arbitration, peer-review, copy-editing and other services, while university libraries do what they’ve always done: archive the primary literature and data on their own platforms (according to an international, federated standard). I think it is quite telling that the most egregious price gauging, besides the illegal drug market, happens where tax-funds have been siphoned off to line corporate pockets. Any for-profit outsourcing of public activities should be compared to non-profit or in-house alternatives and only if there is a clear advantage to go for-profit should this road be taken. I’m not an economist, but isn’t scholarly publishing a great example that markets don’t necessarily always work as intended?

  5. I see what you mean, but I think you’re missing a couple of things. Non-profits just don’t work all that well: if they did, there’d be a non-profit equivalent of Sigma, or Bruker…

    Second, not all publications are paid for by taxpayer funds. I can’t say that clearly enough.

  6. Non-profits may not work all that well, I wouldn’t know. I guess my point is: you have to try pretty darn hard to be any worse than it is now: 5b in net profit every year for a service that’s not even close to adequate. If Elsevier is a model for the industry as a whole, these 5b stand for something like 15b in sales (30% profit margin, if I understand these terms correctly). I’s guess that 10 billion every single year pay for a lot of computers and a lot of expertise, know-how and monetary incentives.

    There are something like 9k universities in the world ( Let’s assume every one has one university (system). Every single university library on this planet gets one new server for 10k every year together with a team of four experts. Each expert makes 100k per year. That’s 3.6b in personnel costs for 36k people plus a new server package for 90m every single year, and then you still 1.4b shy of just the profit being made in the scholarly publishing industry, which you could use for investments.

  7. Barbara says:

    “…but we are a in a capitalist economy and history tells us it does better than the alternative, like it or not.”
    Rather a sweeping statement given the mess that capitalism and the greed it perpetuates has pushed most of the Western world.

  8. Kate says:

    Publishing is not as lucrative as people seem to think. (Except for a very small number of mega-publishers.) Even arXiv has a price. Remember this? – Cornell said it cost them $400,000 per year to maintain. That is not free.

  9. Paul Thompson says:

    I have been involved with the TeX/LaTeX community for 30 years. Every year, it gets less functional. Right now, a group of volunteers is trying to revise LaTeX and the basic engine. It has been on the horizon for 10 years. It’s the format of the future, and always will be, I suspect.

    For profit publishing cannot be replaced by volunteer labor. It simply cannot. There are dozens of reasons, but it comes down to one simple thing: You cannot get people to volunteer to do boring shit. Plus stuff is always changing.

    If people are talking about replacing for-profit publishing with volunteer stuff, in 10 years no one will be able to find anything. Stuff will disappear. Stuff will not get converted to the new format.

    It will be a disaster.

  10. Paul Thompson says:

    And for the notion of Brembs that we do it with distributed computing in the 9K universities, each of which will presumably be maintaining 5 or 6 journals. Of course, each of them will have firewalls, and thus we will have 9K firewalls to negotiate with. Plus, each will have 1 of the 4 programmers who decides to rebuild the database, to improve it. After 2 months, we will have 9K structures of databases. Life will be fun.

    With open source, everything is free. All that you pay is all your free time and most of your hair. As a veteran user of perl, LaTeX, BibTeX, cygwin, and a number of other free tools, I think that free stuff is not a long-term sensible strategy for people who don’t want to spend all of their time saving $25.

  11. Dad Fourkids says:

    The main problem with the current for-profit journal system is simply that they are for-profit. Many of the most prestigious have become consolidated into the hands of a single publishing group, the parent corporation of which has financial ties to the pharmaceutical industry. Dr. Marcia Angell, when leaving her position as editor of the New England Journal of Medicine wrote a final essay outlining how the for-profit pharmaceutical industry was co-opting the medical reearch industry, making universities and hospitals beholden to their grants, journals and news media dependant upon their advertising budgets and fielding more sales reps than research assistants to push teh off-label uses of their products completely sidestepping the peer-review process as it is supposed to work.

    Indeed, there has been a growing problem of medical research being ghost-written by those who have a direct interest in the outcome with the names attributed in teh publication heading sometimes having nothing more to do with the study than cashing the check they were given for the use of their name. The FDA is also a large part of the problem, as they drifted from their misson as watchdogs under the Clinton Administration to becoming partners with industry to fast-track medications to the market, with the noble intention of saving lives. This has instead lead to such debacles as granting license to Oxycontin with the research claiming it was non-addictive, taking more than 2 decades to put a black box warning on stimulants like Ritalin and Adderall to alert physicians and patients of the cardiac risk, and the adoption of Prevnar in the chilhood vaccine schedule (the first billion dollar vaccine), which has failed in ten years to reduce the number of children being hospitalized for the targetted ear infections but which has culled the more easily treated pathogens allowing anti-biotic resistant strains to become the dominant.

    In an essay published in the British Medical Journal, Richard Smith suggested that the current system is indeed biased beyond repair, and the better alternative is to open publish online and let peer review occur after the fact to weed out the dross. Reviews like Cochrane have increasingly shown that the peer review we are led to believe is happening actually isn’t, and if we are to restore integrity to the scientific/medical research community we need to remove the inherrant greed of the for-profit world from our research review process.

  12. Dan says:

    Journals are a relic from the past, when printing was the only way to spread the knowledge. Today, there should be one database where all papers are loaded in a standard format. Google could search all of them for any combination of words, so journal titles become irrelevant. The reviews from peers could come after the paper is uploaded, and could become part of the record. Personal bias and prejudice of individual reviewers as it is today might be balanced by the average of feedback from more readers. The ridiculous beauty context for “high impact” journals will be over, and work will be judged by intrinsic merit, style, current dogma, politics and everything else, as it is happening today, with the only difference that things will happen in the open, not behind the doors of one all-potent editor. There is no way to avoid the change in the current system, except with pressure from the current publishers, at least not in the West. Yes, there is less money to be made from this new system, and less control. But there is always a chance that this system will fluorish somewhere else, maybe in China, and then Chinese, not English, will be soon the language of science. One could delay progress, but change is innevitable and if it starts somewhere beyond the reach of current power-holders, will only take “everyone” by surprise, but it will happen nonetheless.

  13. JQ Johnson says:

    >I do wonder who is going to pay for the hosting; who is going to administer and
    >pay for the DOIs; who is going to provide linkouts, citation tracking (as in ‘who
    >has cited this paper?’), and, actually, who is going to copyedit and format your
    >paper so that people don’t feel like tearing their own eyes out when they try to
    >read it?

    Some of these costs are negligible. Assignment of DOIs, for instance, only costs about $1 per article, though forever managing the server that the DOI redirects to costs more. If a journal is hosted at an academic library using Open Journal System, the hosting costs can be absorbed into existing costs of doing business. On the other hand, marketing the journal so that relevant potential readers actually find out about it, the first-copy per-article costs of copyediting and layout, and the long term commitment to preservation as technology changes, are all non trivial. The good news is that libraries are already in the business of long-term preservation.

    My own guess is that with current technology one can publish an online open access journal for $100 per article loaded cost not counting volunteer faculty labor. That’s a lot more than the $100/year sometimes bandied about, but also a lot less than the $1000 to $5000 per article that many commercial journals spend.

  14. Dana L. Roth says:

    I think it is disengenuous to talk about publishers as though commercial companies are the only choice. I would suggest that more attention should be paid to truly non-profit publishers such as the American Physical Society. Society publishers, in general, have a long tract record of providing very cost effective publications. Society publishers maintained a very efficient balance between subscription rates and author charges before commercial publishers forced virtually everyone to a subscription model.

  15. Jay Currie says:

    Excuse the naive question, but are reviewers paid?

    The stuff behind the paywall is $30.00 a shot so, assuming 100 downloads, do the reviewers make a rightous 10%? That is, split the $300.00 pot?

    My understanding was that the reviewers did it for free and without attribution. But I might be wrong.

  16. I’ve written a more coherent hypothetical scenario of what one could buy for the ~5 billion dollars of profit the corporate scholarly publishers make. Most importantly, the 5 billion are just the profit, not the sales, which are in excess of 15 billion.

    Obviously, journals are dinosaurs, so the 9k (or 10k, it’s such a round number 🙂 university library servers all make up one distributed database for primary literature and data. This database would be fully searchable and crawlable for text- and data-mining, citations and references are of course direct hyperlinks, maybe even with a link typology. Users accrue ‘Karma’ for reviewing, editing, publishing, commenting, curating, entering raw data, anything that the community would find valuable in a thoroughly researched and vetted reputation system. Sounds like technology of the future? The technology is already around, it just needs to be implemented. There are zero technological developments to be made in order to realize such a system – only historical baggage and the inertia 5 billion can pay for to overcome.

  17. Sarah Coleman says:

    But open access is not free! To pubblish in open access, the authors have to pay between 1500-2500 dollars per article. More people may be able to read those articles, but that money is coming from somewhere – and going to the pubblisher.
    And yes, the organisation of the mass of literature generated is necessary. This means a pre-publication review system and journals, because really – who has time to read everything which could be put ot there?

  18. Joe Kraus says:

    To Sarah, The author pays model is just one of the models of OA. There are many many ways Open Access can be provided. The author pays model happens to be the one that some publishers are using to generate income. Other publishers are using donation models, volunteer work models and others. Take a look at this before declaring that all OA is author pays…

  19. Pete says:

    “Chief Editor and Associate Publisher”. I’m in awe and lying on mjy back…