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Op-Ed from Wired: How Traditional Publishing Hurts Scientific Progress

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  • Jake

  • 4,891 posts

Just looking to see what the scientists here think of this op-ed on wired.com.

Source: http://www.wired.com...n-open-science/

Op-Ed: How Traditional Publishing Hurts Scientific Progress

A battle that has raged for over a decade between advocates of open science and publishers of traditional scientific journals is coming to a head.

Eighty five percent of published papers remain locked behind subscription pay walls, accessible only to those affiliated with universities and other large research institutions. But new journals that make everything they publish freely available are growing rapidly. And government efforts to make the results of all publicly funded scientific and medical research accessible to everyone are expanding, despite industry-backed legislative efforts to end them.

Backed into a corner, traditional publishers have launched a public relations campaign of sorts, attempting to justify their business practices by highlighting the value they add by overseeing peer review and editorial selection. Charging for access to their content, they argue, is the only way they can recoup their costs.

This argument resonates with many interested parties. Most scientists value peer review, believing it protects and improves the papers they publish and read. They also place great stock in the sorting of papers into journals organized on the basis of audience and importance, which plays a major role in determining who succeeds in science. The public, in turn, values peer review, believing it determines which scientific results they can trust.

Never mind that publishers are on shaky ground when they take credit for peer review, as reviewers and many editors volunteer their time.
The real problem with the “value added” argument is that value is a net proposition. To calculate the actual impact of traditional scientific publishing, whatever value peer review adds must be balanced against the value lost by continuing to use a subscription based business model to pay for it.

The most obvious cost is financial. Science, technology and medical publishers take in close to $10 billion every year (pdf). Some of this goes to pay editorial and production staff and to fund essential publishing processes. But a lot of money is wasted marketing journals to subscribers and managing access, and there are tremendous inefficiencies in maintaining over 10,000 distinct titles in an era of electronic dissemination.

Subscription journals are also monopolies. If you think a journal is charging too much for a paper, you cannot shop around for a better deal (papers are not interchangeable). For decades publishers have exploited this situation to raise and raise prices, even as one of their largest costs – printing and distribution – has all but disappeared. It is no coincidence that Elsevier – the biggest player in the industry – posted profits of over $2 billion last year.

But it’s not just about money. Even if we paid only $1 a year, we would still be getting a bad deal. Because no matter how much value peer review adds, it cannot make up for the myriad ways in which traditional scientific publishing retards scientific progress.

If you think that scientific research makes the world a better place through treatments for disease, technologies that improve our lives, or just knowledge about the world around us – that is, if you believe in science – then you have to also believe that delaying scientific advances costs lives and diminishes the quality of our society.

When a paper describing a new idea, method or observation spends months bouncing around from journal to journal in the name of “peer review,” any major advance to which it might someday contribute is put off by months as well. The effect of these delays is compounded when you count all the steps – one group of scientists building on the work of others – there are along the path to most great discoveries.

And the access restrictions that are a central part of traditional publishing make things worse. There are many great scientists at research institutions that lack anything like comprehensive access to the literature. Imagine the discoveries that are never made because these researchers are not fully plugged in to what their colleagues are doing.

Open access publishers like PLoS (which I co-founded) and BioMed Central have shown that it is possible to build thriving businesses that provide immediate free access to everything they publish. Many of their journals (e.g. PLoS ONE and most BMC journals) only assess the technical merits of submitted works. But many open access journals engage in traditional peer review and selection too. And in this effort to only publish papers they deem of sufficient import, they inevitably delay publication both of papers they ultimately deem worthy, and those they do not.

To build a system of scientific publishing that optimally serves researchers, health care workers, teachers and the public, we have to sever the acts of publication and assessment. Research works should be made available to scientists and the public as soon as they are finished – following an initial screen to ensure they are legitimate works of science. The same volunteer reviewers and editors would decide how important they are, and to whom they are important, but they would do so alongside and after – rather than before — publication.

There will be some false starts and a bit of chaos. And we will have to give up some deeply ingrained ideas and practices. But in the last century scientists wiped out viruses like smallpox and polio, landed people on the moon and sequenced the human genome. Surely we can build a system for communicating and assessing our ideas and discoveries that actually adds value.

Michael Eisen is a molecular biologist at UC Berkeley and an Investigator of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. His lab studies how genome sequences encode the complex patterns of gene expression that underlie animal development. He is also a strong proponent of open science, and a co-founder of the open access publisher Public Library of Science (PLoS). He blogs at www.michaeleisen.org.


  • 1,277 posts

Mostly correct. AMS is responding to increased competition from non-traditional journals by lowering a lot of publication charges (which are absolutely absurd) so they're having to act less like monopolies. Some of that competition and the kind of thing the author talks about is the Electronic Journal of Severe Storms Meteorology: http://www.ejssm.org/ which costs like $70 to publish. Apparently, they're already getting tons of submissions and it's become well respected quickly.


  • I am an unpopular electric eel in a pool of catfish.

  • 30,549 posts

the first thing to note is that he's specifically talking about publishing related to life science, which is significantly different from the behavioral norms for the hard sciences. there are also several flawed assumptions in this piece. most people have no idea of how much it costs to produce scientific journals in this electronic age. it's not just doing paste-up and slapping it up so that it can be printed.

--the advent of XML has greatly increased the amount of time and manpower needed to proofread and correct publication as if the code can't be validated, the article can't be printed. in addition, since references are now tracked in electronic databases, they must be 100% correct in order to be found. this takes extra money on the part of scientific publishers.

--yes, the time of the peer reviewers is free. but when you are publishing hundreds of articles per day online, those reviews must be tracked, and that side of managing publication is not cheap either.

--furthermore, many publishers have tiered subscription models so that smaller institutions can afford access as well.

are there some publishers who do extort money from their clients? absolutely--on the hard sciences side, look at the issues many academic libraries are having with Elsevier, and the subsequent boycott and migration of scientific content to the not-for-profit scientific presses.

if you read further down in the comments, Matthew Huber has an excellent response which more fully expands on these points. way too many people are on this 'open access' bandwagon without considering the implications: killing off scientific publishers means that work won't be categorized in easily retrievable formats, incorrect citations will mean that the all important citation index number will be lower as incorrect references will simply not be found, and without discoverability, there is no value to anything that is simply slapped up on the Internet (and discoverability in this case does not mean Google).


  • 8,473 posts

Many thanks for weighing in, Wxtrix, especially in such detail. Lacking intimate familiarity with the work of the scientific presses (traditional or otherwise), I refrained from commenting even though Eisen's piece seemed somewhat skewed toward a particular end.


  • Weather Wizard

  • 6,308 posts

I don't think it's too much to ask for an AMS subscription and access to the plethora of journal articles. After a few years they are all available for free anyway.


  • 1,277 posts

Maybe with the reduced color page charge, I can publish an article with color figures for under $5500. That'd be cool.


  • 1,277 posts

I don't think it's too much to ask for an AMS subscription and access to the plethora of journal articles. After a few years they are all available for free anyway.

You mean just getting BAMS isn't cutting it for you?


  • Weather Wizard

  • 6,308 posts

You mean just getting BAMS isn't cutting it for you?

Haha...not really. Actually we get all the different journals for free at work using the .gov domain. But long ago I had a student AMS subscription which I thought was well worth the price.

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