Tuesday, June 05, 2012

Scientific Publishing - Investing in our Future

During the last years, I developed the distinct feeling that my opinion on the promises of open access differs from what the majorities of bloggers preach: That open access is an end to be met by all means, preferably over the dead bodies of established publishers who are ripping us off - us, the scientists as well as us, the public. Scientific publishers, so the story goes, are making huge profits by enforcing high subscription fees for access to research results that were primarily tax funded to begin with. They have no right to deny public access to their journals.

I have splattered my opinion on this around in the comments, here and elsewhere, but thought it would be good to collect them. I am hoping for a fruitful discussion.

I'm all for open access - in principle. I have no library access at home, and it sucks if a paper isn't on the arxiv. I am not however in favor of making open access mandatory as means to enforce change, not at this point. I am concerned that the drawbacks for research will be larger than the advantages.

I'm all for open access in principle - but in practice many efforts I have seen, for example the recent call for an Elsevier boycott, do not address important questions. Michael Nielsen, in his (very recommendable) book "Reinventing Discovery" also supports a top-down approach in which funding agencies require open access to research results published under their grants. I do not support this because I find it to be a well-meant, but short-sighted procedure.

In a recent essay, H. Frederick Dylla, Executive Director and CEO of the AIP, emphasized the importance of creative destruction for progress. To improve on knowledge discovery and dissemination, we have to allow new technologies to supersede old ones, even if that means bankruptcy for some. The example Dylla calls upon is electricity putting out of work people in the candle and oil-lamp industries.

I agree, but I would like to put an emphasis on the adjective "creative" before the destruction. Making open access mandatory in a top-down approach now is like outlawing candles and oil-lamps before households have electricity. Jah, we have open access journals already, but we're not anywhere close by them being able to deliver and replace all the services we presently enjoy, in all the fields that we enjoy them, in all the quality with which we enjoy them, if we enjoy them. And boycotting established publishers just punishes those who have seved our community for centuries, and have served us well.

There seem to be many who believe that mandatory open access will have only benefits for all, except publishers who will be taught a lesson. The evil publishers will be forced to reduce fees, and to shrink profits to a reasonable level. In the end, we will have a system that provides the same service equally good or better, just at lower cost. A no-brainer, so better get a brain.

It is difficult to tell what would happen in fact. A recent survey among libraries found that, if a universal open-access mandate were introduced with an embargo period of six months, this would lead 10 per cent of libraries to cancel all their subscriptions to scientific journals, and about half of them to at least cancel some. (PDF here, see also THE for a summary.) This report was commissioned by the Publishers Association, which should have us be cautious with the finding, but not reason to outright dismiss it. Note that the number extracted from the replies are probably underestimating what would be the actual effect because once the option exists, pressure will be mounting to cancel subscriptions.

Another study by the PEER Project found that openly accessible self-archiving by researchers or universities would not have such a drastic effect. I suspect the difference between the studies is one of expectation what the archiving would look like. The study by the Publishers Association asked specifically "If the (majority of) content of research journals was freely available within 6 months of publication, would you continue to subscribe?" which suggests that what is freely available is access to the published paper on the journal homepage itself. Self-archiving on the other hand seems to me to suggest alternative online deposits, which are of very limited use for reasons of archiving, searching, filtering, tagging, referencing and so on.

Thus, the findings of the Publishers Association, that libraries would dramatically cut back on their journal subscriptions should open access become mandatory, are plausibly correct. This in turn would lead some publishers to go bankrupt or at least dramatically drop their subscription fees. And that is, after all, what many in the open access movement are hoping for.

So, having seen that this is where we might be going, let us ask what the risks are. For that let us get back to the claim that publishers are making unduly profits, and have a look at how the system is presently organized.

Research and development, and knowledge discovery in general, is essential to innovation. It is however a process that runs on a very long time scale, too long for it to work well in a purely capitalistic system: There isn't enough tangible outcome in the short run. Thus, literally all developed nations fund academic research publicly. Private funding exists, but it is more the exception than the norm.

Now this, mostly publicly funded research, needs tools to structure, filter and archive the produced knowledge. For that we have historically used commercial publishers who are working in competition with each other, much like in a free market, but are serving almost exclusively to the research communities. (Many publishers have popular science offers too, but the bulk of money comes from journal subscriptions.)

Are these subscriptions are overpriced? Are publishers making too much profit? That is not an easy question to answer. Basically, this claim means there is something wrong with the competition, something is not working with the market. Maybe it is the case that publishers make too much profit, I don't know. But I think what also plays a role for this perception of too high profits is a misunderstanding of the function of scientific publishing. The publishers themselves are trying to optimize profit, all right, after all that's how capitalism works. But the receiving end, the scientists or, in practice, the libraries, are not optimizing profit. Or at least they shouldn't. Their purpose is to do the long-term thinking, they have to think about how people tomorrow will be able to access and understand the knowledge generated today and yesterday. What do we need for that? What serves this goal?

Now look: There is an obvious tension here as financial pressure rises. Libraries get under pressure to cut subscriptions. They will cut first where there is the least resistence. That means presently unpopular and small fields. How do we know we will not regret this in a decade or two? We don't. It's a risk for knowledge discovery. Is it worth the risk? We don't know. That's bad enough already, but now ask what the publishers do. They bundle the non-popular stuff with the popular stuff in unpopular packaging deals. Why? Because otherwise they'd have to cut the stuff that's become non-popular and then it's gone for good. Now the libraries complain because the publishers are carrying on with publishing and selling research they don't want to buy any more.

Wait - that sounds like publishers are the ones holding up the torch, being concerned about the future of knowledge discovery while the scientists are the ones trying to optimize their profit. Odd, no? You shouldn't believe this any more than you should believe that publishers are evil bloodsuckers.

And now, in this situation under tension already, the open access movement wants to increase pressure on the publishers, believing that we'll end up with the same service and quality at a lower cost. No way, I say. What's more likely going to happen is that some smaller publishers go bankrupt or are bought by larger ones. And the larger ones will start throwing out what's the least profitable, serving to what seems to be the demand of the day. It's not their responsibility to do the long-term thinking. You can't blame a for-profit organization for wanting to make profit. Except, come to think of it, that's what the people signing the Elsevier boycott seem to be doing.

I personally am particularly concerned about the archiving that can be provided by relatively inexpensive depositories, which is why I like my papers to be published in print. I simply don't trust the presently available digital archiving systems, neither software nor hardware. Look, I've grown up, basically, among Roman ruins. It wasn't all that uncommon for the farmers in our neighborhood to find relics of Roman dishware or jewelry (right next to the WWII bombs that is). I'm thinking in thousands of years when I say I want knowledge to be preserved. Empires come and go. Make sure the knowledge stays. Which open access journal do you trust?

Another relevant point is the aggregation and searchability: The more information we have the more important it becomes that content is suitably filtered, tagged, searchable, classified and maintained, even if the original editing is already done. All these services cost money and are unlikely to work well in a low-cost splattered self-archiving. Are you sure the services we presently have will continue or improve? Capitalistic considerations, as we have already noted, are not serving innovation well in the long run. So why do we apply this argument to scientific publishing now?

The problem, in my eyes, is how we think about scientific publishing. For many researchers it has become primarily a cost factor, one that presently is hard to circumvent. But for me, it's an investment. It's an investment into our future, like research itself. And that investment, long-term like that into research, isn't one that should be decided on monetary arguments.

This role of scientific publishing is however obscured by the present funding practice in which journals are a cost factor to libraries, rather than, well, an investment of our societies. But if published scientific research papers are widely considered to be a service to the public that should serve the public, then the publishing too should be funded like a public service. So let publishers elaborate on their contribution to knowledge preservation and have them write proposals for funding. Let library committees judge on the merit and promise of these proposals and distribute grants. This would move the emphasis from destruction to creation, and it would put into place criteria that benefit research rather than primarily reduce cost. And it would almost certainly move us towards open access.

We should come to see scientific publishers as our alleys rather than our enemies. After all that's what they've been for centuries.


Scientific publishing serves many purposes: There is peer review, editing in its various forms, filtering and classifying, sorting and referencing, archiving, maintaining and distributing. Each of these services takes time and effort. They all have a monetary value. Here are some numbers, quoted from this document:

  • Peer review has real costs and there are no economies of scale. Average cost $250 per manuscript for salary and fees only, excludes overheads - infrastructure, systems etc. (heavily affected by rejection rates)
  • Excluding peer review, average production cost ranges from $170 to over $400 per article (again excluding all overheads)
  • Annual publisher platform maintenance costs ranges from $170k to $400k (excludes set up and development costs typically costing hundreds of thousands of dollars)"
The cost per paper is not negligible and somebody has to pay it. Even the arxiv, one of the best known, most widely used and accepted depository of papers, has been struggling to run sustainably, and they just about manage to. (For more on the arxiv budget, read this). And that's a depository only, if with some moderation. No peer review, no editing, no print, no press, no whistles and no bells.


My husband works for a large scientific publisher, Springer. He does not however work in journal publishing, but for a scientific database in print and software. He also hasn't read what I just wrote. Now time to hit the publish button.


  1. You've said all that counts in my opinion here:

    "The problem, in my eyes, is how we think about scientific publishing. For many researchers it has become primarily a cost factor, one that presently is hard to circumvent. But for me, it's an investment. It's an investment into our future, like research itself. And that investment, long-term like that into research, isn't one that should be decided on monetary arguments."

    Take care Kay

  2. I think I have the most balanced thoughts on this subject, which I have discussed at length on other blogs. Since I post under my real name, it should be easy to find my contributions. Please consider them.

    I am also sceptical of throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Sometimes, such discussions move on to the merits of refereeing etc. That is a separate discussion, or at least should be. However, the cost of refereeing seems to be bogus, at least in many fields. Are you paid for your work as a referee?

    I think you are missing three points.

    One is the right of the taxpayer to freely access any paper funded by tax money. I think this is a fair demand. Note that this says nothing about not paying someone for publishing etc but does reject the subscription model. I think the author-pays-the-costs model is even worse. I think journals should be run on a non-profit basis by professional societies, with funding coming from long-term grants from governments.

    Second, there is concern not with profits but with profits being too high. Your desktop computer probably has more power than a 1970s Cray, but costs much less. Suppose the manufacturer said yes, it costs more than that 35-year-old Cray, but it has better graphics and, allowing for inflation, actually costs less than one would expect. No-one would buy such a machine, since we know that technical advances have made things cheaper. Ditto for journals. They don't have to do typestting anymore, which was a major necessary cost in the past. (Some do, accepting a LaTeX manuscript but somehow transforming it to another system. I've seen this introduce even more errors than even a sloppy author would and if the changes aren't marked in the proof it is a real pain.) The costs should have gone down, but they have gone up.

    Third, you mention archiving. Yes, very important. However, suppose a publisher goes bankrupt. What guarantees that any archiving done survives? Obviously, the publishers won't make the behind-the-scenes valuable archiving stuff you value public, so they can say "if we don't survive, then neither does all this data". I think that now that arXiv is run by Cornell University that one can be reasonably sure that it is safe for the future, at least as safe as with a commercial publisher.

  3. "And boycotting established publishers just punishes those who have seved our community for centuries, and have served us well."

    Note that the ownership and/or publishing of many journals has changed hands. Tradition isn't always what it appears to be. Also the publisher Elsevier has nothing to do with the traditional Dutch publisher of the same name.

    Note that Elsevier was also involved in publishing fake journals, i.e. paid ads made up to look like journal articles, and had editors publishing worthless papers in journals they edited. This is not "serving the community well".

    I think the Elsevier boycott was a good idea: Don't boycott them all, boycott the worst offender.

    The basic problem is a chicken-and-egg one: some of the worst publisher own some of the most prestigious journals. In most cases, there is a reason they are prestigious. Fortunately, in astronomy, the situation isn't so bad.

  4. Hi Phillip,

    You cannot possibly still be talking about the El Naschie story, can you? Look, Elsevier themselves are suing the guy over it, why are you still holding that mistake against them?

    About the three points that you think I am missing:

    - If the publisher can't afford to make their product publicly available, it's not sufficiently tax funded. Yes, I too think we'd be better off with non-profit publishers, but the question is how to get there. I've made a suggestion for that, see last paragraph.

    - Second, the point of my post was to explain that the statement "profits too high" has no basis, and it's not an argument that we as scientists should be leading anyway. Who says it's too high? Prices are not made by people, they're made by the market. If that's the market price, it's the right price, unless you can show there's something wrong with the market mechanism.

    - Right, if they go bankrupt what happens to the archives. That's one of the reasons I'm saying it's short-sighted.



  5. Thanks for this thoughtful post, Bee. I agree that the issues you've raised are valid and that there are no easy solutions that would work equally well for all concerned.

    Nevertheless, I must insist that academic publishing is and always has been an exploitive enterprise. Neither authors nor reviewers are compensated for their work. The whole affair is parasitical upon the academic hiring, tenure and promotion system, under the assumption that publication will enhance the author's value in the academic market -- which may or may not be true, but is beside the point. A novelist's reputation will also be enhanced when his novel is published, but no novelist in his right mind would forgo royalties on such a basis.

    Papers can take inordinate amounts of time to be published, even after acceptance -- often years -- and editors and publishers routinely treat authors with disrespect and even disdain, not to mention outright arrogance.

    Whether lots of money is being made by publishers such as Elsevier is a matter for debate, I suppose, but I can tell you that their pricing practices are hopelessly out of date and counterproductive.

    When I go online to search for an article that interests me and am informed I can download it for $35, I feel like laughing and crying at the same time. An item that might interest thousands of readers will be purchased by maybe 10 or 20 at such an outrageous price. If they charged $5 per copy, most of those thousands would probably buy it. Do the math. Which would you say is the more profitable price point?

    Whether open source should completely supplant traditional publishing I can't say. The reasons you offer are certainly valid. But there are many reasons why I personally as a researcher and author will in future be extremely reluctant to deal with traditional publication venues when an open source alternative is available.

  6. "You cannot possibly still be talking about the El Naschie story, can you? Look, Elsevier themselves are suing the guy over it, why are you still holding that mistake against them?"

    Once the story is out, they have no choice. It shouldn't have happened in the first place. Whatever happened to quality control? This wasn't a minor oversight, it was a major goof. One major goof one might be able to forgive. But an editor publishing a huge number of articles in their own journal AND the fake articles (i.e. sponsored ads)? Too much.

    "- If the publisher can't afford to make their product publicly available, it's not sufficiently tax funded. Yes, I too think we'd be better off with non-profit publishers, but the question is how to get there. I've made a suggestion for that, see last paragraph."

    Any revenue model which depends on people paying for access (i.e. subscriptions) can't make the stuff publicly available. If one wants free access for all, another funding model is needed.

    (A couple of parenthetical remarks. First, this has nothing to do with the completely stupid ideas put forward by the Pirate party and similar goons involving a "culture flatrate" and other absurd proposals. If people don't want to pay for music, movies etc then they don't have to consume them and neither is there some right of free access. Just because something is possible doesn't mean it should be morally acceptable. Scientific articles are a different matter: scientists don't earn their living from selling access to them---quite the opposite, they need as much access as possible so aren't interested in limiting it---and the research was tax-funded in the first place. Second, this wasn't a problem in the past since in the rare circumstances when someone without a subscription wanted access to an article, he could request a reprint (remember those?) from the author, go to a library etc. Nowadays, scientists access articles over the internet, but most members of the public cannot.

  7. [continued due to the length limitation]

    "- Second, the point of my post was to explain that the statement "profits too high" has no basis, and it's not an argument that we as scientists should be leading anyway. Who says it's too high? Prices are not made by people, they're made by the market. If that's the market price, it's the right price, unless you can show there's something wrong with the market mechanism."

    The problem is that there is no market here since many publishers have bought up the prestigious journals. Try publishing in an non-prestigious (but open-access, perhaps) journal then apply for a job.

    "- Right, if they go bankrupt what happens to the archives. That's one of the reasons I'm saying it's short-sighted."

    Yes, we agree on the problem, but what is the solution? You seem to want to enable publishers to demand arbitrary costs since otherwise the archives are gone. Better would be to have the archives in the hands of a non-profit professional society, which should run the journals as well. This solves most if not all of the problems.

    "So let publishers elaborate on their contribution to knowledge preservation and have them write proposals for funding. Let library committees judge on the merit and promise of these proposals and distribute grants."

    As long as anyone can compete, not just established publishers, then this is OK as far as it goes, but it doesn't go far enough. As long as the prestigious journals are owned by a publisher, things will be difficult to change. One might think that someone else owning the brand, and outsourcing to a commercial publisher for a limited time, subject to review and moving to some other publisher later would be OK. However, this would demand some sort of "open" archiving policy, standard tools etc. If a publisher can add value, then that publisher can place unjust demands. But if all is done with standard tools, then a professional society can run the journal and perhaps outsource at most small technical aspects on a contract basis with no responsibility on the part of the contractor.

  8. I know this is a bureaucratic solution but why not let an external auditor do a cost audit and then add some healthy margin to that?
    And then do a benchmark between different publishers comparing cost, service and outreach?
    And then giving 3-year magazine contracts to the ones with the best performance?

  9. Publishers actually deposit to a service called Portico, so if they do go bankrupt, the content will remain available. That service of course, costs money.

  10. If a person can put a preprint on arxiv.org for free, and have it available 24/7 for anybody to read for free, what else does one need?

    Possible tweaks to that system might be:

    1. Allow reader evaluations, comments and suggestions at arxiv.org for each paper. Only one evaluation per reader, and author can respond once to each evaluation. This restriction is to avoid the newsgroups shabbiness.

    2. Have an arxiv.II.org that only allows papers that make definitive predictions that are prior, feasible, quantitative, non-adjustable and unique to the theory presented in the paper.

    3. Have a separate arxiv.III.org for wildly speculative papers.

  11. Hi Paul,

    That is good to know. Though I'm not sure a centralized service is a good idea. Best,


  12. Hi Phillip,

    I think you are misunderstanding what I said.

    First, about the El Naschie story, everybody makes mistakes. Yes, that was a failure of oversight. Let's hope they learn from it.

    Second, I did not suggest a revenue model, far from it. I said, let publishers explain what expenses they have for what and why and what their vision is and how they want to offer their service and why it is important for the future of knowledge preservation and what it costs etc. Many of that will not be profitable if it is open access, so they'd be forced to drop it. Instead, allow them to apply for grants - If you want it to be a public service, fund it like a public service. Let libraries decide which publisher's proposal to support financially. That effectively moves the power from the publishers to the libraries, which I expect will result in more open access.

    - Of course there exists a market. Nothing prevents anybody from opening a journal, and many people have done that. But that hasn't been a success for the open access movement, so now they want a regulation on the market in their favor. That's how it looks like from my perspective. Now I'm not opposed to market regulations in principle. But you have to be very careful it doesn't make the situation worse, and I have reason to believe that this will be the case here.

    "You seem to want to enable publishers to demand arbitrary costs"

    They can demand whatever they want, the question is whether they'll get this. Right now, libraries have no choice to either buy or don't buy the service a publisher offers, most of which is not open access. So I say, give them a choice. In the model I suggest publishers will be forced to work out and propose services catered to the needs and demands of libraries who after all are the ones handing out the money. The better the service needs the demands, the more likely it's to obtain a grant.



  13. Hi Robert,

    The arxiv is a great service, but it doesn't even remotely provide the services that science now enjoys from commercial publishers.

    To begin with, it's not peer reviewed. Reader evaluations are not and will probably never be able to replace peer review. Ot at least I think that wouldn't be a good solution. The problem with any such suggestion is the way that people chose to evaluate a paper means that most papers by unknown people would never be read. Peer review arguably has its fault, but at least it guarantees that one person reads your paper.

    Second, it's not sufficiently classified or filtered or tagged. The way most people who do not work in the field take note of papers on the arxiv is in most instances not because it's on the arxiv, but because they read about it elsewhere, and then search for it on the archive. The archive all by itself is for those who are not very familiar with the field already a pretty much useless collection of ideas of uncertain value. The arxiv was created to be useful for physicists to exchange their ideas rapidly, and that is what it's good for.

    Third, what would the arxiv be without Spires?

    Fourth, the arxiv isn't for free either. It's just free for you.

    Fifth, arxiv papers are not edited. Which, at least to me, is sometimes a great pain, and it's not good for the authors either. Look, it is not a scientists job to make a paper visually appealing or bother with layout problems or typesetting. There is also the prevalent problem of English grammar that plagues a lot of papers from non native speakers who have no access to language training for one or the other reasons. That all puts them on a disadvantage that doesn't actually have anything to do with scientific quality. Professional editing levels the playing field, and I think that's to our benefit.



  14. Hi DocG,

    Yes, the present system has many faults. I'm very far from saying I like it. I'm just saying don't make it worse than it is, and there are many ways to make it worse.

    The price for downloading single articles is of course ridiculous. It's not supposed to sell the paper, it's supposed to sell subscriptions. And you, as a private person, are not the target group. Which is what I've tried to say in my post: Publishers are not in the business of catering to the public. They're catering to libraries and libraries are catering, primarily, to scientists. If you want to change the system you have to change the structure by which money goes around. Best,


  15. Hi Uair01,

    That's very similar in spirit to what I am proposing, just I am suggesting to use already existing structure. Best,


  16. I think that the elephant in the room is the fact that commercial publishers have bought up prestigious journals. If they no longer had them, they would all be long gone. I don't think journals should be owned by publishers, but rather by professional societies, who might outsource some things to a publisher but not transfer ownership. Unless this problem can be addressed none of the solutions will work.

    I agree with you about the arXiv. I will add the criticism that, at least for astronomy, the moderators are not publicly known and there is no way to formally log a complaint other than sending an email which might or might not be addressed by an anonymous person. If arXiv, or something like it, is to play a bigger role in the community, then it needs to be a bit more transparent and accountable.

    With regard to archiving: at least in astronomy, ADS seems to have solved this problem.

    Yesteday, the latest copy of The Observatory arrived: http://www.ulo.ucl.ac.uk/obsmag/ . It is a paper journal which reaches me by post. There is no online edition (though back issues are available at ADS) and I have a personal subscription I pay money for. (There is also a short piece by me in this issue and there will be one in the next issue in two months (it is low-traffic).) One thing I like about it is the good editing, style and production quality. It is famous for, among other things, book reviews. I read them all yesterday. There were several cases where books by big-name scientific publishers were full of mistakes and other indications of sloppy (or no) editing. Often, these books are more expensive than books from other publishers which don't have these problems. Make sure you don't cling to a romantic view of scientific publishers which might no longer be realistic. There is probably a copy in a library somewhere near you. Read them and weep.

  17. This comment has been removed by the author.

  18. Bee,

    That's the thing - in the old days you paid for access. With the internet access is not quite free, but still unbelievably cheap by comparison. The added value now is peer review, not access. But the charging model is still based on access.

    Would it not be more sensible to have grant-funded research pay for its own peer review? That way we could retain both open access to knowledge and the filtering service that peer-review provides. You would pay more to have your paper published in a more prestigious journal, and journals would compete with each other to publish the best papers, keeping margins down.

  19. Hi Bee,

    First I would admit my interest in this is taken by in large from my personal perspective, which has me in an extreme minority as being that curious layperson. As I’ve expressed before I realize nothing can be free and would willing pay a flat reasonable yearly fee for open access to all journals which I don’t believe in granting such access if it included a reasonable maximal download limit would threaten the industry seriously. Such revenues could be sent to a central agency which would distribute this in appropriate portions as to what the users have downloaded.

    With that said I also appreciate all your points and concerns expressed for the existing infrastructure, yet if one wants paper all that needs to be done is to print your own (which I actually do often) and thus would argue the need for buggy whips has been made redundant by technology; which I’m convinced is one segment of the industry which must come to accept its demise, as this would free up revenue at least in part for the archiving and access. Moreover the same could be said for the need for the many libraries themselves in terms of their physical conceptualization. Also I think the journals should have greater participation from the researchers, that is more than simply peer review garnered from those they serve, as to assume a more peer based wiki similar structure. The bottom line as I see things here is like publishing the industry in the main is in transition and can’t expect its segment to be able to avoid the changes or the challenges such brings. Oh yes in respect to more general (paid) public access I would make an old point learned time and time again in retail marketing, which is one can’t expect to sell something from empty shelves.

    “It may be hard for an egg to turn into a bird: it would be a jolly sight harder for it to learn to fly while remaining an egg. We are like eggs at present. And you cannot go on indefinitely being just an ordinary, decent egg. We must be hatched or go bad.”

    -C. S. Lewis



  20. Hi Philip,

    You buy up a journal that's past prestigious, but then its prestigiousness becomes your effort. Likewise, nothing is prohibiting new competing journals to become prestigious. Prestigiousness is challenged on the market all the time, and new brands come and take over all the time. But that isn't happening for most of the open access journals. Now instead of realizing that these journals are possibly just not good enough as a competition, open access supporters want to have a regulation that skews the market in their favor. As I've now said sufficiently often, I don't think that will work to the benefit of scientists. For reasons I elaborated on in the post. It's really a transition problem we're facing here.

    My view of scientific publishers is possibly even less romantic than yours, seeing that I have heard sufficient stories of bad copy editing both from side of authors as well as editors. I can also tell you how come: Cost cutting. Copy editing is in many cases not done anymore by the publishers themselves but by subcontractors. This adds another level of complexity and need for (intercontinental) communication. And shit happens. Plenty of shit. But it saves money. And that really is exactly my point. Cost cutting in publishing will not primarily hurt the publishers. Instead, it will backfire on our own community, and our communication to the public. So I'm saying, we should be careful what spirits we call for. Best,


  21. Hi Andrew,

    Peer review is one value added of course. But as I explained here, it is actually not necessary to tie it to the publishing process. And I'm smug enough to believe sooner or later somebody will realize that PPPR is indeed the way to go.

    I think you are severely underestimating the relevance of the other services that I pointed out: Editing, archiving, maintaining and developing of the database and references, and, of increasing relevance, filtering and sorting - possibly personalized etc. All that takes personnel, time and money to develop and to maintain. Most importantly, these services have to be offered even for these fields and journals that are at any one time generate little interest. Because, recall, we have to think knowledge dissemination and preservation that's good for 1000 years. (And I actually think printing a paper and shipping it to some thousand locations worldwide is still the best way we have to preserve our knowledge.)

    Now, to be very clear on that: I'm not saying that the profit that publishers make is necessary for these services. I doubt it is. But I'm saying if you want a smooth transition it's not going to work by enforcing open access (after some embargo period). That will have a backlash from which scientists will suffer in return. Best,


  22. @andrewg: Peer review is more or less irrelevant in this context. At least in astronomy, it is done for free. Yes, the journal organizes it, but the extra costs are minimal.

    @Bee: There is a chicken-and-egg problem of course. As you note, most open-access journals are not as good as good traditional journals. As long as publication in prestigious journals is required for employment, people will publish there. One can't really expect people without permanent jobs to publish elsewhere. One could and should expect those with permanent jobs to do so, unless they worry that this would lead to less grant money etc. However, one could always say that they have nothing to lose so still couldn't expect young people to follow their example.

    Also, I agree with you that quality costs money. If people are cancelling subscriptions to traditional journals to save money (whether or not that is good), they are not going to spend extra money on a start-up journal with an uncertain future.

    Sometimes, the market doesn't work.

  23. "Now instead of realizing that these journals are possibly just not good enough as a competition, open access supporters want to have a regulation that skews the market in their favor."

    I think this is an unfair portrayal of most of those who advocate some sort of "open access". Most of them don't have any vested interest in a journal, existing or planned. There are two issues: the taxpayer should have free access and the money paid to the journal (wherever it comes from) should be in relation to the quality of the product provided. Compared to 30 years ago, costs to the journal have gone down and profits have gone up much more than, say, academic salaries.

    I'm not saying that publishers shouldn't charge money, I just think the subscription model is not the best model (and author pays is even worse). An additional point to take into account in the reorganization is that costs are reasonable.

  24. Hi Phillip,

    Of course it's an unfair portrayal. It is equally unfair as complaining that publishers are nothing but evil and incompetent moneysuckers who deserve to be boycotted.

    Right, sometimes the market doesn't work. As I said, I'm not ideologically opposed to regulation. But you got to be careful how to do it. And in this case, I have reason to believe it's not going to do good to science, as I explained in my post.

    Regarding what you think is a chicken-and-egg problem: You're looking at things from the wrong perspective. The issue is not that people publish in prestigious journals. The issue is that people preferably cite these journals. Because that's why they remain prestigious, and that's why people publish in them to begin with. Because the relevant mark is the citation count. Why do people cite these journals more? Because they read them more? And why do they read them more? Ah, maybe because they're just better? More readable? More interesting? Better edited? Better selected? Better marketed because of better relations to the press? And that is a competition that most new open access journals just aren't up to.



  25. "Of course it's an unfair portrayal. It is equally unfair as complaining that publishers are nothing but evil and incompetent moneysuckers who deserve to be boycotted."

    I myself have never used those words.

    OK, it was ironic. However, my point was to discuss the matter fairly, without unfair accusations. (Note that in most internet discussions on this topic it is I who am in the role of the conservative.)

    The problem is inertia. Yes, your description of where to publish why is true, but if a journal is now no longer better than the competition, people will still publish there since it gets them jobs. People base their view of the journal on the past of the journal, not the present. Unfortunately, the timescale for establishing a new journal is longer than the time from student to permanent job.

  26. Most people publish in prestigious journals because the people who rate their performance think that they are prestigious.

  27. Ok, so arxiv.org satisfies the needs of those interested in the "free exchance of ideas", but not the need for competitivness and ranking.

    Here is another idea relating to peer review.

    Important papers in science either (1) solve problems witin an existing paradigm, (2) make modifications to an existing paradigm, or (3) present an alternative paradigm.

    Peer review should ideally evaluate these different efforts by different criteria.

    For example, the reviewer should not reject a new paradigm because it conflicts with an untested assumption of the existing paradigm. That's the whole idea of a new paradigm - new assumptions and where they might lead us.

    Unfortunately, all papers are reviewed in the same way, unless you are a celebrity physicist for whom much slack is cut.

  28. /*Scientific Publishing - Investing in our Future */

    I'm rather sceptical regarding the contemporary way of scientific publishing from many reasons:

    1) The most important findings (cold fusion, antigravity, HT superconductivity) are both censored with governments or private companies both plain ignored with mainstream peer-reviewed press

    http://www.newscientist.com/blogs/shortsharpscience/2008/10/us-patent-office-reveals-numbe.html http://www.newscientist.com/article/dn18691-uk-keeps-three-times-as-many-patents-secret-as-the-us.html

    What remains are mostly low-quality research and publications, which are good only for scientists itself, not for the rest of human civilization.

    2) Many other publications (both data, both concepts) are becoming obsolete before they can be used for another research.

    3) There is huge redundancy in scientific publishing - in general, it's estimated more than 60% of research is duplicated.

    4) A huge portion of experimental data is simply lost or aged into form of digital garbage.

    Example: http://arxiv.org/abs/0912.1803

  29. This comment has been removed by the author.

  30. Bee, I certainly grant that you have taken a careful and reasonably fair look at this issue. You've made some worthwhile points. At this point, I only note that the recent movement I promoted for consideration was about requiring public access for federally-funded research, not for all of it (I don't even know how the latter would be legal in e.g. the USA) I don't know how much that more restricted rule would affect most publishers. For more about this issue see my acquaintance and FBF Marc Sher's guest post at "Cosmic Variance."

  31. Hi Neil,

    Almost all academic research is tax funded, and that's the case I'm talking about too. The point is this: The tax funded research funds the research. It does not fund the publication. You cut the money for publication, we'll all suffer. Best,


  32. Hi Phillip,

    Yes, the problem is inertia. But that isn't specific to scientific publishing, and it's not necessarily a bad thing. All markets have inertia. I strongly doubt for example that once they heard of electricity everybody threw out their candles one day to the next. Destruction of a well-working if old-fashioned procedure is risky, and inertia is a safety net to guard against these risks. It's reasonable. If you're trying to speed things up, you have to be very careful not to speed up into a wall.

    I still think you're off with the reason for why people publish in prestigious journals. At least in the field where I work it is far more important that your paper is well cited than which journal it's published in. Everybody knows that the journal is little more than a stamp that says peer review has taken place and some editor liked the title of your paper. In fact, if you paper is well cited, it doesn't matter it is published in a journal at all. The reason people preferably try to publish in prestigious journals is that its strongly correlated with high citation count, which is pretty much a tautology. And that doesn't come from nothing, as I've elaborated on above. Best,


  33. Hi Phil,

    That's an interesting suggestion that there be a flatrate for download up to a limit, affordable for anybody. What is happening at the moment is that there is a certain "blackmarket" in which people ask friends to send PDFs of files they can't access for one or the other reasons. You will also have noticed many bloggers offer to send PDFs to readers (an offer I am trying to avoid spelling out explicitly if you see what I mean).

    About the demise of paper: That you can print it if you want isn't really my point. The point is that the medium on which the digital version is stored is not as durable as (properly prepared) paper, and the software necessary to retreive it is outdated within the blink of an eye. I don't believe that our civilization's path will be monotonic improvement, but that there will be phases of regress. The problem is that if, in such a phase of regress lots of knowledge becomes difficult to access, it leads to a positive feedback, meaning more regress. That's what I am concerned about. Maybe it's not so much research articles I should be worried about but more so textbooks, but these issues aren't entirely separate. Best,


  34. Hi Bee,

    This may not related to your present blog post but, could you please do a post on the best theoretical physics blogs (like that of John Baez's Azimuth) on the web today?


  35. Hi Shouvik,

    No, I can't. I have no overview on physics blogs. I'm totally the wrong person to ask. Best,


  36. Hi Bee,

    I’m happy to hear you have some appreciation for my suggestion and will keep in mind what you present as the current available options. It would be interesting what a flat rate for limited universal access to journals would garner, as in essence for the publishers it presents a way to raise the market potential of their product. As it is things like Google Scholar already provide the means to do online lit searchers, thus as C.S. Lewis might say we already have the egg now we must allow it to hatch before it goes bad.

    As for the digital vs. dead tree format thing, I appreciate the durability differences and have long had the same concern. However I find this posterity interest forms to be a separate issue, which should be given the attention it deserves by the creation of a body that would address it so that preservation becomes more the result of intent rather than dumb luck or good fortune. So I find no reason not to continue to build and universalize these clouds of knowledge, especially as the current opinion shared among most academics being that the expansion of knowledge and its appreciation forms ultimately to be the only possible salvation for humanity. Since this is so important, it’s then only reasonable so should its organization and funding be given its proper attention.

    “Somebody who only reads newspapers and at best books of contemporary authors looks to me like an extremely near-sighted person who scorns eyeglasses. He is completely dependent on the prejudices and fashions of his times, since he never gets to see or hear anything else. And what a person thinks on his own without being stimulated by the thoughts and experiences of other people is even in the best case rather paltry and monotonous. There are only a few enlightened people with a lucid mind and style and with good taste within a century. What has been preserved of their work belongs among the most precious possessions of mankind. We owe it to a few writers of antiquity (Plato, Aristotle, etc.) that the people in the Middle Ages could slowly extricate themselves from the superstitions and ignorance that had darkened life for more than half a millennium. Nothing is more needed to overcome the modernist's snobbishness.”

    -Albert Einstein, “ Ideas and Opinions”, Crown Publishing (1954)




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