27 June 2017

The problem is scientists, not publishers

Because I hate people who just retweet something interesting and say, “Thread,” I’m compiling Jason Hoyt’s series of tweets about the state of scientific publishing into a blog post. Jason’s thread was initiated by this article in The Guardian, “Is the staggeringly profitable business of scientific publishing bad for science?”

For context, Jason is founder and CEO of PeerJ, which I have published in, and will do so again. I have lightly edited the tweets for clarity and emphasis.

This will be controversial, but the problem is scientists, not publishers. While the article may get the history of the problem accurate, it is going to perpetuate several myths about the current root of the issue. Scientists continuing to blame publishers, rather than the root, is pretty damn unscientific.

Plenty of cheap or even free publishing solutions exist. PeerJ even provides lifetime publishing open access for almost nothing, but very few scientists care about price when deciding where to publish. Scientists care about impressing grant and tenure and hiring committees, made up by other scientists, and the committees care about Impact Factor as a vanity metric for quality. It is the tenure/hiring, NIH, NSF, grant committees, not publishers, that are the ones in power and need to make the changes. Demanding publishers do so will do little.

So why aren’t the pitchforks out against the committees? There is only one group that can lead that charge, and it isn’t the publishers. Why aren’t committees looking at the merits of the article rather than the journal it is published in? Why aren’t committees more proactive in saying publish in cheaper open access alternatives like PeerJ?

PeerJ started out at $99 for lifetime publishing. That would have saved governments and funders $9 billion a year. Yet zero funders and committees have yet to approach PeerJ since it was launched five years ago with any support, acknowledgement or promotion. Instead, Nobel laureates and funders launch an elitist journal (I believe Jason is referring to eLife. - ZF), perpetuate the Impact Factor, whilst hypocritically blaming Cell, Nature, and Science journals. Instead, they fund elitist “non-profit” journals that charge $2,000 an article yet still only cover half their costs. This makes no sense.

Then scientists wonder why PeerJ had the gall to raise lifetime open access publishing from $99 to $399. The world doesn’t want nice things.

One of the myths is that academics do all the work. And daily I see an academic complain about journals and propose starting their own. Well – I am one of those academics who started their own. And let me say a peer-reviewed journal does not run itself. At best you’d get a few pubs out per year with only volunteers. And the quality would be shite.

For starters – authors demand peer review to be timely. Counter to that, the reviewers don’t want to be rushed and get angry. Without anyone chasing reviewers, the world would never see reviews hit the light of day. That’s fine then, the world doesn’t need millions of papers, just the ones people want to actually review without chasing. The problem with that is the literature is full of papers now highly cited that were rejected many times. So who is going to chase the reviewers for a million manuscripts? Volunteers? Nope. You have paid staff. So how do you pay the staff? Either through grants, subscriptions, or open access fees. So now the journal you started in protest of commercial publishers is in the same boat.

“But certainly you could do it cheaper!” you say. Cheaper than $99 for lifetime publishing like PeerJ? Don’t forget long-term archiving storage, a stupid typeset PDF, because that’s what readers demand, etcetera, etcetera.

“Well, screw it,” they say. “We’ll do preprints and have ‘overlay’ journals for post-pub peer review.” Except preprints aren’t free either. Arxiv costs more than $1 million a year to operate as a non-profit. And again, who is going to chase the reviewers for the preprint post-pub reviews? Volunteers? Volunteers for over 1 million preprints?

So again, when I see people complain about high cost of publishing, I have to laugh. More like cry. We have the solutions already, but little uptake. Who is to blame then? When I read tweets from academics that they won’t bother reading low Impact Factor journals, who is to blame? (By the way, how unscientific is skipping a literature review just because the journal has a lower Impact Factor, for fuck’s sake?)

The world doesn’t want nice things. We built a quid pro quo system of cheap open access with PeerJ. We asked $99 lifetime members, if invited, to do a peer review to support the community. People complained about the quid pro quo. The world could still have cheap publishing – if it is willing.

Elsevier and others are more than happy to keep taking the blame for the system. It’s a misdirection. As long as scientists don’t start protesting tenure and hiring committees, then Elsevier’s profit margins are safe. Every time there is a new Elsevier boycott, it lasts a week, and then everyone forgets. They know this. And they’re just cogs in the system like everyone else.

Update: Shortly after I published this, this appeared in my Twitter timeline, which is in line with many of Jason’s points. Butch Brodie promoted Evolution Letters by saying it was open access, had low publication costs for Society for the Study of Evolution members, and those costs go back to society initiatives.

The article processing fees for Evolution Letters is $1,800 if you’re a member of the Society for the Study of Evolution. If you’re not, it’ll cost you $2,500. And you know that not all of that fee will go directly back to the society. Some of it is going to the publisher.

PeerJ is also open access and is cheaper: $1,095. You pay a 64% premium to have your article in a society journal.

I suggest publishing in PeerJ, donating a few hundred bucks to your scientific society directly, and leaving yourself a few bucks for dinner and a movie.

Update, 10 October 2017: I learned that the Evolution Letters publisher gets 50% of article processing fees, and the two publishers each get 25%. So, as a Society for the Study of Evolution member, $450 is going to the society if I publish in the journal.

Which means my claim before was correct. I can publish in PeerJ for $1,095, donate $505 to the Society for a total of $1,600. The Society gets more money and I get more money.

Also, this is a good time to link to this description of the editorial process at American Naturalist. I don’t think all journals put this amount of effort into editorial, and I’m not sure all authors want that much input (some might deem it “interference”).

External links

How much does it cost to run a small scholarly publisher?
On pastrami and the business of PLOS
An efficient journal
The secret lives of manuscripts

Related posts

The cages we scientists make for ourselves

1 comment:

practiCal fMRI said...

Here's Michael Eisen, one of the founders of PLOS, on a related topic: http://www.michaeleisen.org/blog/?p=1883 In this case he was reacting to the accusations of profiteering at PLOS.