Don’t be a rube

An interesting article in The Guardian on the rise of the profit-oriented part of scientific publishing. One part of the article describes how companies like Elsevier and Pergamon make so much money: “It is as if the New Yorker or the Economist demanded that journalists write and edit each other’s work for free, and asked the government to foot the bill.” How much money? Try revenue of $24 billion. Elsevier’s profit margin: 36%.

Now some scientists have argued that journals are outdated and provide no added value; GG has argued this isn’t true. But with the existence of non-profit publishers, does it make sense to feed these very profitable monsters?

Well, no. Worse, many scientists don’t seem to understand that their science is no longer theirs once it is in one of those journals.

Some of us have sworn off of Elsevier journals, not reviewing for them or publishing in them (though we sometimes get dragged in by colleagues). That is walking away from a lot of poor journals and a few really good ones. In the days of paper journals, this was a clear choice. Even now, Elsevier’s tactics even for open-access have driven some away. But close examination of what societies are doing suggests that avoiding vendors many view as unscrupulous is getting harder and harder.

For instance, the American Geophysical Union went from self-publishing to contracting with the for-profit Wiley for publishing their journals. The Geological Society of America used to use HighWire Press, which was a non-profit operation from Stanford but one that was sold to an equity firm in 2014. Unhappy with HighWire (and no longer feeling bound to a fellow non-profit),  GSA has now shifted to another for-profit vendor, SilverChair. Because so much of the costs of publishing journals now runs through the web, a significant share of society subscription money goes to these for-profit companies.

A question many of us have is, why partner with anybody at all?  Isn’t publishing on the web easier than printing out piles of paper copies and mailing them out? It appears the answer is “no”. GG presumes (and maybe somebody will correct him) that a lot of the problem stems from copyright (some stems from editorial software, though that is often a separate company as well). If all these societies published gold open access journals, then the web hosting would be simple enough provided you were OK with limited search tools and the like. (Arguably this is what PLOS ONE and arXiv do. In fact, were enough journals opened up this way, it might be interesting to see if companies appeared to market better access tools much as there were many apps that were far better at accessing Facebook in its early years than the official Facebook app). But that isn’t where anybody came from.

Instead most of the materials in journals was copyrighted, and the source of income for the society to pay for editing and the salaries of assistants to editors and the costs of both paper and electronic distribution came from subscriptions. This meant that material put online had to be protected. Managing the kind of complex deals with libraries and a declining number of individual subscribers proved more than most societies bargained for.

While journals probably used to pay commercial printers and vendors for their services, such capability was competitive and so wasn’t a big issue. If a printer got too pricey, another one could be found. But academic site licensing combined with the peculiar nature of scientific papers made for more demanding requirements, and so while there is competition, it isn’t quite the same. So probably a greater share of journal income is going to for-profit providers even for societies that are non-profit.

Does this take Elsevier and its like off the hook? Well, no. Consider what happened with the journal Lingua. Its editorial board wanted to take the journal away from Elsevier because of open access prices they viewed as out of line, but Elsevier refused.  Although those editors started a new journal (Glossa) and tried to convince colleagues to abandon Lingua, the old journal continues and the original “owners” of the journal have no control over that content.  The copyright is Elsevier’s.

So until we reach the point where online, open access geoscience journals have comparable peer-review and editorial practices as the older society journals, we might have to look closely to decide who we will support with the results of our science. The simplest place to look is the copyright line. If the copyright is with the society (or the original authors), then the web provider will not control the content (for instance, Geosphere’s typical copyright reads: “© 2016 Geological Society of America”). That GSA could move from HighWire to SilverChair is a mark that they are controlling content. If it is with the for-profit company like Elsevier (which has “© 2016 Elsevier B.V. All rights reserved.” on EPSL), you have given your scientific research to the highest bidder.

And you didn’t even get paid for it. Talk about being a rube.


3 responses to “Don’t be a rube”

  1. Paul Braterman says :

    I wonder how many people aiming to publishing Nature realise that it is part of the Springer empire, which in turn is part of Holtzbrinck. For me, this, rather than any scientific need, explains the proliferation of “Nature” journals that attempt to cash in on the unique reputation of Lockyer’s publication, but without its unusually high selectiveness.

    Another thing authors might consider is how publishers allow material to be used once it is no longer new. Thus Science, published by the American Association for the Advancement of Science allows free access to papers after a year. I do not understand why even commercially published journals don’t do likewise, since it would have virtually no effect on their institutional sales.


    • cjonescu says :

      I suspect that companies hold on to access because there still is something to be gained. They presumably know how many of the requests for full access (pdfs or full html versions of papers) for older papers come through their portal vs. papers in the past year. Librarians might have a notion, too, that it might be cheaper to just subsidize faculty purchases of individual new articles than to fully subscribe.

      As to Nature Rejects, adding those journals gives Nature leverage in package deals to libraries (the trick that Elsevier has turned into a monster). So its a twofer–authors who work in places that mistake prestige names for scientific advances get to claim a “Nature”-ish paper while Springer captures more of the literature.

      I think the answer in the end will be a scientific society with reputable journals going cold turkey, pulling their content onto their own web servers (with the appropriate backups to LOCKSS/CLOCKSS) and foregoing a nicer search system for something turnkey from Google, say. Experiments with established societies spawning open access journals has proven a slow go, in part because those journals lack the reputation both to attract the editors and the manuscripts. GSA tried to jump into this–they were to have made their lead letter journal, Geology, open access this year–but finances caught up with them.

      Liked by 1 person

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  1. Dear Elsevier Editors… | The Grumpy Geophysicist - July 8, 2017

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