Last year, more than three quarters of Taiwan’s universities announced a collective plan to not renew their subscriptions to journals published by Elsevier, one of the largest scientific publishers in the world, in protest of spiking price tags. This came only shortly after a major consortium of German research institutions quit negotiations with Elsevier to renew their subscriptions in 2017 over disagreements about pricing as well as other policies adopted by the publisher.
Although clashes between Elsevier and researchers have been happening for quite a while now, they only represent the most visible points surrounding the tension that exists between academia and the for-profit scientific publishing establishment. At the root of this animosity lies the belief that publishers receive much of what makes scientific journals up – peer-reviewed articles, essentially for free, adding little value themselves and selling them at exorbitant prices back to the same scientific communities.
The last sentence might have sounded confusing, but unpacking this conflict requires a dip the fascinating world of scientific publishing, peer review and citation indexing, and the upheaval the internet has caused in this established industry, so stick around.
The bare-bones explanation of how scientific publishing works is as follows. After a group of researchers submit a new scholarly paper to a journal, one of the editors starts searching for people who would be qualified to review, check and provide comments on the submission. Although the details of this process may vary, in the end a group of ‘peers’ of the paper’s authors judge the submission and send their ‘reviews’ back to the editor. Guided by these ‘peer-reviews’ the editor can either publish the paper outright, ask the authors to change certain parts of it, or reject it. Aside from offering general editorial services like typesetting and formatting, publishers act as middle-men in the peer review process and this unique position awards them unprecedented power.
In principle journals should simply function as trusted news sources. Since scientists don’t have time to carefully read through every single new paper coming out in their field, they entrust that expert editors will weed out shoddy work at respected journals and provide them with only the relevant new research packaged in the most digestible format.
Unfortunately, things aren’t as simple as that. Because scientific journals usually cover only narrow parts of a certain discipline and feature unique papers, unsubscribing from one in favour of another is rarely an option: in order to continue doing meaningful work a researcher has to have access to the latest developments in their field. For universities, picking one journal over another is simply not the same as choosing between New Scientist and Scientific American if one suddenly doubles in price.
This reliance of academia on the publishers of these journals is further heightened by the fact that individual researchers often get judged by their publication history when it comes to applying for grants or tenure. Superficially it makes sense to condense the often complex and highly varied careers of scientists into two numbers – how much they publish and how much their research gets cited by others. To fight the incentive this might pose for researchers to go on publishing sprees in journals not too fussy with editorial scrutiny, journals are also ranked by some combination of these two factors. Getting as many articles as possible into high-ranked journals is imperative for researchers to survive in a world defined by the maxim “Publish or Perish”.
It shouldn’t come as a surprise then, that researchers are highly incentivized to contribute to scientific journals, both by submitting their work and by providing peer-review free-of-charge. Also, it should make sense that this places the publishers controlling the most prestigious journals in a unique position to have a very high profit margins and publish the most articles, while smaller publishers are barely able to break-even and have a hard time finding reviewers.
The gravity of this problem varies with disciplines, with US Computer Science being one unique area that has managed to completely dodge this problem by judging the worth of its researchers not by journal citations, but by their conference appearances (although this has its own problems).
The way publishers have traditionally made a profit is by selling journal subscriptions to research institutions. This used to simply mean mailing them paper copies a few times every year. With the advent of online publishing however, a growing group of people started advocating for this research, in many cases publicly-funded, to be made freely available for anyone with an internet connection. This became known as the open access movement.
Unable to derive revenue from readers, publishers who adopted the open access model changed to charging the researchers themselves for their services. Rates vary from a few hundred pounds to £5,000 for every submitted article, although, since open access is encouraged by governments through subsidies to publishers willing to adopt this model, some charge nothing at all. However, this model has been criticized as incentivizing journals to relax peer-review and accept as many papers as possible, and certain publishers have been reluctant to adopt it.
Another, more subtle disruption caused by articles appearing online, has been the decreasing relevance of journals and their ratings in determining the importance of the papers contained within. Sure, having the Nature brand on a paper will still make it highly visible, but since most scientists now find articles they’re interested in through search engines capable of crawling through many journals, as long as smaller publishers can get their hands on relevant studies, they won’t suffer the same visibility penalty as in the pre-internet era. There is hope that this will lead to more competition between publishers and a fall in prices.
The seemingly increasing rate at which researchers are openly challenging the entrenched position of scientific publishers and their unprecedented ability to hike subscription prices without losing customers is only set to increase. Change, however, will no doubt be slow and hard-fought.
Taiwan’s access to Elsevier journals has been extended, free-of-charge, to the end of January, and negotiations are set to restart soon, although DEAL, the German consortium managing negotiations with Elsevier, is still adamant about not engaging in conversation until the publisher accepts its terms.