A long and tedious blog post about scientific publishing

The world of scientific publishing continues to excite. Long-standing readers will recall that I have addressed this topic before. My remarks have even been quoted by The Guardian, no less (well, by The Guardian’s website at any rate).

To recap, the controversies here revolve around the funding model used to support the publication of scientific journals.

Traditionally, as with most other types of publishing, the whole system relies on the willingness of readers to pay publishers for the privilege of reading what it is that they publish, just like when you pay a shopkeeper the price of a magazine before you take it home and look at it. Publishers rely on this revenue to: (a) ensure the viability of the publication; and (b) turn a profit. In principle it all seems reasonable and straightforward.

However, the problem with much of the scientific publishing world is that the pages of these journals contain research that would not exist had it not originally been funded using public money. The problem critics point to is with the paradox of publicly funded information falling into the copyright-wielding hands of private corporate publishing companies.

Moreover, the primary readers of these journals are themselves typically public servants (most often university faculty), whose salaries are also drawn from public funds. And the journals are primarily available through university libraries, themselves funded using public money (although an independent reader is welcome, in most cases, to download the research directly from the publisher’s website on a pay-per-view basis).

The metaphor of scientific progress still involves researchers standing on the shoulders of giants. It’s just that nowadays they have to pay to do so.

Overall, the taxpayer pays at least treble for the next cure for cancer: the government funds the original research; public-servant scientists spend taxpayer-funded time to conduct the research; and publicly funded university libraries pay subscriptions to enable those same scientists to eventually read about the research in journals. It’s like paying a third-party corporation every time you look at yourself in the mirror. Or something.

Publishers just don't know what to do with all that money (Pic: Pretty much the entire internet)
Publishers just don’t know what to do with all that money (Pic: Pretty much the entire internet)

So what is the solution? Well, the conventional discourse revolves around a process known as Open Access publishing. This is where you can read the contents of a journal for free. You can download all the content from the publisher’s website without having to enter your credit card details. Those publicly funded academics sitting in publicly funded libraries do not have to part with a publicly-funded penny to read about that publicly funded research. It’s a win-win-win-win situation. Something out of nothing, which, as usual, you know will always work out…

But not in the Open Access model, because it of course remains the case that somebody pays. In this case, it is the author who pays for the work to be published. Technically, the work is still peer-reviewed in the traditional fashion prior to publication, but the costs of publication are borne by the researcher (or researchers) who wrote the actual content.

I have written here before about a few snags I see in this system. For example, researchers who don’t have access to discretionary funds — doctorate students, investigators in non-lucrative work contexts, the poor, etc. — may well find themselves excluded from publication over time, no matter what kind of hardship discounts are made available. At the end of the day, it takes money to pay bills and even the most sanguine creditors tend to run out of patience eventually. And secondly, as the eagle-eyed among you will have spotted, the Open Access model still drains the public purse of funds. After all, where do you think these publicly funded researchers are going to get the money to pay all those ‘Article Processing Charges’? From taxpayer-subsidised research grants, of course.

According to UK-based commentators, the total costs of APCs in a given year is likely to exceed £50 million, ALL OF WHICH will have to be funded by the taxpayer. (Most likely, it will simply be diverted away from the funds currently used to underwrite the labour and resource costs of doing the actual research. So less research will actually be done.)

Nonetheless, Open Access is attracting great PR, and is regularly portrayed as a Robin Hood solution to the scientific publishing funding dilemma: public-minded patrons of science setting up free journals to ensure the unfettered dissemination of 21st-century knowledge. Okay, the author pays a ‘processing charge’, but that’s doesn’t really matter. The point is that these Ben-and-Jerry publishers are ensuring the costs of making knowledge flow freely across all human societies, rich or poor, are adequately covered. Hooray, for Open Access publishers!

Now doesn't he look cool. (Pic: movietone-news.com)
Now doesn’t he look cool. (Pic: movietone-news.com)

So I must admit, I was a little surprised to see that perhaps these guys are actually doing this for — whisper it — money. Maybe Open Access is just another way for large publishing organisations to generate super-massive revenues. After all, take a look at this recent tweet from @ivanoransky:

Just get a load of that acceptance rate for PLOS ONE, a journal produced by the US Public Library of Science and seen by many as representing the flagship of the Open Access movement. For one thing, unlike the other PLOS journals mentioned in the tweet, PLOS ONE is a supersized journal in terms of numbers of papers published. In fact, it is the largest Open Access journal in the world. And there we see it in black and white: PLOS ONE’s acceptance rate is 65%. Sixty-five of every hundred submissions received see the light of day in published form (with the authors, of course, billed for the accompanying ‘processing charge’).

In quality control terms, this rate of acceptances seems extraordinarily high. I am on the Editorial Boards of five different (non-Open Access) journals published by major corporate publishers, and I regularly provide anonymous peer-based reviews of articles submitted to another 30 major journals. I can tell you that in such journals, far, far fewer than 65% of submissions are ever published. But you don’t have to take my word for it. The American Psychological Association — which publishes several journals that cover psychology content that overlaps with that carried by PLOS ONE — annually publishes detailed statistics on its handling of submissions. The latest statistics, for 2012, show that 65% was closer to APA’s rejection rate than to its acceptance rate.

For example, PLOS ONE publishes lots of neuropsychology papers: the APA journal Neuropsychology has an acceptance rate of 22%. PLOS ONE publishes a lot of papers on cognitive psychology: the relevant APA journal, JEP: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, has an acceptance rate of 24%. PLOS ONE also publishes lots of papers on applied psychology: APA’s Journal of Applied Psychology has an acceptance rate of just 7%. In fact, across all of its journals, the total acceptance rate of APA journals was just 18%. In short, submit a competently prepared manuscript to PLOS ONE, and by the law of averages alone you can expect it to be accepted (with you paying the tab); submit the same manuscript to an APA journal, and you can expect it to be rejected. It is really hard for me to avoid the conclusion that the APA is top-slicing submissions based on quality — the better papers are accepted, the rest are rejected — while the Open Access journal is just operating with a much lower bar.

Of course, academics get happy when their work is published, so at least PLOS ONE is generating more happiness in the world. It is also generating massive revenues. Take a look at that tweet again and consider the number of submissions made each month: namely, 3,000-4,000. For the sake of argument, let’s call that 3,500 per month. Now let’s consider those “processing charges”; according to Wikipedia, these are in the order of $1,350 per article (that’s right — no X-box for you this Christmas, kids). Now, by the stunning power of arithmetic I can reveal that, set against a 65% acceptance rate, this gives PLOS ONE a revenue of $3,071,250 per month. Three mill a month to run their journal, which is basically just a big website.

Remember that most of the peer-reviewing is done by non-paid peer-reviewers (but seeing as they mainly comprise university academics they probably actually are paid — by the taxpayer!), while most of the typesetting and web-maintenance is done by the sort of people who do the typesetting and web-maintenance for just about any other bog-standard website. Go check out the type of web snazziness that three million dollars a month gets you. (And yes, those are banner ads, generating even more moolah from those famous patrons of noble science, Big Pharma.)

When I was a kid, Robin Hood stole from the rich and gave to the poor. PLOS ONE looks as though it’s generating enough revenue to host the 2022 World Cup.

I wish I’d thought of that.

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  1. Pingback: Ninth Level Ireland » Blog Archive » A long and tedious blog post about scientific publishing

  2. I don’t know what PLOS spend all their publishing revenue on, but I do know that they are a nonprofit organisation, so at least we can be (fairly) confidant that they’re not paying for shareholders to drink champagne from solid gold bottles.

    Also, there are many non-paying routes to making articles open access (so called green open access). Usually this takes the form of an institutional repository (e.g., http://www.library.nuigalway.ie/researchsupport/aranaccesstoresearchatnuigalway/)

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  6. I don’t know what PLOS spend all their publishing revenue on, but I do know that they are a nonprofit organisation, so at least we can be (fairly) confidant that they’re not paying for shareholders to drink champagne from solid gold bottles.

    Also, there are many non-paying routes to making articles open access (so called green open access). Usually this takes the form of an institutional repository (e.g., http://www.library.nuigalway.ie/researchsupport/aranaccesstoresearchatnuigalway/)

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