Category: Commerce

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. Continue reading “A long and tedious blog post about scientific publishing”

Keeping it light


I had the privilege of visiting India the other week. Seriously, no kidding, I totally did. To an outsider India is a highly complex and puzzling place, a complete assault on the senses, and so thought-provoking as to leave your brain sore. On the one hand, there’s all the entrepreneurship, the innovation, the economic super-poweriness, the sheer scale, and the omnipresent sense of creativity. But on the other hand…well, on the other hand are the shoeless and dust-encrusted kids, living, sleeping, eating, defecating, and basically growing up right there on the sidewalk. Along with their entire extended families. There they are as the cars drive by, toddling or crawling on hand and knee after some piece of litter as if they were playing with a toy tipper-truck on your sitting room floor. Every day of their lives.

Woah. Not cool.

So it’s good to see such an emphasis on science and scientific advancement in India. Continue reading “Keeping it light”

Be careful where you put that paywall

So, lots of people (in the UK at any rate) are pleased at proposals to provide free access to the results of publicly funded research. Here’s George Monbiot’s tweet:

Fair enough. If you read the linked article, you get the following explanation:

British universities now pay around £200m a year in subscription fees to journal publishers, but under the new scheme, authors will pay “article processing charges” (APCs) to have their papers peer reviewed, edited and made freely available online. The typical APC is around £2,000 per article.

I am fully in favour of open access publishing, in principle. I have condemned the existing treble-whammy system of science publishing on this blog before. Under current arrangements, government pays money to fund research, then pays university academics to carry it out, and eventually pays subscription charges to third-party publishers so that the research can be read in its (publicly funded) university libraries. That’s right. You, the tax-payer, pay to read what you’ve paid people salaries to find out, after having paid them grants to cover the associated costs of doing the research.

It’s obviously a great system. Look at how we’ve cured cancer and everything. Continue reading “Be careful where you put that paywall”

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