It’s Not Academic: How Publishers Are Squelching Science Communication

By Mike Taylor | February 21, 2012 9:45 am

Mike Taylor is a computer programmer with Index Data and a dinosaur palaeobiologist with the University of Bristol, UK.  He blogs about palaeontology and open access at and tweets as @SauropodMike.


Everyone involved in academic publishing knows that it’s in a horrible mess. Authors increasingly see publishers as enemies rather than co-workers. And while publishers’ press releases talk about partnership with authors, unguarded comments on blogs tell a different story, revealing that the hostility is mutual. The Cost Of Knowledge boycott is the most obvious illustration of the fractious situation—more than 6000 researchers have declared that they will not write, edit, or review for Elsevier journals. But how did we get into this unhealthy situation? And how can we get out?

The problems all stem from the arrival of the Internet. Or, rather, the Internet has removed problems that used to exist, and this has caused problems for organisations that existed to solve those problems. Which is a problem for them.

Back in the day, it was hard to distribute the results of research. Authors would submit typewritten manuscripts, and publishers took it from there. Editors would fix errors and hone language. Typesetting was an art, especially when it involved equations or graphs. Making multiple copies was costly and time-consuming. And distributing them around the world needed enormous resources. So the researchers of 20 years ago saw publishers as necessary to their work. It’s no wonder that publishers were generally liked and respected.

But just as long-distance telephone networks made telegrams obsolete, so computers mean that most of what publishers do isn’t needed any more. By submitting machine-readable manuscripts and figures, we eliminate nearly all typesetting work. (In maths and physics, authors submit “camera-ready” copy that requires no further typesetting at all.) Printing is no longer needed. Copying is quick, free, and perfect. And worldwide distribution is also free and instantaneous.

You might think that publishers’ response would be to emphasise and increase their editorial role. Instead, surprisingly, they have shed most editorial work. Copyediting is rare, and when it does exist has a reputation for adding more errors than it removes. Most journals have stringent formatting guidelines that authors must follow in submitted manuscripts. (A colleague of mine recently gave up attempts to submit his manuscript to a particular journal after it was three times rejected without review for trivial formatting and punctuation errors, such as using the wrong kind of dash. Seriously.)*

Why this abandonment of the only real contribution publishers still brought to the table? I can only guess. Probably it was sheer opportunism: with the Internet slashing printing and distribution costs, publishers were able to increase short-term profits yet further by cutting editorial costs—and to good effect, as all four major scientific publishers (Elsevier, Springer, Wiley, and Informa) routinely post profits exceeding a third of all revenue. In the first quarter of 2011, Wiley’s profit of $106 million on revenue of $253 million represented an astonishing 42%.

But these profits come at a long-term cost. Authors have long known that that they’re being taken for a ride; now, what had been low-level grumbling has broken out into vocal anger. The Cost of Knowledge site lists three specific grievances against Elsevier: high subscription prices, “bundling” of journal sales into all-or-nothing packages, and support for SOPA, PIPA and the Research Works Act, three regressive, punitive measures to further lock down copyrighted works. But while these were the immediate triggers, resentment runs much deeper. Now there are no technical barriers to access, the only way publishers can charge for it is by making barriers: paywalls. So we have a huge and tragic disconnect: what publishers want—barriers—is the exact opposite of what authors want—universal access. It’s authors vs. publishers.

But any business model that depends on artificial barriers is a loser. Information really does want to be free. One way or another—whether by legislation, piracy, or the continuing rise of open-access publishers—the barrier-based publishing model will fail. Consider Penguin’s absurd decision to stop offering network downloads for ebook loans: they worry that borrowing ebooks is too easy. They want it to have “friction,” just like going to a library to borrow physical books, in the hope that people will buy instead of borrowing. But of course readers’ response to this hostile manoeuvre will not be to buy more Penguin books, but to borrow from elsewhere—or pirate. Such moves are desperate last throws of the dice.

The trouble is, a big dying animal can do a lot of damage as it thrashes about.

You might wonder why researchers continue to give their work to publishers—handing over copyright and often even paying for the privilege. Why haven’t we simply deserted the old publishers, walked away and started our own? Well, to some extent we have: that is what the Cost Of Knowledge boycott is about. It’s sometimes been described as a petition, but isn’t trying to persuade Elsevier to do something. It’s a declaration of independence. One very successful publisher started by researchers in 2003 is the non-profit Public Library of Science (PLoS). It publishes seven journals, all open access. One of them, PLoS ONE, started only in 2006, has quickly become the world’s largest academic journal, with 13,798 papers published in 2011. And open-access journals can be influential: PLoS Biology consistently has a very high impact factor (IF), though PLoS has de-emphasized this traditional, problematic measure, so you won’t find this fact blazoned across their website.

Yet barrier-based publishers survive because of another disconnect, this one between researchers and libraries. Researchers choose which journals to support with their submissions, but it’s libraries that have to pay for subscriptions to those journals. Because of the stupid way researchers are usually evaluated (and this is another whole issue), the intrinsic quality of our work matters less than the brand name of the journal it’s published in. So we have strong selfish reasons for wanting to get our work into the “best” journals, even if it is at the cost of effective communication. And we have no up-front costs to dissuade us even if those journals are expensive ones. We have a completely dysfunctional journal market because the real purchaser never sees the bill.

At this point, it seems clear that the old publishers aren’t going to change; their support for the RWA is proof enough of this. To fix the academic publishing mess, researchers need to stop sending their work to barrier-based journals. And for that to happen, we need funding bodies and job-search committees to judge candidates on the quality of their work, not on which brand name it’s associated with.

Happily, there are signs of movement in this direction: for example, The Wellcome Trust says “it is the intrinsic merit of the work, and not the title of the journal in which an author’s work is published, that should be considered in making funding decisions.” We need more funding and hiring bodies to make such declarations. Only then will researchers will be free of the need (real or apparent) to prop up parasitic publishers by sending their best work to big-name, barrier-based journals.

*Update, 2/21: This sentence was altered to clarify what happened with the submitted manuscript.

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  • Kevin

    I couldn’t agree more. I actually just wrote essentially the same post.

    I think the biggest barrier to large scale change (at least in many scientists’ minds) is peer review. Of course, we don’t need publishers for peer review, but I think we need some infrastructure in place for open source peer review, something like suggests.

  • Mike Taylor

    Thanks, Kevin, for your comment and for the link to your own article.

    I agree that some form of peer-review is essential, but as you imply, and as I wrote elsewhere, Publishers do not provide peer-review. We do. More that that: in my field, at least (vertebrate palaeontology), publishers don’t even administrate peer-review: volunteer editors do that. The most that publishers can properly claim is that they administrate the administration of peer-review; yet time and again they boldly claim that the peer-review itself is a service that they provide. We need to vigilant in stamping out this falsehood wherever it arises.

    Exactly what form peer-review will take in ten or twenty years, I wouldn’t like to say. I suspect it will look very different from the gatekeeping version we are currently used to.

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  • Sharon Hill

    Reminds me of the RIAA (Recording Industry Association of America). They refuse to accept that times change and the consumers want to be accomodated. Instead, they hold us hostage.

  • Mike Taylor

    Sharon, the analogy with the RIAA is extremely strong. There are two important differences. The huge majority of the work published in academic journals is funded by the public money; and the authors never get paid anything at all. So it’s as though the government funded Katy Perry to record an album, then she gave it to the RIAA, signed over copyright without charging a fee, then the RIAA sold copies and erected barriers to prevent taxpayers from getting free copies of the work they’ve funded.

    Sheesh. I gotta go lie down.

  • Andrew Miller

    As an employee for a large STM publisher, I don’t recognise the ‘copy editing is rare’ point. I personally work with many freelancers, suppliers and in-house colleagues on copy and developmental editing to ensure our journals are published to a high standard.

  • Alex Powell

    Well-argued post Mike – builds usefully on my ‘Friends De-united’ post of the other week.

  • Julian Cribb

    Hi Mike –

    You may be interested in my take on this issue. This is the latest of a number of articules on open science over the last few years:

    best wishes

  • Mike Taylor

    Thanks to all who have commented.

    Andrew Miller, I can only go on my own experience and those of my colleagues, and that experience is that in our field (palaeontology) proofreading and copy-editing are vanishingly rare. I have certainly never had either done in any meaningful way to any of manuscripts, and I don’t recall ever having had a colleague mention it having been done for them. I suppose it may vary across different fields of research, just as, for example, mathematicians are expected to do their own camera-ready formatting but we palaeontologists are not. What scientific field do you specialise in?

    Alex Powell, yes, I read your post last week — good stuff.

    Julian Cribb, thanks for the link to your article, too. By coincidence, I had just opened it in another tab (but not yet read it) when I came to respond to your comment! I am delighted to see this issue getting so much coverage (and so much of it so insightful) in so many different venues. I think scholarly publishing is at a tipping point right now, and I want to see the word spreading and the momentum keeping up!

  • Stephen Curry

    Great, cogent post. Am amused by the co-incidence that on the same day we fixated on the value of the key statement in Wellcome’s policy about evaluating the ‘intrinsic merit’ of published work, rather than using shortcuts. Great minds, eh? 😉

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  • can

    Interesting. Now, if we can get the peer review process to allow research that is truthful but not popular, we’ll have made a difference.

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  • Eleanor

    I tend to go for traditional publishers over open-access because I don’t have the upfront £1000 or so sitting in my research funds to pay their publishing fees. Problem is, I know the University library is going to pay a heck of a lot more later to buy back the rights to read the papers I produce. I think we need University-wide policies which cover the costs of publishing in Plos type journals for it to work.

    I find it very hard to refuse to review for Elsevier if ask to do so by a journal and editor I like and respect.

  • Kent Anderson

    This article is filled with misinformation. You link to an article on the Scholarly Kitchen as you make a statement that “Copy editing is rare, and when it does exist has a reputation for adding more errors than it removes.” The link is to a post summarizing three studies of copy editing in various fields and comparing final manuscripts to author-submitted articles in repositories. Not only was copy editing uniformly done on the final manuscripts (it is not “rare” as you state it, but nearly uniformly done throughout the literature currently), but copy editing made the manuscripts more readable, more consistent, and found missing references, data, and author attributions on a fairly consistent basis. In other words, it did what it’s designed to do.

    Publishers “add value” all along the way — by supporting and training editors (yes, who do you think trains scientists to be editors familiar with COPE standards, COI standards, editorial processes, and so forth?), by providing marketing, sales, and infrastructure support, by maintaining archives for decades turning into centuries now, by registering and monitoring copyright to preserve the integrity of the scientific record, by administering peer-review (which doesn’t just magically happen), by bearing the price of rejection inherent in any selective publication, by shouldering the risk in starting new titles to bring identity and order to emerging fields, and so forth.

    You also mention the “stupid” way researchers are evaluated today, yet offer no alternative hypothesis. Do you really think that tracking the uptake of their ideas through subsequent citations, quantifying this in a uniform manner, adding measures of the reputations of the outlets that have accepted their works for publication, and so forth, is “stupid”? It can be improved, and I think it can be, but it is far from stupid. And, again, you offer no alternative thinking, just a casual condemnation that sounds like it came from a teenager. Researcher evaluation is just imperfect, and it would be nice to have actual proposals for improving it rather than dismissive comments.

    As for the “big, dying animal” image you’re trying to foster, dozens of traditional journals launch each year, submission rates are going up nearly everywhere, open access journals are now part of mainstream publishing companies (including Elsevier), library budgets continue to grow (albeit slowly), editors and authors and peer-reviewers still compete to be part of important journals, and so forth. So, first, publishing companies are not animals — they don’t have predictable lifespans and inherent mortality. In fact, many have been around for 100+ years, and show no signs of fading soon. Second, and to that point, they are not dying. If anything, they are growing faster now in key ways than ever.

    As for PLoS, it now generates a profit margin of 22%, and its profit margin is likely to soon exceed the margins of larger for-profit publishers who are currently being condemned for their pricing practices. PLoS is a not-for-profit, so is not accountable to shareholders or others, doesn’t have to share its profits with outside entities (Elsevier and other large for-profit publishers share their profits with hundreds of scientific societies which contract with them for services), and has no clear scientific mission, only a publishing mission. If we are worried about predatory financial practices leading to outsized profits, we should worry about that occurring in any model being used currently to fund publishers (and PLoS doesn’t get a free pass because it was started by researchers — most publishers were started by scientists, as were most journals).

    Most publishers are academic (Oxford University Press, Cambridge University Press, University of Chicago Press, Rockefeller University Press) or based in scientific societies. Most journal publishers are not-for-profits. Calling publishers “parasitic” is inaccurate and inflammatory. Publishers provide an important role in the scholarly world as more objective third-parties, protecting the record, improving the record, sorting the record, archiving the record, and defining and defending standards (data integrity, conflict of interest, disclosure, and author attribution) that too often are broken by scientists themselves. If researchers were to have to bear the burdens publishers currently take on for them, the productivity of the scientific enterprise would slow significantly. This is a major value publishers provide, and one that is often overlooked. We help create an orderly conclusion to a research project, and alleviate ongoing concerns researchers may have about whether their articles are being misused, are still available, are being cited correctly, etc. And I think we can all agree that more and better scientific research is our mutual goal.

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  • Mike Taylor

    It have to say it doesn’t come as a huge surprise that for-profit barrier-based publisher Kent Anderson is in favour of retaining the for-profit barrier-based publishing status quo. I suppose I ought to respond point by point, but I have to admit my heart sinks at the idea. Especially as much of what Kent says is rendered moot not only by Elsevier’s withdrawal of support for the RWA , but more importantly by its congressional sponsors’ active repudiation of it: “We will continue to see a growth in open access publishers. This new and innovative model appears to be the wave of the future … The American people deserve to have access to research for which they have paid.”

    Oh well, here we go.

    On copy-editing: The Scholarly Kitchen article that I linked in support of my statement that “Copy editing is rare” says “Some publishers have given up on copy editing entirely. Others apply a light touch to the title and abstract but go no further. Editors are keen to push authors into the hands of a rapidly growing external academic writing and editing industry rather than absorbing the costs of copy editing themselves.”

    On “added value”: No-one in this discussion has ever disputed that publishers add some value. The issue is that this value is a tiny, tiny proportion of the total value of a research paper, and that publishers’ traditional reward for their contribition — assuming total ownership and restricting distribution — is both absurdly disproportionate and grotesquely anachronistic in a world where information has no intrinsic barriers but those we impose on it.

    At the start of the present round of discussion, publishers were consistently claiming that they provide peer-review — a claim that every functioning researcher knows is false since we do the peer-review ourselves as unpaid volunteers. Having been called on this egregious falsehood, the publishers’ claim retreated to “we co-ordinate peer-review” — but we know that is largely false, too, since the great majority of journals are in fact edited by (you guessed it) unpaid volunteer academics. Now the claim has, rightly, retreated to “supporting and training editors”. That is probably about right (though I would lay money that most current editors would say they learned far more about the process from their fellow editors than from their publishers). It’s pretty shameful that to get publishers to this point we have had to repeatedly counter a sequence of unsubstantiated land-grab claims.

    On how researchers are evaluated: Yes, I mention the stupid way researchers are evaluated today. It is bizarre to me that you would claim I “offer no alternative hypothesis” when the whole last paragraph of my article does precisely that, praising an organisation that is evaluating researchers on the basis of their actual, you know, research. Did you even read to the end?

    On big, dying animals: You surely know perfectly well that the increase in volume of barrier-based publishing reflects only the overall growth of research in the publish-or-perish environment. Open-access publishing is growing much faster than barrier-based, accounting for an increasing proportion of the overall market. The writing is on the wall for barrier-based. Even the people that Elsevier paid to propose the RWA can see that.

    On PLoS’s profit margin: As their 2010 Progress Update (the most recent one published) clearly states, “PLoS reached a truly significant milestone in 2010 when, seven years after entering the publishing business, our annual operating revenues exceeded expenses for the first time”. The report goes onto give numbers: operating revenues were $13M and operating expenses were $12.2M, for an operating profit of 6.5% — less than one third of the 22% that you claim. It is utterly misleading to consider a 6.5% profit in the seventh year of operation comparable to Elsevier’s history of nine straight years of profits in the 30-35% band (and probably many more years before that — nine was as far back as I could be bothered to go. All numbers are straight from Elsevier’s own annual reports, by the way.)

    But all of this ignores the much more important point that, as a non-profit, PLoS does not and cannot siphon any operating profit off to shareholders, but must and will invest it in furthering its goal to accelerate progress in science and medicine by leading a transformation in research communication. Works for me! But then, I’m baised. I’m in favour of progress in science and medicine.

    On parasitic publishers: Yes, there are plenty of academic publishers that are run by the universities and scholarly societies; and many of these are non-profits. But your claim that “Calling publishers “parasitic” is inaccurate and inflammatory” is itself inaccurate and inflammatory. As you can plainly see by scrolling up to the actual article, what I said was “Only then will researchers will be free of the need (real or apparent) to prop up parasitic publishers by sending their best work to big-name, barrier-based journals”. What makes you think that “big-name barrier-based journals” refers to these university and scholarly society publishers?

    The reality that we both know is that academic publishing is hugely dominated by the Big Four for-profit publishers — which are indeed parasitic, and I use that word in a strictly descriptive sense. It is a fact that they leech money out of research and into shareholder pockets. I’m not going to prop that behaviour up with my own work, and I’m not going to pretend it isn’t exploitative for the sake of sparing people’s feelings.

    In the immortal words of Tom Holtz, “Sorry if that makes some people feel bad, but I’m not in the ‘make people feel good business’; I’m a scientist.”

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  • Marissa

    Publishers and their Journals are a funny entity.
    Scientists needed them back in the days before the internet to keep up to date with the research. Scientists today (in Universities at least) need them to keep/ gain their tenure. As much as I would really enjoy having journals like PLoS become more prominent I think that the complete change will take as long as it takes universities to accept PLoS as an accepted place for publication and stop placing more clout with Journals with big names.
    I was wondering if you had any ideas that might enable the Universities to accept open access publications as valid. Because if we could take off the horrendous price tags off of these publications I think that we might find more of the general population taking an interest in the science that they fund with their tax dollars (I don’t know much about other fields, but most of the grants given to the Microbiology labs I’ve worked in are directly funded by the American government.) As Maurice Hilleman said “Science has to produce something useful. That’s the payback to society for the support of the enterprise.” I think that making these open access publications will be a large step in having the payback to society.

  • Mike Taylor

    Marissa, there seems to be quite a difference in how PLoS journals are perceived in different fields. Where I come from (vertebrae palaeontology, which is a branch of biology with some geology thrown in), PLoS ONE is a pretty major venue, and its Impact Factor of four-point-something is better than any of the specialist journals in the field. PLoS Biology is the top-ranking journal in biology, according to the most recent JCR. And universities most certainly “accept open access publications as valid”.

    If you know of any that don’t, I’d love to know details. There really is not the slightest hint of a rational reason why they should not.

  • Fernando

    I think there is something I’m missing, but if everything is “reduced to” money, then publishers should lower the money requirement to the actual U$S 1350 publication charge Plos One is asking for publishing (, “Publication Charges”). If the Big Four charge, for example U$S 1300, would they be acceptable? I’m not sure about “money measurements”, but it’s good to discuss and exchange ideas.


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  • Jan Roslund

    In managing my later father’s affairs, I recently discovered that the publishing contract he signed with Springer Verlag included that the copyright of my father’s life work would be in Springer Verlag’s name. My father spent 30 years researching, writing, and creating photographs for the three-volume definitive book in his field. Naïve in terms of business, he was taken advantage of by an unscrupulous editor and grasping publishing company. The book was not commissioned or a work for hire. In essence Springer stole his life’s work from him.


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