Publishing Science

We live in a society absolutely dependent on science and technology, and yet we have cleverly arranged things so that almost no one understands science and technology” – Carl Sagan

The above quote was from 1994, and sadly in the nearly 20 years since Sagan made that statement, the situation is much the same. So with that in mind, the theme of the next few posts will be on communicating science.

One of the main ways that scientists communicate their findings is through publication in peer-reviewed academic journals. Peer-review is the main quality assurance mechanism used in scientific research, and is what sets scholarly publication apart from most other forms of publishing. The peer-review process is put into practice in difference ways across disciplines and journals, but generally it consists of independent scrutiny by other qualified scientific experts.

The current environment in publishing of academic journals.

When a paper is submitted to a journal, the editors of the journal (a group of professionals whose work on the editorial board is part of their scholarly duties) and are then tasked with finding suitable reviewers/referees for each paper. The reviewers are then asked to critically and anonymously review the merits of the paper and make a recommendation to the editor as to whether the paper in question is deemed fit for publication. This process is a form of community service that scientists provide, performing this on their own time and free of charge. The editors evaluate the reviewers reports, and decide whether or not to accept the submission. Accepted papers are passed on to the publisher, who in turn physically publishes the journal. The authors of accepted papers, are not paid by the publisher, and are asked to sign over copyright to the publisher. Traditionally, publishers would charge for the cost of typesetting, the cost of physically publishing copies of the journals, and the cost of distributing the journals to subscribers (mainly academic libraries). The average cost of an annual subscription for a chemistry journal is $3 792, and can range as high as $20 930 (Elsevier’s Biochimica et Biophysica Acta) While this system made sense in the past, it is increasingly coming under attack, particularly in the advent of electronic publications, or more broadly, the internet. A growing number of scientists (>10 000) have signed on to boycott Elsevier, a major for-profit (last years operating profit margin was 35%) subscription based provider of numerous journals, at The Cost of Knowledge. The originators of the boycott cite 3 main objections to Elsevier’s business practices;

  1. They charge exorbitantly high prices for subscriptions to individual journals.
  2. In the light of these high prices, the only realistic option for many libraries is to agree to buy very large “bundles”, which will include many journals that those libraries do not actually want. Elsevier thus makes huge profits by exploiting the fact that some of their journals are essential.
  3. They support measures such as SOPA and PIPA that aim to restrict the free exchange of information.

Recently, Harvard University released a memo stating that they may no longer be able to afford their academic journal subscriptions. Other academic libraries are facing similar problems meeting their subscription costs, noting that journal fees account for 65% of their budgets. When the richest academic institution in the world cannot afford to continue paying for its journal subscriptions, it is clear that business model of academic publishing is not working. The principle objective of a scientific journal is to make the best research widely available, yet the costs put forth by publishing companies may actually be impeding the dissemination of knowledge. Tomorrow’s post, Open Season.


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