How we know what we know: the sad state of academic publishing
A few companies have built an oligopoly using science as a resource
A paper that does not have references is like a child without an escort walking at night in a big city it does not know: isolated, lost, anything may happen to it.
This quote, from famous anthropologist Bruno Latour, serves as a good insight into how knowledge is built. See, science doesn’t work in isolation. Someone working to develop new batteries today is using knowledge from yesterday. The scientists developing COVID-19 vaccines are standing on the shoulders of previous scientists. The students putting together their thesis are using previous works to justify their findings and opinions. Everyone in the scientific community uses knowledge from the past to decide what to research next, to confirm or contradict findings, to justify their research, and to give credence to what they are saying. Science is born, so to speak, from the collection of papers usually found in scientific journals. These journals are, in a way, the source of all knowledge.
Yet, this knowledge is extremely hard to access, even for scientists. This was already the case in the past, as paper publishing is an expensive endeavour, but digitization is threatening to make knowledge a fenced off guardian for most people. Low costs and high profit margins have allowed some publishers to purchase large numbers of smaller publishers. In some research fields, up to 70% of all papers are published through journals owned by only five companies. In turn, these companies charge exorbitant amounts to gain access to their journals. In fact, no university is able to pay for access to all journals, it simply costs too much. This is even worse in developing countries, where even a single publisher’s catalogue could be out of reach. Here’s the real kicker: the papers they are gatekeeping are usually written, edited, and reviewed by the same people who are charged to access them. Furthermore, the research is often funded through third parties, including public entities.
Before we discuss any further, it’s worth talking about the peer review process. A peer review is how scientists typically know if an article meets the quality standard that you expect to find in scientific literature. A handful of experts in the field of the draft paper will review the facts, methods, and findings of the submitted document, and either suggest revisions or the rejection of the paper. It’s not a perfect method by any means. Still, having experts in the same field review a paper before it gets published helps reduce the number of papers with bad references, methodological problems, and other issues.
The “peers” also typically work for free. Most scientists who accept to review others’ work do so because they know that their own work also needs to be peer-reviewed by someone else. It’s about giving so that you may one day receive. The review process can be lengthy, but is essential for publications, and you’ll often find overworked professors agreeing to put aside some time to be able to review an article.
Costs and financing
So, the reviewers don’t get paid, but surely the writers get paid, right? Well, yes, they do. Not by the publisher though. Typically a research institute or a university will pay them a salary with the expectation that they will publish research articles. The academic publishers take these articles and then sell them to other researchers, with none of this income going back to fund new research.
Instead, the funding for further research normally comes from external research grants. For instance, a government hoping to see electric vehicles become more viable might invest a few million dollars in battery research. In such cases, there may be an agreement where the researchers have to create a report for the organization that funds the projects, but the research itself will likely come out in a journal that most people will never get access to. Even if it was publicly funded.
Before digitization, the role of publishers was to print and disseminate journals. However, these days they mostly serve as online repositories where you can access papers to download them. The access to these can be broadly divided into two categories. The first category contains papers that are placed behind a paywall. These are usually submitted for free, but require the readers to pay to access them. A single article could cost the reader US$40 (€34, £30). A catalogue of journals could cost millions. The second category contains open access articles, which can be read by anyone, but often cost the writers and their organization thousands of dollars to publish.
Open access is the practice of making articles freely available online for everyone. It comes with a large number of benefits for writers, research institutes and universities. For instance, the more people can access an article, the more likely it is to be read, and therefore cited. This comes with a certain level of prestige for everyone involved, and can help secure future funding. There is also the issue of accessibility to research. Most researchers want others to have access to their work, much like they had access to the work of others. Nobody is writing articles to have them be forgotten behind a price tag.
The problem is that open access adds to the cost of research. You most likely still need to pay to access the large library that is hidden behind a paywall, but now you also need to account for the additional cost of open access publishing. When the University of California tried to come to an agreement with Elsevier, one of the biggest companies in the game, to have all their research published in open access, they were told it would cost them US$30 million (€25.3 million, £22.6 million) over three years. Keep in mind, that would only have been for research published with a journal owned by Elsevier. Want to publish in MDPI’s Sustainability? That’ll be a different payment agreement.
High impact journals
Not all journals are equal. Much like universities, some journals have a better ranking than others, usually referred to as high-impact journals. Maybe you can see where this is going. The more citations a journal has, the better the reputation. The better the reputation, the more likely you are to have scientists want to publish in this journal. The more people want to publish in a journal, the more likely it is that its editors can set higher standards for publication.
This is great in that it leads to some truly high-quality journals. This is not so great in that it helps large publishers maintain their control over the academic publishing industry. A quick tour of SCImago Journal & Country Rank will quickly reveal that many of the highest-rated journals are owned by just a few companies. More journals than ever are being purchased by large publishers, and while new journals are appearing all the time, it takes time for them to make their mark and become noticed. In turn, once they are noticed, they are likely to get swallowed up by a large publisher.
Going back to the original quote by Bruno Latour, it’s clear that we need a place where knowledge can be found to build on and create new understandings. That being said, it’s become apparent that the current way of doing things leads us towards a world where a few companies control all access to scientific knowledge. There has been a growing number of concerns over this, but it seems like few people outside of academia are aware of what is happening. We need the general public to demand that research be made openly accessible, and academics need to rethink their publishing habits. It’s a hard road to take, but things will only get worse if we don’t act now.