Broken Scientific Publishing Models and Fee Structures

The world’s first and longest-running scientific journal, Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society began publishing in 1665, and it was paid for with a subscription model — a model that has survived the test of time. In an age where digital innovation is disrupting most industries, scientific publishing remains remarkably unscathed. Although thousands of publishers currently operate in the sector (including a new wave of open access publishers), just a few companies account for the majority of all articles published — and they, still mostly rely on subscriptions.

How has a model created in the 1700s managed to persist until the present day? The answer to this question is complex and beyond the scope of a single article. Rather, we’ll focus on more concise issues:

1) Broken fee structures as they currently exist;

2) and what actions can be taken to effect change.

As control of the publishing market was consolidated over recent decades, concentrated power has created numerous, well-documented problems. In effect, academic publishing (in its current form) narrowly serves the economic interest of companies like Elsevier (profits in excess of $900 million last year) arguably at the expense research outcomes and public funds.

Two Different Approaches

There are two principal publishing models, the open access and the more traditional subscription-based. A common understanding of these two frameworks is: “open access journal = article processing charge” and “subscription journal = no author charge but high access fees,” but there are so many exceptions that it’s best to guard against this tempting oversimplification.

Open Access

In the first model, researchers have to pay to publish their work, and (in some cases) even have to pay an add-on fee to make the content OA. These article processing charges (APCs) are generally high and can top thousands of dollars per journal article. Some have rightly questioned this logic, but the fact it remains a common practice stands as a testament to the power of publishers. There will always be some marginal cost involved in publishing, without commercial publishers footing the bill someone else will have to pay. But what academics should pay remains highly debatable. With more efficient funding schemes, community buy-in, and technologies that go a step further than PDF generation, costs could be brought down.

Open access has also led to the rise of predatory journals, journals that publish work without proper peer review and which charge scholars sometimes huge fees to submit. Additionally, it should be noted, that overall, this represents a minority approach. Only around 25% of the global corpus of research knowledge is accessible to the public for free and without a subscription.

In the cases where the publisher doesn’t levy processing charges, authors are typically required to hand over the copyright, and the work then resides behind a paywall, privy to subscribers only. This is a vexing problem: published research papers remain inaccessible to the general public, who in many countries, pay the researchers’ salaries indirectly through taxes. In the US, taxpayers spend $140 billion every year supporting research they can’t easily access. This public asset has been captured, packaged and resold for phenomenal fees — this is the second model.

Subscriptions

Model number two consists of universities and research institutions paying journal subscription costs. These costs are not openly discussed due to non-disclosure clauses, but they are often exorbitantly expensive — in some cases as high as $10 million. According to data from the University of San Francisco, in 2018, the average price for a health sciences journal was $2,021, and for a chemistry journal, it was $5,508. On average, the rate of increase for journal costs was in the 4.7% to 5.3% range for the lowest subscription tier.

Further research by the Association of Research Libraries (ARL) suggests that the cost of journal subscriptions increased only by 9% between 1990 and 2013. But, as Library Journal’s annual survey pointed out, there are some question marks about ARL’s data collection. That estimate, Library Journal said, “flies in the face of reality.” Library Journal’s records showed that a year’s subscription to a chemistry journal in the US ran, on average, for $4,773; the cheapest subscriptions were to general science journals, which only cost $1,556 per year. This level of pricing makes the invaluable information in these journals inaccessible to most people without institutional access — and they’re increasingly difficult for institutions to finance as well.

The University of California recently balked at paying these fees, “make no mistake: The prices of scientific journals now are so high that not a single university in the US — not the University of California, not Harvard, no institution — can afford to subscribe to them all,” Jeffrey MacKie-Mason, a UC librarian and economics professor, said in a press statement. If this is the predicament of well-endowed US institutions, the situation for scientists who are not part of leading universities or come from developing countries with fewer resources is likely much worse.

When put into simple terms the absurdity becomes clear: scientists seek public or private funds to pay for the research, then pay to have it published; or they relinquish their ownership, and then pay to read the scientific products that they or their colleagues produced. As a bonus, many of them conduct peer reviews without any form of remuneration and deal with unscrupulous open access publishers who may try to take advantage of them.

Many publishers are predictably defensive over criticisms of the status quo. Lila M. Gierasch, Editor-in-Chief at the Journal of Biological Chemistry, has this to say, “many of us (I dare say, most) are ignorant of the costs involved in carrying out each step of the publication process.” Gierasch goes on to cite things like developing and maintaining submission systems, validating manuscripts, editorial leadership, redaction of accepted manuscripts, and facilitating high quality, rapid review. The New England Journal of Medicine recently took things a step further by publishing an editorial stating that in essence, the open access movement had failed. It’s difficult to take any of these points seriously, however, with such obvious bias in play.

Change

Putting a prohibitive price tag on much of the world’s best research hinders professional communication, it constrains data analysis, and it slows the rate of scientific progress as a whole. Qualitative growth is possible only when scientific papers are available to all levels of stakeholders, both freshman scientists and experienced professionals alike. Practically everybody — even the companies that profit from it — acknowledge current models have to change.

Inroads have been made since the “academic spring” of 2012 and more open access publishers exist than ever before. Sci-hub came into existence in this timeframe, (at one point the home of 64.5 million papers) skirting copyrights to offer free access to a trove of research. Despite the control levied by publishers, this dynamic of scientific communities bypassing paywalls caught on to some extent. It’s become easier for researchers to access academic journals their libraries don’t subscribe to although this development hasn’t been as impactful to the preexisting industry as p2p file sharing was (for example).

At the government level, the European Commission has called for full, immediate open access to all scientific publications by 2020. The much-discussed “plan S” is an initiative to decisively move toward open access publishing that was launched in September 2018. Plan S requires that, from 2020, scientific publications that result from research funded by public grants must be published in compliant OA journals or platforms. Other notable funders are taking steps as well — the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation now stipulate that any papers that come from their grants must be open access. Despite these developments and the growth of energy within the OA movement, the status quo has proven resilient.

Conclusion

These criticisms of scientific publishing are certainly not new or unique; those in academia will be all-too-familiar. They bear repeating, however, as it feels like an inflection point is approaching. It’s long past time to change the archaic, closed-access policies that have kept scientific results — results that were funded by the public — locked in the store of for-profit publishers. Now, in a world where the power of web-based social networks is revolutionizing almost every other industry, researchers need to take back control.

The Research Institute is working to improve the state of publishing through the creation of its own free, open access publishing platform Apograf. Apograf is building a DLT-powered mechanism to reward both authors and peer reviewers who contribute to its research library. It also features integration with the ORCID registry, which improves the recognition and discoverability of research outputs, is interoperable and persistent, as it can be used throughout a research career.

There are many other things that individuals can do to help improve the state of scholarly publishing. Researchers and scientists need to take on more accountability, as the future depends more on overcoming social tensions and the training to defer to a powerful system embedded in global research cultures than on breaking down technological barriers. All the groundwork has been laid, the possibility for creating something superior to the present system is real, and whenever that possibility is realized people will wonder why things were ever different. In an essay in Aeon, independent researcher, Jon Tennant lays out a few calls to action for fixing scientific publishing.

  1. Sign, and commit to, the Declaration on Research Assessment, and demand fairer evaluation criteria independent of journal brands, thus reducing dependency on commercial journals.
  2. Demand openness. Many researchers do not archive their research so it is publicly available, even when it is completely free and within a journal, policies to do so.
  3. Know your rights. Researchers can use the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Rights Coalition (SPARC) Author Addendum to retain rights to their research, instead of handing it over to publishers.
  4. Support libraries. Academics should support libraries in renegotiating fairer contracts and in some cases cancelling them so that they can reinvest funds in more sustainable publishing ventures. Additional support should be given to Open Access platforms.
  5. Use your imagination. What would you want the scholarly communication system to look like? Creative energy is needed to turn a vision into reality.