To fix scholarly publishing, decouple credentialing from publishing

Last week I contributed to a workshop for science policy officials by the OECD, providing input on how science policy makers could incentivise researchers to make their work available as Open Access. This was, roughly, my contribution.

The workshop description referred to open science as

efforts to make the scientific process more open and inclusive for all relevant actors.

They key word here is inclusive. The idea is that, as a society, we benefit if more people are able to contribute to the body of scientific knowledge.

An important component of inclusivity is affordability. Yes, more people can read research if it is freely available, but if that is done by shifting the costs to authors, there is still a barrier to participating in the scientific process.

So instead, if we want to enable more people to contribute to the body of scientific knowledge, we need to bring down the costs of doing so. Of course, making things cheaper sounds good in theory, but is it actually possible in practice?

Luckily, when it comes to scholarly publishing, there is every reason to believe it can be cheaper. There’s two reasons for this.

  1. Unlike practically every other publishing industry (movies, music, etc.), the price of scholarly publishing has only increased with the advent of the internet.
  2. The major scholarly publishers report profit margins of 30–40%, year after year. These numbers are typical (or even at the high end) of luxury brands — in other words, of exclusive goods, which are not inclusive by definition.

So why is the price of scholarly publishing so high? To answer that, let’s look at another excerpt of the workshop description:

already, in some disciplines, publishing papers in peer-reviewed journals is no longer the main mechanism for communicating scientific results

In some disciplines, authors first share their work on arXiv. Fellow researchers can then immediately read this work, albeit with a critical eye — it has not been peer reviewed yet. If they notice potential improvements to the work, they can report it to the author, who then incorporates that in a new version uploaded to arXiv.

When — and this is the kicker — the author then considers the work “good enough”, it is submitted to a journal.

In other words: the article has already been archived and distributed, it has already received peer review, and yet the author still feels the need to submit it to a journal!

This indicates that the primary value of a journal — one that researchers are willing to pay good public money for — is credentialing. It’s the brand that they pay for. And when businesses do not compete on price or services provided, but on brand, prices rise and affordability decreases.

Another example of this playing out is that, despite providing practically identical services at a higher price, Nature’s Scientific Reports has overtaken PLOS One as the largest journal. Its primary differentiator? The Nature brand.

The question then is: how can we bring down the costs of scholarly publishing?

For the scientific policy advisors at the OECD, my answer to that question is that we should decouple the evaluation of researchers from the publishing process. If researchers are evaluated on the quality of their research instead of the journal it was published in, that would remove their need to pay whatever amount of public money a publisher asks of them just to obtain career credentials.

My message to researchers is similar: find ways to promote your academic work that are independent of the journal it’s published in. I’m working on one such method with Flockademic: by bundling your research together on your academic profile, your research promotes you instead of the journal it’s published in.


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