I’ve long complained about the bloated profits of commercial scientific publishers, which can be as high as 40%. That’s obscene if you realize that other companies which actually make a product make far less money, that the scientific publishers get that money by not only charging authors to publish there, but having their scientific papers refereed and improved by reviewers who are paid nothing. Those reviewers—and I’ve done plenty of gratis reviewing for journals like Nature and Current Biology, as well as for journals issued by less greedy publishers—are done out of a sense of “public service”. Profit-hungry journals like to play on our sense of duty and public service, all the while raking in huge profits by using scientists to do the journal’s job for free. And remember that these journals charge people for access to papers that are, by and large, funded by government grants—by the taxpayer. It’s reprehensible that the public who funds such research is denied access to the results of that research. (Some funding organizations, however, allow journals to charge for access for only one year. But even that is too much.) Commercial publishing of taxpayer-funded research is a travesty unless the profits, beyond those needed to pay salaries and run the company, are plowed back into more science.
But young scientists, who need to make their reputations by publishing in well-known journals like Cell and Nature, have no choice, for their hiring, tenure, and promotion often depend on what journals accept their papers. Sadly, many of the “high quality” journals are put out by greedy publishers. And it’s not just young scientists, either: organizations that hand out grants often look at where you’ve published your papers before deciding whether to give you further funds.
I’ve complained about this before, especially about the company Elsevier, one of the greediest scientific publishers around (see here). Eventually I, and 16,383 other scientists (the number is growing), pledged to do no more work for Elsevier until they adopted reasonable business practice instead of gouging scientists. Even editors have fought back: as I reported last November, “all six editors and 31 editorial board members of Lingua, a highly reputed linguistics journal that has the misfortune to be published by Elsevier, have resigned in protest of high library and bundling fees and of Elsevier’s refusal to convert the journal to open access.”
Want to know the obscene level of profits these companies make? From Sauropod Vertebrata Picture of the Week, we have a listing of the profits of well known technical scientific publishers. These are from 2012 and represent profits as a percentage of revenue:
Here’s a comparison of profits from various companies, including nonscientific ones, listed on Alex Holcombe’s blog in 2013:
As pointed out in the article I’ll shortly summarize, Elsevier made a profit of $1.13 billion dollars in 2014—1.3 times the entire annual budget of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.
All this came to mind when reader Ursula Goodenough called my attention to a great new article on the American Society for Cell Biology website called “On publishing and the Sneetches: A Wake-Up Call?” (The “sneetches” are Dr. Seuss’s characters who are arbitrarily given green stars on their bellies—corresponding to scientists who publish in the “right” journals and thereby get special status.) The article is by two distinguished cell biologists from UC San Francisco, Peter Waller and Dyche Mullins, who are mad as hell and aren’t going to take it any more.
Waller and Mullins first point out the problem of the exploitation of scientists by publishers, describing an enlightening Gedankenexperiment:
Like our intellectual ancestors hundreds of years ago, we still conceive and execute the research, and we write our papers. But now with the advent of electronic word and image processing, we also create our own graphics, proofread our own text, and in some cases typeset it. More significantly, the Internet enables us to easily (and instantly) disseminate our work around the world. Publishers still help provide a measure of quality control by orchestrating the peer review process, but here again it is scholars who do the actual work of reviewing papers. It is thus surprising that despite the diminished (and arguably dispensable) role of the publishing industry, our community remains slavishly committed to century-old traditions that, we will argue, are illogical and in many cases exploitative and harmful to our community.
Of course Elsevier is only one example of several large for-profit publishers of scholarly journals. Members of the for-profit publishing industry subscribe to an ingenious business plan. In an insightful satirical essay, Scott Aaronson describes a fictitious computer game company built on principles similar to those of the for-profit publishing industry, exploiting its patrons to contribute their products and labor for free. In Aaronson’s imaginary scenario, game developers donate their games to the company because they need its “seal of approval” for their games to be recognized. Experts test and debug the games for free when told that it’s their “professional duty” to do so. So for only trivial investment in the products, the company can charge customers high rates for the games it now owns. Aaronson concludes: “On reflection, perhaps no game developer would be gullible enough to fall for my scheme. I need a community that has a higher tolerance for the ridiculous—a community that, even after my operation is unmasked, will study it and hold meetings, but not ‘rush to judgment’ by dissociating itself from me. But who on Earth could possibly be so paralyzed by indecision, so averse to change, so immune to common sense?
Their solution is to abandon these greedy publishers and publish under the model of those university and society presses that plow back profits into scientific initiatives. They also say that scientists and granting agencies need to abandon the use of journal titles as measures of scientific worth, a move I heartily approve. (As the authors note, “As long as the “gold-stars” associated with authoring papers in, for example, Cell and Nature, are—or even are just perceived to be significant drivers in hiring, promotion, and funding decisions, Elsevier, Springer, et al. will remain untouchable forces.”) Waller and Mullins further recommend that all scientists send their work to non-profit venues that give the public and other scientists immediate online access to journals (e.g., PLOS and eLife). Funding agencies can demand the end of the year’s profit-moratorium on free access, and make that access free immediately upon publication. They note, properly, that the scientists who run and edit the journals are not our enemies: they (and reviewers) are often motivated by a sense of duty and a desire to keep published science of high quality. Our enemies are the greedy companies that employ them.
Finally, they argue that scientists should stop allowing themselves to be exploited by rapacious publishers:
What can we as individuals do to promote change? One obvious action that would help weaken the grip of the for-profit publishing industry on our community would be, whenever reasonably possible, to decline to provide our free labor. One of us (PW) for example, with very few exceptions that can be counted with the fingers on one hand, has not published in and not reviewed for any Elsevier journal for the last 13 years. What is most puzzling is a lack of more widespread anger in our communities regarding the degree of exploitation and abuse by for-profit publishing enterprises that we not only tolerate, but accept and support. Rather, as Scott Aaronson points out later in his article, “[w]e support the enterprise by reviewing and by serving on editorial boards without compensation, regarding these duties as a moral obligation.
And they show a proposed response to editors who expect us to work for free:
Coincidentally, I was asked yesterday by one of the Nature journals to review a submission. I agreed, read the paper, and then noticed that the paper was tracked through the “Springer Nature Tracking System.” Springer? I wrote to the editor and asked if Nature was now affiliated with the rapacious Springer. I was told that “Springer Nature. . . formed last year through the merger of Macmillan’s Nature Publishing Group and Springer, both commercial publishers.”
With that, I decided enough was enough. I wasn’t going to work for free to enrich either Nature or especially Springer, which is a gouger. I wrote this response:
Given that Springer makes at least 30% profits, and it is using, through the journals, reviewers and authors as free (and exploited) labor to swell its coffers, I’m afraid I must refuse to do my review, even though I’ve read the paper twice. Nature should, in these circumstances, remunerate its authors and reviewers instead of greedily sucking up profits for Springer. Given that you’re asking all of us to do this for free, I must decline to work further for Nature without remuneration. I have no doubt that you, [editor’s name redacted], and the other editors are doing your job because you care about science, and are trying your best to maintain the quality of our field; my decision is simply a refusal to work for a system that exploits scientists to make profits for a company.
I’d urge other scientists to avoid reviewing for Nature given its new affiliation, or at least to demand $400 per hour for reviewing, something that no journal will pay, of course. We can all do that, even while recognizing the pressures of our field that drives authors to submit their work to journals like Cell and Nature. It’s not hard, and you have nothing to lose—unless you think that reviewing for a journal will somehow help you publish there in the future (a vain hope, I think). And even if that hope is true, we shouldn’t be cowed by publishers who exploit scientists in the interest of their profits.