The Great Science Publishing Scandal

by Matthew Cobb

Earlier this week, BBC Radio 4 broadcast a programme I made, along with producer Deborah Cohen, about how scientific publishing works, the problems associated with it, and why everyone should be concerned about it. Click on this picture and you will be able to listen to the programme from anywhere in the world.

You might think this is a fairly niche issue, but if you or anyone in your family has a disease and you want to read up on the latest treatments, you will find that, unless you work or study at a rich university, you may not have access to the material, which is behind a paywall.

The programme is not primarily about the massive profits of the publishers* but about something much more interesting – how we got to this situation, and how academics (not just scientists) are complicit in the system. We also explore various alternatives, including Sci-Hub, a site run by a Kazakh hacker, which has stolen the whole of the academic literature, pretty much, and gives it away for free. But as one of my interviewees put it in a quote we didn’t use – “Stolen from whom?”

The programme is only 28 minutes long, and the response so far has been very positive. Those who are particularly keen on one or another Open Access option have been disappointed that the programme is not either more polemical or more focused on one solution. I felt that explaining the complexities of the problem to the general listener would be more interesting.

* For example, in 2017, the largest academic publishing company, Elsevier, made £913 million profit, up £60 million from 2016. Its 2017 profit margin was 36.8%. The raw material underlying that profit – the academic articles and their reviewing – was provided free of charge by academics, often from research that was funded by the public either through taxes or through donations to charities.


  1. alexander
    Posted May 4, 2019 at 11:44 am | Permalink

    Interesting program. However I wonder why life scientists and medical researchers haven’t adopted a system similar to that used by physicists, mathematicians, and astrophysicists, started 27 years ago:

    You can subscribe to this service and look at the daily supply of hundreds of papers posted by this service, which includes papers that later appear in Nature and other journals. Even Nobel laureates post on this service. Of course you can’t digest this flood, but I use the search function of my email system to search in them. Why not the life sciences?

    • Torbjörn Larsson
      Posted May 5, 2019 at 3:17 pm | Permalink

    • gravelinspector-Aidan
      Posted May 5, 2019 at 6:43 pm | Permalink

      Also, for palaeontology there is Palæoarxiv (obviously run by dipthong-phobes). For more general earth sciences, there is EarthArXiv. Both of these are in the Open Science Foundation clade of “*ArXivs”. I wonder if the Taxonomists have set up one yet, or if the Lumpers are in one of the above and the Splitters have three competing taxonomies.

      The OSF evolutionary radiation has, so far, encompassed (deep breath) “Architecture, Arts and Humanities, Business, Education, Engineering, Law, Life Sciences, Medicine and Health Sciences, Physical Mathematics and Sciences, Social and Behavioural Sciences, Africa, AgriXiv, ArabXiv, BodoArXiv, EcovoRxiv, TecsarXiv, Focussed Ultrasound, Frenxiv (in French), INA-Rxiv, LawArXiv, LIS Scholarship, MArXiv, MediArXiv and “these are the ones of which the news has reached Harvard / And if there there may be many but they haven’t been to be discoved!”
      A reinvigorated Tom Leher could see where this is going.

      How did that Tolkein parody put it? “Hordes of The Things!”

      • Michael Scullin
        Posted May 6, 2019 at 12:11 pm | Permalink

        “A reinvigorated Tom Leher” is exactly what is lacking in this information saturated world, and entire disciplines are subdivided and subdivided again and again. Each “again” has a journal. And key articles are surrounded by paywalls. I’m going downstairs to get my copy of Leher , , , ,

        • gravelinspector-Aidan
          Posted May 8, 2019 at 5:04 pm | Permalink

          Lumpers versus splitters … I’m sure Linnaeus had some Latin words on the subject.

          No, on second thoughts, Aristotle. And Greek.

  2. CAS
    Posted May 4, 2019 at 11:47 am | Permalink

    In Pakistan it’s even worse, faculty promotion is linked to publications with little regard to quality. You have faculty getting credit for publications (and organized meetings) detailing “scientific miracles” in the Quran. Dr. Pervez Hoodbhoy is a Pakistani nuclear physicist who has discussed he problems with science and rationality in the Islamic world.

  3. alexander
    Posted May 4, 2019 at 11:53 am | Permalink

    Correction: Ther is a system similar to arXiv for life scientists:

    I wasn’t aware of this.

    • Posted May 4, 2019 at 12:08 pm | Permalink

      Neither was I. For me, ResearchGate is very useful.

    • Matthew Cobb
      Posted May 4, 2019 at 12:12 pm | Permalink

      Preprints are raised towards the end of the programme. The key point is that despite the arXiv’s existence for nearly 3 decades, subscription-paid physics journals continue to exist, and we all pay for them, in the end. The same is true in the humanities and the social sciences where people have been circulating working papers for a very long time. The history of preprints is more complex than most people know, and were repeatedly crushed by the commercial publishers in the biomedical sciences. Read here:

      • Posted May 4, 2019 at 12:28 pm | Permalink

        There’s a lot of crap on arXiv, judging by the AI papers. Anyone and everyone can put their crackpot ideas in the form of a scientific paper and pretend to know what they’re talking about. Perhaps the moderation is particularly weak in this area but my guess is that it’s the same in all areas. It is not at all surprising to me that peer-reviewed journals still have an important role to play.

        I feel like we are going through phases in this internet revolution. The value of review has yet to settle at a new equilibrium. It is hard to tell where it will all end up. The freedom and power of the internet is mostly a good thing but not 100%.

        • alexander
          Posted May 5, 2019 at 3:45 pm | Permalink

          Papers that are over the top generally disappear after a while. But there are lone rangers that after a while are taken seriously (are quoted by peers) especially in the highly theoretical areas.

          • Posted May 5, 2019 at 3:53 pm | Permalink

            I’d like to think that some gems rise out of the arXiv dreck and that posting papers there leads a few to fame and/or fortune. Are there any success stories like that?

        • gravelinspector-Aidan
          Posted May 5, 2019 at 7:04 pm | Permalink

          As I understand it (though I’ve only skimmed the documentation), you need to get, effectively a “proposer” and a “seconder” for your paper to be accepted onto ArXiv. After a time and several successful submissions of a paper you’re promoted to becoming a moderator, capable of proposing or seconding your own or other people’s papers onto ArXiv.
          If you’re the proverbial “lone guy working in his garden shed” (Jim “Gaia & ECD” Lovelock, I’m looking at you!), you’ve got to promote your idea to someone with a level of profile in that field, but once a couple of people get some sort of reputation going then they can increase the amount of presented work for their idea set.
          Officially, Arxiv do prefer “institutional” email addresses”, but they do explicitly accept non-institutional addresses.

          Some of the newer *Xiv’s have gone for for different submission thresholds, but not greatly different.

  4. Jonathan Gallant
    Posted May 4, 2019 at 12:12 pm | Permalink

    It never occurred to me to include scientific publishing in my investment portfolio, but I obviously missed the boat. Wikipedia’s history of the firm is informative. The original Dutch printshop and bookseller of the Elzevir family was once the most distinguished name in scientific publishing, having published in 1638 Galileo’s “Two New Sciences”, founding the field of Physics.

    But our modern Elsevier, established only in 1880, essentially stole the name and logo of the Dutch predecessor. It has evidently continued to work in a similar manner, going so far as to sponsor fake journals on behalf of pharmaceutical companies: “In May 2009, Elsevier Health Sciences CEO Hansen released a statement regarding Australia-based sponsored journals, conceding that they were “sponsored article compilation publications, on behalf of pharmaceutical clients, that were made to look like journals and lacked the proper disclosures.” ” That is evidently one way to get to a 36.8% profit margin.

    The Wiki article goes on to report on various Elsevier journals in which editorial boards resigned en masse over the parent company’s profit-grasping policies. And recently: “In 2013, Elsevier acquired Mendeley, a UK company making software for managing and sharing research papers. Mendeley, previously an open platform for sharing of research, was greatly criticized for the acquisition, which users saw as acceding to the “paywall” approach to research literature. Mendeley’s previously open sharing system now allows exchange of paywalled resources only within private groups.”

  5. grasshopper
    Posted May 4, 2019 at 3:51 pm | Permalink

    We also explore various alternatives, including Sci-Hub, a site run by a Kazakh hacker, which has stolen the whole of the academic literature, pretty much, and gives it away for free.

    The “Right To Repair” your own farm equipment is a similar situation wherein manufacturers refuse to share the technical knowledge to repair, for example, your $500,000 combine harvester, unless you use the manufacturer’s licensed technician. And you are up shit creek if your crop is at maximum price potential and the technician is unable to attend for several days. Russian hackers have made it a lot easier for farmers to maintain their own equipment by selling hacked maintenance software. Unethical, I know, but I would steal a loaf of bread if I was hungry.

    • infiniteimprobabilit
      Posted May 4, 2019 at 6:38 pm | Permalink

      Who’s being unethical, the Russian hackers who are taking advantage of the situation or the the equipment manufacturer who caused it?

      Fair enough to void a guarantee if someone unathorised works on the gear, but denying owners the necessary technical data is extortion. And, of course, makes it more likely that a third party repairer will make a mistake.

      (One reason why all my laptops are Thinkpads – the full manuals are up on the maker’s site for free pdf download. Would that all manufacturers followed that policy).


  6. infiniteimprobabilit
    Posted May 4, 2019 at 7:43 pm | Permalink

    Publishing charges for digital material are, in my view, frequently exorbitant, whether scientific journals or regular books.

    Traditionally, publishing was a high-cost high-risk business – typesetting, printing large quantities, binding and distribution, with the risk of a big loss if the book didn’t sell.

    ‘Print-on-demand’ with modern technology neatly minimises the risk. And now digital editions save all the hardware costs as well. So why do ‘kindle’ etc editions cost almost as much as the book? Surely they should cost only a couple of dollars being the royalty paid to the writer plus a reasonable percentage for the publisher (e.g. Amazon?)

    The cost of ‘digitising’ an existing book is not that great. (I scanned, OCD’d, corrected and formatted an old 500-page book (for Project Gutenberg) and it took me approximately fifty hours, most of which was correcting OCD glitches – I was using a free OCD program, commercial ones can almost certainly do much better). If the author’s original text is available digitally then the work and costs of preparing it for digital publication would be much less than that.

    The other objectionable feature of Kindle is that after you’ve ‘paid’ for a ‘book’ you still don’t own it – you’re only renting it – Amazon can ‘withdraw’ it at any time. This is echoed in the BBC programme where a librarian stated that often access to read an article is time-limited. In that situation – (or if I had a Kindle) – I’d be looking for some software that would ‘rip’ that article into a freely-readable pdf file.


  7. openidname
    Posted May 4, 2019 at 11:50 pm | Permalink

    “You will be able to listen to it from anywhere in the world” — except Pakistan.

    Fixed it for you.

    • infiniteimprobabilit
      Posted May 5, 2019 at 2:53 am | Permalink

      Really? Does the BBC block requests from Pakistan IP’s for this recording? I know a lot of BBC videos are ‘not available’ in various overseas countries (same goes for a lot of other content providers too, of course), but I can’t see why this one would be.


  8. Torbjörn Larsson
    Posted May 5, 2019 at 3:23 pm | Permalink

    Copyrights and patents are useful tools, and since we live with a legal system where they are enshrined we can’t just circumvent them.

    But if they should append to science works is a question that can be discussed, especially since much of publication can be automated.

    Another interesting question is review: should it be free or paid work?

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