The Publisher’s Trap: Light(s) at the End of the Tunnel?

In his previous essay, António Valentim investigated two of the main issues that plague the academic publication system: the unfair distribution of profits and how the quality of publications is assessed.i This essay will present an overview of some of the progress that has been made so far and, most importantly, what can still be done.

Open access against profit

Let’s start with how profits are distributed. Last time, I went through how publishers profit extensively by charging universities for access to publications that these universities themselves have made possible and by not paying academics for their peer-review and editorial services.

These problems have become an important concern of a number groups who are  trying to reform the way science is conducted and communicated. The ever-increasing price of journals’ subscriptions has taken libraries and universities to adopt a number of measurements. As a significant example, the association of Dutch universities, including some of the most prestigious universities in Europe, vowed to stop subscribing to journal publications in the near future.1

A simpler and more radical proposal is that a system fully based on university libraries could tackle these issues.

A consequence of this debate has been that a number of institutions have increasingly acknowledged the importance of open access to scientific articles. Several institutions and funders are now demanding the publications resulting from projects they fund to be freely accessible online, among which are some of the most important research funders in Europe, such as the EU’s Horizon 20202and the Wellcome Trust.3 Additionally, a rising number of universities are providing free pre-publication versions of the articles of their researchers online, and several social media platforms for academics (such as ResearchGate, Academia.edu) have emerged in which authors upload their work for others to access freely, although not without a backlash from the main publishers.4

So there has been an overall increase in the discussion of these issues, which has lead to the emergence of new, freely accessed journals that can be entirely managed by academics or supported by other organisations. This has pressured traditional journals and publishers to take action and an increasing number of these are providing a fraction or all their articles as open access, free of charge.

Not all changes have been for the better, however. Both the traditional journals and these new ones usually charge submission fees to cover publication costs, with authors being frequently asked to pay for submitting their manuscripts to journals. No one knows exactly what the costs of publication might be5 (the prices of submissions can be as diverse as to go from 8$ to almost 4000$6); and remember, most submissions are not publications, as they end up being refused by peer-reviewers and editors.  So a number of the traditional journals not only charge yearly subscriptions to universities but they also charge authors in case they want their articles to be open access.

Beeld: Library via Wikimedia Commons

On its own, charging submission fees cannot be the solution. This problem is made even worse because funding for research varies widely between different universities: while some universities or departments pay these submission costs, in other cases – usually also where salaries are lower – researchers have to support these costs themselves.

A simpler and more radical proposal is that a system fully based on university libraries could tackle these issues.7 A vast number of universities have their own publishing companies, among which are some of the most prestigious publishers in the world. Some have argued that journals can be managed fully by different universities, their libraries and publishers, which could end the enormous costs these institutions have with having to pay to get access to publications. Although this is a promising avenue for tackling the issues surrounding the academic publication system, it has yet to gain support from major universities in order for it to be implemented.  

Getting payed for peer-reviews

The second problem with the distribution of profits in the publication system is that peer-reviews and editorial services are not paid. Moreover, peer-reviews take a long time: it is often difficult for editors to find someone available who has the right amount of prestige and expertise to review a certain paper, and once they do, they usually take a long time to do so. Even though most discussions on whether academics should get paid by their peer-reviews is focused on trying to make the publication process faster, it is also a matter of justice for researchers to be paid by their services to the academic community.

Older, traditional journals are still far more prestigious and are seen as such by the vast majority of those in position of power.

However, some people have put forward a solution that could be able to tackle this issue. Such a solution is that of a system in which a cryptocurrency could be used to pay people for their editorial and peer-review services. These funds could then be reinvested in paying the submission charges of their own publications.8 Accordingly, reviewers would be paid for their work, which could in theory speed the reviewing process. It could also attenuate publication costs for those who reviewed other manuscripts. Nevertheless, this proposal has been just that – a proposal.  As such, to this date it has not received much support and has not been put into practice except for a few residual examples.

Dropping JIF… and looking beyond

Another major problem of the academic publication system is the issue of how publications are assessed. In my previous essay, I reviewed the main issues with Journal Impact Factor (JIF), the most commonly used metric in assessing the quality of publications.

The first problem is the way in which JIF is calculated,  as what comes to count as a citable piece can be negotiated by editors. The second major  problem with JIF is the erroneous way it assesses an article’s influence, as it represents a measurement of a journal’s influence and a journal can easily have hundreds of publications a year. This has some nefast consequences, as the JIF of the journals in which one publishes is frequently used as a way of assessing the quality of a researcher’s work by selection juries for career promotions and grant allocations (when, in fact it measures – at most – a journal’s influence).

Beeld: Open Access, via hva.nl

Over the last couple of years, a number of new and different types of metrics have been developed, partly as a way of tackling JIF’s limitations. However, this question comes down to how the academia wishes to evaluate itself and the quality of its outputs, and whether such quality can be easily clustered in a number. I understand how tempting it can be to have a sole indicator that ranks journals and articles, but JIF has showed too many problems to be used as such.

If we assume that the amount of times a paper is cited is indeed akin to its quality, the academic community should consider dropping JIF altogether as a measurement to evaluate researchers and their work. There exist other indexes which would arguably be a more reliable way of actually assessing a person’s or an article’s influence. The article impact factor, for instance, is basically the same as JIF but it focuses on citations of a single article and not a full journal (which usually publishes hundreds of articles yearly). Even though one can still criticise this metric, it does a much better job at assessing an article’s or an author’s influence when compared to JIF. In any case, whatever measurement the scientific community as a whole decides to use, it should enforce strict rules in how such an index is calculated, avoiding future nonsensical negotiations as happens now with JIF.

Light(s) at the end of the tunnel?

So all of this being said, why on earth do people keep publishing in these traditional journals if they have the option to get a free (or at least cheaper) ride? – You might ask. Well, there are several reasons for that. One is that older, traditional journals are still far more prestigious and are indeed seen as such by the vast majority of those in position of power (those making decisions concerning career progress, grant allocations, etc), which deters – especially young – academics to look for new, fully open access publications when publishing their work.  Researchers from all levels of seniority are also increasingly pressured to publish constantly in journals that are perceived as the most prestigious.9 On top of that, a number of academics have argued, and sometimes correctly, that some of the entirely open access journals are not as rigorous in the peer-review process which would lead to a lack of scrutiny of the quality of publications.10

It is an extraordinarily challenging task to convince junior and future researchers to publish their work in places that might not be perceived as so prestigious in favour of that common good.

In order to solve the issues arising from JIF and journal ranking, some have proposed the current publication system to be abandoned altogether in favour of an open, worldwide platform on which authors could share their publications, data and code which would keep the rigorous process of peer-reviewing intact.11 This would be a system centred and managed by universities and their libraries cooperating with each other. Thus, universities could redirect part of the costs of journal subscriptions to setting up this system and maintaining it but also – hopefully – to fund peer-review and editorial services.

This might be a rather utopian proposition, but any step towards it should be seen as progress, taking into consideration the current state of the publication system. Of special difficulty is to convince researchers to come together and enforce change. It will be particularly difficult to convince more senior researchers in positions of power to dramatically change the way they have been (successfully) working their publications for years in favour of the common good.  Likewise, it is an extraordinarily challenging task to convince junior and future researchers to publish their work in places that might not be perceived as so prestigious in favour of that common good.

Nevertheless, the way these issues have become increasingly debated in the scientific community can only be seen as a good indicator of the future of science communication and the publication system.

  1. Univers, ‘Dutch universities start their Elsevier boycott plan’, 2 July 2015.
  2. Horizon 2020, Open Science (open access).
  3. Wellcome, Open access policy.
  4. Nature News, ‘Publishers threaten to remove millions of papers from ResearchGate’, 10 October 2017.
    Science, ‘Publishers take ResearchGate to court, alleging massive copyright infringement’, 6 October 2017.
  5. Richard Van Noorden (2013) Open access: The true cost of science publishing. Nature 495: 426–429.
  6. Solomon, D.J., Björk, B. (2012) A study of open access journals using article processing charges. J Am Soc Inf Sci Tec 63: 1485–1495.
  7. Brembs, B., Button K., Munafò M. (2013) Deep impact: unintended consequences of journal rank. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience 7: 291.
  8. Spearpoint, M. (2017) A Proposed Currency System for Academic Peer Review Payments Using the BlockChain Technology. Publications 5(3): 19.
  9. Allen, J.F. et al. (2012) Queen Mary: nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition. The Lancet 379(9828): 1785.
  10. BishopBlog, My collapse of confidence in Frontier Journals, 7 June 2015.
  11. Brembs, B., Button, K., & Munafò, M. (2013) Deep impact: unintended consequences of journal rank. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience 7: 291.
António Valentim
António Valentim is a master in Social and Cultural Psychology at the London School of Economics. Originating from Portugal, he will soon be starting a PhD at the Weizenbaum Institute and Freie Universität Berlin, which will be focused on digital citizenship and the effects of the Internet on political participation and political identities. Contact: antoniodinisvalentim@gmail.com.