On the curious anachronism that is the academic journal business model

While discussing my post on the benefits and limitations of peer review in the reporting of interdisciplinary and multi-disciplinary science I came to recognize that I was taking a lot of things for granted. The biggest is that a lot of my readers do not come from a background in academia. As such, while many have heard of the concept of peer review it is likely that many don’t actually know how the system works. The intention of this blog post is to fill a gap in that knowledge base. In doing so I hope I can express how ridiculous the current system we are using really is; this system that thrives by charging people to read work that has already been paid for by those same readers.

To understand this topic you have to recognize that the scientific journal system is a throw-back to a time when publishing was hard and expensive and thus reserved for a privileged few. It started as a system to allow universities and learned bodies (like the American Medical Association) to publish the results of their members. Because of this, much of the work involved was voluntary and unpaid. Over time the role of universities and learned bodies in the journal business has largely been supplanted by a limited number of for-profit publishing houses. Yet somehow in the process the whole “voluntary” and “unpaid” component managed to stick around.

Before we go any further there are some details about the process that the academics in the audience take for granted but the non-academics might find a bit startling. We all know that in our Canadian academic system professors are hired and paid by universities and colleges (i.e. they are paid from the public purse). In their roles they are typically expected to split their activities between teaching and mentoring; academic research; and administrative duties. The relative breakdown of each is dictated by their position. In colleges the professors tend to teach more and research less, in the high-pressure universities some professors might only teach one class a year if their research/administrative duties are sufficiently onerous.

Since individual universities does not have endless piles of cash professors also have to go to outside sources to get additional monies to funds their research. Research funds can come from a variety of sources with the biggest in the social and natural sciences being the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHERC) and Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC), respectively. These are, once again, government funds given to scientists and universities to encourage research.

As described, we have highly trained professionals who were, for the most part, educated on the public dime. They are now employed by publicly-funded universities. These people do years of research, once again paid for by the public, and as a part of their grants are required to share the fruits of their research with the world. Now here comes the bizarre part, instead of making that information freely available they are expected to publish their results through the academic journal system. As I noted above, in the old days journals were put out by universities or learned societies. Nowadays, the vast majority of journals are published by a handful of for-profit companies. These companies make their money by limiting access to the information in their journals through subscriptions. Now the costs for these journal subscriptions are a matter of ongoing interest. As described in this article different universities can pay different prices for the same journals. Alternatively the journals also charge to access to individual articles and those charges can range from the ridiculous to the sublime. Consider that access to an article from “Science” may cost you $30 for a single day’s access to the file.

Let’s get back to the process. Once a professor has written a paper she/he will submit it to a journal. Typically the journal charges a minor submission fee (normally less than $200). The paper is then looked at by an editor, usually a specialist in the field of enquiry covered by the journal. The editor can reject the paper immediately (sometimes called a bench rejection) or can submit it for peer-review. Depending on the journal you may have a blind review, where the editor picks two or three specialists (of the editor’s choosing) to review the paper. Some journals are chummier and allow the author to suggest people who might be good reviewers (often called “a pal review” for obvious reasons). Reviewers typically aren’t compensated for their work as the peer-review process is part of the shared scientific enterprise. What this means is that while the editor may be paid for by the journal, the reviewers, like the author, are instead paid for by the public since they are almost always academics being paid a salary.

As I wrote previously, peer-reviewers serve an important, but often misunderstood role in the scientific endeavour. First they are there to confirm that the science is done in an appropriate manner. In this they are conducting a quality assurance/quality control (QA/QC) role within the system. They look at how the work was done to identify errors in methodology and assumptions etc…

Reviewers also serve an editorial role, suggesting changes to make the work more comprehensible, suggesting additional analyses to confirm the validity of results…that sort of thing.

The final role of the peer-reviewer is that of gate-keeper, to identify if the science presented in the paper is novel and interesting enough to warrant space in the journal. A reviewer might say that an article is beautifully written, including all the right tests but that it is not a good fit for the journal in question. This final role is a legitimate one within the system, but as members of the climate science community can tell you, it also risks problems if one part of the community chooses to block the research from a different branch.

Typically the reviewers will suggest changes etc.. and the paper is sent back to the author for revisions. If the revisions are minor then a quick fix and another once-around would be considered sufficient. Sometimes the revisions are major and the paper has to go back for major re-work and another round of peer review thereafter.

Assuming the article makes it through peer review, editing, re-submission etc… it can then be chosen for publication. In that case, the author(s) will be expected to pay fees associated with the typesetting of the manuscript including bonus fees for colour pictures and other extras. If the authors want to make the paper available online for free they can arrange to pay a secondary fee to allow free access to the paper. Having concluded the arduous task of preparing the paper, editing the paper and getting it ready for publication the strangest part of this whole odyssey occurs: the author is expected to give up their copyright for their completed document in order for it to be published in the journal? The author retains certain rights but if they want to share the paper after it has been published then, with the exception of a handful of free copies made available to the author, they will need to pay for the privilege just like everyone else.

Having gone through this entire rigmarole the author then has to wait until the journal decides it is convenient to publish the article. I’ve heard of authors waiting for over a year to have an accepted manuscript published.

Once published these journals are typically pay-walled. That is they are only available for reading by subscribing customers. Typically university libraries have subscriptions. Sometimes individuals will subscribe to a particularly useful journal, but given the prices (often in the thousands of dollars a year) few individuals can afford that cost. If you, as a member of the public, want to read that journal article, you either have to have a subscription, be a member of an organization that has a subscription, or you can pay a fee to get a copy of the article (remember that $30/day?).

So let’s summarize for those whose jaws are currently sitting on the floor. Under the current system academics, who are being paid salaries from the public purse, carry out research, which is typically funded entirely using public monies. The academics write up their research and submit it to a journal. The journal then sends the paper to additional academics. These academics (who are fully paid for by the public) then conduct a detailed peer-review of the paper, for which they receive no compensation from the journal. This research that was bought and paid for by the public is then transferred holus-bolus to a private organization that will charge often exorbitant fees to allow the public access to the details and outcome of that research?

The journals argue that they add value through a screening process, except as we have noted the vast majority of that screening (the peer review) is carried out by other academics. These academics are not being paid to carry out this task by the journals, no; they are doing it free-of-charge as part of their work as publicly financed scientists. I will say this once more because it is so astounding, the public pays for researcher’s salaries, they finance the research and then pay the peer-reviewers to conduct the peer review and in the end they cannot access the information unless they pay an exorbitant subscription fee or an article access fee.

Now to be clear, there is a movement to open up access to scientific information with the Public Library of Science (PLoS) being at the forefront of said movement. That being said the existing journals are working very hard to keep the system as it is because, well because it is extremely profitable. Sadly, many of our public institutions require their staff to publish in “high impact factor” journals. Would anyone like to guess which journals make the list of “high-impact factor” journals? If you said the for-profit ones, then you would be guessing right. This self-perpetuating, anachronistic, money-making machine is truly a glory to behold….

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2 Responses to On the curious anachronism that is the academic journal business model

  1. I think it is worth noting that the purpose of peer review is to ensure that the reviewed work is suitable for use. But when we find that only a third of peer-reviewed medical research (and perhaps even less in the social sciences) can be reproduced, and see the widely quoted – and peer-reviewed – yet unscientific conclusion about a “97% consensus” then clearly peer review isn’t working.

    The US Nuclear Regulatory Commission looked at how to do qualify data for use by another highly politicized program, disposal of nuclear waste. They provided four means for qualifying data: production of data under a qualified quality assurance program, confirmatory testing, use of other data to corroborate the conclusions, and peer review. It is clear that peer review is considered the weakest form, or, as I like to say, “The last refuge of the sloppy.”

    Excellent article (from one chemist to another)!


  2. “So let’s summarize for those whose jaws are currently sitting on the floor…”

    The way I summarise academic publishing in one sentence is that academics give their work and their labour to publishing companies for free, then the publishing companies charge university libraries thousands of dollars so that academics can get back access to their own work.

    Liked by 1 person

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