Whither Academic Publishing?

February 10, 2012 at 7:30 am 2 comments

Credit: Flickr/Barbara L. Slavin

[audio http://stream.publicbroadcasting.net/production/mp3/wypr/local-wypr-1003463.mp3]

Two weeks ago, we aired our monthly conversation with social media analysts Nathan Jurgenson and P.J. Rey. They’re Ph.D. students in sociology at the University of Maryland, and they talked about why they see the current model of academic publishing as outdated. It’s still dominated by expensive print journals, and they talked about researchers’ efforts to bring prestige to online, open-access journals, which would threaten the print model.

We received the following intriguing letter from Dr. Bradley Alger of Baltimore. He’s a professor of physiology at the University of Maryland School of Medicine.

Dear Sheilah,

That was a fascinating interview regarding scientific publishing this morning.  As a long-time (35 year) biomedical researcher, I found much to agree with in your guests’ views.  If anything their comments did not go far enough (I have not yet read their papers).   The main point of my writing now though, is to highlight a few additional important points that were not mentioned, or perhaps not emphasized sufficiently, that are worth thinking about.

Along with many of my colleagues, I am strongly in favor of “open access” publishing (I am not sure the definition of this phenomenon was made entirely clear to the audience), and I publish with increasing regularity in open access journals.  It is important to note that open access does not mean “free” or even “low cost” to publish.  Indeed, the publication charges born by the authors to publish in an open access journal are often higher than to publish in a conventional journal.  Even though the open access journals (I am referring here to the PLoS journals, particularly PLoS ONE with which I have most experience) have no print mode at all and are exclusively on-line journals.  Indeed, some print journals also offer open access options, and authors are charged an additional premium for their articles to be published in this mode (presumably to offset possible loss in revenue on the print side).  Bottom line: there is still no such thing as a free lunch.

Regarding the “high costs of publishing”.  It was mentioned that the editors of many journals are either unpaid or nominally paid and that the authors are completely unpaid.  What was not noted was that the major labor in the scientific publishing business, after that of the authors themselves, is performed by the reviewers of the journal articles.  These are scientific experts who painstakingly evaluate, write detailed critiques, recommend, re-review and re-evaluate, etc., prior to publication, and they are entirely unpaid.  The review process often (I believe almost always) requires more than one round of reviews; reviewing articles is time-consuming and absolutely central to the enterprise.  Without reviewers the process would lose its foundation.  To get this work done gratis is a major benefit to the journals.

This brings us to the issue of the “high costs”:  if the editors, the authors and reviewers are not paid, or paid little, what costs so much?  Not being an economist or someone who is knowledgeable about the real nuts and bolts, or the inside baseball to mix metaphors, of scientific publishing, I cannot comment on what actually goes into those costs, apart from the obvious ones that you mentioned – the paper, the ink, the lay-out and design staff, advertising groups etc.  What I can do is to recommend an article that appeared in the British newspaper, The Guardian, some months ago.

The author of the piece claims, and cites figures that show, that academic publishing is one of the most lucrative businesses on earth, with profit margins that are currently in excess of 35% per year, and have been for many years.  It is essentially a recession proof endeavor.  The high costs are not simply overhead, they also represent serious profit.  (Not that there’s anything wrong with profits, etc. etc.)    The question is why we are (the public and especially the academic consumers –universities, researchers) willing to pay the costs?

Your guests today seem to have a pretty good idea of the importance of the particular journals to the academic researcher, but perhaps some deeper understanding would be useful:  it is not just that we like to publish in top quality journals because it makes us feel good.  It really is the coin of the realm in the following sense:  the stature of the journal is the shorthand for the (perceived) quality of our work and indeed of ourselves.  Academic researchers are constantly being evaluated (for jobs, for promotions, for grant support, for awards, etc.)  The evaluations are often detailed and highly critical.  Yet we work in small specialized fields in which there might only be a couple of dozen of others in the world who are competent enough, truly familiar with, and readily able to evaluate in detail the quality, impact and importance of what we do.  It is most often the case that the evaluators, although experts in their own fields, are not experts in the field of the person they are evaluating.  In this sense, they (we) are not much different from the educated lay public.  Here the reputation of the journal is used as a surrogate:  the hiring committee or grant review panel sees that you’ve published in a top journal such as Nature or Science and take that as a sign that your work has been superior, and by extension that you are superior.  In my view, this credentialing function is the most important reason, by far, for the maintenance of high eschelon journals.  It is why many academics, even those who grumble interminably about the system, are not inclined to see it done away with (although that is changing).

The journal system also serves as a filter – there are thousands (I’ve heard 60,000) of scientific journal articles published each week.  Even in one’s limited field of expertise (and the immediately adjacent ones that must be ‘tracked’) it is too much to expect that anyone can really keep up.  The high profile journals are like the New York Times: It is not expected that the NYT will have all the news (even all that’s fit to print), but if something really significant does take place in the world, it will somehow be there.  You can be, or seem to be, an in-touch, even somewhat sophisticated, citizen if you know generally what’s in the Times.  The same is true with the high profile journals in one’s field. If you know what’s in there, you probably can stay more or less abreast of the latest, with manageable effort.

Credentialing by a big name journal could be supplanted, in principle, by an approach that tracked other measures of the “impact” of the scientific work itself.  For instance the numbers of citations it is given by other scientists, the recognition it wins. It is of course hoped that publication in the big name journal will directly reflect the importance of the work.  But the correlation is far from perfect – not infrequently work that is ultimately judged as more important, appears in a lesser journal than something that comes out in a higher profile journal.  Why then is this sort of credentialing, a meaningful one that reflects the actual worth of a scientific paper, not used in place of the journal stamp of approval?  I think the main reason is time:  it may take years for the real significance of a discovery to become evident and widely recognized.  What does one do in the meantime?  How to get a job, promotion or grant?

Your guests are right that some of the resistance to change is inertia, some no doubt comes from determined opposition by the big publishing houses, but until some of the core issues can tackled and solved, we are stuck with something like the present system, warts and all.  Like them, I believe we should work for a better one and hope we will eventually succeed.

Best regards,

Brad Alger
(Professor of Physiology at Univ. MD. Sch. Med.)

Entry filed under: Media, Science.

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2 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Captain Science  |  February 11, 2012 at 12:49 pm

    Excellent letter.

    As part of an attempt to address these problems, some journals are using the resources of academics to start journals that are peer-reviewed, open-access and free for authors. It’s hard to say if this type of model can work for all fields, but one journal at least (www.hypothesisjournal.com) had implemented this type of system and is steadily growing in recognition.

    • 2. Brad Alger  |  February 13, 2012 at 1:44 pm

      Thanks for the comment and the information. I was unaware of this journal, but will look into it. The old model has to change somehow.


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