How Traditional Publishing Hurts Scientific Progress-Wired
March 25, 2012
Wired: March 21, 2012
From the Fields is a periodic Wired Science op-ed series presenting leading scientists’ reflections on their work, society and culture.
Eighty five percent of published papers remain locked behind subscription pay walls, accessible only to those affiliated with universities and other large research institutions. But new journals that make everything they publish freely available are growing rapidly. And government efforts to make the results of all publicly funded scientific and medical research accessible to everyone are expanding, despite industry-backed legislative efforts to end them.
Backed into a corner, traditional publishers have launched a public relations campaign of sorts, attempting to justify their business practices by highlighting the value they add by overseeing peer review and editorial selection. Charging for access to their content, they argue, is the only way they can recoup their costs.
This argument resonates with many interested parties. Most scientists value peer review, believing it protects and improves the papers they publish and read. They also place great stock in the sorting of papers into journals organized on the basis of audience and importance, which plays a major role in determining who succeeds in science. The public, in turn, values peer review, believing it determines which scientific results they can trust.
Never mind that publishers are on shaky ground when they take credit for peer review, as reviewers and many editors volunteer their time.
The real problem with the “value added” argument is that value is a net proposition. To calculate the actual impact of traditional scientific publishing, whatever value peer review adds must be balanced against the value lost by continuing to use a subscription based business model to pay for it.
The most obvious cost is financial. Science, technology and medical publishers take in close to $10 billion every year (pdf). Some of this goes to pay editorial and production staff and to fund essential publishing processes. But a lot of money is wasted marketing journals to subscribers and managing access, and there are tremendous inefficiencies in maintaining over 10,000 distinct titles in an era of electronic dissemination.
Subscription journals are also monopolies. If you think a journal is charging too much for a paper, you cannot shop around for a better deal (papers are not interchangeable). For decades publishers have exploited this situation to raise and raise prices, even as one of their largest costs – printing and distribution – has all but disappeared. It is no coincidence that Elsevier – the biggest player in the industry – posted profits of over $2 billion last year.
But it’s not just about money. Even if we paid only $1 a year, we would still be getting a bad deal. Because no matter how much value peer review adds, it cannot make up for the myriad ways in which traditional scientific publishing retards scientific progress.
If you think that scientific research makes the world a better place through treatments for disease, technologies that improve our lives, or just knowledge about the world around us – that is, if you believe in science – then you have to also believe that delaying scientific advances costs lives and diminishes the quality of our society.
When a paper describing a new idea, method or observation spends months bouncing around from journal to journal in the name of “peer review,” any major advance to which it might someday contribute is put off by months as well. The effect of these delays is compounded when you count all the steps – one group of scientists building on the work of others – there are along the path to most great discoveries.
And the access restrictions that are a central part of traditional publishing make things worse. There are many great scientists at research institutions that lack anything like comprehensive access to the literature. Imagine the discoveries that are never made because these researchers are not fully plugged in to what their colleagues are doing.
Open access publishers like PLoS (which I co-founded) and BioMed Central have shown that it is possible to build thriving businesses that provide immediate free access to everything they publish. Many of their journals (e.g. PLoS ONE and most BMC journals) only assess the technical merits of submitted works. But many open access journals engage in traditional peer review and selection too. And in this effort to only publish papers they deem of sufficient import, they inevitably delay publication both of papers they ultimately deem worthy, and those they do not.
To build a system of scientific publishing that optimally serves researchers, health care workers, teachers and the public, we have to sever the acts of publication and assessment. Research works should be made available to scientists and the public as soon as they are finished – following an initial screen to ensure they are legitimate works of science. The same volunteer reviewers and editors would decide how important they are, and to whom they are important, but they would do so alongside and after – rather than before — publication.
There will be some false starts and a bit of chaos. And we will have to give up some deeply ingrained ideas and practices. But in the last century scientists wiped out viruses like smallpox and polio, landed people on the moon and sequenced the human genome. Surely we can build a system for communicating and assessing our ideas and discoveries that actually adds value.
Michael Eisen is a molecular biologist at UC Berkeley and an Investigator of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. His lab studies how genome sequences encode the complex patterns of gene expression that underlie animal development. He is also a strong proponent of open science, and a co-founder of the open access publisher Public Library of Science (PLoS). He blogs at www.michaeleisen.org.