By Daniel Tarade
Science is labour, a blue-collar profession. The training of a scientist is akin to the apprenticeship; long hours toiling at the lab bench for minimal pay to vie for competitive positions. The fruits of our labour benefit humankind and contribute to our common understanding of the world. It is time to claim our own voice, our own standards, and our own work. If you are reading this as a scientist, you might be wondering when we have ever been silenced, subdued, or stifled. I contend that as long as our work is funnelled through for-profit and vanity publishing houses, the scientific community is impaired in its fight against the reproducibility crisis and in communication with the public, all while being bled dry. Scientists are quagmired. The expected route of dissemination brings us into contact (and conflict) with for-profit publishers that tout profit margins of nearly 40%. This is not a competitive, free market, and these publishers are not providing any service that scientists couldn’t match or even improve upon. It is time to nationalize scientific publishing.
Benefits for Scientists
1.) Stringent Standards for Scientific Publishing
For-profit publishers are waging a misinformation campaign. They are attempting to equate prestigious journals (i.e. Nature, Science, Cell) with trustworthy science. That scientists would suffer from the loss of these prestigious journals because we would fail in separating good science from the bad. This is categorically false. These journals have amongst the highest retraction rates. Prestigious journals also struggle when taking into account other measures of reliability.[i] Simultaneously, open access, non-profit journals (e.g. PLoS ONE) are accused of publishing junk while for-profit publishers have established similar journals that are proving even more popular because of the ‘label’ (e.g. Nature Publishing Group’s Scientific Reports). All scientists ought to agree that only sound science should be published. With only one avenue for peer-reviewed scientific publishing, unsound science cannot be shopped around until published, instead being funnelled through a single, stringent peer-review process. Further, by nationalizing scientific publishing, the entire community of Canadian scientists can work towards a consensus on stringent scientific standards. Only within a nationalized, non-profit system can a direct democracy of scientists be established.
2.) Minimizing Bias in Scientific Publishing
By unshackling scientific publishing from concepts of novelty, scientists will operate under fewer biases. A nationalized Canadian Journal of Science will focus entirely on soundness and rigour. No longer will scientists be incentivized to selectively report data, p hack, or push conclusions to their breaking point. Similarly, biases regarding institution or research group can be minimized. During the hiring process, rather than jobs being won or lost on the basis of where scientific research was published, more time can be spent evaluating the soundness of research proposals.
3.) Faster Publishing Times
The current route to scientific publishing involves shopping around as the grant system is inexorably linked to vanity publishing. For an early career scientist applying for tenure-track positions and research grants, they need to play the game and find the journal with the highest impact factor that is willing to publish their work. This leads to long delays in publishing.
4.) Integration of Scientific Publishing and Research Fund Allocation
If all Canadian scientific output is to be deposited in a single, nationalized journal, it can allow for integration with national funding for science. Profiles for every Canadian scientist can be created automatically, compiling published and submitted manuscripts.
Benefits for the Public
1.) Access to Taxpayer-Funded Research
This a no-brainer. Less than half of recently published articles are open-access in any way. And fewer than 15% of scientific articles are made publicly available immediately after being published. A national Canadian Journal of Science will make publicly-funded research accessible to the major funder and benefactor of science, the public.
2.) Saving Taxpayer Money
For-profit publishers have made obscene amounts of money off of the Canadian taxpayer. The Canadian Association of Research Libraries has released their annual budget; fully $80 million is spent each year on subscriptions to academic journals. Much like the University of California has recently divested from Elsevier, the largest scientific publisher, Canada can divest from for-profit publishers. Further, Canadian researchers publish roughly 100, 000 scientific documents a year. In 2011, it cost roughly $4000 USD to publish a scientific article. Meaning, that an additional $500 million CAD is spent each year on paying scientific publishers. Even if that number is inflated, the Canadian government spends between $100 and 600 million a year on the various aspects of scientific publishing. That money can be used to establish a Canadian Journal of Science, with leftover money used to fund scientific research or increase scientific communication with the public.
3.) Communication between Scientists and the Public
Currently, the majority of scientific discourse is mediated not by scientists but by the media. Hence, most scientific coverage focuses on controversial studies of questionable validity (see Sucralose Causes Cancer). With a nationalized Canadian Journal of Science, more effort can be put towards engaging the public to increase scientific literacy. For articles of potential public interest, lay summaries can be commissioned, and avenues for direct communication with research leads can be developed.
Ultimately, for-profit publishers do not provide any benefit while recording 40% profit margins to publish tax-payer funded research. Peer-review is the cornerstone of scientific publishing but there is no reason why a nationalized, non-profit journal could not provide an avenue for stringent, rigorous, peer-reviewed scientific publishing that empowers Canadian scientists to evaluate their own work. We can cut ties with the vanity of traditional, for-profit publishers that boast high retraction rates and institutionalized bias. We can seize the means of scientific publishing.
[i] Brembs, B. (2018). Prestigious science journals struggle to reach even average reliability. Frontiers in human neuroscience, 12, 37.