By Daniel Tarade
Scientific publishing is a racket. Utterly. Here is a quick recap; 1.) Scientific research is publicly funded 2.) Researchers use tax payer dollars to publish with for-profit publishing companies 3.) Academic institutions use tax payer dollars to pay subscription fees to the same for-profit publishing companies. Throughout this perverse cycle, important research is stowed away behind paywalls and taxpayer-funded researchers are price-gouged repeatedly. Yet, there are rumblings that scientists and universities are beginning to resist this incredibly profitable industry. Funding agencies, universities, and scientists are, more and more, demanding the implementation of open access publishing paradigms. Under an open access system, all research is made immediately available online to all individuals. Open access is important. But I contend that it is not enough. I will outline an argument for why we ought to capitalize on the ire of scientists to push for a more sustainable and ethical scientific publishing model. Rather than settle for open access, we should push for nationalization of scientific publishing.
Comprised of 11 European funding agencies, cOAlition S launched in September of 2018. Under the name Plan S, they have pledged to mandate that any research funded by these agencies will have to be published in an open access journal, starting in 2020. The original 11 agencies provide over 8 billion dollars in research funding each year and cOAlition S has only grown since. Recently, China has also publicly backed Plan S. However, Canada and the US, among other nations, have yet to make a commitment to support Plan S. Instead, publicly-funded universities in North America have joined the fight. The University of California has decided to not renew its $10 million a year subscription to Elsevier, the largest scientific publisher. In addition to mandating open access publishing, Plan S touts a number of other progressive principles that I much appreciate. First, publishing under Plan S would allow authors to retain the copyright to their own work, instead of giving up their copyright to a for-profit publisher (as is so common now). Secondly, cOAlition S would push to cap the fee charged for open access publishing. This principle, in particular, cuts to the struggle between socialist models of scientific funding (i.e. taxpayer funded) and capitalist models of scientific publishing. These for-profit publishers are currently under no obligation to provide their services at reasonable rates that prioritize the dissemination of scientific research to the masses. Hence the incredibly profitable business model (outlined above) that intentionally favours profit over the public good. My concern with scientists pushing only for open access is that there are no regulations in place to prevent publishers from simply charging more for open access publishing. In this scenario, the taxpayer is still gouged and scientific editors remain in their position as gatekeepers of what is worthy science. Yet, cOAlition S attempts to prevent this from occurring by capping the publishing fees that can be charged to offset the loss of subscription fees. Not too shabby.
When I talk about racketeering in the scientific publishing industry, how Elsevier runs profit margins of 37% (off the backs of the taxpayer), my friend asks about lobbying. Surely, with such a profitable industry, connections between the government and scientific publishing industry must abound. They are not wrong. In 2012, Elsevier’s parent company (Reed Elsevier) lobbied the American government to the tune of $1,420,000. Specifically, Elsevier and other publishing companies supported the The Research Works Act (H.R 3699) that sought to overturn and make illegal the NIH Public Access Policy, where any NIH funded work had to be freely available online within 12 months of publishing (the new Plan S would require published work to be immediately available). In fact, Reed Elsevier has steadily spent nearly $2 million a year to lobby the American government. Since cOAlition S has announced Plan S, prestigious for-profit publishers have come out of the woodworks to denounce the idea. Springer Nature claims that to publish a single article in a Nature-branded journal, due to the high number of rejected articles, costs range between €10,000–30,000. Based on the high cost, Springer Nature says that any cap on article processing charges (APC) would prevent recuperating costs. That is ludacris. First, a detailed breakdown of the outrageously high publishing cost is not provided. Second, Springer Nature has reported profits of over €300,000,000 a year, with a profit margin of 22.9%. Even if the prestigious Nature-branded journals have higher operating costs, this is more than offset by the profit generated by their more-specialized journals. The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) has instead offered a different justification for their opposition to Plan S. By limiting what a funding agency is willing to pay for publication, they argue that researchers will lose access to highly-selective journals (that cannot afford to lower their publishing costs). Since scientists look to these journals, like Nature and Science, as “filters for quality and merit,” Plan S constitutes a “threat” to accuracy in scientific reporting. Inadvertently, AAAS supports my argument for nationalizing scientific publishing. No for-profit journal should serve as a paragon of “quality,” particularly when principles of competition mean that these ‘selective’ journals vie for sexy, not necessarily sound, publications. Science was conducted before these mega, for-profit journals existed and scientists still managed to identify important research. We cannot let these companies embed themselves as a necessary part of science. The primary process of scientific publishing is the peer-review process and, may I remind, this labour is provided freely by expert scientists to the for-profit publishing machine. We can reclaim our own processes of scientific adjudication, free from the biases of a profit-driven corporation, and provide unfettered access to reproducible science to all people.
The lack of open access is just one of the many issues inherent to the capitalist model of scientific publishing. Unfortunately, Plan S is ill-equipped to deal with these other problems. When for-profit journals compete against each other for market share, publishing sexy but unsound scientific research is incentivized whereas the publishing of sound, negative data becomes a hinderance. Labouring while mired in a reproducibility crisis and being price-gouged by for-profit corporations while scientific funding becomes more and more scarce has precipitated anger. And this energy is dangerous to the establishment. Yet, this anger is often mixed with frustration and despair. Many times, a corporation under fire can simply wait out the storm as the disenfranchised are starved out. When stalling fails, corporations can instead embrace tokenism, of providing precisely the minimum number of concessions to appease the underclass. This strategy has a high success rate as frustration with the system often demands some appeasement, some recognition. So, to be clear, winning open access will not rectify the situation of the capitalist influence mucking up scientific publishing (and research) but rather make it slightly more progressive and tolerable. The tolerability of the new, fundamentally-unchanged system will make any further progress difficult. The hangover of piecemeal struggle is quite the bitch. So let’s take it all.
Nationalize scientific publishing. Establish a board of editors populated with Canadian scientists. Enforce rigorous standards for publishing that prioritize reproducibility and transparency instead of novelty and ‘importance.’ This publicly funded journal would expedite scientific publishing by eliminating the time suck of shopping scientific articles to various ‘prestigious’ for-profit journals. This national scientific publication would be open access and can facilitate scientific literacy by promoting direct interactions between the public (i.e. the funder and benefactor) and the scientists. A nationalized publishing scheme would save money by eliminating for-profit companies that gouge the public to build their cash reserves. Much like healthcare, the funding and dissemination of science benefits the public and ought to be made available for all in an unadulterated manner. This is the goal.