Monday, January 16, 2012

The insatiable greed of commercial journals

Last week there was an excellent Op-Ed piece in the New York Times, Research Bought, Then Paid For, by Michael Eisen. It is critical of a Bill before the U.S Congress which would stop the current policy of research results from National Institute for Health funded research being available free to the general public. Apparently publisher commercial journals have lobbied for the bill as they see it a way to increase their revenues. The following paragraph is particularly poignant:
 the journals receive billions of dollars in subscription payments derived largely from public funds. The value they say they add lies primarily in peer review, the process through which works are assessed for validity and significance before publication. But while the journals manage that process, it is carried out almost entirely by researchers who volunteer their time.  Scientists are expected to participate in peer review as part of their employment, and thus the publicly funded salaries most of them draw through universities or research organizations are yet another way in which taxpayers already subsidize the publishing process.
Eisen makes the radical proposal:
Researchers should cut off commercial journals’ supply of papers by publishing exclusively in one of the many “open-access” journals that are perfectly capable of managing peer review (like those published by the Public Library of Science, which I co-founded). Libraries should cut off their supply of money by canceling subscriptions.


  1. What I don't understand though, is the difference in cost between open access and payed journals.

    Payed journals have permanent subscription costs but lower (or no) publishing costs. Open access have no subscription costs but substantial publishing costs. Both subscription and publishing costs are equally tax-payer subsidised, aren't they?

    Both must have editors on staff who send manuscripts off for review, edit, and typeset. Presumably these costs are equal in both cases.

    So then the only difference I can envisage in the cost to the tax-payer, is if the journal itself is making money for its owners or shareholders. But then, the APS is a .org, and Science is as well...

    So I don't see the difference. What am I missing?

  2. I agree, one might not expect there is a difference. However, there is a huge difference:

    A survey of more than 200 journals shows that their cost‐effectiveness, as measured by the ratio of the cost per printed character to the frequency with which articles are cited, varies by three orders of magnitude.

    Gordon and Breach were so upset about this article they sued AIP and APS. See

  3. Publishing in open journals is an appealing idea, but lets turn to the reality on the ground:

    I did a quick search on the 2010 ERA journal rankings for the string "open" and found nothing.

    Then, I checked the ISI journal citation indices and found, again, nothing.

    So, until the research environment changes or these journals start getting ranked in the common databases, publishing in open journals is going to be a lot like learning to speak Esperanto.

    You can't get there from here.