The Guardian, one of Britain’s popular dailies, published an article last year by Stephen Buranyi concerning what he calls “The staggeringly profitable business of scientific publishing.” Some companies in the ‘business’, according to him, have annual revenues exceeding a billion pounds. We tend to associate such large-scale businesses with sectors like software, automobile, healthcare, entertainment etc. Even people in the field of science find it weird to talk of a staggering profit in the enterprise of scientific publishing. The reason being that, if anyone is to profit from such a massive industry, it should ideally be the scientists themselves. However, that doesn’t seem to be happening. Instead, they find themselves weeping over the sparse research funding.
Buranyi in the aforementioned article roughly separated the issue into two parts– one talks of the malaise in the current scientific publishing scenario and the other deals with how the former connects to the rise and fall of Robert Maxwell, the man who designed the contours of today’s publishing world. Scientific work is ‘communicated’ by the scientist to a journal, which then outsources it to select scientists who are competent in that specific research area to review (peer review) the work. Once it gets reviewed and recommended to be accepted, the journal agrees to publish it in print and online, where the print copies (or online subscriptions) are sold to institutes and individuals to be read by scientists. Buranyi contrasts this model with other thriving publishing industries to bring out the difference between the two. In popular print media, the publisher pays the writers/reporters as well as the people who review and proofread work which is then finally bought by the public in the market.
There are at least three elements that create conflict within this existing framework. One is the fact that most scientific journals are published by corporate conglomerates that have nothing to give to or take from science (except, of course, money). Most of these companies now own and publish multiple journals and in some cases, hundreds of journals across various scientific disciplines are run by a single company. Secondly, the scientific ‘work’ comes without any remuneration and none of the reviewers get any monetary benefit (although editorial board members, who are also scientists, are usually paid). Finally, the journal publishers charge an exorbitant amount to virtually sell it to the same people who are providing the input for almost free of cost. To rub salt on the wound, the subscription prices are raised as per the convenience of the publishers.
How does such an enterprise actually thrive to make steep profits in the first place? There are multiple factors at play. First and foremost, there are no regulatory bodies or guidelines for scientific publishing. This is both good and bad. Good, because any attempt to regulate science would be detrimental to the field itself. No one gets to decide how many journals of plant science or astronomy there can be. On the other hand, it’s bad because in case of a crisis in the industry, there is no authority to which scientists can report to. Moreover, journals form the primary source of reference for research. As a result, researchers are forced to put up with price increases in journal subscriptions.
Buranyi proposes for scientists to own and shoulder responsibility for their work. This cannot stop at analyzing the data and sending it for publication, but must also include actually publishing it. In other words, researchers should also be publishers. This is where people as a unit come to the fore rather than as individuals. Science academies – which for many centuries had been carrying the message of science – can be the cradles on which scientific publishing can take a new lease of life. This is not entirely novel, as before the slow takeover of journals by bigwigs, these were being published by science academies and societies. A small fraction of the journals continue to be published by scientific academies and associations. Some notable and famous examples in this list include Science, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), and other niche journals in various subject areas.
If science academies and scientific associations are able to publish the journals by themselves, it may augur well for the whole community and solve a range of issues. The entire profit from journal subscriptions would return to scientists, which would to an extent alleviate the fund-crunch experienced by researchers. This would also answer questions around the relevance of spending public money for basic research. If the publishing industry produces the same amount of profit as currently being made, scientists could even become self-sufficient. There wouldn’t be any question of conflict as producers as well as consumers are scientists (as opposed to the current scenario where the producers are scientists and the end consumers are publishers who are, in a way, outliers).
At this point, it is imperative to invoke those golden words: “ It’s easier said than done.” It is very simple to suggest this as a possible remedy. But to take on big companies and resuscitate science academies and associations – many of which have lost their esteem and relevance over time – is a herculean task. This requires researchers to break the ice with each other for the collective benefit of the scientific world. To create a Nature out of the Proceedings of the Royal Society is definitely not easy, but hope still glimmers – albeit at a distance.
Following is the link to Stephen Buranyi’s article published in The Guardian: https://www.theguardian.com/science/2017/jun/27/profitable-business-scientific-publishing-bad-for-science
Written by Pavithran Narayanan
Graduate Student at the University of Delhi South Campus