All I Want for Christmas … Is a Better Scientific Publishing Model

Scientific publishing is broken.

That may sound like hyperbole, but it’s not – there’s a rising tide of voices, in academic and policy circles, as well as from the general public, calling for change in how science is reported professionally.

The traditional scientific publishing model – the one that’s rooted in “publish or perish” – requires that research scientists cycle through developing a scientific question, running experiments to prove or disprove that question, rigorously gathering data to support the conclusions reached in those experiments, then assembling all of it into a paper for peer review, and publication if the paper makes it through that peer review process.

None of what I just outlined is problematic. In fact, it’s how science works. Ask a question, work on getting the answer, tell the story of that answer to the scientific community and the general public. Every scientific experiment that gets all the way to publication – which is a lot of experiments, with around 2.5 million papers published annually – adds to scientific knowledge, and gives other science geeks ideas to build on in their own work.

But the scientific publishing model is broken.

In the 21st century, the idea of paying over $1,500 for an annual subscription to the American Journal of Emergency Medicine (note that if you hit that link, you’ll have to download an eye-straining Excel spreadsheet to see subscription pricing – consider yourself warned) is a little sticker-shocky for a thirty-something emergency medicine MD who grew up with the “content wants to be free” internet. But that MD’s professional society membership(s) may include journal access, with the cost of that subscription baked into the not-insignificant annual membership fees.

Content cannot be actually free – I’m a writer, so I’m a “content creator” myself. Getting paid to do the work I’m professionally trained and experienced in is a requirement for my personal sustainability. I’m not suggesting that scientific publishing companies stop charging for the services they provide. I’m asking for a more reasonable approach than the current model.

The two main contributors to the content of scientific journals – the paper authors, and the peer reviewers – provide their work virtually free of charge. That free labor, in combination with the close to 40% profit margins in scientific publishing, have created dissention in the science ranks, particularly since career advancement in scientific fields, including medicine, relies on publication credits on your CV. Add to that the fact that government money, in the form of support for universities where most of the scientific experiments that wind up as published papers is done, and it seems like publishers are minting coin off of work provided by others.

As the author of that linked Guardian story says, “It is as if the New Yorker or the Economist demanded that journalists write and edit each other’s work for free, and asked the government to foot the bill.”

Enter open access journals, which started to appear as the web emerged in the 1990s. Open access journals charge paper authors to publish their work, then make the access to the paper “open,” so anyone can read it – no paywall, sometimes a site registration is required, but no charge per article, “paywall,” to read or download. All journals – traditional and open access – have production costs, which include everything from managing the peer review process to graphic design to printing physical copies of the journal. There is no “free” in scientific publishing, someone will always be paying for it.

Open access journals opened up publication options and ability to see the science being reported. However, that pay-to-publish thing also opened up the publishing marketplace to what are called “predatory journals,” which in turn opened a seemingly bottomless can of worms, where publishers of journals identified as problematic threaten to sue those who maintain lists of suspect journals

Like I said, scientific publishing is broken. Fixing it will require some heavy lifting, and I don’t mean lifting heavy journal issues – I mean the hard work of busting open the walls, the paywalls, that prevent wide dissemination of new scientific knowledge.

Cracks in the paywalls are widening, with large universities like the University of California system telling Elsevier they weren’t paying $10 million a year to subscribe to their journals anymore. Six years ago, in 2013, Richard Van Noorden, the features editor of the journal Nature, wrote “Open access: The true cost of science publishing,” which is a comprehensive assessment of the issue that’s still relevant in 2019, and likely to remain relevant well into the next decade.

As science denialism rises across the globe, it’s critical that scientific discovery be accessible to those interested in furthering that discovery. Which means being able to read scientific papers. Science is fun. It’s also essential to our survival, and that of our small blue planet.

So, let’s fix the broken scientific publishing model. We have to figure out how to fairly compensate publishers, while also keeping the scientific method firmly embedded in the publishing process. Somehow, I don’t think 40% margins (which beat Apple’s, by the way) are necessary here. What do you think?