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More is not better: the developing crisis of scientific publishing

In this blog, Geoffrey Boulton and Moumita Koley argue that establishing fair and transparent standards in science publishing is vital for maintaining the integrity and credibility of scientific research, which significantly impacts global society.

Divergence of vision and reality

The vision of the International Science Council is of “science as a global public good;” which implies that the results of scientific inquiry should be freely available to all who might wish to scrutinize or use them. Sufficient resource is currently available from public funders to make this a reality (EUA Big Deal Survey Report, 2018); but the reality is otherwise. There are two reasons for this.  Firstly, although many scientific journals and papers maintain high standards, too many lack proper editorial oversight, many lack rigour and integrity, some engage in fraudulent practices, few observe the most basic of scientific essentials, that evidential data and metadata for a truth claim should be exposed in parallel to a published paper, and agreed standards for overall governance of the process are lacking. Secondly, the business models of commercial publishers are based on appropriation of scientific output which is then sold on to readers’ institutions at levels of profitability in excess of 30-40%, (Buranyi, 2017) a financial barrier to readers or authors or both that particularly penalizes those in low- and middle-income countries where public funding for science is limited. This fractures the global scientific community. Current events have drawn attention to these problems, but first, a little background.

Reasons for excessive pricing

Two processes drive up prices. Firstly, most authors do not pay for publication (which is mostly born by science funders), a “moral hazard” in economics terms which avoids the normal customer control of prices. Secondly, science publishing has evolved from a state, half a century ago, when getting into print was the major obstacle, to a current state when almost any article can find a publisher. The major current challenge is to be read. So-called “high impact journals” offer such access, but at a high price. To rely on such a process when sorting algorithms could readily generate source-agnostic lists of relevant papers and agreed minimum standards could exert quality control reflects a dramatic lack of system governance from the scientific community and a silent acceptance of the actions of commercial publishers.

Impacts of assessment and ranking

There are two key drivers of individual and institutional behaviour that incentivize high price and lack of accountability for standards. Firstly, the value placed on bibliometric indices in evaluating performance and determining career advancement for researchers incentivizes a “publish or perish” culture that creates “overpublishing”. Secondly, the cumulative total and disciplinary distribution of bibliometric indices has come to be of importance to universities as institutions in creating university rankings. These utilize bibliometrics and other indices to generate ordinal lists of university excellence and have persuaded many governments to target funding with the express purpose of enhancing the ranking of selected universities. A key part of such processes is to incentivize publication by academics to increase a university’s total bibliometric score. It has often been pointed out that these processes are statistically deeply flawed (Boulton, 2010;  O’Neill, 2012). In order to compile a ranking, it is necessary to make so many arbitrary choices between equally plausible alternatives that the result becomes meaningless (Brink, 2023). Errors cannot be estimated, with the consequence that we do not know if rank 50 is different from rank 100. Apart from its methodological errors, ranking purports to capture something that there is no reason to believe exists, a one-dimensional ordering in terms of quality of all the universities in the world. It is extraordinary that universities have been prepared to accept the judgement of commercial bodies about what constitutes a “good university” and that they have adapted to what these same organizations claim to be key indicators. This extraordinary choice has narrowed the perspectives of universities so that they converge towards a single commercially-defined model, rather than exploiting the diversity that different cultural, social and economic settings need and deserve. It contributes to many perverse behaviours.

The publishing explosion

The desires of commercial publishers to enlarge their profits, of universities to climb rankings, of researchers to enhance their careers have all increased the obsession with publishing papers. This has resulted in a 47% growth between 2016 and 2022 in the global number of published papers (Hanson, 2023). Moreover, we should expect a further spurt of growth following the widespread advent of large language models in late 2022. During the 2016-2022 period there was little net increase in the number of PhD students globally or in the funding of science, both indicators of science activity. Increased paper productivity implies either that scientists became suddenly much more creative over the period, or had spent more time writing, and therefore reviewing papers: an increase in paper productivity but a decrease in scientific productivity. How many hours were transferred to paper writing from teaching, from engaging with the public, from transdisciplinary work, from commercial innovation and producing three papers when only one was formerly thought necessary?

Why overpublication?

On the science side, we suggest that this explosive trend is driven by individual and institutional competitiveness. On the commercial side we suggest that it is driven by academic demand (due to the above factors) and profit-seeking in an already lucrative market. The insistence of publishers to increase the rate of publication in their journals has led to the wholesale resignation of those Editorial Boards (Koley, 2024) that have resisted commercial demands to publish ever more papers. The commercial business model has incentivized the rise of so-called “predatory publishing” – the production of papers for their own sake, with little scientific merit and low editorial standards (IAP Report, 2022). ‘Paper mills’ are churning out papers and flooding publishing system with bogus articles (Joelving, 2024). Interestingly, the paper mill articles often look as good as credible research articles, only line-by-line scrutiny can reveal the “tortured phases[1]” used in writing, with fake tables and figures. The practice of selling authorships has also become widespread. Editorial boards are being infiltrated with non-credible academicians in some journals (Besser, 2024). Moreover, practices such as artificially boosting citations to make researchers’ profiles more attractive are now common practice (Catanzaro, 2024). Unfortunately, no credible and widespread action has so far been taken by the academic community.

The Wiley/Hindawi scandal

A recent scandal has exemplified the unstructured nature of science publishing, where publishers operate under their own rules with no significant constraints from the science community. Wiley & Sons have just decided to suspend the Hindawi journal portfolio, which they acquired in 2021. This decision came after the academic community flagged the serious issues of fake studies and paper mill-type articles being published in Hindawi journals, especially through their special issues. Wiley acquired Hindawi, an Egypt-based open-access academic publisher, in a strategic move to boost its open-access offerings. However, concerns broke over papers published in special issues of many journals operating under the Hindawi brand. Many of them are produced by paper mills. Some have serious errors, and often have serious implications in the field of medicine in particular, as in the paper The examination of drug resistance in new-borns with pneumonia, which has now been retracted (Zhu, et. al, 2022). Wiley and Hindawi have  retracted around 8000 articles in the past year (Besser, 2024). A report published in Nature points to the Hindawi scandal as the primary source of retraction in the year 2023; the bumper year of retraction (Noorden, 2023). As many as 19 Hindawi journals were delisted from the Web of Science, the indexing database of Clarivate (Grove, 2023). With serious doubt over the credibility of the Hindawi brand, in May 2023 Wiley shut down four Hindawi journals to address the “systematic manipulation of the publishing process”. In December 2023, Wiley announced the discontinuation of the Hindawi brand altogether while they plan to integrate the remaining 200 or so Hindawi journals into Wiley’s existing portfolio (Retraction Watch, 2023).

A blow to public trust?

This affair has significant implications for academic publishing and the science system itself. It not only raises concerns over quality control mechanisms in much of the scientific publishing system but also the potential for fraudulent research to infiltrate the scientific record. The implications of publishing fake and untrustworthy science can be catastrophic in the long run. It is already the case that public trust in science continues to erode. A survey by the Pew Research Centre in 2021 pointed out how the trust among Americans in science and scientists continues to decline, for example, among republicans, “Just 13% have a great deal of confidence in scientists, down from a high of 27% in January 2019 and April 2020” (Pew Survey, 2022). The situation is similar everywhere. The COVID-19 pandemic highlighted how society’s confidence in science can be fragile, as vaccine hesitancy and denialism flourished (Baird, 2015), despite the achievement of vaccination as one of the greatest success stories of modern medicine (over 95% reduced morbidity from diphtheria, measles, polio, with smallpox no longer a concern) (Betsch, 2017). Reduced trust in science is one of the key factors behind such vaccine hesitancy (Cohut, 2022).

The need for governance

Science publishing is central to the whole scientific endeavour, and should be governed in ways that avoid the pathologies described above. The current system poses risks to the credibility and integrity of the scientific endeavour, a crucially important issue when the proper functioning of science is so central to the whole range of human concerns. It is for these reasons that it is imperative to set acceptable standards for publishing, to identify and highlight anti-competitive activities by publishers, and to facilitate coordinated responses by institutions globally when they negotiate contracts with publishers (Gatti, 2020). The costs of creating and operating such a system are likely to be small in comparison to the global social and financial impact it could have for the scientific community and its interactions with broader society. A minimum acceptable publication standard should be defined in which universities agree the acceptable standard for any paper to be used in assessment. Most other systems of international concern, as in legal, financial and labour matters, are subject to forms of agreed international governance. Given the importance of science in the modern world and the central role played by publication, it is in the interests of the public bodies that fund science, of the universities that are the source of both the best and the worst aspects of published science, and of the international scientific and scholarly community that governance should lie in their hands.

[1] A tortured phrase is an established scientific concept paraphrased into a nonsensical sequence of words. ‘Artificial intelligence’ becomes counterfeit consciousness’.” Please see:


The information, opinions and recommendations presented by our guests are those of the individual contributors, and do not necessarily reflect the values and beliefs of the International Science Council.

Image credits: cottonbro studio from Pexels

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