Libraries go broke as academic publishers reap huge profits
With exorbitant subscription fees, restrictive copyright policies, and limited access to research data, commercial publishers have long controlled academic publishing. They have worsened the situation by imposing “Big Deals” in the subscription model, forcing libraries and academic institutions to choose between subscribing to a limited number of journals or paying exorbitant fees to access a large range of publications. The situation is particularly unacceptable when we consider that a large chunk of the research is publicly funded and researchers, the central workforce of the publishing system, are doing the most critical work – peer review – for free. Meanwhile, commercial publishers are earning large profits by benefiting from the work of researchers. Take the case of Elsevier, which reported a profit margin of 38% in 2022. To put this into perspective, the profit margins of non-academic publishing are around 15%. These practices are unsustainable and inequitable, and they limit the progress of scientific research. A significant portion of research grants is being used solely to cover publishing expenses, funds that could be better utilized for conducting actual research. Despite substantial profits, journals have failed to allocate resources towards enhancing support for making data available and more resources to support the review process. With the advent of digital technologies, we now have abundant opportunities to modernize the publishing process, making it faster, more efficient, reliable, and equitable for researchers.
When the solution becomes the problem: unintended consequences
The open access movement emerged to create an accessible and equitable publishing system for all. As it gained momentum, commercial publishers began to flip towards Article Processing Charge (APC) based Open Access models. Instead of a high paywall for subscribers, it is a high paywall for authors and their institutions so that readers can access content without a subscription. On the one hand, it may seem fair that after a one-time payment, research articles are free for everyone to read or reuse easily since they are usually assigned a liberal license such as CC-BY 4.0. On the other, the costs of APC are a challenge for authors, which vary widely among publishers and journals, ranging from a few hundred to several thousand dollars per article.
Evidently, APCs create a financial barrier for authors, particularly those in low and middle-income countries. Researchers in high-income countries may have the financial means to pay APCs that can reach as high as USD 11,690, as seen in the case of the prestigious journal Nature. However, on average, APCs range between USD 2000-USD 3000, which is still a significant expense for many researchers. So, what about the researchers who lack the resources to pay for publication? Sometimes, publishers provide APC waivers, but these are far from enough. APC-based open access is perpetuating a system where only those with access to resources are able to publish in journals of their choice.
High APCs can also disincentivize researchers from pursuing research topics that may not have significant financial support and instead focus on research that can generate funding to cover the cost of publication. This can lead to a homogenization of research and may undermine many research areas that do not have commercial potential or immediate interests.
APCs can also incentivize publishers to prioritize publishing articles that generate revenue rather than prioritizing articles based on academic merit. Researchers who ask for an APC waiver can simply be ignored since publishing their articles will dent the profit.
Editors join the fight: taking on commercial publishers for academic freedom and inequity
As the academic community becomes increasingly aware of the practices of big publishing houses, thanks to the relentless advocacy of the library community and open-access crusaders, journal editors are taking a stand for a more sustainable and equitable system. One of the main concerns that journal editors have with commercial publishers is the high APC.
In 2019, the entire editorial board of the flagship journal in the field of Scientometrics, Journal of Informetrics, resigned en masse in protest over Elsevier’s high APCs. The board members felt that the publisher’s fees were too high and were pricing out many potential authors, particularly those from less affluent regions. The board went on to launch a new open-access journal, Quantitative Science Studies (QSS), with a lower APC and a more equitable funding model. Currently, the Journal of Informetrics charges USD 3960 to make an article open-access and operates as a hybrid journal. In contrast, QSS is an open-access journal and charges USD 800 as APC.
In 2020, the entire editorial board of the Journal of Field Robotics decided to step down from their positions. The reason behind this move was to protect the academic independence of the journal in the face of structural changes proposed by the publisher, Wiley & Sons. The board felt these changes were primarily motivated by profit without equity and transparency, leaving them no choice but to take such a step.
In April 2023, 42 editors resigned from two leading neuroscience journals of Elsevier, NeuroImage and its companion journal NeuroImage: Reports, in protest at high, publisher-imposed APCs. The APC for NeuroImage is USD 3,450; NeuroImage: Reports charges USD 900, which is set to be doubled to USD 1,800 from 31 May 2023. In the same line as QSS, the editors decided to set up an open-access journal with MIT Press. The APC for the journal is yet to be finalized but is expected to be half of NeuroImage’s fee.
In April 2023, Wiley removed the founding editor of the Journal of Political Philosophy, which led to several editorial board members submitting their resignations. According to the report, Wiley has been demanding that the journal publish more articles annually to align with the shift toward open access transformative agreements. However, the editorial team argues this move could compromise the journal’s quality and reputation. Plan S recently reported that many journals could not meet the transformative agreement targets and will be removed from the program designed to assist journals in fully transitioning to open access. Therefore, journals pushing for more open access content over the quality to stay in the transition program is not without merit.
Evolving scientific publishing: ISC’s eight principles for a better future
The COVID-19 pandemic highlighted the significance of open, equitable, and timely access to research output. The current scientific publishing system is not prepared to evolve accordingly. With so many advancements in digital technologies, why stick to an outmoded system which is hindering the progress of science? The International Science Council (ISC) recognized the urgency of reforming the entire publishing system. Based on an analysis in the ISC position paper: Opening the Record of Science: making scholarly publishing work for science in the digital Era, the ISC steering group established 8-core principles as guiding concepts to maintain integrity and ensure an equitable and universally accessible system.
These principles advocate for open access to scientific research, rigorous peer review, concurrent access to data, and open licenses that allow for reuse and text and data mining. Additionally, they emphasize the importance of respecting disciplinary and regional publication traditions while promoting communication and interoperability, ensuring the maintenance of the record of science for future generations, continually adapting to change, and being accountable to the scientific community. The ISC steering group members have identified peer-reviewed preprints as a viable and promising future for scientific publishing.
The role of peer-reviewed preprints in advancing open science
Preprints are emerging as a potential game-changer in the evolving scholarly publishing world. What started as a simple, preliminary version of research papers has now evolved into something much more powerful. Today, we see preprints as a source-agnostic record of science, offering rapid, equitable, and universal open access to authors and readers alike.
In recent years, in addition to arXiv, several trusted non-commercial preprint repositories have emerged, providing authors with a digitally-enhanced user experience that far surpasses the inflexible, embedded systems used by most journals. With light moderation to weed out irrelevant articles, approved preprints are published immediately with a unique and citable DOI. Each version of the article is maintained with a citable DOI, making it easy to track changes and updates. Linking research data with preprints through data repositories, such as Zenodo, and figshare, is a welcome trend that enhances the transparency and accessibility of research, facilitating collaboration and replication by fellow researchers.
Preprint repositories also strongly encourage open licenses. Open peer review of preprints affirms the credibility of the research and the transparency of the process, ensuring the quality of the research. One of the most significant advantages of preprints is their equity, making it easier for researchers from all backgrounds and geography to get their work seen by a wider audience.
Preprint Challenges: Quality, Credibility, and Misinformation
The main challenge in normalizing peer-reviewed preprints over the journal article is encouraging high-quality open peer review. Preprints have sparked debates within the scientific community, particularly regarding their quality and credibility. They may contain errors or incomplete information that can mislead readers and harm the credibility of science if we don’t ensure rigorous peer review of preprints. The premature media coverage of preprints is another alarming trend, as it can spread misinformation through non-validated claims.
Preprints present an opportunity for a fairer, more transparent, and streamlined approach to disseminating research. As the concept of preprints continues to evolve, it’s becoming increasingly evident that they could become the way forward for academic publishing if the research community takes on the responsibility of ensuring rigorous validation and is credited in the research assessment process as the legitimate output.
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
Moumita Koley is a researcher with the Indian Institute of Science and also is a consultant to the Future of Publishing project.
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