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Spread the word: scientists are tearing down publishers' walls

Scientists just want to share – at least in one sense. When we believe we’ve discovered something new, we want to tell as many others as possible. We also want to provide all the information required to…

Is it time to abandon traditional academic publishing models? Chea Phal

Scientists just want to share – at least in one sense. When we believe we’ve discovered something new, we want to tell as many others as possible. We also want to provide all the information required to convince others we’re right.

Yet most scientists' reports of their discoveries are not freely available. While the journal articles in which discoveries are reported are all on the web nowadays, to read those webpages you’ll be coughing up some serious dough – up to A$42 an article. That is, unless you’re lucky enough to be associated with an institution that’s already paid the subscription fee.

As do most of my colleagues, I provide free labour to the publishers (Elsevier, Springer, and Wiley-Blackwell among others) who defend this regressive system. So even though I’ve been posting my articles in freely-accessible web repositories, I’m still a part of the problem. This is the story of how we scientists got stuck.

The way we were

Modern science began in the 17th century, and was mostly pursued by well-to-do aristocrats with time on their hands. These researchers wanted to trumpet their findings and, with no internet or telephones, had to resort to posting letters to a few of their fellows. This spread new knowledge around a bit, but rather slowly.

John Evelyn helped found the Royal Society. Wikimedia Commons

Scientists needed a mass publishing system for their reports. An audience with the king was arranged, and in 1660 Charles II chartered the Royal Society of London for Improving Natural Knowledge. The world’s first scientific journal soon followed, published by this new Royal Society.

Its printing press wasn’t cheap, and neither was the printing itself, so the Fellow of the Royal Society managing the journal ran it like a business and charged for copies. Scientific publishing was now a business and it grew rapidly.

Some 350 years later, scientific publishing is a very big business indeed, bringing in well over A$4 billion of revenue a year. Unfortunately, many of these billions are earned by publishers who charge exorbitant fees for a subscription to their journals. It’s easy money, and comes mostly from universities and governments.

The icing on the cake is that those not associated with a subscribing university or research institution pay a fee for each article they download.

Publishing was once labour-intensive and expensive. Today it’s not, but scientists are still paying a high price. Wikimedia Commons

Elsevier is the largest science publisher with more than 2,000 scientific journals. In 2010, Elsevier reported profits had reached 36% of revenue. This is absolutely whopping at a time when the internet has greatly reduced or eliminated the profits of newspaper, magazine and book publishers.

Massive profits are great for the company’s shareholders, but bad for researchers, universities, and everyone who might benefit from scientific knowledge.

We’re mired in a system that wastes taxpayers' money and unnecessarily restricts the flow of new knowledge. We scientists would like our journals to be “open access” – with the door of the journal’s website always open so anyone can visit and download our articles.

The largely for-profit publishing system particularly galls because we scientists do most of the work, but the publishers make all the money. For most journals, scientists not only write all the manuscripts submitted to them, but also vet and edit all these manuscripts before they are published – the peer-review process – all without receiving a cent for their services.

In a free market, one would expect lower-cost publishers to eventually win the day. But scientists, and the administrators who assess us, are so attached to the prestige of the older journal titles that new journals typically don’t get much traction.

The prestige of the journal that our articles are published in is often used by administrators as a measure of the quality of our work.

This is not a good way to assess research quality, and makes us even more beholden to the publishers that own the prestigious journal titles.


For a long time my feelings about this alternated between despair and anger, but eventually I learned to laugh. A colleague and I created a video satirising the publishers, which we shared on YouTube and can be seen below.

Our video, together with hundreds of blog posts on the topic, opinion pieces, and sundry rantings posted to Facebook and Twitter, have helped inform the scientific populace about the economic context of what they do.

Video by Alex O.Holcombe and Michael Little.

In the past few months, boycotts of Elsevier and of the subscription model generally have begun, organised through websites created by individual scientists. I created OpenAccessPledge, which was quickly followed by ResearchWithoutWalls and TheCostOfKnowledge.

The last of these has attracted, in less than three weeks, more than 3,900 researchers pledging to withdraw their labour from Elsevier journals.

It’s too early to know what the effects of this, but I predict these actions, together with the discussions among researchers they propel, will result in at least a few communities of researchers discarding their traditional publishing system in favour of an open-access model.

The protests may also cause some publishers to reduce their lobbying against open access, in an effort to quell the uprising.

So far, researchers in areas such as biology and medicine have not signed up for the boycotts in large numbers, probably because these fields are particularly caught up in the traditional journal system. Refusing to work with prestigious journals can undermine one’s career prospects.

If everyone in the field simultaneously agreed to boycott those journals, it would be better for all, but failing that we are all trapped in an unhappy situation. This type of conundrum, whereby individuals alone cannot bring about change, is essentially a form of the tragedy of the commons, or the problem of collective action.

But where this problem stymies individuals, government agencies can sometimes effect wholesale change with the stroke of a pen. In 2007, the American National Institutes of Health began requiring articles produced by the researchers they fund to be available free of charge within 12 months of publication.

In the UK, the Wellcome Trust and the Research Councils UK soon followed suit with their own open access mandates, and these policies have been very successful. Unfortunately, in Australia we are yet to see a single such mandate from the research councils (such as the Australian Research Council (ARC) or National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC)).

Some universities, including the Queensland University of Technology (QUT), have leapt ahead and already require nearly all their research outputs be freely available.

This is usually achieved by posting their researchers' manuscripts in digital repositories that can be accessed online. Older Australian universities such as Sydney have begun taking some steps forward but have not yet implemented anything as strong as the QUT policy.

Mandating free access to their research outputs is a straightforward way for universities and governments to solve much of the problem, but we’ll also need university and government funds to help grow the digital repositories and other new models of publishing. The non-profit Public Library of Science, among others, uses an “author-pays” publishing system.

The researchers who submit a manuscript are charged a fee to cover the costs associated with peer review and internet publishing. Readers pay nothing – everything is free to download. Thanks to the wisdom of government research funders in the UK, government-funded scientists there receive dedicated funds to publish with open-access “author pays” publishers. Not so here in Australia.

Governments and large institutions are inherently conservative, and therefore must be pressured to discard old and inefficient ways of doing things. So real change often originates at the grassroots, after enough frustration builds that individuals break out of their officially sanctioned procedures and start doing things differently. This is what we’re seeing with the recent protests and creation of new publishing models.

An academic spring?

The Economist last week compared the anti-publisher efforts by researchers to the anti-government movements of the last year in the Middle East, describing it as an “Academic spring”. That comparison seems a bit grandiose. Still, our goal is important – unfettered access to new knowledge – and we may be at an historic moment.

It is time to attack the old, closed ways. But governments and universities must also actively support the new, open systems for disseminating knowledge.