Tuesday 6 August 2013

Journal of Auspicious Results

This Spring I discovered that the library at The Institute cannot afford the price of an electronic subscription to Nature.  How in the name of Darwin am I meant to teach science, how are my student meant to learn science without access to the general science journal of record?  The library can afford a print subscription, so me and my students may have to fight for the latest journal in the Nature heap.  We are not Harvard, we have no endowment, could Nature Inc. not cut us a deal?  I can hear my old Dad turning over in his grave to say (again) "Well life isn't fair, Bob".

Yesterday, I took occasion to channel my pal Tony in a scarifying indictment of the scientific integrity of the editors and publishers of scientific journals. Sure it was an N=1 anecdote, and I don't believe that any journal editors are culpably corrupt, but I also know that if they rejected every paper submitted because the science inside was flawed then there would be no more journal (and no more pay-check).  When you consider that the average number of times a paper is "cited" is less than one, you may conclude that eliminating half the published literature would have zero impact on the progress of science.  An uncited paper may have been read by somebody, but nobody (cripes, not even the authors themselves in a subsequent paper) has abstracted anything useful from it.

Journals make their money by
  • charging a subscription to readers (almost all of the publishers' income for almost all journals is generated by [confidential] bundling deals struck with libraries) 
  • or by levying a fee (£1290/$1985/€1515 per article in one random case) on authors  
  • . . . or both!  
That same random journal published 851 articles in 2012.  Let's suppose that page charges are waived for, say, a quarter of the papers which are submitted from the Third World, that's still a gross income of €900,000 pa.  That same random journal claims to have an editorial board N=5 and let's give them each a secretary for another N=5.  Office rentals in Dublin have slumped a little to €325 pa per sq.m, so if we give Random Journal 100 sq.m. (about the size of my home), that's only €35,000 a year for the roof.  Many journals nowadays don't produce a paper copy, so they won't need much for the xerox machine but we'll give them €10,000 a year for stationery.  You do the rest of the math.  It's little wonder to me that every week I get unsolicited mail from a cunning entrepreneur from the Third World asking me to submit my next paper to his new Journal of Auspicious Results.

I'll point out to all both my readers who aren't scientists, all the heavy intellectual lifting in the scientific publishing business - all the reviewing of submissions, all the recommendations of acceptance/rejection/editing, all the reanalysis of the statistics, all the reading for internal consistency as well as much of the copy-editing is carried out by fellow scientists for free.  Indeed I spent a day doing this pro bono publico last Monday.

Last Thursday, we celebrated the PhD of my friend and colleague El Asturiano (huzzah!).  At the party afterwards I found an old friend of mine from college days who happened to be in town from South Africa.  I hadn't seen him for 35 years so it was gratifying to see that he had bigger trousers than me, although my hair was grayer.  We caught up and checked for mutual friends and we were soon talking about Win Hide.  By asking me to help teach a course in ZA at the end of the last century, Win had been instrumental in us celebrating Dau.I's 6th birthday by sipping ice-cold chardonnay while watching the sun slip quietly into the sea from the top of Table Mountain.

By way of Googling myself up to date with ons ou weldoener, I found that rather than whinging like me about the iniquities of the science publication industry, Win Hide had taken a stand.  He's no longer working in the old "coloured" University outside Cape Town where the course had been run, but has a position in the Harvard School of Public Health.  But about a year ago, he resigned from the editorial board of Genomics, a key journal for large-scale sequence-based biology.  Because he grew up in South Africa (albeit not in the townships), he felt he could no longer support a system that accepted much of its creative copy from the dispossessed of the Third World and then tilted the economics so that neither those submitting scientists nor even their institutions' libraries could afford the subscription to read their own papers.

There's got to be a better way.

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