Tuesday 30 October 2018

Profitable Publishing

The Profits in Publishing vimeo which I cited on Sunday 21Oct18 and mentioned on the next Tuesday is an hour long investigation of commercial scientific publishing by Elsevier, the biggest of the Big Five publishers of academic journals. The others being Wiley; Springer Nature; Taylor Francis; and Sage. There is a longish tail beyond that of ever smaller ventures trying to make an honest living of out very short print runs. There  isn't a huge potential readership for highly specialised journals filled with dense papers on obscure topics. The Journal of Raptor Research; Journal of Chromatography & Separation Techniques; The Journal of Linguistic Geography aren't going to sell like Harry Potter, but each requires a secretary; part of an office; some stamps and a computer. Those costs have to be laid off across a narrow list of subscribers; therefore the cost to each seems hefty. Nevertheless these journals and the people who work for them have standards; they want to publish quality information based on evidence.

The quality is assured by the process of peer review. Each submitted paper is carefully read by two or three experts in the field who will only allow it to be published if it achieves a minimal level of coherence, clarity and, well, correctness. These publishers therefore need to be differentiated from 'predatory publishers' who will print any ould shite so long as the authors pay a few hundred dollars. Some papers in these bottom-feeders may contain good science but they haven't been critically reviewed. Now that everything is digital, the overheads are modest and lots of entrepreneurs from, say, Bangalore, with a cousin in, say, Buffalo NY to check the PO box will set up in business with a spam-shot to e-mailing list lifted or purchased. Last year I shared some of these nonsense solicitations.

The income from For Profit Publishing is chunky by any standards. 50% of the subscription costs to UK university libraries was devoured by the Big Five. In fine, Elsevier garnered £42,000,000 followed by Wiley at £19,000,000. The publishers divide and conquer by insisting on negotiating with each Librarian [like U.Michigan's L] separately under a non-disclosure agreement. They also bundle their products in such a way that it seems advantageous to take out subs to rather more journals than you strictly need - a bit like cable TV.

Elsevier is said to operate on a 30-40% profit margin, not least because all their intellectual effectives - the editorial boards and the peer-reviewers - work pro bono for the good of their narrow community. Being on the Editorial Board is a feather in the cap of those seeking promotion or a new job in a different university. They say that it should take a day and a half to adequately review another person's submitted manuscript. It's more than checking for typos and ensuring that all the citations in the text are referenced in the bibliography . . . and all the references are cited. Referees should: check the calculations and statistics; make sure the graphs are labelled sensibly; see that the columns of the tables add to the row and column totals; know if the substantive results are novel; insist that their own papers are acknowledged. This is why editors send manuscripts out to 2-3 referees: one is bound to say it all looks okay having spent 25 minutes scanning through it.

The current editor of Proceedings of the Royal Society, the world's oldest still running scientific publication, explained that the purpose of scientific publication is four-fold:
  1. To maintain an archive of findings
  2. To register who did what and who has priority
  3. To disseminate scientific finds so that we all know what has been established and by whom
  4. Finally, verification of findings or publication of contrary data is vital for the mission.
The problem with the current capitalist [L Creative Commons is another CC way forward] is business model is <surprise, surprise> that the richer and well endowed countries / institutions get access to the cutting edge science. The poor otoh get left in ignorance or, at best, months behind their fellows in hOxford, Heidelberg and Harvard. Brian Nosek arch-priest of crap-detection, whom we've met before, was astounded to find so many people working in his field on the science of implicit cognition in Belgrade. The main driver turned out to be street-light science: much of the literature on implic.cog. was available free-to-reader with subscription. Other fields of psychological research were locked inaccessibly behind paywalls.

The Privilege of Patriarchy is paramount. The three most prestigious medical journals are The Lancet; JAMA [Jo Am Med Assoc] and NEJM [New England Jo Med]. Tallied reveal that 40% of the authors in NEJM live within 150km of the NEJM office in Boston. They probably play golf together and make dynastic marriages among their offspring too. The prestige of a pub or two in NEJM ensures continued access to the grants that fund the research, the NEJM referees also work pro bono for the NIH to allocate money to the best and most interesting research. That's just an example, the in-group of any paywalled journal operates in similarly incestuous ways and sincerely believes that they are completely objective in their judgement.

They could be a little less smug and little more self-critical. They might learn how it is that Indian surgeons can with high efficiency success carry out surgical procedures at 10% of the costs charged by Stanford. Publishers soak the well-endowed institutions. Harvard has something like $35 billion invested which generates an income of $1.7 billion a year to lubricate the running of the University. That's about 30x more than the journal subscription bill for ALL the universities in the UK. The endowment gives the top Universities an edge which hinges at least in part from access to all the published literature. The endowed are terrified of losing access / advantage and so are putty-soft across the haggle-table from the rapacious sales-force of The Big Five.

But there are bright pinko-lefty eruptions here and there: some researchers have banded together and fought their way to the promised land of Open Access. Three years years ago next week, after a long process of trust building and establishing common interest, led by the editors Marta Dynel from U.Łódź and Johan Rooryck, U.Leiden, the entire board of Lingua, the preferred journal for linguistic research, resigned in protest against owner Elsevier's access policy. The rebels immediately launched a new journal Glossa, more in keeping with their business ethical views. Elsevier considered these do-goodniks financially naive; but they would, wouldn't they? Here's an interesting graphic showing the distribution of costs at Ubiquity Press the publishers of Glossa.
Watch the Profiterole Publishing vimeo; it's the horse's mouth.

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