08/07/2021 06:16

Scientific publication: a luxury market?

  • Blog Fundamental Science

Who would spend much more to have their article in Nature? Almost everyone

By Olavo Amaral

One of the most challenging situations in a scientist’s career is trying to explain the scientific publication system to people in general. How can researchers deliver their work for free to foreign publishers who profit by charging for access to it? Or that, in addition delivering work for free, they sometimes pay for publication?

Before the Internet, commercial publishers were necessary for the dissemination of scientific work: funded by universities or governments, scientists performed research and acted as peer reviewers, delegating the task of printing and distributing paper articles to a company that charged for the product to keep the business viable.

The rapid online migration of scientific journals at the turn of the century seemed to herald changes: in 1995, Forbes predicted that Elsevier, the largest scientific publisher in the world, would be the “first victim of the internet”. After 25 years, the technical-scientific arm of the RELX group, a multinational conglomerate into which the publisher has been merged, records an annual revenue of more than 2.6 billion pounds, with profit margins between 30 and 40%.

This revenue is maintained by university libraries and public agencies around the world, which pay increasingly large sums for articles that their own institutions produce. In the case of Brazil, this is equivalent to more than 480 million Brazilian real disbursed by the Coordination for the Improvement of Higher Education Personnel (CAPES, for its acronym in Portuguese) in subscriptions to the Periodicals Portal in 2020.

The absurdity of a system that blocks access to research conducted with public money has generated increasing support for the open access model, in which scientists pay a single fee to cover the costs of publishing an article and keep it available. Recently, the European Union announced Plan S, which declares that all research funded by the block should be published in this format – a policy already adopted by other funders, with varied degrees of success.

The result? A few months ago, Nature, perhaps the most prestigious scientific journal in the world, announced that its price for publishing an open access article would be 11,390 dollars.

That figure in Brazil is equivalent to approximately two and a half years of a doctoral scholarship or the remuneration of two full master’s degrees. It is even more stupefying when considering that the average cost of services of a scientific journal has been estimated between 200 and 1,000 dollars per publication. Who in their right mind would spend dozens of times more to have their article in Nature?

The answer? Almost everyone. Not because scientists are not very concerned with their budgets but precisely the opposite: articles in prestigious journals are the engine that ensures reputation, jobs, and research resources in the academic world. Like those who pay for a Louis Vuitton bag, its authors are less interested in the product than in the brand.

The consequence is a prestigious economy that allows large journals to charge whatever they want, in addition to obtaining free labor from scientists eager to associate themselves with their brands as reviewers or editors. In this market, there is no room for renewal: even competitors that offer better services at a lower cost would take decades to obtain the reputation of Nature or Science.

Thus, researchers from countries such as Brazil are forced to choose between two ethically questionable alternatives: to let their work be blocked by paywalls for the profit of others or to waste the scarce research resources of the country with inflated open access rates.

Ways out of this impasse exist, but they are still timid. Boycotts to publishers such as Elsevier have been occurring for more than a decade, and whole editorial bodies of the publisher’s journals have resigned in order to create independent publications. Sci-Hub, a pirating site designed by a Kazakhstani student,  practically resolved the problem of universal accessibility to scientific articles. The use of preprints – unrevised versions of the articles published by the authors – has become a common practice in an increasing number of scientific areas, with sufficiently low cost – approximately 15 dollars per article submitted to arXiv in 2020 – to be funded by philanthropy.

All this news would be positive if it were not invisible to the processes of scientific evaluation. You will not find a field for including preprints in the Brazilian national CV database, “Curriculo Lattes”, from the Brazilian National Council for Scientific and Technological Development (CNPq, for its acronym in Portuguese). With Qualis, which links the evaluation of the scientific production of graduate students to the publication journal, CAPES obligates researchers to submit to publishers and itself to pay for their subscriptions, even if “not evaluating articles based on where they are published” is the main recommendation of the declarations on research assessment a decade ago.

Ironically, Brazil also created Scielo, perhaps the most successful large-scale open access initiative in the world, which, through an infrastructure maintained with public funds, ensures that most national journals do not charge for either access or publication. That said, many Brazilian researchers cannot afford to use it under the penalty of lowering their graduate degrees by abdicating more renowned journals.

In short, we have a market in which the taxpayer pays for the science to be produced, pays for research to be published, and pays to subscribe to the journals that publish it. The result of all this is that most research produced worldwide is still accessible to few, while rivers of money flow from the public coffers to large publishing corporations.

The saddest thing is that the system could be easily reformed, if the old scientists who dictate its rules were not so attached to the high-impact publications that led them to the elite and the new ones were not so obsessed with following the same path as the old ones. By virtue of habit and inertia, they give away knowledge and resources that are not even their own, and RELX shareholders laugh all the way to the bank.

  • Topics
  • nature
  • Open data
  • Scientific publications