It’s hard to go a day without running into an outraged protest at the cost of publishing in for-profit journals – or, more or less equivalently, an outraged protest at the profit margins of for-profit publishers. And it’s true that publishing in some journals is shockingly expensive (I’m looking at you, €9,750 Nature open-access) and it’s true that profit margins for some publishers are shockingly high (I’m looking at you, Elsevier, with £1.1 billion on £2.9 billion revenue in 2022, or 38% profit). Who, one might wonder, could intervene to make this stop?
Why, us, of course. We could. But we don’t.
This reminds me of salmon. At my local supermarket, fresh salmon is very expensive – about $46/kg when I checked just now. Some of that is because salmon are expensive to catch, but some of that is because salmon fishing, processing, and sales are all done by for-profit enterprises.* I could find this outrageous, I suppose; but instead, I just don’t buy salmon. I don’t mind salmon; but I don’t love it enough to justify its price, especially compared to other fish species at ¼ to ½ the price. Other folks do love salmon enough to justify its price, so they buy it, and they enjoy it.
Now read that paragraph again, but every time you see the word “salmon”, substitute “publishing in Nature”.
If we’re outraged at the cost of publishing in for-profit journals, we could simply not publish in them. There’s perfectly good but much cheaper fish out there, including excellent (and non-profit) society-run journals. (In my own field, The American Naturalist and Ecology are just two of dozens of superb society-run journals; there are non-profits without society affiliations too.) If we chose not to publish in for-profit journals, we wouldn’t be paying the fees we’re outraged by. If enough of us made that choice, those fees would fall.** Not to nothing – publishing well costs money, and non-profit journals charge to publish too – but by a lot.
But by and large, it seems that we resist making that choice – or at least, not enough of us make it, often enough, to affect pricing. That has a pretty simple implication: there are lots of scientists who like salmon publishing in expensive for-profit journals. They, presumably, see value in the service they’re being sold, so they buy it. If we want to be outraged about what people are willing to pay to publish, that’s fine – but notice that our outrage is now directed at our colleagues, rather than the publishers that are selling them the services they want to buy.
By now you might be hopping up and down and shouting one of two common objections. Perhaps you’re upset that for-profit companies benefit from the unpaid labour of peer reviewers. If so: that’s a topic for another day;*** but note that nonprofit journals don’t pay reviewers either. Or perhaps you’re upset that academia has an incentive structure that rewards publication in for-profit journals. Well, to the extent that it does,**** that’s precisely (part of) the reason some people find it worth buying the services those journals’ publishers are offering. And the existence of those incentives is mostly just us again – we could, if we chose, stop taking the appearance of the journal Nature on someone’s CV as indicating anything other than the health of their pocketbook. We could do that on hiring and tenure committees, in grant panels, in university departmental reviews, and more. It’s a collective-action problem, of course, and those are gnarly; but I don’t think it’s naïve to claim that in principle we have this power.
By now I expect I’ve annoyed almost everybody (including, actually, myself). It’s just too much fun to hate Elsevier and Springer Nature; and too uncomfortable to look in the mirror and see the scientists who make their business model possible.
© Stephen Heard March 21, 2023
Image: ka-ching, © Mary Crandall via Flickr.com, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
*^Although I doubt that anyone along the way – from fisher to grocer – makes anywhere near 38%. Maybe they should all start publishing companies.
**^An interesting question: in the very hypothetical scenario where we all refused to submit to for-profit publishers, could the non-profits handle the deluge of papers? In the short term, obviously not – but in the long term, could societies and other non-profits actually handle the necessary volume of publication? I don’t know.
***^An argument that’s endlessly rehashed on Twitter. I’ve argued before that many of us are not, in fact, unpaid when we review. Oh boy, did that argument make some people angry.
****^It may vary across fields. In my own field, that particular incentive is relatively weak: a CV consisting only of papers published in The American Naturalist would impress almost anybody, and Nature be damned. Of course, you may well argue we shouldn’t be impressed by journal titles at all; we should read papers and be impressed (or not) by the science they contain. This is essentially an argument that signaling theory is irrelevant to academic evaluations – and again, that’s a topic for another day!
You make many good points and for years I have only published in society journals or those that don’t have page charges (yes a subject for another time). Don’t get me wrong, I don’t support pay to play journals, but I think you underestimate (well I think you know what I’m about to say, but you didn’t include it in the post), the pressures untenured faculty face in the current academic environment. That, to some extent, is what keeps the decent pay to play journals alive. In addition, I think you also are underestimating how difficult it is to publish in the journals you mention Ecology/Am Nat/etc. if one is not well established or a student of a well-known ecologist (i.e., the “political factor”. I will recount my own experience as a young fish ecologist from a not well known lab, who had two papers rejected for bs reasons from ESA journals and these papers currently have been cited 284 and 217 times, which I’ll bet matches or exceeds any paper published in the issue they would have come out in. And lets not even get into the need to quickly publish results that are grant funded so one’s funding can get renewed…Okay you points are valid and I don’t mean to nitpick, but I do think there are other unmentioned factors at work here.
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Mostly I agree! If we publish in different journals and make a collective effort to change our academic culture and value more non-for-profit journals, things might improve. But… Even in society journals, the publication charges for open access are prohibitive for many authors from developing countries. For example, the publication charge of 2100 USD for Ecosphere (one of ESA’s journals) is more than my monthly income as a university professor in Brazil.
Yet, there are many South American journals that publish in English and have much more accessible costs! But they sometimes take a really, really, really long time to get a paper assigned to an issue.
And of course there are the best possible options, which are open access journals which have some sort of funding and thus don’t charge from either readers or authors (such as Perspectives in Ecology and Conservation, from Brazil, or Nature Conservation Research, from Russia).
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Given all the problems that plague academia, especially generally poor professors and post-doc’s salaries, it screams a gross lack of judgment for anyone to shell out over $10,000 USD for a piece of publication. I think funding agencies are equally complicit in this. They have all sorts of rules on how one may spend research funds but they think spending that much on a single publication is acceptable. I can see why members of the public are sometimes irritated by what seems like an inherent lack of common sense among academics because, for a group of people that professes in critical thinking, our bad decisions are often exemplary.
Here’s a thought, anytime a colleague publishes in one of those outrageous venues, instead of saying “congratulations”, we can send them e-mails that read: “shame”. I would have preferred the Game of Thrones version, but we are now “civilized”.
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While for-profit companies not paying reviewers is an issue, it’s hardly my top concern. I’d be more worried because I think science is supposed to benefit all of humanity, not to enrich specific corporations or to be hidden behind paywalls. I can’t see how researchers can write something like “Cancer affects millions worldwide, here’s an advance to improve their lives” and then hide it behind a paywall making it inaccessible. If science is supposed to improve lives and benefit people then we should be sharing it as widely as we can.
The other major difference between the salmon and academic publishing is you buy salmon as an individual but publish as a group. Even if one or two people object to Nature, they can be overruled by the rest of the authors, particularly the senior authors funding the research. That makes it very difficult to effect change because students and postdocs have limited control over where papers are submitted.
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An additional incentive not mentioned is the fact that in some countries, researchers get cash bonuses if they publish in the most prestigious journals:
“in the very hypothetical scenario where we all refused to submit to for-profit publishers, could the non-profits handle the deluge of papers?”
For what it’s worth, that’s pretty much how astronomy works: the overwhelming majority of all papers are published in four main non-profit journals. So it is in principle possible, though how feasible it would be to transition to that situation if your field isn’t already working that way, I don’t know.
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