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Is The Academic Publishing Industry Ripe For Disruption?

Taxpayers sometimes have to pay three times for any scientific article.

Knowledge is king at Canada's University of the Fraser Valley
Knowledge is king at Canada's University of the Fraser Valley
Pascaline Minet

LAUSANNE — Who does scientific knowledge belong to? To the researchers who produce it? To the public that finances it through taxes? Neither, in fact. Research is, before all else, the property of the publishers that share the material in specialized reviews, and jealously watch over its diffusion. Despite criticism of this system, alternative models still struggle to prevail. But certain actors in research today appear determined to stir up this hornet's nest.

Traditionally, specialized reviews that publish scientific studies finance their publishing work through subscription sales. Unfortunately, this model seriously restricts access to the information. "I sometimes can't read an interesting article because it was published in a review that my university doesn't subscribe to," says Marc Robinson-Rechavi, a researcher at the University of Lausanne. "And the situation is even worse for researchers in less wealthy countries, not to mention people like teachers, startup founders or NGO members, who would be interested in the information but are in the private sector."

Moreover, the current system is very expensive for the scientific community. Martin Vetterli, president of the Federal Polytechnic School of Lausanne, explains that effectively taxpayers pay three times for each scientific article. "First, they pay the researcher who conducts the experiments. Then they pay subscription fees to scientific reviews. And finally they pay to get complete access to the content of the article."

University libraries spend millions in subscription fees each year. These costs increase an average of 8% annually, according to LIBER, the association of European research libraries. In fact, scientific publishing is an extremely lucrative business for the giants in the field — Elsevier, Springer Nature and Wiley — whose margins often exceed 30%.

But over the past two decades or so, an alternative model to classic scientific publishing has emerged: one that favors open access. The costs of publishing and distributing each article are paid once by the publisher, most often the research institution. But then the studies are published on a digital portal that's open to everyone.

"This system accelerates the validating procedure for articles, all while maintaining peer review, which is a gauge of quality. Billions of dollars would be saved on a global level if we could switch to open access," says Kamila Markram, founder of Frontiers, an open access publisher based in Lausanne.

We have to encourage researchers to change their state of mind

Numerous open access reviews already exist, of which some are widely recognized for the quality of their work. One is the American non-profit pioneer Public Library of Science (PLOS). The costs of publication vary per article, from anywhere from 1,000 to 5,000 euros, thus the publisher still makes money. But only about 30% of all articles are actually published with open access, evidence, in Robinson-Rechavi's opinion, that the platform is still quite traditional in its outlook.

"Old journals are taken into account more in the promotion of careers," he says. "We have to encourage researchers to change their state of mind."

Winds of change

The European Commission has done just that by requiring, starting in 2020, that all studies published by scientific review journals that receive European funding be distributed with open access. An association of Swiss high school superintendents adopted a similar strategy. "In France, we're also heading towards a reinforcement of open access publication," says Marin Dacos, founder of OpenEdition, a French distribution portal for social and human sciences.

University of Manchester library — Photo: Jennifer Boyer

Certain scientific institutions have started to resist as well. In Germany, dozens of universities and libraries are battling Dutch giant Elsevier, threatening to not renew their subscriptions at the end of the year unless the publisher improves access to research, particularly to scholarly articles produced by researchers from those same universities. The association of Dutch universities used a similar strategy to earn concessions from Elsevier two years ago. Similar movements are taking place in Finland and Taiwan.

Another factor helping spur the rebellion was the appearance in 2011 of the pirate site Sci-Hub. Operating from Russia, the site offers free access to tens of millions of studies and scientific books. It's illegal, of course. But for researchers who might otherwise have trouble getting their hands on certain studies, it's invaluable.

Have we arrived at a tipping point? Martin Vetterli thinks so. "The monopoly held by traditional publishers is beginning to crumble, except maybe for certain very prestigious journals like Science and Nature." Marin Dacos is equally optimistic and is exploring new models, including one that relies on participatory financing to ensure that authors or their institutions don't have to pay more than the publishing costs of articles.

Proceed with caution

Still, paying up front has its own set of problems. One particular concern, say researchers, is the recent proliferation of so-called "predator publishers." An unsuspecting scientist might receive an email from someone offering to publish his or her work in a journal that is little-known but has all the appearances of being serious. The fees are reasonable. The researcher is convinced. Except the journal in question doesn't actually exist. Either that, or it's substandard. At the very least, it doesn't have the prestige it claims.

"With the development of open access publishing, scientists have gotten into the habit of paying to publish. Certain dubious actors see this as a godsend. The techniques are variable, ranging from pure fraud to honest reviews, but ones that offer insufficient service," says Jean-Blaise Claivaz, head of Open Access and research grants at the University of Geneva.

Unknown a decade ago, this phenomenon appears to be growing. According to a study published in 2015 in BMC Medicine, there are some 8,000 predatory journals worldwide publishing about 400,000 studies each year.

For a while, a librarian in the U.S. named Jeffrey Beall kept a running list of predator publishers. But earlier this year, for some unknown reason, he stopped. Another good resource for researchers wanting to avoid predators is the Directory of Open Access Journals (DOAJ), a white list of reputable review journals. Before answering that unsolicited email, in other words, scientists would do well to check the list. Open or not, always better safe than sorry.

*Due to an editing error, the English version of this article incorrectly stated that 30% of PLOS articles are published with open access.

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Olaf Scholz boading an Air Force Special Air Mission Wing plane, on his way to the EU-Western Balkans Summit in Tirana.

Michael Kappeler / dpa via ZUMA Press
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