Charged to Publish. Charged to Read.
Science is big business and it is no surprise that private research funded by corporations dominates the total amount spent in the US. What may surprise many is that when factoring in all the moving parts, publicly funded research is still big business. In fact, in 2003, it was noted that the National Institute of Health (NIH), the US Governmental Agency charged with funding research regarding biomedical and public health, accounting for 28% of the total amount of funding (including private corporations) in the US. The NIH primarily funds research hospitals and universities, both public and private, however, in recent years has also given hundreds of millions to private-sector research initiatives. A few hundred million is a drop in the bucket when considering their annual budget has risen to $39 billion as of 2019, however, the question remains if public funds should be funding private research in the first place.
This question can expand to funding for-profit private universities and hospitals as well. Even the most profitable private universities utilize external funds such as significant amounts in public grants on top of private donations, to bolster their operating expenses. Harvard, with an endowment of $40.9 billion, accounted for $308 million in grants out of their $805 million in revenue from their medical sciences department, slightly outpacing their expenses which sat at $753 million. In 2019, NIH grants accounted for $188 million of this, and a +/- $200 million average per annum is relatively consistent over the last several years. As an aside, Harvard is not even close to the private university that pulls in the most public funds. For 2019, that honour went to John Hopkins with a whopping $763.5 million, Harvard not even making the top 10 for private institutions.
Part of the operational expenses at any university is undoubtedly the costs associated with publishing research, as well as contracts with publishers for researchers to be able to access scientific publications. The NIH did mandate, put into effect in 2008, that NIH-funded research must be publicly available through PubMed Central within 12 months of original publication, as public funds paying for research, which was then paid to be published, and then charged to the public to access was far too big of a controversy to ignore. The rise of open access has seen a rise in the cost of publication fees, sometimes including additional fees for open access requirements. Some journals now operate on a hybrid model in which they charge subscriptions fees, publication fees and additional fees for open access requirements, meaning that these public funds are padding publisher’s pockets one way or another, so long as scientists continue working with these publishers, that is.
Just how Expensive are Subscriptions for Universities?
Things are getting pricey when the largest research institutions in the world, with massive funding and endowment, are stating they cannot foot the bills. The University of California just walked away from negotiations with Elsevier, the world’s largest publisher, over a row on significantly increasing pricing in order to make research open access, on top of the millions they were already paying to have access to Elsevier’s publications.
From the University of California’s press release:
“’ Make no mistake: The prices of scientific journals now are so high that not a single university in the U.S. — not the University of California, not Harvard, no institution — can afford to subscribe to them all,’ said Jeffrey MacKie-Mason, university librarian and economics professor at UC Berkeley, and co-chair of UC’s negotiation team. ‘Publishing our scholarship behind a paywall deprives people of the access to and benefits of publicly funded research. That is terrible for society.’”
Harvard has acknowledged this problem as long ago as 2012, as well, stating that the $3.5m per year they were paying to publishers for subscriptions alone was "fiscally unsustainable" and "academically restrictive" with Robert Darnton, the director at the time of Harvard Libraries quoting,
“The system is absurd, and it is inflicting terrible damage on libraries…We simply cannot go on paying the increase in subscription prices. In the long run, the answer will be open-access journal publishing, but we need a concerted effort to reach that goal."
This sentiment is not exactly against the norm, with David Prosser, at the time of the quotes the executive director of the Research Libraries UK stating, "Harvard has one of the richest libraries in the world. If Harvard can't afford to purchase all the journals their researchers need, what hope do the rest of us have?”
"There's always been a problem with this being seen as a library budget issue. The memo from Harvard makes clear that it's bigger than that. It's at the heart of education and research. If you can't get access to the literature, it hurts research."
Subscriptions are only getting more expensive, with publishers dramatically increasing their rates. Between 2013 and 2016, the average cost of subscriptions for major publishing groups Taylor & Francis, Springer, and Elsevier rose a staggering 17%. Taylor & Francis was the highest rise in fees, with the inflation of their journals hitting an astronomical 33%. In this same time period the Consumer Price Index inflation rate, as determined in the USA, Europe, and New Zealand, sat at just 2-3%.
This is just regarding the cost of subscriptions to access published work.
A 2011, estimate pegged the cost of publishing to be $9.4 BILLION dollars per year for 1.8m English language articles. This is an average cost of $5,222 per article, with journals charging different rates on articles based on word count, or for such novel add-ons as “colour” figures, something not dropped in the transition to digital formats. Open access publishers tend to charge significantly less, with the end publication not trapped behind a paywall, with the largest open-access publishers like PLoS and Biomed Central charging $2700-$2900. The 2011 estimate pegged the average cost to publish in an open-access journal at $660, with some open-access journals, such as Hindawi, PeerJ, and Ubiquity Press, estimating their actual costs to publish in the range of around $300. At the 30-35% profit margin that publishers claim to operate under, this would mean that open-access publication could be as low as $400 per article, paid by the authors or funding source. Based on these costs, the $9.4b figure would be reduced to $720m, opening up $8.68 BILLION in funding for the scientific community.
When added together, the entire revenue generated by the business model of scientific journals is staggering. From The Guardian, with total global revenues of more than $24.7 billion, the industry weighs in somewhere between the recording and the film industries in size, but it is far more profitable, and all of this despite having a much narrower audience. As quoted by Adrian Sutton, a physicist at Imperial College, to The Guardian, “Scientists are all slaves to publishers. What other industry receives its raw materials from its customers, gets those same customers to carry out the quality control of those materials, and then sells the same materials back to the customers at a vastly inflated price?”
How do Publishers Justify the High Costs?
Publishers will point to their publications being (ostensibly) of higher quality and standard, citing a more robust editorial staff, with higher rejection rates. The biggest open-access publishers will accept roughly 70% of articles submitted, whereas Nature Publishing Group sits at 8% acceptance rate through their journals. Does rejection necessarily mean a higher standard? As discussed last week, the consistency in the peer review process, and the tendency to publish, can vary widely. As noted in last week’s article, in a study evaluating acceptance tendencies, 90% of referees suggested rejecting a paper previously published in the very journal they were refereeing for when reviewing and believing it was a new publication.
The “top-tier” journals are no fools when it comes to human nature and psychology. Cat string theory is a very real phenomenon; Basically, we want what we can’t have, and once we have it, we realize we didn’t want it that much. These purported top-tier journals spend more resources arbitrarily rejecting quality papers in order to maintain a perceived “standard of excellence.” They utilize the free labour of referees and create excessive workloads, while creating a potentially false image of prestige, leveraging their own artificially-induced scarcity to create a strong emotional desire for researchers to one day, hopefully, be able to be fortunate enough to get accepted for publication by one of these exclusive journals. If they were to start accepting more papers, the perceived exclusiveness would diminish, as would their sense of value. In many ways, their perceived excellence is a false construct with their rejection rates irrelevant to weeding out poor quality science, as evidenced by top journals, as ranked by their impact factor, being no less likely to be forced to issue retractions, and potentially having to do so at a much higher rate than lower impact factor journals.
Why do Universities & Researchers put up with this?
With top schools like Harvard going out and stating that the subscription costs they are paying are unsustainable, why do they continue to put up with these publishers? Why do their researchers continue to publish work in journals owned and controlled by the very publishers that are bleeding their institution dry? Disregarding personal desires of the authors to gain more notoriety, institutions like Harvard have a clear incentive to continue to publish in the perceived top journals. If Nature, Science, Cell, The Lancet and the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) are considered some of the “top journals” or “families of journals”, and Harvard is the “top academic institution”, it would only make sense that researchers from Harvard predominantly publish in Nature, Science, Cell, The Lancet, and the NEJM, and as such, it makes a lot of sense why these journals would publish research from Harvard and other top institutions at a significantly higher rate than they do the work of other schools. Perhaps this is a key reason that those papers operate under a single-blind peer-review model.
Major institutions are not run by fools, they operate under much the same concept in regard to scarcity as the highest impact factor journals. To increase their prestige, many top private, and increasingly even public schools, spend valuable resources on PR teams dedicated to getting the results of their academics’ research spoken about in the press. This constant barrage of often useless, or even potentially damaging, media coverage of irrelevant, basic scientific findings with human applications not yet know typically confuse the population and does tremendous damage. This PR is conducted in order to ensure that everyone continues to know that “x” University is a top school conducting important research. Continuing to affirm their positions as elite, this allows them to continue raising tuition fees (another unsustainable expense which few can afford), all the while paying their actual employees paltry wages.
Perhaps it is the notion that fear of loss is a much greater motivator than desire to gain. Academic institutions have not been quick to stand up to publishers, as they may fear their position as elite isn’t stable enough to sustain a war with the publishing groups. For instance, if Harvard had stood up to the publishing groups in 2012, but no other major university followed suit, would Harvard have come out as the loser? This sort of self-preservation is a strong motivator and publishing groups know they hold these cards. Similarly, researchers are under tremendous pressure to publish their work and to do so in “respectable” journals. A researcher who opts to exclusively publish in an open-access journal risks losing out on promotions, research grants, and recognition when compared to a colleague who continuously publishes in the “top journals”. Presuming that the researcher is more concerned with their research itself than the broken publishing system, most will undoubtedly choose to continue on with the status quo, not risking losing access to the very passion that propelled them into a life of academia in the first place.
Publish or Perish
The pressure for academics to continue churning out work, publishing it regularly, is quite strong in academia. Universities want their researchers to continue publishing regularly, as publications serve as a type of PR and attention for the university, and researchers need to continue publishing in order to continue obtaining grant funding, as well as advance their own careers. This strong pressure to publish comes at a cost. Some argue that the pressure to publish frequently lowers the quality of work published, and takes important attention away from tasks such as instructing undergraduates to pass on knowledge. Not only that but publishing lower quality work frequently may not only lower the quality of said papers but distract authors from conducting truly ground-breaking work that would not only advance science, but also their institutions and careers, ironically, the very motivating factors driving this practice.
This stress to publish work, any work, frequently, has given rise to a business model known as “predatory journals”. Predatory journals often have important sounding names, with clean, impressive websites. They even troll for academics contact information and send out emails inviting researchers to submit their papers for review. The difference between the predatory practices of “respected” publishers, and those of those declared as predatory journals, is that at least the former conducts the small service they charge for. Predatory journals will often charge a fee, state they are peer-reviewed, and then publish any and all manuscripts, usually open access, with little or no peer review. Usually, none, as evidenced by a paper titled “Get me off your fucking mailing list” successfully being published, with the entire body of text being the headline repeated, with said headline-making up the figures and tables as well. Unfortunately, this is just one example and the problem is widespread. Often, young researchers, especially those from developing countries, may not know a journal is predatory. However, perhaps authors aren’t actually being duped with The New York Times opining,
“Many faculty members — especially at schools where the teaching load is heavy and resources few — have become eager participants in what experts call academic fraud that wastes taxpayer money, chips away at scientific credibility, and muddies important research.”
Before adding this quote:
“’When hundreds of thousands of publications appear in predatory journals, it stretches credulity to believe all the authors and universities they work for are victims,’ Derek Pyne, an economics professor at Thompson Rivers University in British Columbia.”
A publication from Derek Pyne explored the reward of publishing, even in predatory journals, finding that the majority of faculty members at his small business school had at least one publication in a predatory journal. This did not seem to negatively impact their rates of promotion. If academics must publish, as a policy by their institution, and are not punished for publishing in predatory journals (and in fact, rewarded for publication regardless), what incentive do they have to stop this untenable practice? How much public funds, or university funds driving up tuition fees, are going down the drain to publish rushed nonsense in predatory journals?
Headline Grabbing Articles
Journals are a business, and their subscribers are part of their customer base. On top of perceived prestige, a big part of drawing in readers and customers is the perception that “top journals” only publish the most ground-breaking scientific advancements. This entire notion punishes one of the core pillars of scientific integrity: replication and reproducibility. If a study is truly replicative, having reproduced important findings, it is not novel, and based on the current business model of publishers is, as such, deemed less important. Basically, academics are incentivized to not conduct one of the most important roles in science and are punished if they choose to allocate their time and financial resources to do so. This demand from “respected publishers” may be significantly influencing not only the titles, but the conclusions and topics of study of researchers. From the previously linked to Article in The Scientist, Peter Lawrence, a developmental biologist and an editor of the journal Development stated,
“More authors are going to desperate measures to get their results accepted by top journals. An increasing number of scientists are spending more time networking with editors, given that it's quite hard to reject a paper by a friend of yours. Overworked editors need something flashy to get their attention, and many authors are exaggerating their results, stuffing reports with findings, or stretching implications to human diseases, as those papers often rack up extra references.”
And from the previously linked to Guardian article,
“Many scientists also believe that the publishing industry exerts too much influence over what scientists choose to study, which is ultimately bad for science itself. Journals prize new and spectacular results – after all, they are in the business of selling subscriptions – and scientists, knowing exactly what kind of work gets published, align their submissions accordingly. This produces a steady stream of papers, the importance of which is immediately apparent.”
If everything is truly ground-breaking, as authors are required to make it appear as such, how do we know when something is actually ground-breaking; or even important enough to explore further? Science is supposed to be the pursuit of truth, distorting conclusions and designing studies to find significant results. Discouraging replicative work does not serve the truth. It serves the publishing industries, business model.
Negative Studies & Difficulties in Publishing
If publishers favour ground-breaking results, and novelty, they probably aren’t very interested in studies showing no results. We can go ahead and remove the “probably” because unless a negative study has a massive impact on the population, such as a large study showing an approved drug is ineffective, it can be hard to get negative studies published at all. This is demonstrated by the fact that “positive results” studies are far more represented in the literature than negative results studies, a phenomenon termed “publication bias.”,
If we don’t have all the information, we can’t draw honest conclusions. This should be immediately apparent, but for some reason the tendency to not publish negative results is widespread. Current campaigns are ongoing for mandating it as law to publish the results of all clinical trials. I have previously mentioned this, and we have a permanent link on our site to the AllTrials.net campaign to support and donate. In fact, Europe has made this a law, although the compliance has been poor at roughly 50%. Regulators need teeth in this fight, researchers and corporations alike need to be held accountable for not posting their results. If we only have half the data (or less), we don’t actually know what works and what doesn’t.
This philosophy of all trials needing to be published shouldn’t be limited to only clinical research. If scientists do not have access to studies that haven’t worked, they run the risk of replicating negative research and thus, wasting their time and grant money. In fact, if this replicative negative work, in turn, doesn’t get published yet again, another team may do the same, so on, and so on. How much time and economic resources have been wasted repeatedly studying the same ineffective approaches, since none of the subsequent teams knew the approach was ineffective?
A pre-print server called bioRxiv .org exists where authors can submit their pre-print data. I cannot ascertain if authors are currently using this to post negative outcome research, however a solution like this could partially address the issue. Many authors are unmotivated to publish negative results, not only due to lack of incentivization but simply out of consideration for the time needed to write a formal paper. A pre-print server where negative data could be uploaded in a less formal writing style could go a long way to addressing this challenge.
Science is supposed to drive towards truth, and the understanding of truth is what constitutes knowledge. The current state of scientific publishing interferes with both truth and knowledge. Dramatic reforms are needed in order to capitalize on our precious time and economic resources in order to transform society, hopefully for the better.
But first, next week we discuss the issues with privately-funded research... and for that matter, publicly-funded research as well.