Let’s end the rocky marriage between academia and commercial publishers

High costs, opaque contracts and the difficulty of finding peer reviewers all point to the need for a divorce, says Robert Kaplan

June 14, 2022
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For the past half century or so, academic publishers have been making vast profits by getting the world’s best minds to give them copyrights for research that was often sponsored by public agencies. Next, without compensation, highly accomplished scientists voluntarily review and edit the articles. Then, the for-profit publishers turn around and sell the research to the universities and scientists that gave them the product and labour for free.

Now, in the internet-era pursuit of open access, production and distribution costs are a mere fraction of what they were in the days of print journals. Yet publishers are charging researchers thousands of dollars to publish papers.

None of this is news to any Times Higher Education reader. But I believe there are three reasons why academia’s relationships with for-profit publishers must finally be severed.

First, the peer review system is broken. In the old days, the most accomplished experts usually agreed to evaluate papers. Now, editors report sending 15 or more requests to find two warm bodies to offer an opinion.

Second, academics often can’t afford those high open access fees – especially faculty outside the sciences, the wealthier institutions and the developed world. This makes it more likely that journals will fill their pages with papers by authors who have money, as opposed to authors who have good ideas. Pay to play is simply the wrong model for academia.

Third, publishers have resisted repeated attempts to make their contracts with universities more transparent. A 2014 analysis showed that the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor paid Elsevier $2.16 million (£1.77 million) for the exact same package of journals sold to the University of Wisconsin, Madison for $1.22 million. Yale, with about 12,500 students, paid Springer $711,564 for the same package that the University of Texas, Austin, with more than 50,000 students, purchased for $481,932.

Scientific publications need to get back to their original goal of distributing the best scientific information to the largest audience at the lowest cost. To replace the expensive, dysfunctional system, we need a national or global digital library that will edit and post peer-reviewed scientific papers.

This will require multi-institutional consortia and a substantial expansion of university libraries and professional librarians. Oversight will also be needed – and could be provided by a distinguished non-profit entity, similar to the national academies. Subcommittees representing the interests of each academic discipline should define the content of the new electronic publications and appoint their editors and editorial boards.

Peer review will be similar to current practice, but databases of reviewer participation could help incentivise it. Faculty, researchers and members of scholarly societies could be expected to complete a fixed number of reviews each year as evidence of their worthiness for promotion or advancement. Those who always refuse might be excluded from submitting their own articles.

Editors could assess the quality of reviews and offer feedback to the reviewers’ institutions. Not only would this incentivise better reviews, it would also help reviewers improve. Attractive bound paper journals will become relics of the past, but in their place will be downloadable pdf documents that are curated, peer-reviewed, and organised using modern ontological systems.

A peer-controlled system might also eliminate unnecessary burdens, such as idiosyncratic formatting conventions. As readers, we don’t care about the exact style. Yet the average Canadian researcher currently spends 52 hours per year reformatting papers, at a cost of $1,908. And that does not include the half day that it often requires to navigate the crazymaking, illogical article submission portals.

Over the past decade, UK universities spent more than £1 billion on academic journals, and US institutions spent many times more. These funds could be reallocated to support the digital library. Eliminating costs for marketing, reducing duplication, and centralising administration will result in further savings. In theory, libraries could achieve full open access and still reduce their expenditures – although another option would be to charge individuals and non-academic institutions a small fee for subscriptions or individual publications.  

Even if the system didn’t save universities a penny, it would result in higher-quality review, wider dissemination of research, and reduced pressure for authors to pay open access fees out of their own pockets.

These ideas are preliminary and, certainly, there will be challenges. Some institutions will assume a disproportionate share of the expenses, for instance – even if that might be justified on the basis of their greater usage of the library. A further problem is that if all research is completely open access, there will be little motivation for institutions to continue contributing resources. You might argue that scholarship should be considered a public good, so taxpayers should fund the digital library. But would politicians (or the public) agree?

Not everyone will consider the trade-offs I propose to be worth it, and I offer these suggestions only to start the conversation. But let’s have that discussion soon. With a little ingenuity, we have the opportunity to reinvigorate the review process, reduce the financial burden on authors and universities, and get quality research in front of many more readers.

Robert M. Kaplan is a faculty member at Stanford University’s Clinical Excellence Research Center. He is former associate director of the National Institutes of Health and former chief science officer for the US Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality. He is former editor-in-chief of two journals: Annals of Behavioral Medicine and Health Psychology.

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Reader's comments (9)

What exactly is the purpose of a journal? glorified typesetters and a cabal of academic gatekeepers who keep the enterprise going.
I support the sentiment of this article, but I disagree on one point: academics *could* "afford those high open access fees" if their institutions stopped paying extortionate subscription fees and channelled the money into open access. Greater dissemination could be achieved with the same money if APCs replaced subscriptions, but publishers want to retain both. I am also of the opinion that an important barrier to open access that hasn't been highlighted is the prestige associated with the size of a University library's budget - especially to the head of the library. This creates a perverse incentive for libraries to cough up and then ask for more money.
Kaplan writes from a far too narrow range of information and experience. It is no possible to assert a consistent and clear distinction between for-profit and other forms of scholarly publishing. For almost 50 years, I have either held or shared copyrights with both my scholarly and trade publishers. I can count on less than one hand the number of times, my publishers and I have conflicted, primarily over the size of payments for translation rights. Authors must ask Open access is a separate issue. As a now retired but still writing professor, I was recently asked for the first time by a journal for an open access. I replied to the editor that given my own experience and lack of institutional support, I would not pay for publication. She immediately waived the fee. Moreover, Kaplan and all apparently are unaware that that open access fees are a result of research grants especially in the sciences. In effect, a consequence for which they themselves are partly responsible. Let's not romanticize peer-reviewing. As I argued in these pages recently, there was no golden age. But reviewing has declined in symbiotic relationship to editors, and professional socialization. The shift to online systems takes an additional toll
Journals can get away with the high fees because the academic cabal makes it impossible to progress in an academic career without publications in certain key journals. If people had the ability and the willingness to read written papers instead of going by journal names, these journals would be redundant. High fee charging journals are so last century. One solution might be open access university e-journals, crowd reviewed by academic peers and/or practitioners depending on the discipline and let free markets decide what is good.
Yes, Kaplan is dead on: the evidence is clear that journals are counter-productive in that they promote unreliable science, a tax-waste in that their price is about tenfold publishing cost and their articles lack many basic functionalities we have come to expect from other digital objects. However, the article is short on specific suggestions on who should make which changes in order for the replacement to be implemented. Nine experts and I have proposed precisely such specifics here: https://doi.org/10.5281/zenodo.5526634
Will any funding body fund the development of such a system? Or are they sold as well?
I absolutely agree that a system organised by University libraries (a "public option" perhaps?) would be more efficient, affordable, and meet the needs of academics better than the existing system run by for-profit publishers. The question is how do we get there and what barriers do we need to tackle. I've always run up against what I call the "legacy" problem. That is, won't universities need to continue to pay publishers for access to the existing literature? If so, then creating a new library-run system could lead to additional costs on top of legacy access charges by publishers. I don't think that this is unsolvable but it will take substantial work to get the numbers to balance and may cost more in the short term. This needs to be acknowledged and solutions proposed. For me, the key thing is to develop a realistic pathway to get to this new system. Although I acknowledge that first we need public proposals like this to get the ball rolling.
It is good to discuss new academic dissemination processes - yet even better to actually set them up. After all, a better process supported by academia would surely be able to fairy readily take over. The problem I see is that Kaplan does not suggest much conceptually new here that is not already being worked on or indeed provided by existing progressive academic publishers (including the all important provision of referee incentives/referee credit). Where is the evidence that a centralized, monolithic system would actually be better than such platforms? Would it be located in China, Europe - or maybe South America? Why not just repurpose PubMedCentral? Cost: we (EMBOPress) and other selective academic journals find that our costs as academic non-profit publishers are unfortunately also rather high. So I suggest not to focus on cutting costs, but rather to invest in a more effective set of Open Science dissemination tools. Rather than claiming we should get the discussion going, why not support organizations that already do all that is proposed here from tomorrow? If there is a reason to set up one centralized system, by all means, but only if there is concrete evidence for advantages over existing tools.
While the current publishing system is certainly broken, a single centralized gatekeeping system for academic publication sounds like an absolute nightmare. "Subcommittees representing the interests of each academic discipline should define the content of the new electronic publications and appoint their editors and editorial boards." If we did this, we would exacerbate the already disturbing lack of diversity and representation among editors, who are overwhelmingly older, white males, by consolidating the gatekeeping for entire fields into the hands of an even smaller, more select group of what would inevitably be mostly older white males. You could hardly design a better system to shut down innovation and scientific dissent. You can't centralize a marketplace of ideas. Big centralized funders like NIH acknowledge that their grantmaking continues to disadvantage truly novel ideas, younger researchers at the peak of their productivity, women, and minorities, but also have not yet found their way to actually correcting that problem, continuing to offer funding disproportionately to older, well-established researchers reliably making minor incremental contributions to existing knowledge. Now imagine that all those younger, unorthodox, disadvantaged researchers managing to get by on other funding sources now have to face another monolithic orthodox establishment to *publish* their work. Researchers currently doing ligitmate but stigmatized or unpopular work are often forced to publish in lower-impact, lower-quality journals. A good example is research into the biological underpinnings of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. Until *extremely* recently, there was a widespread, unsupported, incorrect dogma within the scientific and medical community that this devastating illness was psychosomatic. That bias has been so strong that the few researchers who continued to scrape together finding to investigate CFS as a biological disease have often spent entire careers publishing in third tier journals like Frontiers. Imagine if these researchers, who have spent decades building the case for a biological origin of disease, had been applying to a single board of editors, representing the most mainstream establishment orthodoxy, to publish any of their work at all? Even less of that research would have seen the light of day. And that slow case has been built over time--only in the last few years have the CDC, NIH, NHS, and other major health science institutions quietly reversed course. This attitudinal shift has perhaps accelerated with the rise of "long Covid." But a key event in the turn-around was the failure of a major treatment trial based on the "biopsychosocial theory", published with statistical manipulation designed to hide that failure. It's notable that the major prestige journal that published the original results did not even require a correction, and that formally published criticism of the paper and reanalysis of the partial data they released has taken place largely in *other* journals. What would this have looked like if there was effectively ONLY the one publisher to go to? Yeah, the system needs a redesign from the studs up, but a big centralized gate is definitely not the structure we need to build.