The great publication fiasco

By Siouxsie Wiles 13/11/2010 4


It was with great sadness that I recently read that the University of California (UC) and Nature Publishing Group (NPG) had come to an agreement to stop UC from boycotting NPG. For those who aren’t familiar with this story, it goes something like this.

In June of this year a letter was circulated from the UC library to faculty explaining that NPG was insisting on increasing the price of UC’s license for Nature and other  NPG journals by 400 percent beginning in 2011, which would raise the cost for their 67 journals by well over 1 million USD (currently about 1.3 million NZD) per year. The letter called for faculty to prepare for the subscription to NPG journals to be suspended and for staff to boycott NPG by declining to peer review manuscripts for NPG journals, resigning from NPG editorial and advisory boards and ceasing to submit papers to NPG journals. Fighting talk! The impact of such actions would likely be significant given UC faculty members have contributed about 5300 articles to NPG journals in the past 6 years, including 638 in its flagship journal Nature. Indeed estimates by UC suggest the Nature papers alone were worth 19 million USD (24.54 million NZD) to NPG.

However, a joint statement by UC and NPG in August stated that the two organisations have agreed to work together in the coming months to address the mutual short- and long-term challenges. In other words, boycott averted.

I’m deeply disappointed. It seems to me that the publishing model favoured by NPG and many other publishers of science is deeply flawed and almost unethical. For anyone wondering what on earth I’m rambling on about here is how it generally goes in the biological sciences. I’d be very interested to know what other disciplines do.

  1. Researcher writes grant proposal (usually to a publicly funded research council or charity).
  2. If lucky enough, researcher gets grant and does research.
  3. After years of hard slog, researcher hopefully gets nice data and writes a paper.
  4. Researcher sends paper to a journal.
  5. Journal sends paper for (mostly unpaid*) peer review.
  6. If researcher is lucky their paper is accepted.
  7. Researcher signs over copyright to the journal.
  8. Researcher generally pays (often in the form of page charges) for journal to publish paper (from 500 to 5000 USD [645 to 6450 NZD] depending on the journal – see here for a comparison
  9. Researcher’s institution has to pay a subscription to access the paper.
  10. For those institutions that do not have a subscription, individuals can pay a charge to access a particular article. This access can range from 24h to several days. It is currently 32 USD (41 NZD) for 7 days access to a single article published in Nature.

Does this not seem utterly perverse? It would be interesting to know what NPG’s profits are. If anyone wants to do any digging, NGP is a division of Macmillan Publishers Ltd which is owned by the Georg von Holtzbrinck GmbH publishing group. Wikipedia has a little information about another publisher Elsevier (publisher of Cell, The Lancet, the Trends series and Current Opinions series): turnover of 2.236 billion EUR (3.934 billion NZD) and pre-tax profits of 581 million EUR (1 billion NZD) in 2006.

The obvious exception to this model is the rise in open-access publishing (including Public Library of Science [PLoS], BioMed Central and others) where there is usually a fee to publish but then the material is freely available to all.  PLoS also applies the Creative Commons Attribution Licence where the authors retain copyright for their article. The Directory of Open Access lists a staggering 5569 journals, with 43 covering microbiology alone. I’ve only heard of about 5 of them. Some of the more traditional journals are joining in, ‘allowing’ authors to pay a further fee (on top of page charges) to make their article open-access. I’ve just done this for my latest paper (a review article). It cost 3000 USD (3900 NZD).

So I feel I have a dilemma. Strive (or should that be in my wildest dreams?) to publish in journals belonging to NPG? With their high impact factor, papers in such journals are held in high regard and are important for career progression and getting grants. Or go with my principles and aim to publish only in open-access journals regardless of the impact factor? A sort of two finger salute to the old publishing model (and possibly my career…).  That’s why I’m so disappointed by UC. Here was a chance for a major institution to kick-start a debate about the ethics of the publishing model favoured by NPG. But no, it seems it’s just business as normal.

* I know of at least one journal that does pay it’s reviewers a small sum. However, the vast majority don’t. A recent report highlighted in an article in the Times Higher Education magazine says UK academics alone spend up to 30 million hours a year carrying out peer review, valuing this time at a staggering 165 million GBP (currently about 342 million NZD). You can begin to see where some of those profits would go to…


4 Responses to “The great publication fiasco”

  • Nicely written.
    My 2c worth on the ethics of it all are:
    1. All publicly funded research should be open access. (HRC, Marsden, MORST? could support this by agreeing to pay charges for all articles accepted in open access journals).
    2. All research using human volunteers (including commercially funded clinical trials) should be open access. (funding and employing bodies could make this a condition).
    3. Reviewers should be blinded to the authors (interestingly I’ve run across this only in a foray into social science rather than my usual medical/physics area) OR both should be transparent to each other and the reviewers names should be published.

    • I agree. Certainly in the UK and US various funding bodies are now making it a requirement for work to be open access although I think it might 6 months after publication. Last week I went to an interesting talk by Peter Shepherd who is editor-in-chief of the Biochemical Journal. He was asked about blinded and non-blinded peer review and his response was that it didn’t matter if you blinded who the authors where as most reviewers were able to tell who it was from. He also said publishing the reviewers names meant that it was more difficult to get reviewers as people were afraid of upsetting people who would be reviewing their grants/papers.

  • The authors pay to publish their papers and then technically end up paying to read them? that’s incredible! In chemistry, it costs nothing to publish in most journals (at least that’s how it was last time I checked) but it costs to buy the journals.
    Perhaps if researchers work together and start publishing only in open access journals, the other journals will take the hint. Social networks have the power to great things when people work together.
    However, in areas where it is still free to publish in good journals, I suspect most researchers will keeping publishing. 3900$ is a lot of money for some researchers, and after working hard to produce a paper it seems slightly galling to have to pay for it to be published.