From the Brainstem: Scientific publishing is broken

A $25 billion industry with profit margins that put Silicon Valley to shame, academic publishing is big business. For years, library budgets have buckled under the growing strain of price-gouging subscription fees, while scientists remain at the behest of a cabal of companies for the sake of their careers, caught on the wrong end of a business model that exploits their labour to cut costs and extract maximum profit.

The genius of this business model lies in its evasion of traditional publishing costs in other sectors. First, scientists write up publicly funded research and send it in article form to journals. It is then voluntarily assessed by other scientists through peer review. Upon publication, the research is sold back in exorbitantly priced subscription packages to, for the most part, publicly funded institutions. Access to this research is then withheld from the general public—whose taxes bankrolled it—by paywalls charging as much as $30 to read a single article. In effect, the general public pays for the research, the salaries of those reviewing it for publication, and institutional access to it. It is no wonder, then, that Elsevier, the largest academic publisher in the world, regularly posts profit margins between 35 and 40 per cent, greater than those of Google, Facebook, Disney, or Amazon. 

Scientists are incentivized by the nature of academia to play into this system. To secure tenure-track positions, researchers are expected to publish often. The more prestigious the journal the better, as scientific clout is all too often conflated with one’s number of publications in top journals such as Nature and Cell. The pursuit of this journal-appointed prestige encourages scientists to orient their research towards the journal editors’ demands. The journal editors receive a massive amount of submissions, the majority of which will languish, unpublished. These editors effectively act as gatekeepers of scientific knowledge, yet they are ultimately beholden to profit rather than principle. 

Elsevier dominates the industry. A 2015 report from Vincent Larivière of the Université de Montréal (UdeM) showed that Elsevier controls roughly a quarter of the scientific journal market, while competitors Springer and Wiley-Blackwell own nearly another quarter between them. The stranglehold that these companies have on the industry has allowed them to charge astronomically high subscription fees to universities, which had to field a 215 per cent increase in such fees between 1986 and 2003. These fees have come to claim an ever larger portion of university library budgets; in the 2018-2019 school year, McGill paid nearly $1.9 million to Elsevier alone for a subscription to ScienceDirect.

Backlash to escalating fees has seen a push for open access to research—a prospect Elsevier has spent millions lobbying against—and the rise of open-access journals. Yet just one year ago, the University of California (UC), the largest public university system in the US, decided to cancel its subscription to Elsevier in a move that sent shockwaves through the world of scientific publishing. The deal fell apart over the UC’s desire to secure open access for research published in Elsevier journals.

Meanwhile, large-scale open access initiatives are underway, such as Plan S, launched in 2018 by an international consortium of research funders seeking to eliminate paywalls for all publicly funded research. On the more unofficial side of things is the controversial website SciHub, which was founded in 2011 and bypasses paywalls to provide free access to millions of articles, regardless of copyright. Unsurprisingly, SciHub has been embroiled in a litany of lawsuits, including with Elsevier.

As things stand, public institutions and scientists are being fleeced by publishers, to the enduring detriment of the scientific community as a whole. It is incumbent upon schools to follow the UC’s example and make good on promises to finally secure open access for all publicly funded research: The time has come to tear down the paywalls and stop paying into a broken system.

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