everyone pays except publishers

How many times have we read a news item to begin with: “According to a study”. This formula is used to give credibility, but are all scientific publications truthful?

In a century we have multiplied the number of publications by a hundred. Currently more than 6 million scientific articles are published per year and in each of the last two decades we have doubled productivity (Figure 1). While that might seem like a sign that science is advancing at a breakneck pace, it also hides dangers.

To analyze these dangers we must remember how scientific articles are generated and why they are necessary. Scientists observe the phenomena around us and, to explain them in a rational way, we propose hypotheses whose verifications allow us to reach certain conclusions.

If the process ended here, no one would know the findings and progress would slow down, since we would be continually reinventing the wheel. To avoid this we must communicate our results so that they reach other scientists. Isaac Newton summed it up by saying that “he had been able to see beyond thanks to the fact that he had risen on the shoulders of giants.” This means that discoveries, important as they are, are based on prior knowledge.

Communication between scientists has been key to the development of science. The correspondence between Darwin, in England, and Wallace, in Malaysia, about the variation and distribution of species is famous. This contributed significantly to the understanding and development of the theory of evolution. In those days each letter took a couple of months to reach its addressee, so to speed up this process, and especially to expand the number of recipients, Scientific Societies created the first academic journals.

What is the process that a scientific publication follows?

Scientific discoveries must be described so that others understand them, can be reproduced and thus validated. When we have the manuscript, it is sent to a scientific journal. The editorial team will decide if the work is interesting and conforms to the editorial policy and area of ​​knowledge of the journal. If it does not meet any of these requirements, the editor returns it with some comments and generally the authors send it to another journal.

If the editor decides that the work is interesting and fits the scope of the journal, it forwards it to the reviewers, who are other scientists not related to the work or its authors. They conduct a thorough review and issue a detailed report with comments and recommendations to the editor. This system allows, in some cases, a significant improvement of the articles.

If after this process, which may include several rounds of experiments and discussions between authors and reviewers, the work is finally accepted by the editor, it is published.

An important detail is that the costs derived from the production, layout and printing of the publications are borne by the authors. Contrary to what people believe, authors do not charge to publish, we pay for it.

So why do we want to post?

Because in addition to promoting the gear of knowledge, at present the world of science pivots on scientific publications. Fundraising relies heavily on researchers’ posts as well as their career promotions and becomes a cycle where if you publish, you get funding that you use to run experiments that allow you to publish and get more funding and better jobs, and so on.

The famous “publish or perish” which has become a mantra in the academic world.

Scientific journals: a billion dollar business

In the 90s, with the appearance of the internet, this system based on magazines published on paper was questioned. In fact, their survival was even considered. However, this has not been the case: the profits obtained by scientific publishers have only grown. Currently, this industry has a business volume of more than 25 billion dollars annually with a profit margin close to 40% (Figure 2).

Figure 2. Data collected by the author, Author provided

How can they have such a high margin? On the one hand, the authors pay to provide the manuscripts, the raw material of the business. If we make a simile with a supermarket, it would be as if the farmer who offers the oranges not only did not charge for them, but paid. The reviewers also do not charge for their work, it would be the equivalent of the carrier that takes those oranges from the orchards to the supermarket not charging for it and even bearing the fuel costs.

In fact, a recent study has estimated that the hours that reviewers spend doing this free work in 2020 they represented $ 1.5 billion in the United States alone.

As if this were not enough, publishers charge universities and research centers for their researchers to have access to publications in a subscription format whose prices are not public. As if in our example we did not know what another customer of the same supermarket pays for a kilogram of oranges.

All this with the aggravating factor that this system can have in the most disadvantaged countries in which their institutions cannot face bills in many cases millionaires.

Open science

In the last decades it has appeared the open access movement (open access). Although this is a good idea since readers do not pay to access publications, it does not appear to be the definitive solution (Figure 3), since publishers charge authors or their funding sources to provide this free access.

Figure 3. I commission, Author provided

This movement, together with digitization, has paved the way for the emergence of new scientific publishers that have seen a juicy market niche and that compete with the classic publishers. This has resulted in the appearance of predatory magazines and publishers. If scientists need to publish in order to obtain financing and professional promotion, these types of formulas allow, upon payment, to publish less rigorous or even fraudulent articles.

The “publish or perish” has become a “pay and publish rubbish.”

In principle, these types of publications should not represent a danger because they have little impact. In fact, almost 60% never date. They do hide an enormous danger derived from the drastic reduction in scientific rigor and they fertilize the ground for pseudoscience, the appearance of hoaxes, false news, pseudotherapies and other related problems that, in situations such as the pandemic, we have seen that they can be extremely dangerous.

Guest editor

One latest trend to emerge in the world of scientific publications is “special” issues. Publishers have discovered the strategy of inviting prestigious scientists to be editors of special issues of their journals. They are in charge of recruiting, generally among their colleagues, a sufficient number of articles to complete these editions, of course paying for said publication.

This practice has grown exponentially in recent years, and scientists often accept these invitations out of respect for the guest editor.

Somehow we must all try to reverse these trends, either through repositories of prepublished works (pre-prints) What arXiv, bioRxiv, medRxiv and the like, or looking for new publication formulas, probably more based on scientific societies as a nice nod to the beginnings.

Above all we must be alert and not fatten the beast. If we do not remedy it, it can take us from “publish or perish” to “publish and perish.”The Conversation

Ismael Mingarro, Professor of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, University of Valencia

This article was originally published on The Conversation. read the original.


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