For risks and side effects consult your librarian

Scarcely noticed by the scientific community in Germany, an astounding development is taking place: The alliance of German scientific organizations with the Conference of University Rectors (DEAL Consortium) is flexing its muscles at the publishing houses. We are witnessing the beginning of the end of the business model current in scientific publishing: an exodus out of institutional library subscriptions to journals and into open access to all to scientific literature (OA), financed by a once-only article publishing charge (APC).  The motive for this move is convincing:  Knowledge financed by society must be freely accessible to society, and the costs for accessing scientific publications have risen immensely, increasing every year by over 5% and all but devouring the last resources of the universities.

The big publishing houses are merrily pocketing fantastic returns for research that is financed by taxes and produced, curated, formatted, and peer reviewed by us.  These returns run at a fulsome 20 – to 40%, which would probably not be legal in any other area of business.  At the bottom of this whole thing is a bizarre swap: With our tax money we are buying back our own product – scientific knowledge in manuscript form — after having handed it over up front to the publishers.  It gets even wilder:  The publishing houses give us back our product on loan only, with limited access, without any rights over the articles. The taxpayer, having paid for it all, cannot access it, meaning that not only Joe Blow the taxpayer is left standing in the cold, but with him practicing medical doctors or clinicians, and scientists outside of the Universities.

After many years as Chief-Editor of a journal quite respected in my field of research, I asked myself how the proceeds in the scientific publishing business could amount to only to 40%, since they should actually be significantly higher!  Everything publishers have to do in order to publish a journal – including the editorial management system, runs on a set formula.  It is the scientists, really, who take care of the knowledge part:  They research and find answers, upload formatted articles, edit, perform editing board activities, or review etc.  Once a journal has established itself, everything right up to citation style and the layout template can be “cloned” at no further cost.  Printing and postal delivery are passé anyway, and the cost of downloading an article is negligible.  But it is not only the publishing houses that are after fulsome earnings, but often somebody else as well, so returns are “only” 30%:  The professional organizations of the specialists, which own many of the journals, are also in the chase.  For periods of time they hand the rights to their journal over to the publisher, if indeed they do not appear as the publisher themselves.  For doing so they generally take in 5-6-digit sums.  To many people it is not clear that in this way the system nourishes not only the publishing houses but also the professional societies, actually providing most of them with their main source of income.

What will change, however, when the business model switches to OA and APCs?  What problems will surface with that?  It is quite clear that we authors will then retain the right of re-usage for our articles (at least in the Creative Commons Model), and everyone with access to Internet can read them.  That would indeed be a giant step forward!  However, the curious barter by which we produce and give away the product only to buy it back, will not change at all.  Instead of subscription fees for journals, business will run via APCs.

Why then are the publishing houses putting up so much resistance to OA?  Why did Elsevier let the DEAL Consortium run aground and cut us off from accessing Elsevier journals for a period? Well, the kings of the castle like Elsevier, Springer Nature, SAGE etc. will be thinking: “Why change a winning horse?”  Why stop just when it’s going our way?  They might even seek to bring the situation to a head, and do in the so-called hybrid models what is called ‘double dipping’: charge APCs for immediate release in a journal that is already being subscribed by libraries.  To be equipped for all eventualities, most publishing houses are testing out on selected journals whether and how they can draw the same profits in the OA models that they have been drawing up to now.

That, however, is the crux of the matter:  Should the publishing houses be forced to convert all of their journals, including the high impact flagships like Nature, Cell, NEJM and Lancet, into OA journals? Can they already calculate which APCs are due for it?  The publishers will no doubt titrate the APCs to attain the same returns that they had before.  The sinister plans of the mighty publishers regarding OA can be recognized in a document crafted recently by Elsevier.  I hope that it has not escaped the notice of those responsible in the DEAL Consortium (if it has, see!

And another aspect in the prospective OA model will go unchanged:  In the age of the Internet we are still publishing pretty much the same way as we did more than 100 years ago.  The essential progress made since then consists in the fact that we get the articles as PDFs from a printer instead of copying them in the library.

Nobody is twisting our arm to publish in journals from which we have to re-purchase our own articles.  We have at hand a radical and technically immediately realizable alternative: We publish our articles in repositories managed by us and freely accessible.  We are already formatting the articles professionally, we are reviewing them, etc.  None of that would change, unless we want to try something new and as beautifully sensible as open review, post-publication review, preregistration, and open data etc.  In addition, we would have professional assistance, since we have libraries with the appropriate personnel, and we would free-up enormous sums by eliminating subscription fees and APC.  We could do research with these resources or use a small portion of them to engage professionals again to organize, as does for example Wellcome Trust in England with F1000Research.

But stop, end of dream!  There is a catch, and it is called the Journal Impact Factor (JIF).  Let me sharpen my description of the system.  In reality, the publishing houses do not sell us any journals at all, but rather the Journal Impact Factor (JIF)!  We exchange JIF for money!  In academia, JIF is the most important currency.  You cannot buy a professorship or get an application approved with money, but with the JIF you can!  Under any young scientist can have her personal chances of success in pushing her way through academia calculated.  The key predictor is: the number of publications and the JIF of the journals in which she has published.  It fits nicely that the JIF itself is of great value.  It was sold by Thomson Reuters last year to a Chinese Venture capitalist in a package for 3.55 Billion US$.  Why do they believe that they can win back this monstrous sum plus profit?  And one might ask oneself who pays the bill in the end?

We made the comfortable decision not to pin scientific achievements down to their quality and relevance.  To do so one would have to read articles and actually judge their quality and originality.  Rather, we use a surrogate that initially has absolutely nothing to do with an individual scientific achievement.  Instead of evaluating the scientific or social usefulness of publications, we evaluate them according to how often they have been cited over the past two years in the journal in which they were published — as a numerical variable with 3 digits after the decimal point.  That makes the job of the appointment committee so very much easier, albeit, at a high price.  For one thing, it lays the basis for a “publish or perish” culture with all of its consequences for the solidity, transparence and truthfulness of publications.  Furthermore, it has led to a cosmos of journals with dissimilar JIFs, without which the current academic system of rewards would collapse.  The real capital of the publishing houses is no longer their professional publication machinery. Nowadays that is available to everyone.

For at least ten years, anyone can start a journal in the Internet – a phenomenon that has the unexpected and undesirable side effect of predatory publishing.  Journals that for an APC will publish an article with no further editorial action, thus giving OA an undeservedly bad reputation.  My favorite among the predators is the “International Journal of Science and Nature”, which recently invited me warmly to publish in it.  For 2200 Indian Rupees (=ca. 40€) you even get a Nature and Science double-pack, without annoying experts evaluating it and editors, and with guaranteed acceptance.  Without a doubt, the most attractive of the seven similar offers yesterday in my e-mails.

So am I against switching to open access?  NO, because as it is, the situation cannot get any worse than it is, and because free availability to our research is an important goal.  Apart from that, on the road to open access, the number of scientists who begin to understand the mechanisms of the current scientific publication system and who are critical of it, will increase.  I fear that many of us believe that everything is already “OA” since most university scientists can still access the literature by clicking on the “PDF” button and without having to use their credit cards. For that reason, I tip my hat to the DEAL Consortium for not having given in to Elsevier.  The transition to OA only makes sense, however, if we break the omnipotence of the JIF.  Only then, will money really be saved, and saved on a gigantic scale.  In Germany alone it will mean several hundred million € per year.  You can support a lot of research with that, and in publishing it, you can finally exploit the full potential of electronic publishing.


A German version of this post has been published as  part of my monthly column in the Laborjournal:


A selection of relevant literature and links on this topic:

A wonderful comparison between the inefficient ways in which we publish scientific results today and all the things that would be possible if we were to use the possibilities to improve them (von Romain Brette) : A vision of the post-journal world.

Once again Romain Brette, with simple steps for improving what we encounter in this wonderful world:

Björn Brembs  gives tips for what we can do when we lose access to journals because the subscription has been discontinued or when we are sitting on the wrong side of the paywall.  Nothing dramatic really…

Björn Brembs advises us to cancel all our journal subscriptions:

Björn Brembs‘ critical analysis of current AO initiatives:

Björn Brembs warns that the ideal route of OA (the „golden OA“) creates more problems than it solves:

And now this too: Björn Brembs, Germany’s most prominent Open Science Activist, announces his retreat:

SCI-HUB: legal – illegal – doesn’t matter anyhow. Over 40 million articles to download.  Radical illegal Open Access.

Or not quite as extensive, but legal and very comfortable with Browser extension: “Skip the paywall” Get full-text of research papers as you browse using Unpaywall’s index of ten million legal open-access articles.

The Costs of Flipping our Dollars to Gold. Interview about the Pay It Forward report. The first comprehensive analysis of the impact that a decisive push to Gold OA would have on publication costs for major North American research institutions.

Elsevierleaks: Leaked Elsevier contract reveals pushback:

Thomson-Reuters sells the Impact Factor to Venture capitalists:

PIPredictor – Predict your probability of becoming a Principal Investigator (PI)

Berlin declaration regarding Open Access. 60% by 2020!:

The German Federal Government Department of Education and Research on OA:

Abusing market power. Tageszeitung article on DEAL Konsortium und Elsevier:!5370972/


Further Recommended Reading:

Brembs BButton KMunafò M. Deep impact: unintended consequences of journal rank. Front Hum Neurosci. 2013 Jun 24;7:291.

Kriegeskorte N, Walther A, Deca D. An emerging consensus for open evaluation: 18 visions for the future of scientific publishing. Front Comput Neurosci. 2012 Nov 15;6:94.

Khan R, Goodman L, Mittelman D. Dragging scientific publishing into the 21st century. Genome Biol. 2014 Dec 11;15(12):556.

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