The oligopolistic nature of the industry, long and biased peer review process and copyrights misplacement are some of the problems confronting the current academic publishing space
When examining the current academic publishing landscape, the phrase ‘Never judge a book by its cover’ is particularly apt for a number of reasons. While the $25 billion valuation placed on the scientific publishing sector paints a picture of a healthy, vibrant industry, it really only masks the internal issues plaguing this highly oligopolistic space, in which the top five publishers account for 50 to 70 per cent of all publications. Irrespective of the problems confronting the sector, it remains one of the most lucrative in the world. The industry’s business model has higher profit margins than any other industry in history.
So how have we arrived at this situation? Well, the costs of journals have been steadily increasing at a far higher rate than the Consumer Price Index. For example, in the last few years, research center libraries have experienced 4–7% increases in the cost of journals annually. Given that the cost of the information management infrastructure declines with Moore’s law and that most editorial expenses are paid by the research community, the price increases stem from the oligopolistic status quo flexing their publishing muscles. Along with the oligopolistic nature of the industry, there are a number of acute problems confronting the current academic publishing space.
The long and biased peer review process
Problems are prevalent at the very core of the scientific publishing industry, starting with the long and biased peer review process. Manuscripts are evaluated by field experts, revised and improved by the authors, and then finally accepted for publication. This is the process through which grants are allocated, papers published, academics promoted, and Nobel prizes won. So, the problem is clear, since reviewers are competing for the same recognition and resources, peer reviewing is inevitably going to suffer from bias.
It’s no secret that the world of academia also suffers from a diversity problem. While there have been several recent initiatives geared towards addressing diversity issues in the industry, unfortunately, these efforts have yet to be successful. In fact, 33% of universities in the United Kingdom are actually regressing in terms of the number of women in tenure. Which means that the academic circles remain still largely populated by men — white men nonetheless!
This isn’t an isolated case. In 2015, a study led by Canadian researchers Gita Ghiasi, Vincent Lariviere, and Cassidy R. Sugimoto revealed that female researchers in engineering were less likely to have their work cited. Since an academic journal’s reputation, as well as the number of citations are used to determine a researcher’s prowess, you can see why this is an unfair outcome not only for women and minorities but for the whole scientific community!
As well as suffering from bias, peer reviewing can also be quite a protracted and drawn out process. Despite technological advancements, the time from submission to publication is dictated by a highly convoluted process. Once a journal receives a manuscript, an editor needs to screen the work and assign it to peer reviewers. Then, if the transition process between authors, editors and reviewers is successful, the manuscript is marked for publication. However, this does not mean that the paper is immediately published, it only means it is earmarked for release in the print edition as space becomes available. Depending on the journal, the publication time varies signiﬁcantly, but the average time is 12 months. Once a research manuscript is rejected by a journal, authors have to resubmit to a diﬀerent journal and resume the process. Unfortunately, the biased and protracted peer review process isn’t the only issue confronting the academic publishing sector.
The copyrights misplacement
While inefficient processes can be identified across a myriad of sectors, the copyrights misplacement is something unique to the academic publishing sector. In any other industry, the creator is paid for their work. Musicians are paid for their songs, artists are paid for their art pieces, and authors are paid for their books. However, the same ideal is not reflected in academic publishing.
Generally, researchers are required to transfer the copyrights of their manuscripts (research that frequently takes millions of dollars of public money to conduct) to the journal publisher. Their work is given permanently and for free to publishers who reap a higher profit margin than in any other industry. Academic publishers claim that this is necessary in order to protect authors’ rights and to coordinate permissions for reprints or other use, but many authors find this method unsuitable. In theory, the permission to use one’s manuscript is granted in return for the services provided, such as editing, peer reviewing, publishing, and advertising. However, a large part of the editing and peer review costs are already paid for or done on a voluntary basis by the research community.
Then, we have the scientific community who is often charged hundreds of dollars to access decades-old studies. While scientists are priced out of the market, universities, and hospitals must pay millions of dollars per year to access papers produced decades ago, papers that were funded by the Government, or other charitable grants, at great expense.
Find the rest of Martin’s article in Research Information.
Manuel’s career has been focused on supporting large collaborations through technological innovation. He has led critical data-management, big data and machine-learning initiatives for the largest and most complex scientific instrument ever built (CERN LHC). In addition, he has collaborated with NASA-JPL, Fermilab (U.S. Dept. of Energy) and GSI, among others.