# Subscription journals are doomed

Sci-Hub’s cache of pirated papers is so big, subscription journals are doomed, data analyst suggests
http://www.sciencemag.org/news/2017...subscription-journals-are-doomed-data-analyst

There is no doubt that Sci-Hub, the infamous—and, according to a U.S. court, illegal—online repository of pirated research papers, is enormously popular. (See Science’s investigation last year of who is downloading papers from Sci-Hub.) But just how enormous is its repository? That is the question biodata scientist Daniel Himmelstein at the University of Pennsylvania and colleagues recently set out to answer, after an assist from Sci-Hub.

Staff Emeritus
The arXiv has been around for 20 years, providing free (and legal) access to HEP articles. Why are there then still HEP journals?

jim mcnamara
Mentor
To answer a rhetorical question - arXiv is not refereed, HEP journals are refereed.

Which leads to: why does readership need to have to pay in order to have the referee process? (I do not know if HEP reviewers are paid. In my area - generally no) To keep referee anonymity? If you publish in your 'very advanced domain' is it not often already obvious who is qualified to referee?

Which leads to: why does readership need to have to pay in order to have the referee process?

One reason for expensive, closed journals: create barriers to entry; this makes publication more prestigious, which helps those already in the elite maintain their status. Likewise those who are still aspiring may also covet status and thus be willing to support a closed system for that reason. Similar in a way to why we have two major political parties in the U.S. that largely control who can run for office at state and federal levels.

See this 2014 article from The Atlantic on "Free Access to Science Research Doesn't Benefit Everyone", which touches on some of the above: https://www.theatlantic.com/technol...ence-research-doesnt-benefit-everyone/383875/

"There is a lot of promise in open access. But there are a lot of problems too. Making something open isn’t a simple check box or button—it takes work, money, and time. Often those pushing for open access aren't the ones who will have to implement it. And for those building their careers, and particularly for underrepresented groups who already face barriers in academia, being open isn’t necessarily the right choice . . .

"At a time when the job market in science is extremely competitive, the institutions combing over resumes aren’t looking for someone’s commitment to the open-access cause, they’re looking at their potential for big research. And in many cases that potential is measured through publication in so-called “glamour” journals like Science and Nature and the British Medical Journal."

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Choppy
Which leads to: why does readership need to have to pay in order to have the referee process? (I do not know if HEP reviewers are paid. In my area - generally no) To keep referee anonymity? If you publish in your 'very advanced domain' is it not often already obvious who is qualified to referee?

It's not the referee process that leads to the cost necessarily, but the act of producing a professional quality journal.

While I won't argue that someone out there is perhaps making a little more money than they should off of academic journals, I will point out that there is a non-negligible cost to running a professional journal. Most journals that I'm familiar with will have a professional, senior editor, who provides a single point of contact who is ultimately responsible for the journal. There are also administrative staff who run the website, track submissions, correspond with authors, referees, and associate editors, and generally help to facilitate the peer-review process. You also have copy editors, who convert the manuscript into the journal's final format, and find all sorts of technical mistakes and ultimately present a professional product. These people have to have office space, computers, a server for the journal, etc. While it's not unreasonable to cut out some (or even many) costs, maintaining a professional, peer-reviewed journal is not a trivial process.

It's important to note that even arXiv has substantial operational costs that are covered by institutional subsidies and foundation grants.

One reason for expensive, closed journals: create barriers to entry; this makes publication more prestigious, which helps those already in the elite maintain their status. Likewise those who are still aspiring may also covet status and thus be willing to support a closed system for that reason. Similar in a way to why we have two major political parties in the U.S. that largely control who can run for office at state and federal levels.

Respectfully, I disagree. Barriers to publication in the form or peer review or its alternatives are about quality control and scientific integrity.

Andy Resnick, jim mcnamara, Dale and 1 other person
Barriers to publication in the form or peer review or its alternatives are about quality control and scientific integrity.

This is a very idealistic viewpoint that unfortunately fails to capture the full picture, as I will demonstrate.

I do however agree with your quite lucid description of the editorial process, e.g. copyediting etc. Obviously paid editorial staff contribute to both higher quality (one hopes) and higher costs.

On the other hand, surely it must be clear that high prices for subscription journals are indeed a barrier for readership, just to start with; and that something is going on with these high prices that has nothing to do with editorial costs & quality control? Mass-market print magazines also have costs for editorial staff, printing, and distribution; yet their per issue price is far lower than for a journal. As you have seemed to hint at, journal publishers have been accused in recent years of price gouging, e.g. see this 2014 article in The Guardian: Universities 'get poor value' from academic journal-publishing firms; and this 2011 blog post by a math prof, What We Can Do About Science Journals

And even without getting into the question of price-gouging, we can ask whether high prices for closed journals might have consequences - and whether these consequences might participate in a feedback loop that supports the closed journal system, i.e. that results in a significant percentage of academics choosing to stay inside the closed system rather than swarming to open journals (since open journals are also capable of supporting peer review).

So that is my claim. It's not a phenomenon that I have made up; others have observed it as well; in fact I only mentioned it because I have previously read about it and similar phenomena. So if you really want to examine the merits of this claim, don't just take my word for it; I recommend you read and ponder the article I linked to; here is that link again: https://www.theatlantic.com/technol...ence-research-doesnt-benefit-everyone/383875/

And here is a similar article, this time from Nature: http://www.nature.com/news/science-publishing-the-golden-club-1.13951

I already quoted from the Atlantic article; here is a quote from the Nature article; bold is mine:

Beyond that trend, some advocates for the open-access movement have specifically attacked Science and Nature, which they label as 'glamour journals'. They say that the journals' prestige is part of a business model in which hot findings are flaunted as a way to justify their subscription rates. And many senior scientists worry that too much attention is paid to where people publish rather than to what they have done — that Science, Nature and similar publications hold too much sway over the careers of working scientists. “It's like a kind of addiction,” says Stephen Curry, a structural biologist at Imperial College London who has been vocal about the issue on his blog, Reciprocal Space.​

Lastly, please bear in mind that I am not saying that such effects are the stated purpose of journals, or for that matter the stated purpose of high prices; we can label them consequences for now and examine them from that perspective. We do this because we know that in complex systems, consequences that function as feedback loops can matter a great deal, and can be part of why a system is sustained - or eventually, why it fails.

P.S. I became interested in this sort of thing after reading about systems thinking in a book by Donella H. Meadows, Thinking In Systems; I highly recommend it as an introduction.

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It seems to me that final Q&A in the article might fall under the title of "self fulfilling prophesy".
"Q: What do you hope the impact of this study will be?"
"A:
I think the larger picture of this study is that this is the beginning of the end for subscription scholarly publishing. I think it is at this point inevitable that the subscription model is going to fail and more open models will be necessitated. One motivation for doing the study is that I want to bring that eventuality into reality more quickly. "
Certainly there are big changes in store for Publishing in general, guess we'll have to wait to see just how big.

Choppy
On the other hand, surely it must be clear that high prices for subscription journals are indeed a barrier for readership
We agree here. Prices are high. This is a barrier to accessing the information.

While it would be nice to believe that all academic journals are set up for altruistic purposes, there is a hefty commercial aspect to them. If you look at Elsevier, according to this article, in 2010 they had revenues of 2bn pounds, and reported profits of 724m pounds.

I have some major concerns about open access publishing though. I don't think making a journal open access makes the commercial element of academic journals go away. In fact, I worry that it makes the problem worse.

First, open access usually means free to read, but the cost of publication is then turned back onto the authors. This can typically be anywhere from several hundred to a few thousand dollars in my field.

There is a barrier issue that comes up as a result of this. For larger, well-funded groups it means that (as discussed in that Atlantic article) grant money needs to be spent on publishing the results. That's less money available for the actual research. For smaller groups without much money it could push them out of the game altogether.

The second and even bigger issue is that when authors pay to have their work published, there is a financial incentive to accept every article submitted regardless of its scientific quality. This is why over the past decade or so there has been an explosion of predatory journals.

UsableThought
Ygggdrasil
Gold Member
Which leads to: why does readership need to have to pay in order to have the referee process? (I do not know if HEP reviewers are paid. In my area - generally no) To keep referee anonymity? If you publish in your 'very advanced domain' is it not often already obvious who is qualified to referee?
In contrast to fields like high energy physics, a lot of research in the biomedical sciences address topics that non-experts and people outside the research community (e.g. doctors, patients, biotech investors) have an interest in. For these types of studies, peer review plays an extremely important role as many of these non-experts are not able to evaluate the trustworthiness of the results as well as peer reviewers would.

I'm still somewhat surprised that crackpots (e.g. the anti-vaccine crowd) have not used pre-publication servers or some of the dubiously peer-reviewed "journals" to spread misinformation.

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jim mcnamara and Choppy
There is a barrier issue that comes up as a result of this. For larger, well-funded groups it means that (as discussed in that Atlantic article) grant money needs to be spent on publishing the results. That's less money available for the actual research. For smaller groups without much money it could push them out of the game altogether.

This is where the open access journals become a major problem for me personally. I am a retired academic, no longer involved with any university and thus not in a position to obtain grant funding. I am, however, still quite active and have published fairly frequently until recently. Now I am finding it difficult to locate suitable journals simply because I cannot pay the publication fees. This does not mean that my work is less valuable than previously, but simply that I no longer have the funding to get it published.

ZapperZ
Staff Emeritus
Question: How many major/prestigious physics publications are published by for-profit entities? Are Nature, Science, Physical Reviews, Journal of Physics, etc... published by for-profit entities? Look it up.

Secondly, have you looked into what goes on in publishing a high-quality journal, AND, maintaining that standard through many, MANY years? Do you think such an endeavor can be done with little to no money?

Thirdly, have you not noticed how many of these not-for-profit journals are making it easier for papers they published to be available to the public for free? This includes, as in the APS case, free access from many public libraries in the US, and also having authors pay to make their papers open-access. Also note that in many cases, simply using the public wifi connection at many universities (i.e. getting onto their domain) is sufficient to gain access to many journals if these universities have site-wide access.

One cannot build confidence, reputation, prestige, impact, and name-recognition overnight, or with money. Getting a physics paper in Nature, Science, PRL, etc. still DO mean a lot, simply because of the unusually high standards and requirement that these journals have set. No "open-access" publication has come anywhere close to these journals when measured using those metrics.

Zz.

Ygggdrasil
Gold Member

Not sure about Physics, but there are many for profit publishers of very prestigious biology journals (e.g. Cell, published by Elsevier).

Despite the narrow audience, scientific publishing is a remarkably big business. With total global revenues of more than £19bn, it weighs in somewhere between the recording and the film industries in size, but it is far more profitable. In 2010, Elsevier’s scientific publishing arm reported profits of £724m on just over £2bn in revenue. It was a 36% margin – higher than Apple, Google, or Amazon posted that year.

ZapperZ
Staff Emeritus
Not sure about Physics, but there are many for profit publishers of very prestigious biology journals (e.g. Cell, published by Elsevier).

I'm very familiar with publishing in physics, and not so much outside of it. However, I do know that if an author receive funding from the US National Institute of Health (NIH), then there is a stipulation that the work/publication MUST be made public. So either the author/s will have to make provision/extra fees with the journal that the publication be open access, or the authors given permission to upload the publication to an accessible format.

Thus, either Cell's policy has to allow for that, or the authors under the NIH stipulation will have to find other journals.

Zz.

Ygggdrasil
Gold Member
I'm very familiar with publishing in physics, and not so much outside of it. However, I do know that if an author receive funding from the US National Institute of Health (NIH), then there is a stipulation that the work/publication MUST be made public. So either the author/s will have to make provision/extra fees with the journal that the publication be open access, or the authors given permission to upload the publication to an accessible format.

Thus, either Cell's policy has to allow for that, or the authors under the NIH stipulation will have to find other journals.

Yes, both options are available when publishing in non-open access journals like Cell, Nature, or Science. Authors can pay the journals an extra fee to make their articles open access or authors can deposit their accepted manuscripts (before journal copy-editing) in the PubMed Central database.

Regarding the question of non-profit vs for-profit publishing, a 2013 study (published in the not-for-profit, open access journal PLoS ONE), for-profit publishing companies account for a large fraction of academic articles, which has been growing recently:
In [the natural and medical sciences], three publishers account for more than 47% of all papers in 2013: Reed-Elsevier (24.1%; 1.5 fold increase since 1990), Springer (11.9%; 2.9 fold increase), and Wiley-Blackwell (11.3%; 2.2 fold increase)
(all three are for profit publishing companies)

The article does note that physics is an outlier:
Physics, on the other hand, follows a different pattern: after increasing from 20% in 1973 to 35% in 2000, it has since then remained stable and is subsequently the discipline where the top five publishers account for the lowest proportion of papers published. This lower concentration of papers in big publishers’ journals is mainly due to the strength and size of physics’ scientific societies, whose journals publish an important proportion of scientific papers in the field (Fig 5). In 2013 for instance, journals of the American Physical Society (APS) and of the American Institute of Physics (AIP) each account for 15% of papers, while those of the Institute of Physics (IOP) represent 8% of papers.
As noted by ZapperZ, many of the most prestigious physics journals are published by not-for-profit entities (though one he listed, Nature is published by Springer Nature, a for-profit company).

I agree with the general point that journals do add value to the scientific literature. They play important roles in administering peer review, curating the literature, and there are certainly expenses involved in copy-editing and preparing manuscripts for print. For example, see this news article from Nature:
Data from the consulting firm Outsell in Burlingame, California, suggest that the science-publishing industry generated $9.4 billion in revenue in 2011 and published around 1.8 million English-language articles — an average revenue per article of roughly$5,000. Analysts estimate profit margins at 20–30% for the industry, so the average cost to the publisher of producing an article is likely to be around \$3,500–4,000.

ZapperZ
Staff Emeritus
This may not be directly related, but the late Henry Barschall published way back in 1988 on the cost of publishing and the corresponding impact for physics journals. It was a report that was vehemently opposed by many for-profit publishers, and Barshall was sued by Gordon and Breach for this report (even continuing after his death).

BTW, I'd like to see this same type of impact index being done to many of these "open access" journals.

Zz.

Disclaimer: I was a student of Barschall at UW-Madison and had always thought that he was one of the most brilliant physicist that I've ever met.

It seems to me that the only drawback of arXiv is the absence of peer-review and quality control that pay-wall journals arrange as mentioned above. However, this too can be fixed in an open-source manner if we do something stackoverflow-like for physics journals where all scientists would contribute to review and editing process. The questions is do we want it or rather have the journals deal with it?

blue_leaf77
Homework Helper
However, this too can be fixed in an open-source manner if we do something stackoverflow-like for physics journals where all scientists would contribute to review and editing process.
That doesn't sound like very effective in terms of publication time. Basically everyone has their own thought on what somebody else writes, in this case the submitted paper. If you let these indefinite number of scientists review a single paper, the authors will have to deal with a pile of comments and revision suggestions, some of which might be very likely to be too subjective. Moreover, one doesn't have control over who are actually reviewing the paper, not all of them are scientists qualified for the review in the respective field.
I would rather have the (open access) journal take care the reviewing process, should they implement it.

Ygggdrasil
Gold Member
It seems to me that the only drawback of arXiv is the absence of peer-review and quality control that pay-wall journals arrange as mentioned above. However, this too can be fixed in an open-source manner if we do something stackoverflow-like for physics journals where all scientists would contribute to review and editing process. The questions is do we want it or rather have the journals deal with it?
That doesn't sound like very effective in terms of publication time. Basically everyone has their own thought on what somebody else writes, in this case the submitted paper. If you let these indefinite number of scientists review a single paper, the authors will have to deal with a pile of comments and revision suggestions, some of which might be very likely to be too subjective. Moreover, one doesn't have control over who are actually reviewing the paper, not all of them are scientists qualified for the review in the respective field.
I would rather have the (open access) journal take care the reviewing process, should they implement it.

An intermediate solution has been proposed where journals recruit a large collection of reviewers and crowdsourced reviewing to them:
So, List (an editor for Synlett) and Höfler recruited 100 referees. For their trial, a forum-style commenting system was set up that allowed referees to comment anonymously on submitted papers but also on each other's comments as well. To provide a comparison, the papers that went through this process also went through the traditional peer review process. The authors and editors compared comments and (subjectively) evaluated the pros and cons. The 100-person crowd of researchers was deemed the more effective of the two.

The editors found that it took a bit more time to read and collate all the comments into a reviewers' report. But it was still faster, which the authors loved. Typically, it took the crowd just a few days to complete their review, which compares very nicely to the usual four to six weeks of the traditional route (I've had papers languish for six months in peer review). And, perhaps most important, the responses were more substantive and useful compared to the typical two-to-four-person review.
https://arstechnica.com/science/201...sourcing-peer-reviews-sees-excellent-results/

mfb
Thank you for the links, Ygggdrasil.

blue_leaf77, I totally agree that allowing everyone to review one paper would be a mess. But it needn't be done that way - you could make a restricted system where a user needs a certain 'rating' to be able to review. The rating can be based on the number of papers published in the field (which is how journals are picking the referees).

Then there could be a few moderators, who are people with very high 'rating' and in good position to monitor the process (inspired by stack overflow). As for there being to many suggestions to cope with - people ware likely to agree on the main issues with a given paper while the secondary ones are secondary.

ZapperZ
Staff Emeritus
Here's what I get from the Physical Review editors when they request me to referee a paper:

1. I get a clear guideline on not only the quality of the content, but also on the FORMAT and clarity of the content. In other words, a confusing paper, hard-to-read manuscript, even if it is reporting an important result, is a sufficient reason to not recommend for publication as-is.

2. I also get references that are relevant to the manuscript. In particular, I get references in which the content is similar to ones that have already been published. This is especially true if the authors have submitted similar content for publication in a conference proceeding.

I do not see an open-access journal, or what has been proposed here, providing such support. These things require time, effort, and thus, money to hire full-time editors to administer many of these things.

And people seem to have forgotten one very important issue here, and that is the QUANTITY of manuscripts that comes in. I suggest one takes some time to look at the number of papers being published each month in Phys Rev. B, for example. You will be highly surprised if you are not familiar with this one. Often times, the editors are the first line of people to evaluate the quality of the submission. If every single one of the submission goes to the referees, then each one of us will be inundated by manuscripts after manuscripts. And not only that, the "highly-rated" reviewers will continually be swamped by things to review.

I know that it is tempting to simply put it out there on how things can or should be done. But really, one needs to look at what is involved in producing a well-run, and more importantly, RESPECTED publication before trying to come up with an alternative. The Phys. Rev. has been in existence for more than 100 years! Surely they know quite a lot about scientific publication, and more importantly, they know quite a bit about the audience that they are serving.

Zz.

UsableThought
Dr. Courtney
Gold Member
2020 Award
I tend to forget about Sci-Hub in between discussions like this one when I find a link and try a few papers of interest. It seems to have a higher batting average for older papers than for 2017 material, so perhaps subscription journals will maintain the advantage for customers who want timely availability.

A few colleagues use Sci-Hub regularly. Even though they have institutional access to most journals, it is often easier to get stuff from Sci-Hub from home or when travelling rather than VPN or otherwise access their institutional portals.

While I do not think subscription journals are doomed and I appreciate what they do, I also appreciate the wild west feel fostered by arXiv, open-access, and various other 21st century distribution options.

Maybe these guys have a better idea?
http://www.sciencemag.org/news/2017...ly_2017-08-25&et_rid=281473709&et_cid=1511582

"Over the past 2 years, more than 150 German libraries, universities, and research institutes have formed a united front trying to force academic publishers into a new way of doing business. Instead of buying subscriptions to specific journals, consortium members want to pay publishers an annual lump sum that covers publication costs of all papers whose first authors are at German institutions. Those papers would be freely available around the world; meanwhile, German institutions would receive access to all the publishers' online content."