Demonstrations in Al Bayda for support of Trip...
Demonstrations in Al Bayda for support of Tripoli and Az Zawiyah. العربية: مظاهرات بمدينة البيضاء لدعم طرابلس والزاوية . Français : Démonstrations à El-Beïda pour le soutien de Tripoli et Az Zawiyah. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Recently, the term “academic spring” has appeared in relation to statements from the Wellcome Trust and the Elsevier boycott started by mathematician Timothy Gowers, mainly in coverage in the Guardian, which seems to have become a cheerleader in the open access (OA) movement.

The term “academic spring” was apparently introduced by a librarian named Barbara Fister. The term borrows from the Arab Spring, a set of uprisings that started in 2010 during which thousands if not millions rose up against tyrannical regimes, risking and sometimes losing their lives in an attempt to create more representative governments. Many regimes were overthrown. In some countries, new military regimes have taken temporary (we hope) control. In Egypt, protests are ongoing as the military hasn’t set a clear path toward elections. Libya is still in transition. Syria has been a bloodbath.

The “academic spring” as envisioned by coverage in the Guardian and in Fister’s blog post is altogether different from the Arab Spring and, I would argue, is a term inappropriately and cynically borrowed. How can you cheapen the striving of an entire culture for representative government by equating that with complaints about paywalls? But there is a deeper problem with equating a boycott of publishers or a call for open access with a revolution against great and domineering powers — that is, by targeting publishers, academics are targeting the wrong power-players in the academic marketplace.

It’s becoming increasingly clear that there is a more plausible candidate for the role of villain in this overcharged environment, a powerful group exploiting academics, taking taxpayer funded research for itself, and shifting risk from itself to those it ostensibly values. But it’s not publishers. It’s the universities themselves.

Yesterday, I published a review of “How Economics Shapes Science.” It becomes clear from this carefully written book that one of the main economic transformations in science careers is publication — academics publish in order to turn information that has no inherent economic value for them (it is non-rival and non-excludable) into things that are rival and excludable, and therefore have economic value (namely, priority and prestige). Academics accomplish this transformation through the act of citable publication. Journal publishers create and maintain the venues that establish and record priority and lend prestige, including the third-party validation, the underlying coordination of peer-review, the maintenance and integration of platforms, the dissemination and longevity of materials, and so forth. This is the case no matter the underlying business model of the publisher.

Or, as the Mythbusters recently said, “The difference between screwing around and science is writing it down.” This really is the essence of why publication matters so much.

The “academic spring” is meant to force publishers to stop erecting paywalls. As an alternative to readers paying, some funders and activists want journals to be funded largely by research dollars derived from the researchers’ own grants (and by extension, granting entities). These pre-paid articles are then freely available for anyone to read them.

This makes little rational sense given the economics of science, which may explain why the Gowers petition has only received 9,000 signatures (as compared with the 30,000+ the initial PLoS petition garnered years ago), and why a recent similar petition in the US failed to even gain 1,000 signatures (but don’t tell the Guardian that — it doesn’t fit with their narrative):

  1. Scientists sense there is little to be gained. Given the transformation accomplished by publishing (from economically valueless for the authors to economically valuable for the authors), the only economic value an author derives is from prestige and priority. (There is no economic value to scientists retaining copyright, either, kids.) Therefore, the best venue for publication (the best brand) and the first recorded finding are what the rational player in this market would seek. There is no clear reason to have unqualified readers who add nothing to either prestige or priority value. The citation advantage myth demonstrates this — OA publication adds to readers but not qualified readers, those who care about prestige and priority. Therefore, the value of OA is not increasing significantly, with stagnant prices demonstrating this.
  2. Funding overlaps are obvious and problematic. Gold OA article publication fees are typically paid out of research funds. When OA publication was less common, this aggregate amount may have been trivial. Now, it is deep into millions of dollars, if not into the hundreds of millions, money flowing directly from research grants and awards to OA publishers. Subscription dollars, on the other hand, flowed from other budgets — department overhead, library acquisitions, and personal. By insisting on a system of research-dollar funded OA, academics are depleting their available grant funding to pay publishers. This is not completely rational. Instead, it is a looming Tragedy of the Commons around research funding.
  3. The Pogo problem. Pogo’s most famous quote is, “We have met the enemy and he is us.” Scholarly publishers are often academic centers or societies themselves. Depleting funds from these publishers in order to accomplish a dubious outcome (more readers who matter at best peripherally to prestige and priority) turns out to create self-inflicted wounds. Publishing enterprises that subsidize societies have a harder time as competitive initiatives like PubMed Central and OA repositories take traffic away, driving down ad impressions and usage stats librarians use to value subscriptions, leading to decreased revenues from publications. As these subsidies diminish, membership fees increase, grants shrink, or other fees are created for each community. Or, the academic or society publisher embraces OA to compensate for lower subscription revenue prospects, and thereby moves us closer to the research funding Tragedy of the Commons.

Meanwhile, without any publisher’s hand in this, library budgets have been shrinking as a percentage of university revenues for decades, despite the fact that universities have been actively recruiting more and more scientists and researchers, benefiting mightily from their work, and over-producing PhDs. More and more academics are being forced to accept soft-money jobs and adjunct positions as universities pad their endowments and shield themselves from the risks of full-time faculty and dedicated research staffs. And the intellectual property of federally funded research has become the legal property of these same universities in the United States at least, many of which make millions of dollars exploiting it while some scientists hit it big.

And academics are protesting publishers?

Publishers — OA or subscription — are essentially partners with scientists and researchers, creating a clear, well-attenuated, and highly valuable route to transforming ideas into careers.

Of course, there are more journals, and many more important journals, than there were 30 years ago. But ask yourself these questions:

  • Who shrank the library budgets while simultaneously courting researchers and research dollars?
  • Who’s training too many PhDs for the economy to absorb, while generally (through commission or omission) misleading PhD candidates about how viable a PhD will be?
  • Who has moved away from tenure-track positions and intramural funding?
  • Who has become too reliant on blunt and unreliable metrics like impact factor and h-index to rank faculty?
  • Who holds the IP for federally funded research in the United States, and exploits that without returning it to the taxpayer?

Many of these university-driven practices make publication in journals all the more valuable — getting funding has become more tooth-and-nail at the researcher level, and a brutal h-index year can spell the end for some. This is why pay-for-publication has flourished recently. Competition for grants, status, priority, and prestige is all the fiercer because there’s such a reliance on soft money now. Instead of “publish or perish,” it’s “fund or fail.”

As it has done with the Monbiot rant and other open access retreads, the Guardian is giving full throat to these rhetorical bombshells. For some reason, the editors of this particular paper — which I otherwise admire — have lost their objectivity when it comes to topics like open access and the Gowers petition. That’s too bad, but perhaps they’ll come to their senses before too long.

For there to be a true “academic spring,” academics would need to demand that administrators return to spending the same percentage on library acquisitions they spent, well, let’s say 10 years ago; require they be paid to do research and not be forced to constantly scrounge for grants; hold universities accountable for telling students what their chances of good careers in the sciences actually are, rather than just padding their enrollment numbers; and so forth. Confronting administrators with ideas like these would take real courage, not the empty courage of hitting the kid closest to your out of frustration while the big kid walks away with your lunch money.

Complaining about a partner that helps academics accurately and reliably transform economically non-viable information into highly valuable academic credit? That seems like academic silly season, not academic spring.

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Kent Anderson

Kent Anderson

Kent Anderson is the CEO of RedLink and RedLink Network, a past-President of SSP, and the founder of the Scholarly Kitchen. He has worked as Publisher at AAAS/Science, CEO/Publisher of JBJS, Inc., a publishing executive at the Massachusetts Medical Society, Publishing Director of the New England Journal of Medicine, and Director of Medical Journals at the American Academy of Pediatrics. Opinions on social media or blogs are his own.


75 Thoughts on "The "Academic Spring" — Shallow Rhetoric Aimed at the Wrong Target"

*grabs popcorn*

I’m not sure I’d blame universities for everything – the soft funding situation is a deeper problem to do with the way research money is allocated from research councils. The only way to get more research done is to bring in more in the form of short-term research funding. But that’s a different problem.

Incidentally, I’m amused by the Grauniad putting such weight on the Wellcome’s decision to join the “academic spring” by announcing that they will, errm, enforce their own rules.

Many academics act in self-interested ways. Some of these are direct and transparent, including the search for prestige and promotion through publication and the private exploitation of publicly-funded IP. Some of these are indirect and less visible, such as the slow erosion of library budgets and the incremental growth in graduate student numbers. Kent’s blog contributes neatly to the proper scrutiny of our own practices as an academic community.

He also scores a nice hit on the self-inflating headlines about an ‘academic spring’. Of course, journalistic hyperbole is a very easy target. So is academic hyperbole – in spite of our supposed belief in reason and evidence, many of us seem quite comfortable using words like ‘brutal’, ‘bombshell’, or ‘tooth-and-nail’ just to dismiss a stance or practice that we personally dislike. See above for a few examples.

Yet I can see no link between Kent’s core argument and the case for the boycott.
His critique might lead us to conclude that some of the boycotters are hypocrites, to a greater or lesser extent. It doesn’t justify the existing model of scholarly publishing. Nor does it address the public good argument for open access publishing, which seems to me a rather honourable one, which resembles the case once put for the now-derided tradition of extra-mural adult education. I think the open access movement has provided a hook for a very neat demolition of academic complacency, but the case for open access remains.

The case for open access has reflexively damaging elements for researchers. I would bet that if given the choice between A) $100 million more per year (a rough estimate of what PLoS, BMC, and other OA publishers are pulling in) devoted to research rather than OA fees, and B) access to thousands of arcane scientific articles, the public might choose the former. Scientific incentives have nothing to do with providing free information to the public — scientists gain no value from this (no increase in prestige or priority).

In the meantime, scientists are being produced at too high a rate, underpaid relative to other professions that are luring the best and brightest away with better pay and more certain careers, and universities are exploiting public IP without protest (actually, in the US, as a matter of law).

Ignoring these trends and being distracted by OA arguments isn’t hypocrisy. I’d call it crazy.

I was actually going to reply that Mr. Andersson actually (for the first time in my reading) got something right: the universities indeed brought this onto themselves. Which is precisely why I argue that the best fix to the problem is to ditch commercial publishers completely and leav the 4b annually in their profits at the universities. However, bringing up the peanuts that all OA publishers combined make in revenue (100m is just a little over what Elsevier alone makes in *profit* every month!) must be the most disingenious, intentionally misleading demaguogery I’ve yet to read on these ‘pages’.

Elsevier makes money from advertising, library licenses, and personal subscriptions, not research funds. OA publishers are diverting $100M (and growing) in research funds. The scale is not what’s important, it’s the source.

Nice to see you Bjorn. You haven’t lost your charm.

Library licenses are likely the largest fraction of the above-mentioned income streams, they are paid by institutions, and the more an institute spends on such subscriptions, the less it can spend on equipment, infrastructure, start-up packages for new faculty, internal grants to support research, etc etc. Claiming that fees paid to commercial publishers are somehow disconnected from research funds is not accurate, to say the least.

This brings up some interesting questions, with contradictory answers being offered. Let’s say we move to an all author-pays journal landscape. Given how stretched research funding is now, we can probably assume that there won’t be some sudden influx of new funds to pay these charges. So we’re going to need to move money from somewhere else. Where is that somewhere else?

Kent is suggesting the funds will come out of the researcher’s own budget. Institutions have fought tooth and nail for their overhead cut from grants. It’s hard to see them giving up a large portion of their operating capital without a fight. If the funds needed to pay author charges come directly out of a researcher’s funds for doing experiments, that means fewer labs funded doing fewer experiments and times get even tighter.

Others here have argued that there will simply be a shifting of the portion of overhead in any grant that normally goes to a library’s serials purchasing budget. This raises a lot of questions:

First, it’s going to be difficult to figure out what this amount should be. Each institution allocates funds in a different manner. How will funders decide what amount comes out of overhead and what goes toward author fees? Do the rich labs just get richer as they’re the only ones who can afford to publish? Or do we punish the labs that do receive funding in this manner by strictly limiting the number of papers they can publish, and taking their hard-earned funds away and giving them to less fortunate/productive labs?

Furthermore, many departments that bring in lots of grants are supporting the journal purchases for those with less funding. Biomedical Engineering grants may be buying a lot of History journals. What happens to that History department if the budget for their publications is taken out of the general fund and instead put in the hands of individual laboratories? Are we essentially doing away with all areas of study that aren’t funded like the sciences?

Any business that sees a drop in revenue often passes this along to its employees or customers. Would this shift mean an increase in tuition, and a decrease in services and facilities for researchers? Given the proclivity for institutions to make researchers pay their own way via “soft money”, won’t many be tempted to make the researchers cover the shortfall in some way?

And of course, if you’re taking away a major part of the library’s budget, can an institution continue to afford to have a library?

The funding situation is not quite as cut and dry as many would suggest, and like most suggestions in this debate, would lead to some unintended consequences.

What percentage of journals published by commercial houses are owned by and/or provide funding for research institutions and research societies?

I read some Guardian readers’ letters today (online) in response to their article about this. They were predictable in the sense that none of them is arguing any of the points made in this post. But one in particular, from Prof Gordon McVie, shows the kind of disinformation about journals that is being published unchecked. He writes: “The Wellcome Trust can take another lead, namely remove impact factor as one of the major determinants of screening grant applications. This “factor” is a clever device invented by the expensive journals to reward articles in their journals, to reinforce their importance to scientists who require grant funding for a living.” Irrespective of one’s views about impact factors, it was not journals who invented them! (reference:

A very good point. In fact, journals published a lot of the findings that validated the impact factor, but did not invent it, or directly benefit from the huge business it became (now part of Thomson Reuters). It’s interesting to contemplate the complaint that “journals exploit academics.” In fact, the opposite seems more apt.

Or even in Nature’s case (a journal with a very high IF), publishing many, many editorials and contributed articles over the years pointing out flaws in and misues of it.

all the while playing the IF game to the fullest in every way that counts, Maxine.

There’s this strange idea that publishers are deeply in love with the Impact Factor, that it’s something we invented and implemented and something we are invested in keeping in place. I don’t really know of any publisher (Thomson-Reuters aside) with any great love for this metric. We use it (and some exploit it) solely because academia values it so highly. Dump the Impact Factor, find something better and publisher will happily say goodbye to it and follow academia’s lead.

“There is no economic value to scientists retaining copyright, either, kids.” Kids? Gee Dad, tell how things really are. And what if the researchers were able to retain copyright and charge $35 a pop for copies? No economic value?

“OA publication adds to readers but not qualified readers, those who care about prestige and priority” I can swear I didn’t turn the other cheek, but boy it sure is sore. Do you treat all your customers that way? (Let me answer that for you – yes, you do). I work for a small corporation that cannot afford journal subscriptions, so OA is a lifesaver. (My blog has a very popular page with links to OA articles in polymer science, so that others can take advantage of what I’ve learned.) Furthermore, as an non-publisher researcher, I add far more to the system than I get out, since I am reviewing dozens of articles a year, but have no need for anyone to review mine. Qualified? Entirely.

“Subscription dollars, on the other hand, flowed from other budgets — department overhead, library acquisitions, and personal.” At least there were no disparaging remarks here to my persona, And those budgets exist entirely of non-research grant money? Do you seriously expect anyone familiar with academia to believe this, when 50% of a university grant can be applied to overhead? Oh I see, those budgets all comes from tuition. Except how much of that tuition is paid by grants and student loans? Face it, you guys are heavily reliant on government funding, but don’t call it as such since it “laundered” by intermediaries.

I written you in the past with my thoughts about publishers and how OA is not the panacea many think it to be, but with columns like this, you make it really difficult to keep supporting your efforts.

To copyright: Do you really think scientists make more or contribute more by retaining copyright and charging $$ for their works? The economic argument is that transforming findings into papers is far more realistic. So, you think scientists enforcing their own copyrights (which to be meaningful requires registration in multiple territories, constant monitoring for infringement, pursuit of infringers, permissioning, etc.) is the better path? Or do scientists free themselves from this burden AND gain all the economic value of a paper (prestige and priority) via publication? Publishers provide a service to authors by managing their copyrights and the integrity of the scientific record. Grow up, kid.

To OA publication and your company, Aspen Research: Your company lists its core capability as “provid[ing] many companies the financial and planning flexibility to enable them to reach their objectives profitably.” Doesn’t sound like a charity to me. Yet you want non-profit publishers to open their archives to you so your for-profit firm can make more profits? OA isn’t a lifesaver for you — it let you pad your bottom line at the expense of others. This has been a common suspicion about OA’s undesired outcomes, and other studies have shown corporate support for and use of OA publication is problematic. As for you personally reviewing articles, that’s great. I do it, too. It’s part of the culture, and for leaders in any field, part of paying back the system while also keeping on the forefront of research. It’s non-monetary but very valuable to what we all believe in — the progress of science.

To my treatment of customers: I treat my customers very well.

To overhead and government funding: There is no doubt publishers benefit from the government funding of research, academic institutions, and the like. But we’re secondary in every case. The point of this post was to point to where government funding is flowing, taxpayer research is being held, and academic institutions are pushing PhDs while being unaccountable to their outcomes, cutting library budgets while touting themselves as devoted to scientific information, etc. There’s a core problem here, and publishers aren’t part of it. The % of grants devoted to overhead only underscores the over-reliance of soft money.

OA as a policy issue is problematic for many of the reasons I’ve outlined. If OA publishers were forced to compete purely on financial terms, without the thumbs of grant-making and government agencies like the NIH on the scale, that would be better. I think authors might prefer to be published in journals that don’t charge them.

“…you want non-profit publishers to open their archives to you so your for-profit firm can make more profits? This has been a common suspicion about OA’s undesired outcomes, and other studies have shown corporate support for and use of OA publication is problematic.” Undesirable outcomes? Are you seriously suggesting that we should keep research articles behind paywalls in order to prevent businesses from deriving new information services? Who is served by that? I can only think of one answer: publishers who by monopolizing the literature can corner the market for such services themselves. But doesn’t the rest of the world have a strong interest in that being a more competitive market?

You’re making a common mistake. Each article about a scientific finding is non-rival. It has no real counterpart, and articles don’t compete. They can’t. An article from last month’s journal about crystalline structure isn’t a substitute for an article from this month’s journal on crystalline integrity. Because a publisher charges for access to that article, and that article has no rival, that is NOT a monopoly. If the author owned the article, it would still be non-rival. He or she would not have a monopoly. It’s the nature of the information that makes it unique. The point of this post is that without publication in an ecosystem of differentiated publications, scientists can’t transform economically non-viable information into what is valuable to them — priority and prestige.

Now, for a company that publishes to expect a company that wants to use its publications to make more money for itself to pay for access to the information it finds valuable is just business. Really, you have to be kidding that you think there’s some obligation for publishers to feed for-profit companies with free information.

Why are the profits and the information services from company X more important for society than the profts and information services from a publisher? Are you seriously suggesting we randomly prevent profit from one type of company in order to drive profits from another type of company (whose end products will be behind a paywall as well)?

Because the scarcity created by Toll-Access publishers is artificial. That is also why it is economically illiterate to pretend that the profits that Toll-Access publishers make while incurring monopoly damages to society are equivalent to profits of companies that don’t harm society with artificial monopolies.

You need to re-read this post and the review of Paula Stephan’s book. The concepts of scarcity and abundance don’t apply to scholarly communication in the way they do in other media. Publication is how non-rival and non-excludable information is transformed into rival and excludable prestige and priority. It’s a very different market dynamic and not prone to breaking down just because there are more information outlets. And it is this way because it promotes scientific communication.

There is no monopoly. There are big companies who compete hard for good publications, there are dozens of mid-sized publishers, and hundreds of smaller publishers. That is not a monopolized market.

Wait, what? You’re claiming that the pharmaceutical and technology companies that make use of the scientific literature aren’t going to patent their resulting products and drugs? Aren’t those “artificial monopolies”?

Do you really think that the many startup companies looking to create new information services are just planning to give them away and make all of their technologies and algorithms public domain? I may indeed be “economically illiterate”, but even I’m not that naive.

What is the difference between these different types of profit, all protected by copyright and/or patents? Why is one set good for society but the other set bad? Are you just prejudiced against publishers?

If we prevent people from profiting at any stage in the process, then doesn’t that remove all incentive to improve things? Shouldn’t we offer rewards for making things work better or is stagnation preferable?


It is a sensible question. The answer is that it is worth ending the Toll-Access monopolies because there is a surplus for society. Even though pharmaceutical companies can capture some of the benefit from more efficient publishing, they cannot capture all of the benefits.

Regarding that society should provide incentive, then “maybe, sometimes”. Providing too much incentive for something (eg. over-long copyrights) is just like paying too much in any other situation. While it may make sense to attach a “per-unit-replication incentive” (eg. Toll-Access) to situations where “unit-replication” is the problem, it makes much less sense when other costs dominate.

@ Kent

You seem to mistake the academic credit-taking for, well, real economics of society – which is relevant for funders and other society-stakeholder deciding how to fund dissemination of science. Also the academic credit-taking is independent of publishing model.

Anders, you seem to mistake economics for financing. Economics is about interactions and incentives, not just money. You talk only of funders and funding.

I agree (and stated) that academic credit-taking is independent of publishing model. But it is not independent of publishing. Your statement of yours only underscores that you are mistaking economics with financing. It doesn’t matter how a journal is funded, but it has to be funded. One of my points is that taking money from money earmarked for research funding is probably a bad idea long-term, and even now is siphoning off millions. So while the underlying journal financing model doesn’t matter to the economics of journals, priority, and prestige, it does matter to the financing of science.

If I follow your logic correctly, then profit should only be allowed when an activity requires “unit-replication”? I’m not sure that isn’t already the case for journals in many ways, but your world would seem to rule out incentives for any service profession. A doctor doesn’t have to replicate units, nor does a lawyer or a mechanic. It seems a very grey world as well, with no incentives available for writers, filmmakers or artists. And all the “businesses deriving new information services” the original poster referred to would be banned from profiting in your system as well, which I suppose solves the problem.

David, you ask “Shouldn’t we offer rewards …” and I answer that subsidies (or incentives or “rewards” or however you want to euphemize) don’t always make sense. In particular, subsidies can be mis-aligned with the broader goals of society. A subsidy like handing over copyright of scientific papers to Toll-Access publishers for example, works against goals like maximum distribution and access to scientific results. And when original goal of the subsidy was to overcome the problem of ensuring that someone would do unit-replication and this is no longer a problem, then that subsidy should surely be reconsidered.

Kent, I can see that you are confused as to economics and financing. Both are interesting, and I’ll happily tell you why funders are so interesting.

Funders are interesting because to funders of science, publishers have a mere sub-supplier role. And funders can change science publishing for the better by simply demanding better products. Funders can ask scientist to only accept funds on the condition that the scientists secure full access to the results of their research. In this case Toll-Access publisher clearly offer an inferior product to Open Access publishers and market mechanisms take care of the changes.

Anders, I think we’re mixing up a lot of different ideas and arguments here. Going back up the thread, the original commenter wanted free access to the products of not-for-profit publishers so his for-profit company could use them to make money. Kent suggested that this was an absurd demand, the idea that the publisher (many of both bring in funds that directly support research and the academic community) should sacrifice profits so some other company could profit instead.

I furthered this notion, wondering why the next commenter felt that for-profit “information services” derived from scholarly publishing were somehow more valuable than the scholarly publishing itself, and that one product deserves a chance to make money while the other should not.

Your response then came in stating that one is better than the other because the publishers’ profits are based on creating an artificial scarcity. I still don’t understand this distinction, why one business model is allowed to profit but not another, particularly considering that the “information services” created will also employ a similar “artificial scarcity” strategy.

You further clarified that only those who have unit replication costs should be allowed profit, which seems a bit odd as it rules out any money made by anyone providing services or creating content.

Then for some reason you turn to the question of assigning copyright to a publisher. I work for a publisher that does not require authors to sign over copyright, yet we also sell access to our journals via subscription. The two concepts are not incompatible.

And I maintain that we need to provide incentives for people to develop better services and means of communicating research results. With no incentives, the smart people move on to another field that is more rewarding and the field stagnates. If one such group creates a product and someone else wants to re-use that same product to profit for themselves, I see no reason why they shouldn’t be required to pay for the raw materials they are using for their own business purposes.

Given the low usage rates (without PPV) for the average paper, and the miniscule revenue PPV brings in for most fields, the time costs of fulfilling orders and customer service, not to mention actual costs of maintaining an ecommerce solution for selling access would far outweigh any financial benefits an author could reap from selling access to their own paper. And isn’t that kind of the exact opposite of what this movement is trying to achieve?

That said, as someone who helped create and then run a journal that pays authors a royalty based on usage of their articles (, I’m surprised we haven’t seen more experimentation in this area.


Nice comments, something to think about. I was unaware of your journal, and like you, now wonder why more experimentation has been done.

Something else to think about – I wondering about comparisons with music. When a garage band is first starting, they are desperate for anyone to listen to them, so they perform for free and give their music away. Once things start to click, then they start to think about money and starting selling CD’s and charging admission. And if you hit the big time, then your music is pirated and you make money by selling out arenas.

Similarly, young researchers are desperate for anyone to read (and cite) their work, so they would be content with giving it away. When they get established, then they could consider charging for copies of their papers. And if they win the Nobel prize, their papers would be pirated but they could charge admission to their talks (Ever tried to squeeze into the room where a Nobel Laureate is about to talk? They could charge admission and still have a packed room.)

My man-servent Winfred informs me that you are looking for a military dictatorship to take over scholarly publishing. As a former artillery major in the Great War, and a captain of industry, I am eminently qualified for this role. These tweedy editors, abacus toting scientists, and cappuccino swilling publishers have clearly earned a comeuppance. A few lashes with the cane, as my dear friends in the Singaporean regime like to point out, and they’ll fall in line like school children waiting to clock out of work at one of my textile mills. Give me a battalion of calvary, a pack a dobermans, an artillery regimen, and a fleet of dirigibles and I’ll have this ungrateful riffraff toeing the line in no time. — Sincerely, M. Tiberius Clarke.

People have been using the term “academic spring” online from time to time since February (for example, the Economist used it as early as February 4). I avoid using it, since I don’t want to cause controversy by seeming to suggest that Elsevier’s behavior is actually tantamount to tyranny and oppression, but there’s one sense in which it’s a very good analogy indeed. Both cases began with many people having strong opinions in private, but only limited public discussion or coordination. Suddenly, a dramatic event pushed everyone to reveal their views, and people were elated to discover that the desire for change was far more widespread than they had imagined. That’s exactly how I feel regarding the boycott. Boycotting Elsevier might once have been viewed as a fringe idea, quixotic at best, but it has now suddenly been revealed as mainstream and acceptable. Not everyone agrees with it, of course, but many well-known and respected researchers do, to a far greater extent than anybody could have guessed six months ago.

There are a lot of forces at work here: boycotters do not necessarily endorse the Wellcome Trust’s vision of how publication should work (in particular, replacing paywalls with publication charges is not in any sense one of the boycott’s goals), and the Guardian is not a reliable source for academic analysis. But I’m happy to see publicity, even if I don’t fully agree with it, and I’m convinced we’re moving towards a better, more reasonable publishing system.

I would like to agree with your hope that these discussions represent progress, but as long as dialog remains so ill-informed and polarized, we’re only going to perpetuate the battle lines that were drawn a decade ago. Much of what the Guardian is publishing is recycled hash. It’s taking us back, not forward.

Henry, if the boycott has become “mainstream and acceptable” and garnered more researchers than “anybody could have guessed six months ago”, then why is support at such a low level compared to similar earlier efforts? If anything, this boycott seems less mainstream and less supported than other boycotts.

I spent about a week recently asking life science and medical researchers what they thought about the boycott and of the dozen or so I spoke to, zero had actually heard of the boycott (though all were aware, at least peripherally of the RWA).

I would suggest that the funding climate has changed so drastically over the last decade that participation in activities like this has wained because researcher have little time to worry about these sorts of issues. Paying your employees’ salaries, feeding your family, keeping the lights on all take precedent over worrying about the profit margin of a publishing company.

I suspect this differs between fields. I agree that support seems to be at a relatively low level in biology and medicine, but in mathematics it is just the opposite: few mathematicians had ever heard of the previous boycotts, but many are aware of this one. And Elsevier seems to be taking this boycott seriously in a way I don’t think any publisher has before. Partly that’s because it targets a particular company, and partly because it’s attaining critical mass in some fields (rather than being diffusely spread out over many). Ultimately, the goal of the boycott is to lead to change, not just to sign up as many people as possible, so I’m not so concerned about whether the total is 10,000 or 30,000 as long as it gets results. After all, mathematics is a tiny fraction of the size of biology and medicine, so getting nearly 2,000 mathematicians to sign up means more (in terms of widespread acceptance within the field) than 20,000 life scientists. Of course, the downside of this is that mathematics is not as large or well-funded as some other fields, so the business impact on publishers is less than the symbolic impact.

I think there are also huge differences in the way information is spread these days (the internet and social media) and in the pace of the 24 hour news cycle (more space to fill, hence more coverage for fringe issues). Both of those have contributed to this boycott getting perhaps more notice than previous attempts despite lesser overall participation.

Small correction – actually, I was riffing off the conclusion of an article in The Economist (Feb 4, 2012) when I used that phrase, “academic spring.” I am not sure if it was used there first, but that was where I first encountered it.

I agree with the overall theme of this post that we haven’t looked closely enough at the role of universities in perpetuating irrationality and dysfunctionality in the system of scholarly communication. My own favorite example is the revised dissertation, which is still crucial as a first book for gaining tenure but which many academic libraries no longer purchase because they subscribe to ProQuest’s dissertation database and which editors at university presses avoid because they know sales will be lower than for other books. Each actor in this game is acting rationally in his own self-interest, but the overall effect is a systemic dysfunctionality.

I would qualify the comment about the lack of value of copyright to an author, however, to this extent. People who advocate OA often do so only for journal articles, not books, on the assumption that books can bring direct financial rewards to authors whereas articles do not since royalties are not paid to authors of journal articles. But this overlooks the reality that at least some authors of articles have profited handsomely from reprints of their articles in anthologies, into the thousands of dollars. Of course, all authors potentially benefit from “prestige and priority” in publishing articles, while only a relative handful ever directly benefit financially.

I think a lot of the problems here is that the OA movement has been co-opted by a wide range of agendas. If access to the literature is indeed a problem, than author-pays OA is indeed a potential solution, as are the suggestions you’ve made in this post like better funding for libraries.

But OA is now being declared to be a panacea, a magical cure that will fix everything that’s difficult in academia and scholarly publishing. Issues almost always mentioned include:

Publisher Profit: OA offers no cure here, as OA seems to be highly profitable, hence the huge number of PLoS ONE clones recently launched, and the regular stream of revenue brought in by existing journals. Does anyone think that big commercial publishers will fail to turn author-pays to their financial advantage?

Wresting control back from commercial companies: again, OA isn’t an answer here as many, if not most OA journals are owned or at least published by commercial publishers. Very few scientists seem to know who owns what and have failed to realize that even Elsevier publishes many community-owned journals.

Impact Factor reliance: this has absolutely nothing to do with OA, yet seems to keep getting lumped in. Find a better metric, or even a different metric, get it used in academia and publishers will follow.

Taxpayer rights and intellectual property: OA doesn’t automatically mean the same thing as public domain ownership, nor does it address the real issue of the actual IP created by the research rather than just being able to see a written report on it.

Academic vs Professional editors: again, wholly irrelevant to the question of access.

There are reasons that OA makes sense, but they are so often buried beneath a sea of emotionally charged rhetoric and irrelevant side issues. There are pragmatic, real-world solutions to all of these questions, but most of them have very little to do with access gates on the literature. But I suppose that doesn’t make as compelling a newspaper story as the fight of the scientific David against the corporate Goliath.

I didn’t think I’d be saying this, but thank you, David, for the most reasonable thing on this page 🙂

Access is very, very important, and has quite a lot to do with economics, but is not directly tied to many of the PLoS-esque innovations that have come to be synonymous with OA. I gather that the Guardian is not being very helpful in disambiguating here, which doesn’t necessarily surprise me, though I’m not familiar with the precise argument that they put forth.

I am deeply uncomfortable with Elsevier’s profit margins, and as other comments have already noted, comparing them to those of PLoS and others at this stage is rather disingenuous. However, I am also deeply uncomfortable with loads of other profit margins, and this helps me to keep in mind the fact that it is not easy to fight self-interest. As Kent suggests, universities are by no means exempt from blame here (although cf. self-interest, it is worth keeping in mind that doctoral students contribute a fair bit more money to the bottom life than do libraries), nor is the money earned by PLoS infinitely nobler than that earned by Elsevier (though it stands to reason that the vast majority of us seem to feel quite a bit better about it).

I do wish that this blog didn’t so often see the need to act as the loyal opposition to those who care about the sorts of publishing innovations that have been demonstrated by PLoS. There are loads of flawed economic arguments and misunderstood actors in the system, but I believe that there is a time and a place for rhetoric when we need change on an ideological level, and that time might as well be now.

“The term ‘academic spring’ […] borrows from the Arab Spring”.

Really? Don’t both just refer to ‘spring’, the season in which green shoots, budding plants, nesting birds, etc. give a sense of hope, future, lengthening days and altogether more pleasant weather? Or is Kent Anderson so far removed from nature as to not realise that ‘spring’ is a season?

Certainly his view that the term ‘spring’ has been “inappropriately and cynically borrowed” seems far-fetched. Especially since he apparently thinks that this inappropriateness and cynicism is rectified by academics demanding “that administrators return to spending the same percentage on library acquisitions they spent, well, let’s say 10 years ago”; requiring that “they be paid to do research and not be forced to constantly scrounge for grants”; and holding “universities accountable for telling students what their chances of good careers in the sciences actually are, rather than just padding their enrollment numbers”; and so forth.

At a talk about Middle East politics I attended yesterday, an expert said that the Arabs chose Spring because East Europeans had risen up, in Poland and elsewhere, during that season and they were inspired by their example. But the expert also went on to say that the differences were more important than the similarities and that the term Arab Spring is more misleading than helpful.

A couple of remarks about what you write. When I wrote the post that triggered the boycott, I explicitly said that I thought that the problems with over-expensive journals were a symptom of our own structures of evaluation. So when you say that the publishers are the wrong target, you disagree with us less than you think. I would love to see a radical overhaul to the whole way that we evaluate each other, but I don’t see any easy way to achieve that. Meanwhile, the boycott has achieved one of its main aims, which is to get people (or at least mathematicians) talking about possible alternatives to the current publishing model. I hope, and have some reason to believe, that that discussion will bear fruit reasonably soon. Where we will end up is not clear.

Like you and Henry Cohn, I am uneasy with the term “academic spring”, partly for the reasons you give, and partly because it is too general: even if the entire publication system were changed into something obviously much better, that would still be a change to only a part of the way academia works.

Complaining about a partner that helps academics accurately and reliably transform economically non-viable information into highly valuable academic credit? That seems like academic silly season, not academic spring.

The flaw in your logic there is that we are not complaining about the transformation itself. We are complaining that it is costing far more than it needs to. It is neither academic silly season nor academic spring. It’s simple academic pragmatism.

Then be pragmatic like LMS, which started its own lower-priced journals. But then, they also went to bundled pricing with discounts, and the journals are still quite expensive. But at least they’re cheaper than they were, at least at full price. They might now be what they were priced at in Elsevier bundles.

Your protest seems less potent and less actionable than one 10 years ago, which had 3x the signatories and led to the establishment of PLoS. At least PLoS did something, even if it’s led to a mega-journal solution that is probably going to be more profitable on a percentage basis than Elsevier this year.

What was the point of your protest again?

Your protest seems less potent and less actionable than one 10 years ago, which had 3x the signatories and led to the establishment of PLoS. At least PLoS did something,

I think this implied criticism is premature. If the mathematical community hasn’t done anything by, say, next October, then I’ll accept its validity.

There is a case for saying that the current protest is more potent now, because the internet has developed a lot in the last ten years. The protest ten years ago may have led to PLoS but its effect on mathematics was zero.

As for your final question, I don’t see the need to repeat what has been written in numerous places already. I suggest looking at this recent article.

Nothing has shifted us from article-based, prestige-based, priority-based publication. Costs have increased across the board.

Mathematics is one field. Generalizing across many disciplines is treacherous. There is a forced naivete to all of this that I find troubling.

I recently came across one math journal that was offered as a paragon of efficiency. Turns out they had lost their non-profit status because they’d failed to fill out the paperwork for three consecutive years, can’t keep their web site current, etc. It takes more than the Internet to run a journal.

I don’t know offhand of any mathematicians who have tried to dictate how other fields should publish. I’m more concerned with the opposite: people holding out biology or medicine as the model for all other fields. (It’s no surprise that most of the OA debate centers on these fields, since they are the largest and best-funded fields, but I often run into people who are confident that all other fields work the same, or at least should.) Ultimately, publication practices shouldn’t, and won’t, end up agreeing across academia.

I certainly agree that there’s much more to running a journal than just putting papers on a web site. Regarding the math journal that lost its non-profit status, I take it you mean the Journal of Machine Learning Research? (I’d classify it as more of a CS journal, but the line with mathematics is kind of blurry, and it’s the only such journal I can think of.) I’m really not a fan of this approach of relying heavily on volunteers and eliminating all copy-editing and typesetting assistance, and I do not think it is the right way forward, but there are a number of cases in which it has worked reasonably well.

I don’t see how the comparison to the previous protest is relevant. It’s not a competition to see who can hold the biggest protest. Rather, each protest should be judged based on its results. PLoS means little to me, since I’ve never seen them publish a paper that matters to me professionally, although it’s a very big deal for those it’s aimed at. By contrast, the Elsevier boycott has already had some results (lower list prices, free access to back issues). It’s far from enough – Elsevier is of course trying to make the least changes they can – but I’m confident it will not end here. If the Elsevier boycott leads to positive change, then the important question is whether the improvements were worth it, not whether anyone else has ever accomplished more.

I’ve only just seen this – apologies for a late reply when the debate has clearly moved on. Of course I agree with the main point of Kent’s argument – be pragmatic like the LMS and support the journals that have moved!

However, the first time Kent said our LMS journals were expensive, I let it lie but this time I need to correct the assertion. First, I may not equate our new Journal of Topology with Elsevier’s Topology because of legal advice; the only thing they have in common is the Editorial Board. However, I can say the price of our journal was far lower at the time of the Editorial Board move and it has stayed low. Elsevier’s Topology closed this year having published almost nothing for sometime but it still had an annual subscription fee. For the other journal, Compositio Mathematica, we dropped the price by a third when it moved from Kluwer to us – made no difference to library sales. There’s a more detailed article coming out in the AMS Notices in June about the story of both journals.

Meantime, we have open access options and a six month reverse moving wall on our core journals, and we are currently investigating new open access models. We are not doing this because we think OA is in the interests of mathematics or the many unfunded mathematicians, but because we will be forced to go along with whatever government mandates are imposed and we are simply not powerful enough to sway the debate that mathematics is different.

Thanks for adding this to the discussion. I’d be interested to know if anyone on the Editorial Boards knew what the actual selling price of the journals with Elsevier and Kluwer were. Because of heavy discounting within bundled sales (50% in some cases), list price and sales price are often quite different.

It’s interesting to note that you say a price cut made no difference to library sales. This probably means a price cut wasn’t necessary, since it didn’t increase the number of sales. From a purely business standpoint, you probably have left money on the table.

Your point about how OA is being imposed is important. Many people don’t believe it solves anything or is necessary, but some key funders who are using OA to complete their goal of getting their information out everywhere are changing publishing. The tail is wagging the dog.

I think you have to use the list price as the base line because the actual price varies so much from one library to another, depending on the individual deal cut with the Publisher and the size of the library’s historic holdings. For the Compositio move, we left a lot of money on the table so that libraries would benefit directly from the move. (We learnt that nobody thanks you for doing this.)

It never pays to analyse the metaphorical content of newspaper headlines in too much detail but Henry Cohn is correct to point out that there is some merit in the analogy since the Elsevier boycott has served as a wake-up call for many in the scientific community.

There are some interesting point heres — there are good questions to be asked of academics about how much they connive at the flaws of the present system for the sake of their own interests. We’re all human and all, to a greater or lesser extent, a bit selfish. Some more than others.

But there’s a bit of cherry-picking going on too and some mis-understanding of funding arrangements, at least with reference to how they operate in the UK (I realise the focus here has been mostly in the US).

“Meanwhile, without any publisher’s hand in this, library budgets have been shrinking as a percentage of university revenues for decades…” True, but in the UK this is down to shrinking public funding, not the acts of academics (many of whom are, alas, ignorant of how much their libraries spend on subscriptions, though they are not helped in this by confidentiality clauses placed on subscription deals by publishers like Elsevier). This statement also overlooks the higher-than-inflation prices hikes that have been applied in recent years and the handsome profits that are to be made. If we are looking for a more cost-effective system of academic publishing, these considerations need to be taken into account. One potential advantage of OA is that the full costs become transparent. This should make for a more efficient market.

As for the claim that OA charges subtracting from funds available for research, this doesn’t stand up in the UK since funds for publishing costs and funds for subscription are largely paid out of the public purse (for university-based researchers). It’s just that they come out of different pots at the moment. It’s difficult to calculate the overall change in costs from a larger-scale shift to OA (analysis commissioned by Wellcome suggests OA could be slightly cheaper per paper), but in the UK the funds are available. It seems reasonable in any case to include publication as a legitimate cost of research.

The further claim that “OA publication adds to readers but not qualified readers” is also incorrect in my view. Many university-based academics — even sometimes in well-funded institutions — have limited access to journal subscriptions and would be better served by OA. That’s not to mention the many former researchers who retain an interest. And although plenty of members of the public would have no interest in access to the primary scientific literature that’s certainly not true of all. There is an argument about the public good that goes beyond narrow considerations of economic value. And for the sake of that argument, I am very pleased that the Guardian has brought it greater public attention. If you don’t agree with their line, why don’t you get in touch with them and ask for the right of reply. But probably best if you don’t treat people who disagree with you as ‘kids’.

Just how is it that “the full costs become transparent” under OA? In what way can you tell what the costs of a private OA publisher like Hindawi are?

Forget Hindawi, I’d love to know more about PLoS’ costs, which are not broken out per journal and are instead all lumped in under “Direct Publishing Expenses”, “Operational Expenses” and “Advertising & Marketing”.

I meant that the costs to the user (academic) would become transparent. At the moment these are a complex mix of author charges and subscription costs. Most scientists don’t know what subscriptions cost because they don’t need to ask. In some cases — as with the deal negotiated with Elsevier in which our ‘partner’ publisher insisted on a confidentiality clause — they’re not allowed to ask. If the primary users of (and contributors to) the academic publishing system become more aware of these costs, I imagine that would help to spur market efficiencies (though I am well aware that is not the only consideration when choosing where to submit).

I challenge the notion that we can accurately predict who truly “unqualified” readers will be, nor do I accept the tacit assumption that qualified readers will always have access to manuscripts published in the traditional manner. I hypothesize that pay walls prevent an enormous number of qualified readers from accessing information they could use to economic and social benefit. I assert that our ability to predict how (and to whom) specific research-related information will be most useful in the future is exceedingly poor. As a result, the most reasonable course of action is to make that information publicly available, so as to maintain as much option value as possible. Because prestige derives not only from ranked publication, but also from perceived social impact, it stands to reason that making information widely and freely available also has potential economic value to scientists within your currency of “prestige and priority”.

In one of your replies above, you state that “It’s non-monetary but very valuable to what we all believe in — the progress of science.”

I wonder why you are willing to apply that concept to article review (which was the original context) and not to the importance of information sharing.

I realise that the OA citation advantage is a controversial area, but it seems to me that meta-analyses of this have shown it to be real, as this study and others have shown. To call it a “myth” seems to me to be at best disingenuous.

On the question of access: when even the best funded University libraries are able to subscribe to only a fraction of the journal literature, does this not indicate that there might be an access problem?

Some 3 months ago, I was writing the Press Kit of an open scholarly archive (1) and had used the expression “Academic spring”, then discarded it, but not for the reasons mentioned in your post.

Due to what this platform is about, the reference to the Arab spring came to me naturally and came to me even more easily as I happen to be Egyptian, and have lived the full intensity of the uprising and the long years preparing for it . Since 2006, many others and myself have been using social media to disseminate content, information and artwork exposing our regimes so we could raise awareness and, eventually, impact reality. You might recognize a pattern right here. Content, dissemination, impact.

It’s so happened that 6 years of online social activism and the ‘Arab spring’ are, truly, what led me to found the open archive I mentioned earlier, and which allows scholars to share research, track and learn from its impact, let the crowd share it more, review it, etc.

At the core of the uprisings that took place in the Middle East there was a clear demand for social justice, fairness and access to basic human rights, such as health, education, jobs, and of course freedom of expression or freedom of faith. The brutal regimes in which these demands were expressed have killed, during the uprisings, thousands of protestors and everybody knows about those recent losses. But who will ever tell the story of those who died over the past 30 years or those who, although still alive, are emptied from the substance of life, with no hopes, health or education?

In Egypt, the hopeless are 40 million. They are the forgotten result of 30 years of bad governance, social injustice, poor education and irresponsible policies that impacted, sometimes irreversibly, Egypt’s human capital, natural environment and resources. A frightening statistic about Egyptian children below 5 years old: 1 in 3 is under nourished, and 1 in 5 is anemic (Zanaty F., Way A., Demographic and Health Survey, 2009, Egyptian Ministry of Health). According to the same survey, Egypt has also crossed the line of ‘acceptable’ water pollution and scarcity.

Returning to our main concern, could greater and cheaper access to knowledge have allowed scholars and civil servants living under such regimes to reverse, or at least slow down the many plagues of Egypt? I just had an amusing telephone argument with an Egyptian researcher (nutritionist) who started by telling me that not having access to research had absolutely nothing to do with Egypt’s current human and economic development. She continued by telling me that the real problem was that researchers were not seeking information and were not taught how and where to find it. When I asked her ‘why’, she replied that it was probably because libraries are poor and outdated. She added that the recent articles she used herself were those available in Open Access. Reading and copy-pasting abstracts from pay walls is also something she does frequently.

Once we established the relationship between the low budgets of university libraries, the poor quality of their collections, the rising prices of journal subscriptions and, last but not least, the poor quality of Egyptian research… we finally agreed that the natural link between research, innovation, economic growth and human development was definitely broken because… the latest research was not easily accessible.

What I mean to highlight is that limited access to knowledge is also responsible for slow damage that goes unseen, till it becomes horrifyingly huge and irreversible.

It’s maybe alright, after all, to compare the dynamics and motivations of the Arab Spring with what could be an ‘Academic Spring’ which, to me, is really about changing the way we fund, share and validate scientific results.

I don’t agree with blaming anyone in particular, or publishers, or universities and would gladly blame all of us. By us, I mean civil society, you, me, the publisher, the reviewer, the scholar, the parent, the librarian, your neighbours and mine. It’s always us, in all these different positions and places, doing the things that, overall, don’t serve us very well as a group.

The way I understand the ‘Academic spring’ is simply that there is a rising awareness of a very big opportunity for change, right now, and that this change will have a widespread positive effect. This ‘right now’, which all happened thanks to the Internet, is already 18 years old — if you agree that the Internet started reaching the masses in 1994.

The Internet took us by surprise on many things, but let us focus on how it made dissemination tremendously easy and almost free and how, over the past decade, it established (with Wikipedia-like initiatives and social sharing networks) the core principles of crowd sourced production, curation, rating and reporting/flagging of online content.

A bunch of buttons, ‘share’, ‘comment’, ‘edit’, ‘rate’, ‘report’, ‘add to’, “like” — which have become basic to any content driven website — should indeed bring us all to rethink all the things we do that involve the production dissemination, reviewing and financing of whatever type of content and, in our case, of research. Why? Simply because there is a legion of success stories that achieved mind blowing results, with very little money, thanks to online tools and core features such as these.

What Timothy Gowers and friends are achieving with a blog ( shows us how much can be achieved in the fut… I meant now.

If in 1994 there was still justification to pay thousands of dollars for the dissemination, editing, layout and design of scholarly communications, I think you would agree that most of these services have become basic built-in online features, available almost for free. Regarding the sensitive issue of pre-publication peer review, again, I believe it’s simply a ghost from the past — a recent past when research was still fixed on paper ‘for good’, when readers couldn’t easily and instantly share with others that a piece of information was false, or when it would have been silly to pay for expensive print houses and pollution-friendly trucks to ship unverified and faulty results.

These days are obviously over and can’t we not share, immediately, the methodologies, datasets and early findings of our research projects as to leverage the power and input of knowledgeable peers and researchers?

Going back to the Gowers experiment, peer reviewing was embedded in the process from day 1 to the point where it becomes almost impossible to separate researching from reviewing. Actually let us bet that, at least for publicly funded research, the concept of peer reviewing could disappear altogether, and so will would concepts of ‘pre’- and ‘post publishing’. Publicly funded research and communications might no longer have any befores or afters and might become ongoing open conversations led by the many who, in turn, receive public money to steer them.

Aalam Wassef / @peerevaluation


Dissemination isn’t free now. Electricity costs money, hosting platforms cost money (and good ones cost a lot), staff costs money. But before anything is disseminated, it has to be reviewed. Much is rejected. The cost of rejection is significant, often hundreds of thousands of dollars per journal. More scientists, more research, more papers, more sorting, more outlets, more expensive. Why are people who apparently can do math so surprised by this?

Hi Kent, Thank you for your reply. I wasn’t contesting the necessity of validating scientific methodologies and results. What I was implying is what you brought up in your reply. The ‘cost of rejection’ is indeed huge and there is no longer reason to support such costs when other ways of doing research allow us to distribute the weight among tens of researchers whose incentive is the research itself (Gowers). It is indeed a different economy of knowledge, and I’m sure we’ll soon get it right. It may be (I don’t think so) that total openness will prove dangerous, and that openness taken in stages will allow us to enjoy the benefits of collaborative peer reviewing all the while protecting the Internet from uncertain results. As I write this, I remember the very basic features (for instance on Wikipedia) that warn you that an article is incomplete or needs reviewing. I don’t think it would difficult for research institutions and funders to use similar methods allowing students and researchers to know whether results have been validated or not. All best, Aalam

It might be your comment that “it has to be reviewed” and Aalam trying to suggest that it might not be so that’s leading you to talk past each other.

We can prognosticate on this but perhaps there’s no evidence for the future. And who knows, a mixed hybrid picture might emerge.

I don’t fully understand my point either and I think many of us on this page have a lot of questions that are remain unanswered. Although I’m not sure whether we’re bringing (including you) the right answers, iI do believe we’re asking the right questions. What I like the most about online sharing of uncertain thoughts is the absolute certainty that others will catch me if I fall. Some catch you with nasty comments and others are more civil in their ways. You received a bit of both and I’m very curious to find out what you will make of the input you received from many. Will you dismiss it? Will you write a new piece? Will you review you some aspects of your position and arguments? Best, A.

Kent, in what way do you mean “there is prestige to being a reviewer”? We review anonymously and don’t receive anything for it. Speaking for myself, most of the reason I review is because I have been invited and it would simply be impolite to decline (plus a vague sense of duty, but that is secondary). For this reason I think shifting the emphasis to a “wiki” style of reviewing would only work if a core set of reviewers were still “invited” to review the article or otherwise alerted to it.

Why not have pre-publication manuscripts up provisionally on the journal’s website as “open for comments from the public” (anonymous or otherwise) for a set period, as well as comments from two or three invited academic peers? The editorial board could then make an informed decision based on the comments attracted during that period.

Two questions, two answers.

I’ve had physicians jumping up and down with joy after being invited to peer-review for a publication. I’ve seen and heard subtle boasts about being a peer-reviewer, and you kind of noted that you review in a not-ashamed way. It’s something to be proud of, some people list it on their CVs or make it known in their department, etc.

As for the idea of pre-publication manuscripts up provisionally, etc., many incentives in academia work against this. Some fields do it (arXiv and other pre-publication sites like SSRD [at least I think that’s the name]), but these are usually feeders, establishing priority in some manner but not prestige. So, back to you — why do it that way? There’s no incentive and no clear benefit from what I can tell.

A fascinating op-ed, Kent, and great discussion.

My contribution to the debate can be viewed here but, in summary, there is at least a grain of truth in almost everyone’s contribution and they ultimately add up to the reality of the situation – that many different actors (government, universities, faculties, academics, libraries and publishers) have been wittingly or unwittingly complicit in creating the status quo. And for the reasons that I outline, this could have gone on for some time yet if it had not been for the GFC, which has changed everything. Creative destruction writ large.

Regardless of ‘targets’ or ‘villains’, the situation is going to change because it has to. Therefore, the debate is timely; it is excellent that it is in the public domain and not being kept in house; and the Academic Spring is a catchy and easily understandable shorthand for the situation.

I’m an old guy and remember when page charges were the harbinger of the day. Now they are the solution to accessing arcane topics of little interest to all but the most informed in a minute subset of a subset of some topic.

Basically, we have open access–it is called the library. It may be inconvenient to go to one, but they are around. They are those big buildings full of journals, books,other periodicals and media. Those who want open access should visit one.

In short, all this talk reminds me of that first law of economics: There is no free lunch.

Not everyone lives next door (or even within 50 miles) to a major research university library. Not every public library offers cheap, easy ILL anymore, either – for instance, the Los Angeles County library system charges $10/item. Hardly “open access” even in a broad sense of the word.

I totally agree. Yes Open Access is great. But by itself, it won’t solve all the problems associated with academic publishing. The real challenge is to the scientific community to separate the exercise of publication from that of establishing scientific and academic prestige. And that is the most fundamental problem.

Until we resolve it, there can be no lasting solution to many issues facing academic publishing today; cost is just one of them.

Kamal Mahawar
CEO, WebmedCentral

Why in the world would you want to disentangle these things? You want priority and prestige conveyed in ways that don’t drive communication of results?

If ‘reviewer prestige’ is the only incentive model supporting scientific output then we might need to come up with another one. I’m sure you’re aware that when Bayer tried to replicate results for 67 studies published in academic journals, nearly two thirds failed (Gautam Naik, Scientists’ Elusive Goal: Reproducing Study Results, WSJ, 12.3.2011). All naivetés set aside, is the personal prestige currency really working for science and society at large? And, in any case, wasn’t free peer reviewing the natural mechanism by which scholars use to give back to society what they received from it (public funds, grants…)? Who messed up the concept during my sleep?

Actually, Kent, this very proposal–to separate certification of merit from publication–was made many years ago in a high-profile study from, as I recall, the Association of American Universities. I can try to track down the citation if you like.

I am not sure if I made myself clear. Ofcourse academic prestige would depend on what you do and your results and what you write. But it should not depend on “publications”. Publication of these scientific findings/results etc (and more, including the raw data etc that allow the research to be replicated and verified) should be a nonissue and should just happen automatically. You could equate this to “scientific freedom of expression”. Isn’t publication just a form of “communication”? Competition amongst academics for scientific “publications” in current hierarchy of journals is a pretty wasteful exercise. “Publications” have become an end in themselves. The competition for publication in these journals, because they serve as surrogate markers of academic proficiency of individuals and that of universities, is at the root of many a difficult problems at the root of scientific publishing. And that I dont think is right.

Kamal Mahawar
CEO, WebmedCentral

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