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Scientific publishers are reaping huge profits from the work of researchers, and the universities are paying for it

Research money — They net bigger profit margins than Google, Amazon and Apple from exploiting the free labour of countless researchers. One critic says the scientific publishers are commercial behemoths that are limiting the free flow of knowledge.

For more than a year, a young German mathematician has spent his spare time looking at what he believes is a cryptic and systematic exploitation of scientific research. Alexander Thomas, with a group of mathematicians, physicists and philosophers from all over Europe, Japan and the US, has made a thorough investigation of how scientific publishers generate billions from scientific articles. This at the same time as universities’ finances were squeezed during the same period.

When he was not doing research on complex algebra and relativity theory at Heidelberg University, he was at online meetings, and doing deep dives into the publishing industry’s historical development and current finances. And in September, after eighteen months of work, the BRCP group (Basic Research Community for Physics) published the article Against Parasite Publishers: Making Journals Free. The work was initially planned to be an idealistic pamphlet, says Alexander Thomas. A kind of activist manifesto or independent journal, but ended up as a scientific article that put decades of criticism of the publishers’ financial model into context.

»The fruits of academic research mostly take on the form of articles that are published in specialized journals. The majority of these journals are owned by a small number of commercial publishers, who benefit from public money to achieve record profits,« it states in the introduction, which has the whiff of revolution in it.

It is not the first time that scientific publishers have been looked into for their powerful role and their billions in revenues. Thousands of researchers have, for many years, boycotted specific publishers. Entire editorial staff at publishers in reputable companies have collectively resigned from their positions to start their own journals. And so-called hacktivists have coded themselves into databases and published research behind paywalls only to be rewarded with lawsuits.

Publishing parasites

But it is not just angry researchers or internet activists that are criticising the academic publishing industry. Deutsche Bank published in 2005 a report where they called the publishers’ financial model a ‘triple payment system.’

»The government finances the research, pays salaries to those who carry out the quality control, and finally ends up buying the published product,« it states in the report.

Traditional, non-academic, publishers have a comprehensive value chain consisting of authors, proofreaders, printing presses and so on before they are left with a finished product. But this is not the case with scientific publishers who receive thousands of well-written, template-based, articles on a daily basis.

First, the university pays (often mostly supported by government) its academic staff to conduct research and write articles. Then the researchers send the article to a journal, which in some cases even demands fees to publish the article – so-called Article Processing Charges (APC). In some prestigious cases, the price for being published in, say, Nature costs USD 10,000 an article. If you want to be published in The Lancet Global Health, it may cost up to USD 5,000. Then the researcher often loses copyright to their articles, which the publisher subsequently can make money off in their subscription scheme.

It is a problem that people are giving so much money and so much power to commercial companies that make money off science.
Alexander Thomas, mathematician and co-author of 'Against Parasite Publishers'

The publishers’ editorial board then selects some articles, which are sent for peer review by other researchers, who go through the article free of charge as part of their work. Once the article has received peer reviewer comments and has been corrected, it will be published online in a database to which the universities have to buy access. The universities, in other words, pay researchers to produce research articles, to peer review other researchers’ research, and, finally, to gain access to it.

This is precisely the system that Alexander Thomas criticises and the reason why he, with a deliberately provocative choice of wording, says the scientific publishers are parasites.

»They are organisms that take something without giving anything back.«

Better profit margins than Amazon

In 2020, 3.5 million research articles were published according to Clarivate’s Web of Science – one of the largest databases of scientific publications. The three biggest publishers that year were Elsevier (18.1 per cent), Springer Nature (13 per cent), and Wiley (9.5 per cent). Their turnover was DKK 26.3 billion, DKK 14.1bn and DKK 6.7bn respectively if you only look at their publication activities. The previous year, in 2019, the publishers’ industry organisation, STM, announced a total revenue of USD 28bn corresponding to DKK 200bn. Revenues that are in line with Netflix or the international music industry.

It is not these revenue figures that are the cause of wonder for Alexander Thomas. It is the towering profit margins that, in Elsevier’s case, amounted to a whopping 37.9 per cent, while Wileys was on 27.9 per cent. Profit margins that are higher than Apple, Google and Amazon.

Professor at the Danish Centre for Research Analysis at Aarhus University Jesper Wiborg Schneider has followed developments in the academic publishing industry since he completed his PhD in information studies.

»It has just been commercialised to an extreme degree, where the majority of the benefits go to executives and shareholders in some hedge fund. Not to sound too Marxist, but the scientific publishers have been really good at exploiting an insanely unique business model. There are not that many sectors where you get free labour for the largest part of your product,« he says.

A weird system

That it is not a business secret, and that it has existed for more than half a century, is for Alexander Thomas completely illogical for several reasons. It deprives certain universities without strong finances of the opportunity to acquire the latest knowledge, and it costs each university costs millions that could be spent on in-depth research.

Types of Open Access

Green: The final version of the article is published in an open database without the publisher’s template, page numbers and copyright information. The article has been through peer review. Most publishers accept this after a period of embargo, which varies from publisher to publisher. This format is part of Denmark’s national strategy for Open Access.

Gold: Provides immediate and free access to the article on the journal’s website. The authors often have to pay Article Processing Charges (APC) for free access.

Hybrid: Shares many similarities with Gold, but the difference is that it is not generally Open Access. Instead, it is part of a subscription scheme, and the universities can choose to pay to make the articles free of charge. Hybrid has been criticised for so-called double dipping, as you first pay for a subscription, then subsequently have to pay for free access to articles.

Diamond: The same as Gold just completely free. Also known as Platinum.

Black: A free platform that is in breach of copyright and that grants illegal access to articles behind paywalls. The best example is the Sci Hub platform.

»It is a clear problem that people are giving so much money and so much power to commercial companies that make money off science. Another problem is the prestige and recognition that publishers and journals have. There are plenty of examples of cheaper alternatives, where it is either free, or with minimal user fees, because the costs are currently very small. The vast majority of databases have just not become big enough yet,« says Alexander Thomas.

New, free, databases and journals are currently being set up on a daily basis, that either do not charge for publication, or that take a fee that corresponds to the actual cost. The so-called Open Access system.

Publication researcher Jesper Wiborg Schneider has himself been part of the editorial committee of a journal owned by Elsevier. The editorial team attempted to push back against the publisher concerning the embargo period on the scientific articles published in Open Access.

»A large number of articles could not be accessed for several years without payment. Here the vast majority of the editorial committee collectively decided to resign and start a new journal with the same editorial team. In our research, we were critical towards the publishers, and we worked on Open Access. But we were, at the same time, subject to many of the rules that we criticised. The resignations took place after a long stalemated discussion with Elsevier, where they turned against us and started threatening legal action,« he says.

The internet alternative

The article Against Parasite Publishers: Making Journals Free, of which Alexander Thomas is co-author, says that in the beginning the journals’ were in symbiosis [with science, ed.]. With the advent of the newly developed printing press, and for a long time after this, publishers had a real, practical function. They invested in printers, formatted the articles according to specific formal requirements, corrected grammar, and paid to get the articles printed. This was a predominantly symbiotic relationship, because publishers did a great deal of work to disseminate science.

»The internet became a revolution that changed everything. Suddenly, it was easier than ever to share knowledge. Articles were revised and forwarded to peer review via an automated system, the researchers put the articles into templates themselves, and the vast majority of scientific articles were published online. The costs have almost disappeared, but they now garner higher profits than ever before,« says Alexander Thomas.

 

We could easily revolt and say to hell with the journals. But researchers are not typically interested in this because publication in certain journals is very prestigious and helps shape careers.
Jesper Wiborg Schneider, researcher at the Danish Centre for Research Analysis

He believes that the future will see demand for alternative archives like ArXiv that is owned by Cornell University, where researchers can freely share preprints of their research articles so that they are available to everyone. He also mentions Quantum, a non-profit Open Access database with peer review, which takes minimal fees for publication. With no profit and with free access to the research articles, they can keep the publication fee down at USD 489 on average. This includes administrative and secretarial expenses, rent and server expenses. Elsevier’s publication fee was in 2019 USD 1,633 on average, according to Against Parasite Publishers.

And as to the question whether academic publishers and journals have an important role to play in the dissemination of science? Alexander Thomas doesn’t think so.

»It is old-fashioned to think that just because an old institution is recognised, then it is important and necessary,« he says.

»The major publishers do not protect recognised science, they just put it behind a paywall. It’s about the control of scientific development, and that scares me.«

Jesper Wiborg Schneider largely agrees with the criticism. The publishers’ huge profits are the cause of frustration for the researcher. Nowadays more than in the past, because they have »taken on grotesque proportions.«

»There was a transition in the 1990s, when many had a naïve belief that the Open Access movement would revolutionise everything. The journals, however, have turned a potentially threatening situation into a cornering of the market,« he says.

»We researchers play a key role in this. We could easily rebel and say to hell with the journals. But researchers are not typically interested in this because publication in certain journals is very prestigious and helps shape careers. A social hierarchy has been created that provides journals and their publishers a lot of power. We ourselves help to maintain this. We can easily create new forms of distribution for peer review, but at the end of the day, we would like to have the prestige.«

The Danish model

In Denmark, it is the Royal Library’s national licence consortium that negotiates licensing agreements with the scientific publishers. They do this on behalf of all higher education institutions, which gives the consortium better leverage when it is time to negotiate with the major publishers.

The consortium landed an agreement with Elsevier in 2020. The contract stipulates that the University of Copenhagen has to pay DKK 19.4 million each year from 2021 to 2024. For the entire consortium, the price for publication and access to Elsevier’s journals is DKK 73.2 million a year, while the total Danish payment to publishers is approximately DKK 300 million a year. An unknown amount in publication fees can be added to this.

At the time, the consortium described the agreement as a »groundbreaking new publishing agreement« because it gave free access to 75 per cent of Elsevier’s portfolio with a fixed one-off payment. In addition, there are unlimited publishing opportunities in their journals without additional payment – the so-called APC fee.

»We have not previously seen national consortia achieve an agreement on immediate access without additional costs and without publication limits. We hope that the Danish negotiation result can create a precedent for both future Danish, and for European negotiations with other publishers, so that we can go even further in our efforts for more open research,« the deputy director at the Royal Library Kira Stine Hansen who was responsible for the negotiations said at the time.

This year, the consortium entered into a similar agreement with the publishing giant Wiley. With the limitation, however, that the agreement only covers non-fee publication of 1,110 articles a year. Unlike the contract with Elsevier, the price for Wiley is, however, undisclosed. At the moment, the consortium is negotiating with Springer Nature.

Jesper Wiborg Schneider is not able to comment on the specific agreement with Elsevier, but he is convinced that the major publishers will continue to earn billions in publicly funded research.

»A large number of universities have tried to push back against Elsevier, but for me it looks as if the publishers are winning every time.«

Couldn’t the universities resist or create their own databases?

»Yes, they probably could do that, but in the universities’ management corridors they sit there counting how many publications they have in Science and Nature, so for them it is a criterion of success. Ain’t gonna happen.«

Alexander Thomas is part of a new generation of researchers who, to a great extent, make use of free or less profit-oriented alternatives to the established commercial publishing industry. With the article that was released in September, he hopes that even more will make use of the alternatives.

»Researchers can, by themselves do a lot, and I always suggest Open Access with no, or very low, fees. You must keep your copyright so that the article can be shared on multiple platforms. And you should choose journals that are owned by the editor’s committee, and who hire publishers rather than the other way round.

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