April 12, 2021 | David F. Coppedge

Who Publishes Science? The Rich

If you make a discovery on your own, good luck getting it published. Science is a game for rich guys.

The journal Nature is uptight about the move toward “open science.” That’s a movement toward letting people read about scientific discoveries for free. Nature and its publisher, Springer, make a lot of money publishing science journals. Now they are in a fight with science funders who think people should be able to read about scientific findings without paying high-priced subscription fees.

The days are long gone when solo geniuses like Boyle or Joule could make scientific discoveries and get them published by benefactors or societies of science enthusiasts. These days, one has to attend a prestigious university to have access to expensive equipment, for one thing, but also to get noticed. Attendance at elite universities can run into tens of thousands of dollars a year. Even then, the money for research often has to come from government grants, university endowments or rich benefactors – the funders.

Once the research is done, how can anyone learn about it? Universities have media offices that write press releases about the fine work their institution is doing, often with obligatory photos of the beaming scientists posing for the camera. The press release usually accompanies a research paper published in a journal, the more prestigious the better. Previously, manuscripts were submitted to one or more journals in hopes that it would pass the editor’s whims for what looks interesting and important, and then pass peer review and make it into print months later.

The paradigm has been changing. There’s more of a call for open science. Funding sources are often governments; in the USA, that’s the National Science Foundation, the National Institutes of Health and other agencies. Governments don’t make money; they confiscate it from ordinary citizens through taxes. Shouldn’t the citizens be able to read what they’re paying for? That’s part of the reasoning behind “Plan S” – a push for open science by “an influential group of research funders” including European funding agencies and private benefactors like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Wellcome Trust in the UK, and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.

It sounds intuitive. Let people read about what they paid for. Journal editors complain that paper publishing costs money, and adds value to the science. Think of how useful it is for people to read ads in the journal for lab flasks and the like, and get summaries and commentaries about the papers in the issue who can hype the importance of a paper. (They’re not likely to say that a paper in the journal is bunk.) It’s harder for journals to defend their spiel when fewer subscribers are opting for paper journals in the mail. Online publishing is fast, cheaper and simpler. Everyone visits web links with a click. Consumers expect everything to be free. (Content creators can relate; look how musicians are getting beat up by Spotify and other streaming services sending them royalties in pennies when vinyl records, CDs, and concerts used to make them big bucks.)

Plan S for Service (or Subversion)

On April 8, Nature published a “news explainer” with the title “A guide to Plan S: the open-access initiative shaking up science publishing.” Nature‘s editors, who operate independently of the publisher, have to walk a fine line: not upsetting the influencers behind the Open Access (OA) movement, but also taking care of their bottom line. Holly Else, the author of the article, says

In 2018, an influential group of research funders announced a bold pledge: the scientists they fund should publish their peer-reviewed papers outside journal paywalls. The initiative, called Plan S, caused an instant uproar over its aim of ending journal subscription models — the means by which many scholarly publications have financed their existence. Its intended start date in 2020 was delayed, and its details were tweaked. But after much sparring over policy, the project formally began in 2021, with 25 funding agencies rolling out similar open-access (OA) mandates.

Readers may not care about disputes between funders, scientists and publishers. What comes through the overtones, however, are revelations about the money behind scientific publishing. The money has to come from somewhere. Some OA journals, like the non-profit Public Library of Science (PLoS) will publish a researcher’s work for a fee. That puts the onus on the scientists or their institution to raise money for their work to be seen, but avoids waiting for the journal to accept the work. Nature is now letting researchers (or their institutions) publish OA versions under their banner for a fee up front; otherwise, it stays behind the paywall. Here are some revelations from the article. The lesson: without high-priced connections, the lone researcher is a nobody.

  • Nature‘s current fee for publishing one open-access article is $11,500.
  • Journals complain that with OA, “they’d have to charge extremely high fees for the few papers that they publish.”
  • Plan S Funders will put up the money for some publishing, but not all.
  • Next year, funders might place limits on how much they will pay.
  • A funders’ plan for “Rights Retention Strategy” (RRS) – allowing the scientists to post their papers online when accepted by journals – has caused outrage by journals, and is unlikely to succeed.
  • “More than 50 publishers, including Elsevier, Wiley and Springer Nature, signed a statement in February saying that they do not support the rights-retention route to compliance” with Plan S.
  • Plan S wants to make journal publishing financing more transparent, so that they “can fully articulate the services they provide, and the prices they charge,” according to a spokesman.

These are long-standing questions for many funders and researchers, who point out that large science-publishing firms make sizeable profits while relying on researchers to freely provide manuscripts and review each other’s work. Publishers, in return, argue that their work adds value to scientific articles.

Journals balk at such transparency. The situation is reminiscent of last year’s push by President Trump to get price transparency for drugs. Aware that Americans were paying far more for the same drugs than people in other countries, he pushed for a “most favored nations” clause that required drug companies to charge Americans the same price they were charging other countries for identical drugs. It also would have required them to post the actual prices for drugs. The drug companies fought hard against these moves with anti-Trump commercials. Now, under Biden, the controversy seems to have returned to the status quo. It’s now the time for science journal editors—long comfortable with their big profits—to face similar calls for transparency about their finances. They don’t want funders looking into their books and perhaps telling them that they shouldn’t charge so much.

Money is a key bone of contention. Many journals charge per-paper fees to publish OA. Most Plan S funders will cover these fees, but not in all cases. The European Commission, for instance (which supports Plan S), will pay fees for fully OA journals, but won’t pay in the case of hybrid journals, which are subscription journals that offer OA publishing. Other funders will support paying for OA in only some kinds of hybrid journals, and will review this policy in 2024.

OA policies will give more access by the public to scientific papers that for decades have been hidden behind expensive paywalls. Annual subscriptions to major journals can run into hundreds of dollars. Up till now, only citizens working for scientific institutions or universities could get the benefit of site licenses to many journals, but most other citizens would not; they were stuck with predigested summaries of papers put out by popularizing sites like Science Daily or EurekAlert. That, further, was after reporters beat them to the news with their collusion strategy – the practice of putting science news under embargo so that all of them could get their stories out on the same day. In practice, though, many citizens could get PDF copies of papers by asking insiders who had access. Content creators feel their pain. It’s hard to maintain paywalls on the open internet. They leak.

A concern coming in sideways is the rise of predatory journals and paper mills (see 27 March 2021). Also, what the mainstream journals decide to do with Plan S won’t matter if the volume of scientific publications becomes so large that nobody will know what to trust. With thousands of universities around the world, each with hundreds of grad students and professors needing to publish or perish, there is already more to read than humanly possible. What stands out? What is really important? What is even true? Each day, the publishers print corrections, retractions, or editorial matters of concern about what they had published earlier. Now, also, the Far Left is pushing science its way (20 Feb 2021), and some countries see national prestige as more valuable than truth.

Cartoon by Brett Miller for Creation-Evolution Headlines.

What becomes of scientific publishing remains to be seen as Plan S takes effect. One thing is clear; money talks. It’s not a world where an amateur scientist like Leeuwenhoek, making his own equipment, can garner the attention of the Royal Society any more. He may not have even done the research if he had to do it, rather than wanting to do it.

With any sea change in a traditional practice, one can envision benefits and drawbacks. If more people can look behind the curtain and see how the wizards control the visage of Darwin on the screen, perhaps they will have the same reaction as Dorothy. Journals may have to be sensitive to Darwin skeptics when more of them are reading the bluffing papers in Nature behind the bold pronouncements on Science Daily. But then again, big institutions and rich celebrities know how to protect their own interests when threatened. Little may change. Perhaps more people can read papers that were behind paywalls; that is good. But more discernment may be required than ever. And remember, like we often say, without integrity there is no science.

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