Where is scientific publishing heading?

BY JENS NIELSEN

As researchers, we are unlikely to spend much time reflecting on one of the often-forgotten pillars of science: scientific publishing. Naturally, our focus leans more towards traditional academic activities including teaching, mentoring graduate students and post docs, and the next exciting experiment that will allow us to advance our understanding. Despite our daily dependence on the research produced by our colleagues and contemporaries in scientific papers, and an equal dependence on journals to present the results of our own research, it is uncomfortable to think that we as scientists have lost control of the majority of this infrastructure.

Traditionally, scientific publishing was controlled by learned societies such as the Royal Society and the National Academy of Science (in the USA), alongside publishers associated with key universities, Oxford University Press being one. However, as large multinational companies such as Roche, Sigma-Aldrich, and Agilent have evolved to dominate the markets for chemicals, research equipment, and various researcher services; the publication of scientific results from commercial publishers has become a highly profitable endeavour. The three largest publishers—Elsevier, Springer Nature, and Wiley-Blackwell—now represent around half of the ten billion GDP scientific publication industry, their dominance following years of consolidation in the industry. With profit margins outdoing even those of tech giants Apple and Google, it seems incredible that we as scientists are contributing significantly to the success of these journals, largely for free!

However, the scientific publication industry is undergoing dramatic changes. The number of journals continues to increase, competing for the best papers, as evidenced by the large number of invitations we receive. With many journals remaining in the traditional format, relying on library subscriptions alongside ever tighter library budgets, there are a number of new journals opting for the open access route. In this model, it is the authors paying the fees. Following acceptance (or a pre-determined embargo period), their paper is then made freely available for all.

The rapid development of open access journals, including PLOS ONE, Nature’s Scientific Reports, and Biomed Central’s Genome Biology, to name just a few, is supported by many funders who are now requiring that research papers are open access. Furthermore, the European University Association recently published a document recommending all member institutions to install policies ensuring a reduction in publication costs, that authors retain all publication rights, and that all research papers are open access.

With many journals offering ‘hybrid’ journals, a combination of open access papers and traditional library subscriptions, it could soon become problematic for these journals to maintain income from library subscriptions if more and more papers are published open access. Although fully open access journals can operate at lower costs, article processing fees are unlikely to be able to fund those journals run by editorial teams, who not only handle papers, but also provide much of the front matter including perspectives, book reviews, and research highlights. If the industry does eventually become totally open access, it is likely we will lose the various news coverage and perspectives provided by many of the high-end journals.

Another development to consider is the introduction of so-called predatory journals. Several different scenarios can result; some fake journals will request submission, take the article processing fee, and never publish the paper. Others will fake the peer review process, publishing without any kind of quality control. The severity of this problem was well illustrated by a study in Science earlier this year, in which the authors created a fictitious scientist, complete with falsified CV, and requested enrollment as an editor on several editorial boards – and was successful.

This example demonstrates the financial opportunity scientific publishing has become; therefore we as scientists need to be careful where we submit our papers. There are some key questions we need to ask:

  • Are the members of the Editorial Board well-respected scientists?
  • Does the journal have a clear editorial policy?
  • Are publication fees clearly stated?
  • Is the journal indexed, in PubMed for example?
  • Does the journal publish papers on similar subjects to your own?

Finally, one vital question to ask: Who is publishing the journal? It is now more important than ever that we provide support for publications driven by not-for-profit organisations, either in the form of learned societies, academies, and others, who have clear objectives for supporting the scientific community. We as scientists benefit from these society-run journals. Why publish in a journal where profits are going to a board of investors, when instead it could be put towards a scholarship for your next post doc, or a grant for a PhD student to join an international conference? FEMS Yeast Research belongs to this last category, supporting various conferences and research fellowships through the work of the Federation of European Microbiological Societies (FEMS).

Finally, I’ll end with my original question: where is scientific publishing heading? Niels Bohr said “prediction is very difficult, especially about the future”, and of course it is impossible for me to know with any certainty. However, I do think that the traditional library subscription model will eventually disappear – and perhaps this will be good science and society as a whole. Either way, I encourage all editors, reviewers, authors, and readers to share your thoughts on journal policies, and engage with these kinds of discussions in the wider community.

Featured image credit: Office by Free-Photos. CC0 public domain via Pixabay.

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