An early career researcher discusses issues with blinding and diversity in peer review, and ultimately whether including non-peer-reviewed preprints in science publishing can have beneficial effects…
Author: Paweł Borowicz, Researcher, Institute of Basic Medical Sciences, University of Oslo, Norway. Image credit: Pawel Borowicz
Did you know that the STM (Scientific, Technical and Medical) scholarly publishing industry was worth US$25 700 000 000 globally in 2017 ? Have you heard about an enormous profit of above 30%  made by most commercial publishers? Roughly calculating, it will give us around US$7 700 000 000 that could have been spent on research instead. Therefore, it should not be surprising that scientists around the world have been concerned about this matter for years. One quickly realizes that the system of scientific publishing is flawed, but is there a way to improve it?
Crisis in academic publishing
Before 21st century, commercial scholarly publishing thrived, as it was the easiest way for scientists to acquire international recognition. If you needed to read a paper, you had to buy a journal (or photocopy it from a friend). However, the quick development of World Wide Web was a game changer. The Internet has brought the convenience of easy and free worldwide science distribution, provided previously only by the commercial publishers. People anticipated that publishers were doomed. On the contrary, they quickly adapted. They did not have to print numerous copies of journals anymore (cost reduction), while keeping journal prices (no value reduction). Libraries tried to outsmart publishers by canceling subscriptions for less popular journals, but the publishers adapted again. They introduced “journal packages”. As the access price of a single journal was highly reduced in the package, libraries fell for it, even if it meant subscribing to a number of less popular journals. At that point, publishers only needed to increase the price of packages steadily . Maybe they did it too fast or libraries’ budgets were increasing too slowly, but soon, people noticed what was happening. Universities had to spend a considerable part of their budget on journal subscriptions. Serials crisis had begun. Partially as a result of this increasing expenditure, partially as a way of removing the paywall for all, a new concept arose – open access . Providing free access to all new publications would not only reduce the cost of libraries’ subscriptions, but it would also provide poorer universities and people outside of academia with the access to scientific articles. However, as the non-profit open access publishers lacked sufficient external funding, they had to charge a publishing fee. Commercial publishers spotted their chance again – instead of charging universities for the access, they could now charge them for publishing. As you can see, we are in a vicious cycle. If we want to escape it, we need a better plan.
Scientist are generally aware of the crisis in academic publishing, but not everyone sees the simple solution: the abrupt discontinuation of feeding commercial publishers with both money and content. Plan X posits that scientific articles are published directly by universities. Such a move will force every university to establish their own publishing department. Even if it would cost them more than the sum they spend on the access to private publishers’ portfolio, it will finally provide the publishing system with unlimited access and evolution. The most important point is that the principles of the publishing system will not change, only the publishing bodies will. Therefore, the peer review process will not change, but it will become as strict as the university would like it to be. One can quickly realize what would happen with the Impact factor (IF). IF will directly describe the university’s competitiveness. However, there is one requirement for this system to work. All the scientists have to publish only within their own affiliated university. It would additionally solve another issue – the pressure on publishing in high IF journals. Many granting agencies already require using papers citations as a measurement of one’s scientific success. However, this is just a tip of the iceberg of all improvements, which Plan X will bring.
PLAN X postulates:
- Universities will become the primary publishers and copyright owners of academic articles.
- Universities will publish only in a full open access (gold) mode.
- Scientific articles should not be rejected, but allowed to hold unlimited revision, until the work is accepted.
- Universities will allow additional improvements of the peer-review process such as published peer-review history, post-print peer review or updating articles.
- Scientists will be forced to publish only under their affiliated publisher.
- Scientific articles will be judged only by the citations and the scientific impact.
- Universities will terminate access-agreements with commercial publishers.
- All scientists will be called to share their previous works, published with commercial journals, with anyone interested.
While discussing the concept, I quickly noticed a number of Frequently Asked Questions.
Although, Plan X provides a simple solution, not every consequence it brings can be predicted. Here I provide a list of potential follow-up effects and mitigation plans.
What will happen with commercial publishers?
They have four obvious paths:
- Becoming a database of old scientific articles. – As they will not be able to publish any new content, they will have to reduce the access fees. However, the running costs will include mostly data storage.
- Becoming a popular science journal. – There is a huge demand for translating complex and poorly accessible scientific articles to language understandable by specialists from other fields of science or to the general public. They will have to become what they actually aspire to be – commercial journals producing their own content.
- Becoming search engines. – With an increasing number of publications, more efficient search engines have to be developed, including highly specialized ones in a given scientific discipline.
- Preserving the old system. – They can attack any movement that may affect the current publishing system.
Scientists outside of academia will not be able to publish
There will not be any rule that a scientist from outside of academia would not be able to publish with their chosen university publisher. Most of the industry keeps extensive collaborations with various universities, so they could choose any of them. As the university publishing rules would not differ from the current ones, they would be subjected to the same process of peer review as any university affiliated researcher.
The university publishers will be less demanding to their own researchers
It will not be in the interest of the university to publish papers of poor quality. The better papers (and their citations), the higher the IF of the university will become. Moreover, it should be much easier to publish negative results or confirmation of other group’s results via the university than via commercial publishers. The pressure on publishing only papers of significant novelty might be lower, as long as, they are of high quality.
The universities will not agree to implement Plan X
We, scientists are the university! We are members of the university boards and committees. We are deciding on the university policies. Changing the policy of the university is within the reach for all academics, while changing the government’s policy is very difficult and changing the commercial publisher policy is practically impossible.
If it is so simple, why has no one ever before tried to change the publishing system?
Oh, people have tried! There is even a Society for Scholarly Publishing, which continually writes about the matter on their official blog . Academic journal publishing reforms are constantly discussed since the beginning of XXI century . Two famous boycotting events have ended up with foundation of two popular non-profit open access journals: Public Library of Science (PLOS) and eLife. Preprint archives became an accepted and supported way of disseminating data. Open access publishing has incredibly increased. The expectations of scientific community are so high that it will be forced upon the grant-holders by the granting institution (Plan S). However, it is all not enough and the stubbornness of some publishing companies against adjusting to new trends is definitely not making it easier. The one thing that scientific community should have learnt from COVID-19 pandemic lockdown is that everything is possible as long as it is forced upon us. Maybe it is high time we force ourselves to implement changes that really matter?
1. Rob Johnson, Anthony Watkinson, and Michael Mabe, The STM report. An overview of scientific and scholarly publishing. 5th edition October, 2018.
2. Mike Taylor, Matt Wedel, and Darren Naish, The obscene profits of commercial scholarly publishers. 2012.
3. Bernard Forgues and Sébastien Liarte, Academic publishing: Past and future. M@ n@ gement, 2013. 16(5): p. 739-756.
4. P. Suber, Ensuring open access for publicly funded research. BMJ, 2012. 345: p. e5184.
5. Society for Scholarly Publishing. Scholarly Kitchen. 2020; Available from: https://scholarlykitchen.sspnet.org/.
6. Mike Taylor, It’s not academic: how publishers are squelching science communication. 2011, Discover Mag.
 Serials crisis – the name for the constant increase of the subscription fees of regularly published academic journals, while the funding of libraries or institutions rise slower or stays the same over time.
 Paywall – restricting access to academic journals only to those who purchased or paid the subscription fee.
 Open access – providing research and scientific dissemination with an open license for copyright. The main concern is peer reviewed research literature.
 Peer review – a form of quality control and evaluation of the academic publications by other professionals from within the field of expertise.
 Impact factor (IF) – the number of average yearly citations per published paper in a given academic journal in last two years. It is used to measure the importance of a journal within the scientific field.
 Preprint archive – online archive that allows submitting and accessing academic papers before they undergo peer review and publication process.
 Plan S – an initiative of Science Europe to make all the scientists receiving money from state-funded agencies to publish only under open access.