Science under lock and key. First part

Original author: Alex Mayyasi
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From a translator: Anyone who has had to search for articles from scientific journals on the Internet must have come across the fact that a publisher requires about $ 30 for access to a single article. Sometimes the necessary article can be found in the public domain, sometimes not. At first glance, this is not surprising - any content costs money. However, scientific articles are quite different from films, books and music.

Most scientific research today is done on state, that is, on our money. The majority of scientists, both those who wrote the article and those who checked and edited it, also receive salaries not from the publishers. And, most interestingly, university libraries around the world, which are the main subscribers of the scientific press, also pay a lot of money for subscribing to journals that they themselves write. So big that even the Harvard University library is already publishing open letters about its plight.

This article contains a detailed analysis of the situation with the scientific press and the organization of scientific work in general. The article is very voluminous, so I broke the translation into two parts. Here is a link to the second part .






Scientists usually follow a consistent pattern. They apply for grants, do research, and then publish the results in journals. This scheme is so familiar that it seems the only possible one. But what if there is a better way to do science?

It is believed that by publishing an article, the scientist wants to share his results with the whole world. However, access to most published works is possible only for money. A subscription to scientific journals costs thousands of dollars, which only the richest universities can afford. Over the past couple of decades, the subscription price has increased many times. Critics who oppose the publishers believe this rise in price is the result of the concentration of magazines in the hands of private companies that derive unfair profits from their dominant position in the scientific knowledge market.

Having undertaken our own investigation of these alleged moneybags from science, we were convinced that for their opponents the struggle against this parasitic enrichment is only part of a more general process of reforming science.

Defendersopen science says that the modern model of conducting research in the 1600s requires changes that will enable science to fully share results and collaborate via the Internet. When the entire scientific community can communicate online without restrictions, the teams of scientists will have no need to become attached to large bureaucratic structures and adjust the time of publication of their work to the timetable for the publication of journals.

Subscriptions limit access to scientific knowledge. And while the path to the heights of a scientific career and prestigious positions lies through publications in reputable journals, cooperation with other scientists, crowdsourcing of complex scientific problems and free access to experimental data sets will be of no interest to anyone. Practices established in the 17th century hinder science in the 21st.

The advent of scientific journals

If I saw beyond others, it was because I stood on the shoulders of giants.

Isaac Newton

In the 17th century, scientists often kept their discoveries a secret. It is known that Gottfried Leibniz challenged Newton’s primacy in the creation of differential and integral calculus, since he did not publish his discoveries for several decades. Robert Hooke, Leonardo da Vinci and Gallileo Gallilei published only encrypted messages in order to have proof of their priority. The only benefit of the publication was the opportunity to prove their superiority. Therefore, they preferred not to publish their work in clear text, and gave the key to decryption only after someone else made the same discovery.

Around this time, public funding and the publication of works in scientific journals arose. Wealthy philanthropists and kings jointly created scientific academies, such as the Royal Society for the Development of Nature Knowledge of London or the French Academy of Sciences, which allowed scientists to conduct research in more stable and prosperous conditions. Patrons wanted their money to contribute to the development and dissemination of scientific ideas for the benefit of the whole society.

Scientific journals appeared in the 1660s at academies as an effective means of disseminating their discoveries. The first of these was released by Henry Oldenburg, Secretary of the Royal Society, with his own money. In those days, the market for scientific publications was very small, and printing a magazine cost a lot of money. Scientists provided their articles for free, since the publisher did a very important and difficult job, often working at a loss. From the beginning of the formation of the market for scientific publications and almost to the middle of the 20th century, almost all scientific publishing houses were non-profit organizations, often as part of academies and institutes. Their revenue was low, and private publishers were rare.



Universities, not academies, have now become the dominant scientific institutions. Due to the increased cost of research (for which it is now necessary to build particle accelerators and the like), the role of the main sponsors of science is now not private sponsors, but the state, through a system of grants. And magazines have evolved from a means of disseminating knowledge into an indicator of prestige. Today, the most important part of a scholar’s ​​resume is his publication history.

Many scientists work in the private sector, where the main incentive for doing science is the profit from the intellectual property created by scientists.

But, if we exclude applied research that provides a quick commercial result, the system that appeared in the 1600s remains almost unchanged. Physicist and writer Michael Nielsen notesthat this system gave rise to "a scientific culture that to this day encourages the publication of discoveries in exchange for prestigious jobs and authority ... Over the past 300 years, it has changed surprisingly little."



Monopolization of science

In April 2012, the Harvard University Library published a letter in which the situation with subscriptions to scientific journals was called "financially unbearable." Librarians said that due to a 145% price increase over the past six years, they will soon be forced to abandon some subscriptions.

The Harvard Library called those who are primarily responsible for financial problems: "the situation is exacerbated by the constant attempts of some publishers to buy, combine and raise the prices of scientific journals."

The most famous of these publishers is Elsevier . This is a real giant. Each year, Elsevier publishes 250,000 articles in 2,000 journals. In 2012, his revenue reached2.7 billion dollars. His profit of more than a billion dollars accounted for 45% of the total profit of the Reed Elsevier Group, its parent corporation, which occupies 495th place in the world in terms of market capitalization.

Companies like Elsevier appeared in the 1960s and 70s. They bought scientific journals from non-profit scientific organizations and turned them into a successful business, betting that it would be possible to significantly increase prices without losing subscribers who had nowhere to go. Today, only three publishers - Elsevier, Springer and Wiley publish about 42% of articles in the 19 billionth market of magazines covering science, technology and medicine. 80%their subscribers are university libraries. Since each article is published in only one journal, and scientists need access to any significant article in their industry, libraries are forced to buy subscriptions without looking at the price. Only from 1984 to 2002 did the prices of scientific journals rise by 600% . And according to some estimates, prices for magazines owned by Elsevier are 642% higher than the market average.

Publishers also group magazines in packages. Their opponents argue that this forces libraries to buy subscriptions for less prestigious magazines, as they go to the load of the really necessary. Moreover, there is no fixed price for these packages - publishers form them individually for each university, depending on the history of past subscriptions. The growing number of commercial journals in the field of ecology



over the past hundred years, according to ISI,


such tactics have turned Elsevier and others like them into an evil empire in the eyes of critics - professors, librarians, students, independent researchers, research companies and simply curious people whose attempts to gain access to scientific knowledge stumble upon money fences erected publishers. They cite two main objections to price increases.

The first is that prices are rising while the Internet has made the dissemination of any information easier and cheaper than ever.

Second, universities are forced to pay for the results of research that they themselves produce. Universities establish grants and pay salaries to scholars writing articles. Even the review and verification of the value and correctness of articles cited by Elsevier as the main source of added value for their journals is most often carried out on a voluntary basis by scientists who receive a salary at universities.

Elsevier actively objects to attempts to cast doubt on the legitimacy of his strategy, refuting the critics' arguments and insisting that they “work in partnership with the scientific community, making a stable and meaningful contribution to science.” In an investment analysis report on Reed Elsevier, Deutsche Bank summarizes their arguments :

Justifying a high rate of return, publishers point out the high qualifications of staff who are engaged in a preliminary review of articles before sending them for review; the support they provide to reviewers, including including small fees, complex layout, printing and distribution, including the cost of publishing on the Internet and hosting. In total, Reed Elsevier employs about 7,000 people. In addition, the high rate of return reflects company performance and economies of scale.

How fair are these arguments?

One way to check is to compare the real value of commercial magazines with non-commercial ones. For example, in the field of ecology, the price per page of a commercial magazine is three times higher than the price of a non-profit one. And if we compare such an indicator as the ratio of price to the number of citations (this is an indicator of the quality and significance of the article), then non-profit magazines turn out to be five times better.

Another way is to look at margin. Elsevier's 36% is well above average business periodicals 4% - 5%. It is hard to imagine that in an industry that has existed for more than a hundred years, no one is able to work with lower margins. The above Deutsche Bank report draws similar conclusions:

We are confident that Elsevier makes a relatively small contribution to the publishing process. We do not want to downplay the importance of the work that 7,000 of its employees do, but if their work really were so complex, expensive and necessary, as the publishers say, then they would not be able to get 40% of the profit .

Libraries have previously faced the problem of the high cost of subscriptions to scientific journals. So, back in 1998, The Economist wrote about this . But now, even the richest universities cannot afford access to the entire body of scientific knowledge. And this despite the fact that they themselves produce this knowledge through the efforts of their own employees.




The second part of the translation .


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