Thursday, 17 January 2013

How Scientific Publishing Works

I have written small posts about this for some time now but the sad loss of Aaron Swartz seemed to help bringing the issue to the headlines. I think it's time to clarify better how scientific publishing worked in the past, how it works now and how it should work. 

However, before starting, I cannot resist but criticise the horrible article from John Gapper entitled Aaron Swartz's illusion over research. Far from me to believe that everything someone says is true, and that includes Aaron. I disagree, although only partially, with many of his views and I might talk about that in other posts. But Gapper writes about scientific publishing in a way that seems that he never actually had to publish. I don't really know if that's true, but it surely looks like.

If you check most blogs from academics, you will see the true side of the story. You should also take as a piece of evidence that a lot (A LOT!) of academics at least try to leave their papers in their websites for free access. Gapper claims that scientific publishers increase the efficiency of the system and that, without them, things would be worse. That might have been true in the past, but only because they added the value of distributing the papers in large scale, something that today can be done by the internet.

He also claims that the quality of free journals with open access would be much lower because the usual journals keep standards. It's not difficult, however, to keep certain standards and the price we pay for those standards is much higher than we should. Of course you have to pay an editor, but remember that journals DON'T PAY ANYTHING TO REVIEWERS, and although editors do an important job, it's the reviewers who go through the papers in details and are responsible for a higher quality standard. 

Okay, I already wrote too much about that article. Let's see how things really are. 

The Basic Idea

In the ideal world, we scientists write papers because we discovered interesting things and we want to:

1. Make our discoveries widespread known
2. Allow other scientists, or anyone who feels capable of, to check our results (hopefully confirming we were right ;) )

In the very past, this was difficult. Even if you don't consider the work in copying your documents over an over again if you don't even have a photocopy machine, disseminating them is a huge obstacle. Before emails, things had to be sent by letter. Printed. That's not efficient at all.


The solution, of course, is to publish things in journals, which are then distributed to a certain audience. But think of a newspaper. It reaches more people because people knows where to buy it, are interested in it and effectively go there. Scientific journals were then printed in the universities. However, as you may think, it was still difficult to transmit things far away in space. So, at some point, larger companies took over and were able to guarantee an even larger distribution. They also contributed to a nice formatting of the papers as well, I must say.

That sounds nice, but there are some catches. First of all, these ARE NOT non-profit companies. On the contrary. And as any normal company, they are interested in minimize costs and maximize gains. And they did a pretty good job exploiting the willingness of scientists to be known and their moral convictions. How?

1. Willingness to be known: whatever the reason, scientists like to be recognised. In order for this to happen, you have to make your work known. If people are only reading papers in a journal, well, you might choose not to, but no one will read you. So, because scientists NEED to publish in journals, they started to accept any kind of agreement with them. This culminated in the absurd copyright agreements that still exist today. In other words, these agreements allow the publisher to sell the scientist's paper and forbid the scientist of doing the same. :) And there's more, the journal doesn't pay anything for this copyright. Actually, most scientists are even happy that they don't have to pay for the publication!

2. Moral Convictions: but to keep some standards of quality, you cannot publish anything. You can hire editors, but editors are not specialists in everything. The journals needed specialists to evaluate and correct the papers, but they didn't want to pay much. Actually, they discovered a way of not paying anything at all! They send papers to the specialists and ask them to evaluate the papers. There are, of course, scientists that review paper for evil reasons, like stealing ideas, but they are minority. Usually, we feel compelled to review papers to help colleagues to publish. And also to guarantee that science is being done properly. So, we do that because we are moral. For free.

Then, things ended up this way. We, scientists, give our papers and rights to the publisher. We work for them reviewing for free. They sell everything.

But, unfortunately for those who found an exploitable niche, the world changes all the time. Computers and the internet practically nullified the advantages of publishing in scientific journals. How?

1. Formatting: today, most scientists use LATEX to write papers. You must know that all formatting work done by the publishers today can be summarized in producing a LATEX template and a guide for the authors to do the formatting by themselves! (I have to admit, those guys are damn smart!) LATEX is freely available on the web. If you think LATEX is too complicated, you can always use Word, which unfortunately is paid, or the freely available Open Office. So, formatting today is so easy that this advantage doesn't exist.

2. Distribution: another one that bit the dust. The fact that putting in the webpage and sending by email completely compensated all advantages in distribution publishers can offer is so obvious that here lies the thing against they fight most. Anyone, in virtually any country in the world, can INSTANTLY have access to a paper we upload to our page or to a repository like the free arXiv.

What about quality? Well, maybe this should be the area of focusing of these guys, but they just want a free ride. They should pay reviewers and, if they think they would not get enough profit if they do, than too bad for them. If I want someone to work for me I have to pay, unless I want a slave, be it a willing one or not.

They store the papers and they need to pay for the server and maintenance. They do. True. But think about it. They are just storing the work of others, selling access to it and charging for that. Are you allowed to do that with, let's say, artwork you find in the internet? Of course not, because of the copyright. That's why they need the authors to give it to them. But that's a very easy job and everyone who stores things in mass on the internet has to pay something. Too bad for them again. 

But if they do not offer any advantage today, why do they still exist? Ah... let's see.


Everyone needs to survive. Everyone needs money. Scientists are no different. We really work very hard. As hard as any other hard-worker. But we usually earn less in average. Yes, that's the truth. If you compare our work with physicians or lawyers with the same level of intellectual training... well, it's enough to say that they laugh on us.

But we are proud and we do it for love. But we need jobs. However, contrary to arts or sports, nobody is willing to sponsor us. If we go to the streets and try to sell our papers as artists do with their works, we will starve to death. Some of us can find places in the industry, but most scientists cannot. Those depend on universities.

Universities live on students and funding from agencies. Students are not related to research, they are related to teaching and we can talk about that another time. Agencies, governmental or not, are the ones who allow research to be made. But to get grants, the agencies today use "objective" criteria to select who is gonna get them. One of these is number of publications in peer reviewed journals and in which journal they are published. There you go!

That means that in order to get money for leaving, we scientists NEED to publish in those journals. So, we have to accept their terms, otherwise we don't publish and we don't get jobs. I've seen people saying that you can negotiate the copyright agreements, for instance, like in this article. But the truth is that, if you're not known, is in the beginning of your career or is not in Oxbridge, chances are that you're doomed. In those cases, you do need to publish or your career simply ends. THAT is the main, and maybe only, reason why it's difficult to get rid of the middle man (publishers) today. We gave them a lot of power, it's not easy to take it back...

The Moral, The Ideal, The Right

Is it moral to do what the publishers do? Well, it's business, but you can keep at leas some moral... I think it would be okay for them to store, publish and even charge for scientific papers IN THEIR WEBSITE as long as:

1. Scientists keep TOTAL rights over their papers. The right to disseminate them FREELY if they want to do so. They right even to SELL it if they want to, although nobody will buy it...
2. They PAY reviewers.
3. They accept that, it's business, so if the model is not profitable enough for them, get over it and open another company.

I said IT WOULD, if scientists were not forced to do that, which you've seen is another story.

What about freedom of knowledge? Should scientists be forced to release their papers to public domain? First of all, remember that public domain means that anyone can sell derived work based on that. I'm not sure it's fair. On the other hand, creative commons seems good enough for most purposes. In both cases, I do think that people should be able to read and download for free any government-funded research, but the scientists should be allowed to earn money from that work if he wants to. We need to eat, people.

In all cases, even when the paper has been privately funded, the full copyright has to remain with the scientist. As it has been said many times, no scientist has ever became rich by selling papers, so none of us will charge for people to read ours. It simply doesn't happen!

This means that we couldn't care less if Aaron Swartz was going to spread our papers for free in the internet. I certainly don't about mine! First of all, we never earn anything with those papers and he was not hurting us economically. Only the publishers that forced us to give up the rights. I'm really don't empathize with their melodramatic stories about storing and distributing for the sake of spreading knowledge. They earn much more than me. Secondly, he was doing us the job that should be done by the publisher: dissemination.

Can we eliminate the need for publishers? Can we break the vicious circle that we ourselves created when we had no choice, or when that was a better choice? I think we can. I have some ideas, but I need to work better on them and I will write about it later. What would be yours?

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