Academic Spring: scientific publisher under fire

The public pays for most research. Why do we have to pay again to see it? A new business model is needed urgently. Google, anyone?

Arguably the most remarkable fact about the digital revolution is not the access to information, nor the volume, nor speed, nor the convenience: it is the cost. So much information is now available free. Newspaper magnates like Rupert Murdoch are appalled. Their business models have been upended. How can they make money if others are giving away news for free?

An exception, though, is scientific publishing. Science publishing is big business and the main players rake in breathtaking profits.

Take Dutch publisher Elsevier. Its bread and butter is 2500 scientific journals.  In its last financial year, it made a £724million profit on revenues of £2 billion, a 36% margin. The content of these journals is supplied by academics for free. It is edited by other academics for free. And it is peer-reviewed by yet further academics, again for free.

Elsevier then publishes this content and sells it back at a premium to the academic community through university libraries, departments and academic institutions.

While it is surprising academics largely accept this situation*, not all are content with the status quo. In late January, Cambridge mathematician Timothy Gowers blogged about his own long-running boycott of Elsevier. The blog was picked up by others leading to a website and petition to boycott Elsevier. Now, 4720 academics have signed the petition. The numbers are rising rapidly as the media  (Science, the Guardianthe Economist and others) take up the story.

One forgotten element to this is the fact that the public purse paid for the vast majority of work published in these journals. For that reason alone the principle must be free access to academic research: we paid for it, surely we have a right to see what our money bought? The agencies that fund science are curiously quiet on this matter, yet many have sophisticated and successful peer-review systems already in place to assess the quality of grant applications. It would not take a great leap to close the circle and create an independent, impartial system to assess the products of this investment.

But another giant remains silent.

Google has a straightforward if ambitious mission: Organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful. And the organisation has an impressive track record in either providing information at no financial cost to the user, or at least encouraging this behaviour in other organisations.  It would be interesting to brainstorm a new business model for scientific publishing with some of Google’s bright sparks.

Eight months back I had a casual conversation with a Google executive about access to knowledge and the stranglehold of the giants in scientific publishing. She said Google had been thinking about this but had yet to come up with a killer idea.

Google should noodle on this a little more. In the same conversation the executive mentioned a mission of is to improve the collective understanding of the Earth system. This is welcome. Improving the collective understanding of the Earth system is surely a cornerstone to the move to global sustainability.

You’d think the combined intellectual weight of government funding agencies, scientific unions and an organisation with deep pockets like Google could cook up a new business model that pulls down the firewalls but still generates handsome profits, and most importantly, unlocks civilisation’s most valuable resource.

*As an aside, not all scientific publishing companies are reviled in the same way. Macmillan for example, publishers of journals such as the Nature series, adds considerable editorial value to its content and provides a valuable filtering service separating the wheat from the chaff.

One thought on “Academic Spring: scientific publisher under fire

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