Jean-S├ębastien Caux

A Modest Proposal for Markets in Scientific Publishing

Posted on 2017-12-11   Publishing

Many people directly or indirectly involved in the world of scientific publishing advocate the utility of "markets". In particular, the idea is that "opening up the market" for Article Processing Charges (APCs) would help reduce costs associated to the move towards Open Access while "cleaning up" the industry.

The incomprehensible part of discussions on market-driven processes in scientific publishing, is that only a thin slice of the "manufacturing" process is ever mentioned. If markets work so well, why don't we simply apply the idea at more levels? Surely this is a missed opportunity?

Let's begin by the fundamentals. To produce a publication, a few steps are required:

Scientists must:

  • recognize the opportunity for new research
  • conceive the project
  • implement it (including: getting funding, recruiting, supervising etc)
  • during implementation, continuously adapt (first idea doesn't work? But perhaps this other one does...)
  • keep the coffee machine in working order, to get through stuck-research-induced sleeplessness
  • after the eureka moment(s) and all due tests and verifications, write the results up
  • get the manuscript peer reviewed by specialists, and implement improvements.

Publishers must:

  • shepherd the peer review process to ensure integrity
  • produce and maintain the final publication object.

Let's be honest: of all these steps, the publisher-performed ones pale in their triviality as compared to those performed by scientists. The former require specialist knowledge, and a great deal of unrewarded personal dedication and creative stubbornness. The latter do not require any "rocket science", out-of-the-ordinary imagination or noticeable level of self-sacrifice. The infrastructure required is minimal, the processes straightforward, the task easily codified. Other things like promotional work serve journal-level interests, not science, and are thus not listed.

Why is it, then, that the publisher-level steps are the only "market-driven", financially rewarded ones?

In honour of Jonathan Swift's 350th birthday, and of his creative ideas Beneficial to the Publick, let's thus imagine a truly market-oriented scientific publishing world.

To start with the simplest and most obvious point, I'd expect to be paid at least my professional hourly rate to perform refereeing duties. Not the tiny "bribes" sometimes offered, which come nowhere near the correct cost (let's think "full costing model" here). Pushing marketization further, if I actually feel that the quality of my refereeing work is above that of the "competition" from my colleagues, I would feel entirely justified to do what every other business person would do with a better, more desirable product, namely: charge more. And since markets work so well, I'd set up and join a refereeing stock market, in which I'd float tradeable "shares" and "derivatives" whose worth would be rightfully set by my current "market value" as a referee.

Going further down the "market" route, as a science author, I'd expect to be approached by top journals and offered realistic payments in order for me to consider sending my work to their venue (not the rather ironic "discounts" on APCs). When selling my publication preprint, I could consider competing offers and perhaps systematically go for the highest bidder. This sounds proper: the journal should be the client buying the scientist's product.

In fact, coming to think of it, I would never actually agree to "sell" my work to a publisher. Thinking of my own interest and of proper marketization of my qualities as a scientist, I'd implement a leasing system where a publisher would pay me yearly fees for me to agree that my publication be (temporarily, I'm no fool) hosted on their platform. At the end of each term, this agreement could be revised; for a particularly well-cited paper, I would unashamedly and without any moral qualms inflate the rental price up to that set (in an unquestionably correct way, at least according to some thinkers) by the "rental" market. For my very best publications, I'd unhesitantly place all rights to them in a numbered company registered in a tax haven, so that my inheritors can continue reaping the well-deserved benefit of my hard-earned rewards as a researcher even when I'm gone. Then, and only then, could I feel I have my well-deserved place among my corporate publishing buddies.

If you're like me, you won't see this as a new and promising wild west of business opportunities. You'll see a cringe-inducing multi-headed monster which you definitely don't want to release from its Pandora's box.

I thus have an alternate proposal. No market at all. No profit-making at all, at any level of the publishing process. Scientists do their research and write papers as part of their academic job. Scientists perform refereeing tasks as part of their academic job. Scientists perform high-level editorial tasks as part of their academic job. In parallel to grant-giving, publishing becomes a public service shepherding the peer-review process and pushing the scientists' proof-ready output through the last steps of formatting, hosting and curating (which is precisely what SciPost does).

Then, and only then, could I feel I have a publishing system worthy of my knowledge-producing, society-benefitting scientific community. If you ever wondered what my reasons were to start SciPost, well that's one of them.