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Publishers in power: How capitalism debilitates science

By Ishita Moghe, October 28 2020—

Publications are used as a means to measure success in academia. In the past, researchers used to target field-specific journals. The introduction of diverse mega journals such as Cell, Nature and Science has created a competition to publish the most generalizable, novel and groundbreaking research. Most journals are controlled by the few publishers that control the majority of science media. Scientific publications have been commodified to the point that the bulk of publications are owned by for-profit publishers.

Looking more closely at publishing giant Reed-Elsevier, we can begin to unravel this massively profitable industry. Most traditional or non-scientific publishers deal with the costs of paying authors to write articles, paying editors and reviewers to prepare them and paying for marketing and distribution. But publishers like Elsevier have manuscripts sent to them free of charge, with research done on university and government grants. Scientists rely on publications for career advancement — most tenured positions require a certain output of articles per year just to be considered for the job.

Peer review for scientific articles is done by volunteers in the field to pad their own CV’s. Reviewers volunteer their time while maintaining an already challenging workload, because “from a Darwinian survivalist perspective, it enhances the researcher’s public profile and tenured future.” This system takes advantage of pre-existing demands on academics to continually increase their productivity to gain desirable employment. 

Publishers like Elsevier don’t need to pay for distribution, but instead sell their publications to institutions globally. Universities pay millions for students to be able to access these publicly-funded articles, with subscription prices going up 273 per cent between 1986 and 2004. In this bizarre setup, the government pays for the research and then later pays to access it. Scientists volunteer their manuscripts and their time to review papers, but pay to read them. It’s not surprising then that Elsevier, which claims to publish 25 per cent of scientific papers globally, reported profits of $1.6 billion CAD in 2019, with profit margins surpassing those of Google and Amazon.

The publishing industry also influences the research that is conducted. Scientists’ livelihoods are largely dependent on their publications, which forces them to align their research to what will most likely get published in the most high-impact journals. Publishers are always looking for novel and grand results since this increases subscription rates. Because far fewer ‘failures’ are published, it narrows the known literature in the field. This ultimately lessens the available knowledge and creates gaps that other scientists might pursue, only to get the same negative results.

Are there any viable alternatives to this broken system? 

Though there have been movements to make open-access articles available, publishers have started charging authors inflated ‘article-processing’ or ‘article-preparation’ costs. These fees range between hundreds to thousands of dollars, paid in order for their articles to be publicly-accessible after some time. In early 2019, the University of California system announced their momentous decision not to renew their subscription with Elsevier. The University cited ever-rocketing subscription costs and Elsevier’s refusal to make UCalifornia authors’ publications free-access without charging the authors extra fees.

The movement for open-access articles has been championed by pirating libraries like SciHub, which is maintained by donations from its users. These sites rely on researchers to upload legally obtained copies of articles on the server, making them freely accessible to any other user. SciHub had its domain name taken away by a lawsuit from Elsevier, but continues to boast more than 84 million free articles. Papers available on SciHub have been shown to be cited 1.7 times more than articles behind paywalls, making the need for freely accessible publications clearer than ever. Because more citations are seen as a measure of success for researchers, this actually encourages authors to make their articles free — it’s not like the authors are profiting from paid access to their articles anyways. Though the articles are pirated, free access on SciHub is the only way for many to reach scientific literature. In contrast, Elsevier charges readers an average of $31.50 to access one article.

Legal avenues to access free articles have been making a surge in the past decade as well, with the Public Library of Science (PLoS) and arXiv (pronounced ‘archive’) databases. While PLoS charges authors a one-time processing fee to keep the business sustainable, arXiv is voluntarily funded by the Cornell University Library. Government funding agencies, such as the National Institute of Health (NIH) have pledged to account for article processing fees in their grants. Though these legal depositories are considerably smaller than pirate sites like SciHub, they offer solutions that can be supported by institutional and government mandates.

The push for free-access science remains strong, and yet publishers continue to profit from the ‘double-dipping’ of receiving free submissions and charging readers to access them. Structural changes need to be implemented not only to remedy the financial plundering by publishers, but also to restore the integrity of scientific inquiry.

This article is part of our Opinions section and does not necessarily reflect the views of the Gauntlet’s editorial board.

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