Just Say No to Exploitative Publishers of Science Journals


By Christopher A. Reed


It used to be publish or perish.  Now it is publish and perish.  Academic science and medicine are drowning in a sea of publications.  They have developed a journal-publishing culture that threatens to engulf them. Library budgets can’t keep up.  The peer-review system is over loaded.  Researchers feel overwhelmed.


Biologists at the University of California at San Francisco have called for a boycott of several popular Cell journals in response to over pricing by the British-Dutch conglomerate Reed Elsevier.  Cornell University is canceling more than 150 Elsevier journals and refused to accept a bundled deal.  After warning faculty members of possible cancellations the University of California campuses used their combined purchasing power to negotiate a system wide agreement with Elsevier that keeps price inflation in check for the time being.  The Public Library of Science has started a new biology journal based on free and open electronic access, and is expected to start a medical journal soon.


It’s time for universities, en masse, to take their cue from these smaller-sale insurrections and to just say no to extortionate journal-subscription costs and pay-for-view access to electronic versions of back issues.  That will require boldness among administrators and librarians, along with some “bribing” of faculty members to change their behavior.


In the 1960s, departmental journal collections were centralized to gain economies of scale.  Now, with electronic access and bundled price deals from publishers, the storehouse of knowledge as been further centralized and relocated to the computers of commercial publishing houses and professional societies.  Like it or not, publishers have become the de facto libraries of the world.  They know it and are exploiting it for unseemly financial gain.  The average price of Elsevier journals has increase at three times the rate of Consumer Price Index over the past 16 years.  Elsevier profits were up 26 percent.


Researchers don’t think too much about that as long as their institutions pay.  They like electronic access because of its desktop convenience and superior search capabilities.  What’s more, they advance their careers with appointments to editorial boards, and that has effectively silenced the scientific leadership from speaking out against the proliferation of overpriced journals, many of them not the highest quality. 


The journals market is dysfunctional.  Researchers do all the work, give away the product, and express almost no buying preferences.  They see journals being paid for out of someone else’s budget.  Meanwhile, through the pay-per-view portal, knowledge that was free to anyone who walked into a library is becoming less available, despite the ever-growing list of journals.


How did we get to this point?  We have been pushed there by the entry of for-profit publishers into the scientific-publishing area.  Scholars now are faced with too many inducements to have long publication lists, stressing quantity over quality.  Tenure procedures and the grant-renewal process of the National Institutes of Health encourage advancement by page counting.  The duration of grants from the National Science Foundation is too short, encouraging publication of “LPU’s” – least publishable units.  Professors feel obliged to quickly publish a certain number of papers co-written with their student so that those students can get jobs.


Knowledge is precious, and libraries are keepers of the flame.  But today, that has become a justification for excessive spending on routine scholarship.  Not all knowledge is of equal value.  Science is maturing, and the more predictable a result, the less it needs to be published.


Commercial publishers have been getting a disproportionate amount of serials budgets for decades. In the University of California system, Elsevier has raked in 50 percent of the online-journals budget for 32 percent of the titles and only 25 percent of the use.  In my discipline, chemistry, rather few of those titles are among the best.  Journals from professional societies are typically much cheaper and of better quality.


We need a new model for libraries’ serials budgets, one the devolves significant control to the users so as to induce changes in their behavior.  That would set constructive market forces into play.  When a big buyer, like the University of California, or leading researchers in a particular field joust with an exploitative publisher, that’s a step in the right direction.  But whittling down title lists and fees while leaving the fundamental, flawed buying structure in place is not enough.  It is time for a major buyer to say no to the entire menu of journal offerings from such a publisher, particularly if that publisher charges for access to the archives (the “backfile”) or offers licensing agreements that forbid file sharing on an individual-paper basis.


Researchers might be shocked and worried by such a massive cancellation.  But with the right leadership and a “bribe,” they could be convinced of its long-term value.  The money saved could be used variously, but it should be returned to individual departments and researchers. Every faculty member needs money to buy or maintain a decent printer.  Researchers’ labs and offices, not libraries, are where hard copies of journal articles are now being printed.  Faculty members also need software and training and assistance to maintain Web sites offering free electronic reprints of their papers for colleagues.


More creatively, researchers could be given a “journal cancellation grant” to use for any research expense.  That would be a real inducement to change their publishing behavior.  In return, they would promise not to submit to, subscribe to, referee for, or accept editorial-board appointments to any journal that is over priced or does not allow free access to the backfile.


A productive new era in faculty-librarian cooperation could be born, replacing the presently strained relations.  Librarians are needed back in departments to help educate students in how to take full advantage of the electronic literature.


Universities would need to reassure their faculty members that the fallout from such measures will not harm careers.  That could be done by making journal-cancellation grants substantial and continuing.  Institutions could instruct promotion committees to de-emphasize editorial-board membership as a criterion for career recognition.  They could even say that publishing in, and membership on, the editorial boards of expensive, low-quality journals will count against promotion.  Everyone in a given discipline knows which ones the junk journals are.


While such restructuring of the scientific-journal culture might seem drastic, our present course is fiscally unsustainable, and unconducive to the best and most efficient research.



B16 The Chronicle of Higher Education February 20, 2004