As part of our Publishing350 programme to mark the anniversary of the world’s first scientific journal, Philosophical Transactions, we held a series of debates on the Future of Scholarly Scientific Communication. During Open Access Week we reflect on a couple of those sessions covering profit and sustainability in scientific publishing.

This second post summarises discussion from: ‘Scientists or shareholders: the cost to the research community’ chaired by Professor John Skehel with Dr Stephen Curry and Professor John Wood as speakers.

4S8A7083In general there was no ideological objection to publishers making profits, but it is a question of how much profit. A number of major companies were mentioned with profit levels between 5% and 20%, but the major commercial publishers had profits over 30%. Commercial publishers tend to be much more expensive than not-for-profit publishers. It is clear that this market is not working well.

Value for money

There are shared interests between academics and publishers, but there are also conflicts. Open access is a good way of resolving many of these issues. The two major themes of the meeting are incentives and transparency. Authors should prioritise discoverability of their research rather than publishing in the most expensive, prestige journals. They should be paying for good service rather than for a good impact factor. The world spends $1 trillion per year on research, but are we getting the best value we can?

There are great costs to performing and communicating research, but the latter is getting much cheaper as technology provides new outlets. Science provides great benefits to human health, industry and society. Costs should not be seen as only to the research community, but to society in general.

The next phase of science will generate even larger research costs; the, Square Kilometre Array radio telescope, for example, will generate 10 times the current internet traffic in terms of data output. The EU is setting up an open science research cloud to help manage the data from European research projects.

Changing the market

Support was expressed for the use of preprint servers as a faster and cheaper means of disseminating research. Funders are reluctant to prevent researchers from publishing in the highest prestige journals as they do not wish to limit academic freedom. In particular, young researchers should not be penalised in this way given the current reward system. But perhaps academics should take responsibility to look for better value for money themselves.


We hear a great deal about academic freedom but very little about academic responsibility.


In some cases, seeking cheaper publication routes may be counterproductive as some of those venues may have lower standards and or may be less diligent in checking for misconduct, for example. Many hybrid journals are actually cheaper than some “born open access” journals. PNAS maintains a hybrid model as it publishes across a wide range of disciplines and not all have funding available to pay APCs.

Funders, institutions and societies need to take a stand to re-define what constitutes a good journal in which to publish. This should look at a broader range of criteria, such as ethical checking, referee and data policies. It should not solely be based on impact factor. There was similar agreement about revising, updating and broadening an academic CV.


To develop a cost-effective market the link between publishing in particular journals and academic success should be broken, that’s the fundamental problem.


In conclusion

Unfortunately, developing economies appear to be following these perverse reward systems even more intensively as they build their science bases, and often wish cash incentives to researchers. Given the predominance of ‘green’ open access mandates around the world, we are likely to have a mixed economy of open access and subscriptions for some time to come. It is also important to bear in mind the very large differences between disciplines in how they engage with open access and the publishing avenues available to them.

This is an edited extract from the full FSSC conference report which can be accessed here. And you can read the first ‘Scientists or shareholders’ blog here.



One Response to “2. Scientists or shareholders?”

  1. Mike Taylor

    “Funders are reluctant to prevent researchers from publishing in the highest prestige journals as they do not wish to limit academic freedom.”

    I’ve heard this kind of thing a few times now. It’s nonsense. “Academic freedom” means “the belief that the freedom of inquiry by faculty members is essential to the mission of the academy as well as the principles of academia, and that scholars should have freedom to teach or communicate ideas or facts (including those that are inconvenient to external political groups or to authorities) without being targeted for repression, job loss, or imprisonment.”

    It has nothing to do with what venue research is published in, but is concerned with what research is carried out and published.

    There may be legitimate reasons to allow researchers free choice of where to publish. (Or there may not: this is open to debate.) But let’s not muddy the waters by conflating this with the much more fundamental issue of academic freedom.