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DBL%20Hendrix%20small.png College chemistry, 1983

Derek Lowe The 2002 Model

Dbl%20new%20portrait%20B%26W.png After 10 years of blogging. . .

Derek Lowe, an Arkansan by birth, got his BA from Hendrix College and his PhD in organic chemistry from Duke before spending time in Germany on a Humboldt Fellowship on his post-doc. He's worked for several major pharmaceutical companies since 1989 on drug discovery projects against schizophrenia, Alzheimer's, diabetes, osteoporosis and other diseases. To contact Derek email him directly: Twitter: Dereklowe

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September 17, 2013

Thoughts on the Scientific Publishing Model, And Its Inverse

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Posted by Derek

I mentioned the idea of an Elsevier boycott here last year. Here's someone who's thought about another course of action: if you can't beat 'em, join 'em - up to a point:

How about this for a solution:

1. We start a (say) monthly journal.

2. Set up a simple, lucrative payment for accepted articles. As a first stab, how about $10,000 paid personally to the researchers responsible. Similarly, each reviewer receives $2,000 for each article reviewed.

I imagine this would be enough to attract some serious submissions. So serious, in fact, that universities and libraries would be obliged to subscribe (at drastically reduced prices). Oh yeah, and you can only submit articles if you or your institution is a subscriber.

So every month hundreds of thousands of dollars would be distributed to scientists, and there would be a monthly prize pool for excellent research. And I bet the journal would be a cracking read (or as cracking as stiff scientific prose ever is, anyway).

But why not take it a step further.

3. Assuming, of course, you executed that first step and attracted some worthwhile research, you could simply distribute all of the profits. So if you attracted 5% of the market… say 50% penetration at half price, you would be able to distribute 250m a year (I know, I know).

I imagine a star researcher would prefer to get paid $200k rather than submit to Nature. And as the quality of the new journal improved, it could even end up becoming more prestigious.

The first problem I have with this, and it's a big one, is that if you're giving "drastically reduced" subscription prices to libraries and universities, where are all the profits coming from that you're using to pay the authors? I believe that squeezing institutional subscribers is, in fact, the business model for many of the scientific publishers. A second difficulty (there are others, too) is that our current system already encourages people to divide publications up into smaller units and get a longer list of papers to their name. If there's sill more incentive to publish (cash rewards!), I can imagine this problem only getting worse.

The general rule in nonscientific publishing, that "money flows towards the author", is based on a market that pays for the finished products voluntarily, and has the option of not reaching into its collective pocket at all. Publishers are also free to pick and choose among the many, many manuscript opportunities they're offered, trying to find those that they think will provide a return on their own investments of time and money.

Scientific publishing is a different undertaking, with a mixed set of motivations. We're publishing our results to show what we've accomplished, and to add to the storehouse of human knowledge (as opposed, say, to adding to the storehouse of human romance novels or slow-cooker chicken recipe compendia). We're also publishing to make ourselves look better, to our current employers and to potential future ones, not that such publications are a very efficient way to do that, but still. And the readers are keeping up with the published matter partly out of a desire to learn about what we have to say, and partly out of professional necessity.

Here's the thing: if it were not for the expense necessary to produce the journals, there would be no market involved at all. In the early days of science, results were distributed by personal correspondence, and journals are, in a way, just collections of such letters. Some of them, you'll notice, refer to that function by having "Letters" in their names. No one was paid to write those letters to their colleagues, and no one paid to receive them. The only expenses were the writing materials, the time it took for composition, and postage - just as the expenses now are the time and effort for composition (on the author's part) and the time and effort for editing, reviewing, and publishing (on the journal's part). These expenses have, in theory, been going down as fewer journals are published on pressed tree sheets and hauled around by mail trucks, but they cannot go to zero as long as there is editing involved, as well as commentary on the papers themselves and publicity for them, not to mention things like server maintenance, etc.

All the fights about the cost of scientific journals are fought on that narrow strip of ground. How much does it cost to do these things, and is it truly worth what people pay for them? Otherwise, we might all just as well upload everything into a central electronic archive, with a nominal fee to keep the hardware running. We'd then be back to sending letters around to let everyone else know when we've put in something that we think is hot stuff, or setting up web sites to get the news out. And some of those might become useful enough to start charging a subscription fee, and then. . .

Comments (16) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: The Scientific Literature


1. Anonymous on September 17, 2013 1:01 PM writes...

It does seem like a very idealistic and yet poorly thought out idea: give everyone more money while charging everyone less. It reminds me that some scientists are just not meant to have any place in business. Ever.

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2. Anonymous on September 17, 2013 1:18 PM writes...

Here's a scientist talking about rewarding quantity of papers regardless of quality, cost and value, just the kind of issues we see drive pharma R&D these days...

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3. franko on September 17, 2013 1:40 PM writes...

Where are the funds coming from to pay for the submissions? From your grant, same as usual. A portion of this income is then distributed to the authors? What's not to like?

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4. Anonymous on September 17, 2013 1:48 PM writes...

@3: Sure, it's great if your an author or referee: just publish and approve as many crap papers as you can, without even doing any experiments. Not so great if you're handing out the grant funding to publish all this crap.

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5. B on September 17, 2013 2:04 PM writes...

"Otherwise, we might all just as well upload everything into a central electronic archive, with a nominal fee to keep the hardware running. We'd then be back to sending letters around to let everyone else know when we've put in something that we think is hot stuff, or setting up web sites to get the news out. And some of those might become useful enough to start charging a subscription fee, and then. . ."

That sounds rather like the arXiv to me.

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6. dave w on September 17, 2013 4:16 PM writes...

Seems like if it weren't for the desire for the perceived "respectability" of Formal Publications in Recognized Journals, everyone would just be passing their papers around on the internet as PDF files anymore...

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7. Anonymous on September 17, 2013 4:50 PM writes...

I believe that that extrinsic motivation such as monetary reward is not the best motivator of creative work. Although not completely applicable, the comparison of Britannica vs Wikipedia shows that money does not always yield the best results.

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8. VP on September 17, 2013 5:30 PM writes...

The situation in some branches in physics is: you read arXiv, or you're always half a year late to the game. Your results are effectively published when they appear there. This is what matters for research.

For matters of fame and funding, you play the game of publishing in journals, which ranks stuff according to fashionability and a rough estimation of merit.

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9. Shelby on September 17, 2013 7:31 PM writes...

At Crooked Timber, there's some discussion of a sociology journal attempting a new model:

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10. Shelby on September 17, 2013 7:35 PM writes...

At Crooked Timber, there's some discussion of a sociology journal attempting a new model:

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11. Shelby on September 17, 2013 7:35 PM writes...

At Crooked Timber, there's some discussion of a sociology journal attempting a new model:

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12. simpl on September 18, 2013 7:30 AM writes...

I like the Wiki model, it solves the need for speed, the open discussion, and allows shaming people into retraction: and that's a good start.
What about the outsiders who clamour for every pharma study to be published, incuding the failures and enigmas, though? How boring, we'll need to rank the articles in some sci-Facebook, I guess.

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13. Anon on September 18, 2013 9:08 AM writes...

How much of that 10k does the student get? Is it cash or does it go towards the lab's general funds.

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14. sepisp on September 18, 2013 9:48 AM writes...

#7: Britannica vs. Wikipedia is a false comparison, because Britannica authorship is not distributed. A work that intends to cover all topics certainly benefits from crowdsourcing. But, there is a limit to this. More specialized topics benefit from a single point of view, and getting that is not obvious. I would think that a textbook on a specialized topic would be much better written if it was from paid experts rather than a cursory treatment from people with no interest and without review.

Case in point, the article "Organic chemistry" in Wikipedia. "Fine chemical", though, was actually written by an expert.

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15. yeroneem on September 18, 2013 4:41 PM writes...

Some Russian journals actually pay authors for published articles. Not much, but still. My review in Russian Chemistry Reviews actually earned me some $600, which was not bad money for a student at the time.

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16. Mivil on September 30, 2013 10:35 AM writes...

Such a Journal could be called "The Journal of Our Results"

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