It’s Not Academic: How Publishers Are Squelching Science Communication
You might wonder why researchers continue to give their work to publishers—handing over copyright and often even paying for the privilege. Why haven’t we simply deserted the old publishers, walked away and started our own? Well, to some extent we have: that is what the Cost Of Knowledge boycott is about. It’s sometimes been described as a petition, but isn’t trying to persuade Elsevier to do something. It’s a declaration of independence. One very successful publisher started by researchers in 2003 is the non-profit Public Library of Science (PLoS). It publishes seven journals, all open access. One of them, PLoS ONE, started only in 2006, has quickly become the world’s largest academic journal, with 13,798 papers published in 2011. And open-access journals can be influential: PLoS Biology consistently has a very high impact factor (IF), though PLoS has de-emphasized this traditional, problematic measure, so you won’t find this fact blazoned across their website.
Yet barrier-based publishers survive because of another disconnect, this one between researchers and libraries. Researchers choose which journals to support with their submissions, but it’s libraries that have to pay for subscriptions to those journals. Because of the stupid way researchers are usually evaluated (and this is another whole issue), the intrinsic quality of our work matters less than the brand name of the journal it’s published in. So we have strong selfish reasons for wanting to get our work into the “best” journals, even if it is at the cost of effective communication. And we have no up-front costs to dissuade us even if those journals are expensive ones. We have a completely dysfunctional journal market because the real purchaser never sees the bill.
At this point, it seems clear that the old publishers aren’t going to change; their support for the RWA is proof enough of this. To fix the academic publishing mess, researchers need to stop sending their work to barrier-based journals. And for that to happen, we need funding bodies and job-search committees to judge candidates on the quality of their work, not on which brand name it’s associated with.
Happily, there are signs of movement in this direction: for example, The Wellcome Trust says “it is the intrinsic merit of the work, and not the title of the journal in which an author’s work is published, that should be considered in making funding decisions.” We need more funding and hiring bodies to make such declarations. Only then will researchers will be free of the need (real or apparent) to prop up parasitic publishers by sending their best work to big-name, barrier-based journals.