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J. Scott Turner: Scientific publishing as a scam

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Purpose and Desire by Scott Turner

It’s an amazing story:

It may surprise you to know that there has been an embargo against scientists with UK grants publishing in Britain’s premier scientific journal, Nature. At root was a dispute about the cost of publishing scientific papers, who has the rights to see them, and at what price. In the case of Nature, that price was €9,500, about $11,300.

The episode reveals more than just a haggle over price, however. Deep troubles are roiling the seemingly calm surface of scientific publishing. The dustup over Nature is newsworthy because it brought those troubles to the surface, for all to see. Beneath the surface, though, the culture and practice of science and scientific discourse has been being transformed – radically. It’s a complicated story, with a complicated history.

J. Scott Turner, “Scientific Publishing Is a Scam Fed by the Government” at RealClearScience (April 27, 2022)

Readers unfamiliar with J. Scott Turner may wish to know that he is also the author of Purpose and Desire: What Makes Something “Alive” and Why Modern Darwinism Has Failed to Explain It. And here he is, publishing at Real Clear Science…

Maybe it took someone willing to quit worshipping at the Darwin shrine to bring this out.

Oh gods. From the OP:
It may surprise you to know that there has been an embargo against scientists with UK grants publishing in Britain’s premier scientific journal, Nature.
Yes it does surprise me. Because there isn't one. I assume this is some garbled interpretation of funder mandates for open access
OUP is more than an academic publisher: it is one of a group of four mega-publishing houses which together dominate scientific journals. The others include Elsevier, Nature Springer (the publisher and owner of Nature), and Taylor Francis.
What about Wiley? You've missed out one of the Big Three in your big four! I wonder if the photo editor who decided on the photo at the top of the article realised they were trolling the author.
The revenues come largely from page charges that are assessed for a paper to appear in one of Elsevier’s journals.
Not quite: Elsevier doesn't charge page charges for publication (at least I've never had to pay), but there are charges for a paper to appear open access. But if you don't want your paper to be open access, don't pay.
Page charges constitute an enormous revenue stream for academic publishers.
The only time I've ever had to pay page charges has been to American society journals, who weren't publishing through academic publishers. I think the author is getting them confused with APCs.
There is fierce competition among the scientific publishing firms to capture as much of that revenue stream as possible. Like a war of competing cartels, there are casualties, and these have been piling up. My American Zoologist was one, but its demise was part of a larger trend of driving traditional guild-based scientific publications out of the market.
According to the article, American Zoologist became a casualty in 1996, before open access and APCs became a thing. That was the era when similar journals (but not those published by big academic publishers) were charging page charges.
For example, subscriptions to scientific journals are no longer sold to individuals, as American Zoologist was. Rather, subscriptions are priced to sell solely to institutional libraries, at exorbitant rates that put them out of reach of individuals.
Right, now you're getting it. The income wasn't from page charges.
The revenues are raised further by the practice of bundling many journals into a package, a tactic learned, no doubt, from the cable television industry.
Really? The practice started in the 80s, before cable was a thing in Europe. The history is fairly well known: unlike cable, publishers would get institutions to agree that prices were confidential, and then would push the prices up (because there was no way to compare prices). Bundling became more efficient, and if handled correctly is probably a good thing for most libraries, as they don't have to haggle over the price of every journal.
But a member of the public wanting to read the same journal article is blocked by a paywall, which typically demands $35-$50 for the privilege. Finally, the authors of publications must surrender their copyrights. This restricts them from sharing even their own work with colleagues at other institutions.
Not all publishers insist on authors giving up copyright: some do and some don't. And in practice they won't stop people sharing their work with colleagues: back in American Zoologist times they would encourage it by sending out preprints. Even now they don't care if you email a pdf (but they don't like mass distribution).
Elsevier, for example, is a subsidiary of the RELX Group, which also owns two of the major databases and search engines for the scientific literature, Scopus and ScienceDirect, which set the impact factors!
No they don't! Impact factors are set by Web of Science, which is owned by Clarivate.
All good and virtuous, but the main outcome was to add to the scientific publishers’ already enormous revenue streams, at the expense of repositories like PLoS.
Not add, replace. Although things get murky. There is a problem of "double dipping" (i.e. charging both readers and authors for the same material), but this is something that people are very aware of, and have solutions. FWIW, the all analyses I've seen have suggested that open access reduces income overall.
More grants means more papers, which means more page charges, which are inflated by Open Access rules. Thus, the public is forced to pay even more for the privilege of reading what their taxes are supporting.
*sigh* Open access moves paying for publication from the reader to the author. So yes, as scientists we see we have to pay more but we don't see the reduction in subscription fees that libraries pay.
Which raises the other question no one wants to ask. The Big Science cartel feeds on massive government outlays for science, $50 billion dollars from the US alone in 2019, and doubling every seven years. The domineering and anti-competitive practices of the scientific publishing industry are only possible through capturing this immense revenue stream.
Plus an inefficient market. I've no idea how much our library pays for the different journals I have access to. Open access might help if it created a market, so that when I submit a paper to a journal, price is one aspect I consider.
So, the question: would science be better off if government got out of the science game altogether?
In a a word, no.
Scientists are waking up to this scam, and are turning more frequently to independent platforms, like arXiv for disseminating their findings to their colleagues.
That just shifts the funding problem: arXiv, and other preprint servers, still costs money to run. It also doesn't provide peer review, or any informal model of credit (which is what publishing in Nature gives you). Yes, there are very real problems with publishing, but Turner doesn't have a good grasp of them. Bob O'H
Well, not exactly a scam. Just Parkinson. The publishers served a purpose 100 years ago but no longer serve a purpose. They still find ways to suck in money without providing any value for the money. I suppose it's technically a fraud now, but it wasn't designed to be a fraud. polistra

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