October 1, 2020

The Niche

Knoepfler lab stem cell blog

The case for open access publishing embodied in a single equation

Taxpayer supported government grants + scientists’ work  = closed access publisher profits (derived from payments from taxpayers + scientists)

This simple equation embodies all that is wrong with today’s predominant system of publishing.

In fact, it is an indictment of closed access publishers.

The profits of closed access publishers come at the expense of science and society by paradoxically blocking the flow of knowledge while they claim to be doing the opposite service of disseminating information.

Einstein chalk boardIf Einstein were alive and still publishing today, a journal such as Nature or Science (or almost any other) would charge (A) to publish his work and (B) his institution to have access to the work. Most young scientists around the world would be blocked from having access to Einstein’s ideas because they and their institutions couldn’t afford it even if the taxpayers of their own country paid to support the science.

In the biomedical sciences field the consequence of closed access publishing is often that MDs and their patients as well as patient advocates are blocked from reading papers that are important for their health care choices. 

What the heck is going on?

A lot of work and money goes into a scientific article, right?

A single article can reflect many years of work by numerous people and 10s or even 100s of thousands of dollars of grant support. Some articles may even reflect millions of dollars of costs, none of course paid by the publisher.

Almost all this work is done by scientists who do the experiments and write the articles. Of course the government pays for most of it. However, private foundations collectively provide hundreds of millions of dollars of support for research as well.

Once the science is published, publishers charge for access to these articles that they publish and as a result they make large profits.

Nothing goes to the scientists, their employers, the government or to private foundations.

Somehow that doesn’t make sense, does it?

Of course scientists don’t expect to be paid for their articles, but at the very least taxpayers should have free access to the publications that come out of NIH, NSF, and DOD-funded research. It is also painful that the supporters of private foundations have to pay to access the research information funded by their donations.

Publishers charge universities and other institutions a fortune for subscriptions. They even charge individuals big fees to read a single article (see some examples below):

Nature $32.00

Cell family journals  $31.50

Genes and Development $20.00 (24 hours access)

Science $15.00 (24 hours access)

That’s for one article and in some cases as indicated only for 24 hrs of access. For the same price you could buy many good books.

In fact publishers in addition charge scientists publication fees to publish their papers and then turn around and charge the scientists and their institutions fees to access the articles.

Inevitably that equation is going to change and it already is, but the question is how long it will take to really shift. The editor of Nature was even quoted this week as saying the case for open access is compelling, but claimed authors would have to pay $10K per article.

A more full equation is even more damning.

Tax payer dollar supported government grants + scientists’ original ideas + scientists’ work  = closed access publisher profits (which include publication charges to scientists + access charges to taxpayers and scientists)