The scandal of the Research Works Act and for-huge-profit publishers like Elsevier

This is a post about the Research Works Act, something others have eloquently argued against. Jabberwocky has summarized a lot of the arguments here and another summary is here. In this post, I simply take a step back and consider exactly what goes into the acquisition of scientific knowledge to explain why the Research Works Act is so outrageous.

What exactly is the process of acquiring and disseminating scientific knowledge? Who pays for each step? Here is the process as I see it.

1. Discover. This complex process often also involves teaching others how to discover for themselves, avoiding bias and thinking broadly.

2. Analyze the data from the discovery with statistically robust methods.

3. Write up the discovery and analysis so others can clearly understand what you did and what you found. Include the actual data in a supplement or deposit it somewhere accessible.

4. Give the write-up to a mediator, the editor and editorial board, who will arrange for neutral people, unrelated to the researchers, to review the work.

5. Revise the work according to the advice of the referees and editors. This may require more discovery. It may require sending the work to a new editor for more review.

6. Share the work worldwide so others can learn from it. This is usually in the form of an electronic document discoverable by search engines like Google Scholar.

Where are the expenses in this process? In Europe, a lot of taxes are based on value added, so let’s think that way and go back through the list. The values I put on these categories are necessarily somewhat inexact and vary with discipline. You should feel free to replace them with your own values. Just remember that they are not about importance, but about cost if the item were charged at some hourly rate commensurate with skill.

1. Discover. 60

2. Analyze. 15

3. Write. 10

4. Review. 3

5. Revise. 6

6. Share 8

Who pays for these steps? Federal funding pays most for Discover, Analyze, Write, and Revise, or 95% according to this scheme. Our non-profit universities also pay a substantial share of these areas. Private foundations pay a small fraction. Review can be broken down into two general categories, first, the work done by professionals that evaluate papers, along with the editors who choose who evaluates, then make the final decision, and, second, the entities that choose the editors and provide the software for the reviewing process. The first category is generally performed by academic professionals who do not get extra pay for editorial and reviewing work, so we can say it is paid for by their universities and their research grants, whoever is paying their salaries. The editors are chosen either by academic societies or by publishing houses, for profit, or not. At some publishing houses there is a step of copy-editing which improves writing for clarity. This is increasingly rare. Sharing involves both bringing an electronic form of the article to the search engines and making it available. This is partly the role of the publishing houses who use software to format the final manuscript, and largely the role of university libraries who pay for access to the publishing house material.

Under this scenario, the publishers like Elsevier only set up editors who choose editorial boards, choose reviewing software like manuscript central, then copy-edit accepted manuscripts (sometimes) and release them, bundled into issues and volumes reminiscent of their paper antecedents. Why then, should Elsevier make hundreds of millions of dollars in profit for its tiny slice of the research pie? What do we get from them? Well, they are riding on a historical wave where publishing was expensive because of paper. Now they ride on our need to validate our research by publishing in respected places. Ancient journals where historic discoveries have been published give our work credibility. Who wouldn’t want to publish in Cell? Journals are evaluated in ways that are more plastic than they once were, since impact factors can be calculated so easily.

The sad fact is, we are draining our budgets to support for-profit journals that give us credibility. If we were starting afresh, clearly a new system would emerge, one that did not let the publishers take so much money. But we are not starting from nothing, so change will be gradual. We can publish in one of the PLoS journals. We can invent new ways of peer review that are much more independent, perhaps like the lenses that Connexions uses. But change is slow, though recognition of the problem has been quite fast.

One of the consequences of understanding who really pays for research is the decision by NIH that research it pays for must be made available through PubMedCentral when the work is accepted for publication. This wise policy gives the main funder of the research the power to disseminate it, though the publishers are still allowed to have a role.

The Research Works Act seeks to change that, to unfairly maintain the obscene profits publishing houses make on the backs of workers not paid by them. This act says NIH cannot insist that research it pays for be released to the public. This act is heavily supported by publishers like Elsevier and their organizations. It will inhibit the sharing of scientific data, sharing that is so necessary to scientific progress, sharing that is clearly in the public interest. It is a terrible piece of legislation, one that affects us directly, one that we should oppose.

The thing is, I’m not necessarily against for-profit journals if they make their profit on the fraction of value-added that they contribute. We need these structures for now, as we gradually move away from them. So, what should we do now? 1. Boycott Elsevier as the most egregious offender, though I am not sure what to do about the society journals they publish. 2. When you choose a journal look at both impact factors, and how much profit they are making, and choose the more modest journals. 3. Publish as much as possible in journals of academic societies and non-profit PLoS journals. 4. Do not review for, or serve on editorial boards of whatever publishing houses make you most uncomfortable, starting with Elsevier.

We are the ones that add nearly all the value in this process. We review and edit for others who profit from our unpaid work. Stop doing it!

About Joan E. Strassmann

Evolutionary biologist, studies social behavior in insects & microbes, interested in education, travel, birds, tropics, nature, food; biology professor at Washington University in St. Louis
This entry was posted in Publishing your work, Writing and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to The scandal of the Research Works Act and for-huge-profit publishers like Elsevier

  1. Jeremy Fox says:

    Some good questions for Elsevier, and a lengthy comment thread, from a prominent humanities/social science/general academia blog:

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