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The field of science is under-funded but we follow a publication system that has two major (expensive) options for publishing:

  1. Paywall journals: Scientists do the science and write the papers (using mainly tax money). Scientists act as editors and reviewers check the quality (while paid with more tax money). Once years of work have gone into a paper the journal takes it without paying the authors, academic editors and/or reviewers a single cent and puts the paper behind a paywall. Now universities have to pay the journal huge amounts of money (exact numbers are usually not available due to NDAs) to access the paper to which the journal did not contribute anything (apart from minor formatting issues and putting a pdf on a webpage maybe).
  2. Open access journals: Same as above (scientists do all the work) but authors even pay the journal a substantial amount of money which can easily go up to 6000 USD in "respected" journals (I am not talking about predatory open-access journals here – the 6k is for example for the journals of the American Chemical Society which publishes a few of the leading journals in our field). For this amount of money the journals do the minor formatting issues mentioned above and upload a pdf on their webpage. There is just no relation between their fees and what they do for it. Here 60-100 USD would be more appropriate than 6000 USD.

Is this not fundamentally wrong that scientists do the work and journals skim off the profit? Why do scientists (and tax payers!) still put up with this?

I do understand that historically :

  • Journals made sense as someone needed to print the articles into books to make them accessible to everybody and layouting might have been something non-trivial but nowadays this is not the case any-more.
  • Scientists have brought themselves into a dead-lock due to a publish (in high impact and "respected" journals) or perish in which you have to publish in certain journals in order to be seen as a good scientist.

But would it not make much more sense to have tax-money funded web-portals that use editors and reviewers to assess quality of articles and make them available for download as journals do it currently? That would cost a fraction of the paywall and open access fees that journals make money from at the moment.

Why does science still stick with journals? My feeling is that the field of science does not need the journals at all anymore - what am I missing here? I have never really gotten a satisfactory answer from other scientists (mostly things like "this is how things are and we can not change them") therefore I am asking here ...

The question Why are journals used in modern scientific academic research? has a title that sounds similar but the question goes into Arxiv and the answer are in regard to this ("Arxiv is not peer reviewed") which is not the issue discussed here.

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    Tax money that politicians can take away on a whim you mean? – Solar Mike Apr 27 at 17:52
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    FuzzyLeapFrog has an interesting talk on that. It's a complicated subject so I can't summarise the talk in a few sentences, I recommend watching it though. – JJJ Apr 27 at 18:06
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    paywallthemovie.com – David Ketcheson Apr 27 at 18:08
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    Your question was "Why does science still stick with journals?", which is exactly the linked question. The rest of your question seems like a (compelling) rant on how the current system is broken / could be improved, but that is not really answerable, we don't make the rules for how publication works. – cag51 Apr 27 at 18:32
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    @lordy - no one is saying that the current system couldn't be changed/improved. But you asked "why do we do it this way" and the answer is "inertia." You don't like the current system, great, neither do I -- go fix it. But this is a Q&A site, and you've got your answer. I'm out. – cag51 Apr 27 at 18:58
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A very simple reason is the fact that the cost for advertising the papers beyond the scientific audience and readership is internalized as publication costs/fees. And there are many non-scientists reading nature & Co, but also smaller journals. I think your question overlooks that non-scientific readership.

Of course you can question the profit margins and personally I also think they are much too high. At least in Germany I read some universities don't subscribe anymore to cost-intensive publishers and open-access journals have been founded, although rather in scientific niches for which also advertising would not increase the audience much. For publishers like IEEE which also organize many reputable conferences from physics to engineering and award "medals" and such, the cost will be even higher to establish their brand.

But if your publication and results also have implications outside of your scientfic community/journal (the famous and expensive "impact" journals), then several journals with a matching scope compete in advertising costs. Plain economics. Of course this explanation is also used by some publishers to increase the publications costs more and more. So apart from founding open-access journals the option you personally have is always to publish your results in the journal of a competing publisher with lower publication costs. Or you simply don't review anymore submissions to such journals to lower their impact.

A related problem is the judgment of researchers/research quality by impact of the journals they publish in. the question/problem to me here is, how to externalize that the research of a average joe researcher has more impact (because his topic is trendy) in comparison to someone who proves the poincare conjecture like Perelman. Isn't it funny he left academia and the publish or perish arena to manage to do this?! At least it made me think this. But as long as this impact measures exists and universities who in the end hire scientists do not come up with something better on their own instead of using the cost-intensive impact mechanism established by the publishers, not much will change. So your question is very right, but I wouldn't put most of the blame on the publishers. They have to compete in a free market, increase margin further and further and as much as possible, otherwise ending like the competitors of google and amazon. The problem is rather that now the public funding system and universities just start to develop their own publishing and judgement system for scientific research and somehow no one feels responsible.

  • My personal feeling is that if the majority of scientists who publish and review would choose and act among above options, publication costs of some publishers would not have risen so much, due to more competition among the publishers. As they didn't act, now the universities start to stop subscribing and more will and we are in a disruptive phase of the publishing system like in the non-scientific print and online media where you can only read if you pay and/or turn off your adblocker (again advertising) – user48953094 Apr 27 at 19:35
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There are many businesses which are inefficient in the sense that you judge publishing by. There is nothing requiring markets to accomplish some collective endeavor efficiently. Instead, markets are only efficient in terms of people being able to pay for things they want. For example, whether avocado toast is good nutrition is irrelevant to the market. But if you want to pay $15 for it, and if there is someone else willing to give you an avocado toast for $15, the market will certainly provide for that exchange.

Likewise, your arguments about how the current publishing system is inefficient are tangential at best. It so happens that a lot of people (in the current world, not in some fantasy post-journal world) want to publish in journals, and read what is published in journals, which is why the journals exist. You point out some important reasons for this and say you understand this, but

would it not make much more sense to have tax-money funded web-portals

Well, no, it wouldn't. If there is demand for service A, why would the market fail to supply A and instead supply only service B which doesn't fill the same needs? The answer is that a free market wouldn't. You could have government force the market to not provide service A and only service B, but then you have a non-free market. Which isn't the end of the world, but it so happens that most people in charge of government these days favor free markets, barring corruption.

That's the most direct answer to your question: The current publishing system is in place because that's what the free market came up with, and implementing your system would require government interference in the market. It is not politically expedient to implement such interference. This is all for today, mind. 20 years ago open access was a pipe dream, perhaps 20 years later publishing will change completely. But we can only speculate about the attitudes of the future.


I'd also like to point out some inaccuracies in your question.

Scientists act as editors and reviewers check the quality (while paid with more tax money)

Actually editors often get paid by journals. Also, not all research is publicly funded.

Now universities have to pay the journal huge amounts of money (exact numbers are usually not available due to NDAs) to access the paper to which the journal did not contribute anything (apart from minor formatting issues and putting a pdf on a webpage maybe)

These days, a lot of research is made freely available after a few years, so what the university is really paying for is really quick access (and also access to older papers).

Here 60-100 USD would be more appropriate than 6000 USD.

No, it wouldn't be, because no journal would bother. $60-100 USD would buy you maybe 1-2 hours of work from a single skilled person in which they must:

  • Read the manuscript
  • Finding reviewers and keep bugging them to submit reviews on time
  • Read reviews and decide if they make sense, then pass them on to the author
  • When revised MS is in, work with reviewers to decide if the revisions address the initial concerns
  • Work with authors to get it formatted and proofread

It is not realistic for a single person to do a single one of these in a few hours, much less all of them.

Is this not fundamentally wrong that scientists do the work and journals skim off the profit?

There's nothing more wrong than any other for-profit enterprise. The only thing you can criticize here is the entire concept of seeking profit, but I don't believe there are currently significant contributors to science that are opposed to profit seeking. The closest thing that comes to mind is China, but they have for profit journals also, and a lot of Chinese research is published in western, evil capitalist, journals anyway. Now that you mention it, when the USSR was around I think they did have government run, non-profit journals. But it is not considered "fundamentally wrong" by most governments today.

make them accessible to everybody and layouting might have been something non-trivial but nowadays this is not the case any-more.

No, it is easier, but still non-trivial. Even just writing a manuscript purely for yourself takes some work to get all the equations, figures, citations and so on to display correctly. But if you had a journal where you want a uniform formatting from many articles by many different authors, it is a lot of work to come up with a system that works for everybody and also get the authors to follow it.

That would cost a fraction of the paywall and open access fees that journals make money from at the moment.

Government can be notoriously wasteful, so it's not a given that it would be cheaper. Perhaps the cost might be spread out over everyone via taxes, instead of being born by individual universities, researchers and those poor souls who actually pay $30 to download a PDF. But then the first two are already covered by tax money.

You have to also consider quality of service and not just cost. The classic US example of government-provided service is the DMV. It doesn't make sense to be a realist on private publishing and an optimist on public publishing.

My feeling is that the field of science does not need the journals at all anymore - what am I missing here?

Well, I suppose we can say you are missing the trees for the forest. Science is not a single person. Individual scientists obviously do need journals. Nowadays, thanks to the internet, they don't need them to publish - but they still need the credibility of being peer-reviewed and the visibility of being in a highly-read journal. They also need for the mundane reasons of justifying job and grant applications.

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    Nice analysis. I don't think adopting a solution like this would necessarily lead to socialism -- it could be as simple as funding reviewers to rate arXiv articles 1-9...if an "arXiv 9" is widely known to be equivalent to a "nature" paper, that could be a painless way to wean us off of journals. But this is leading to a political answer rather than an academic one. – cag51 Apr 27 at 21:50
  • @cag51 I was actually going to say, but decided not to digress, that you don't need any fancy government system, you can just write posts on your blog, and the peers (or anyone else really) can just write comments with their name, or write a response post on their own blog. But then I realize OP specifically says a government-run system, which I think is basically a socialist thing to do so if your government doesn't like socialism, they wouldn't do it. – Trusly Apr 27 at 21:56
  • In fact a lot of private companies now do publish research on their blogs, and it gets a lot of attention. But the format isn't always quite what you would expect in a paper, for better or for worse. I do like your idea of rating arxiv, while arxiv doesn't do it yet bioarxiv does allow comments on submissions. But people don't seem to like commenting much (unless a very high profile submission), they prefer to email the author. – Trusly Apr 27 at 22:01
  • Editors getting paid full-time by journals are an exception. Cell, Nature, Science yes, but not for lesser journals. Those that do have some sort of part-time pay for the chief editor, but the tasks you describe are delegated to unpaid associate editors. – user71659 Apr 27 at 22:58
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    My point was that your answer spends a lot of words discussing different philosophies of government, whereas there are solutions (like funding arXiv to score papers) that would be compatible with the US's version of capitalism (it's an extension of our existing research expenditures, and could actually save money for the reasons OP describes). But again, this is getting into politics -- from an academic point of view, the answer is that we don't use such a system because it doesn't exist (as you say in your second paragraph) – cag51 Apr 27 at 23:10

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