17

Scientific publishing absorbs a lot of money from the budgets of scientific organisations, either by publication fees or subscription fees, and many feel that the value added by the publisher is questionable (source). That money comes from funders such as NIH, NSF, the EC Framework Programme, national research councils and large charities (Wellcome, Gates). Why do such funders not close the circle and offer a not-for-profit mechanism for publication, either individually or collectively?

Many (most, I suspect) scientific societies operate journals, and some of these offer travel grants or small project grants for research with no restrictions on the submission of resulting papers to their own journals, so I don't see how it could be a conflict-of-interest thing. Some universities do the same. I also see sites like PubMed Central and EuropePMC which are funded by research funders and act as repositories for full-text publications.

There are some suggestions of a move in this direction from the mathematics and physical sciences (link), although this would be run by the academic community, not the funders.

[edit] I forgot about this when writing the question, but PLoS Neglected Tropical Diseases was started using a $1.1 million grant from the Gates Foundation, so this is a relatively high-profile example of a journal that was (at launch) directly funded by a grant-funding body. And I'd also forgotten that PLoS is explicitly non-profit, although they do use the income from some journals to help support the others financially so some individual journals might run at a profit.

[edit2] I'd also somehow forgotten this announcement back in July that Wellcome was launching a journal called "Wellcome Open Access". This one will only accept submissions from Wellcome-funded researchers, but will also accept negative results, null results and data-only papers, so will arguably overlap less with traditional publishers.

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    Specialization? – ff524 Sep 9 '16 at 8:52
  • @ff524 One possibility, but see my point about e.g. EuropePMC; they could sponsor a not-for-profit publishing house. Also funders often conduct a broad range of activities as well as funding research; Wellcome Trust owns farms, runs a museum, and like the UK research councils operates a research institute directly (the Sanger), hardly a laser-like focus on funding research. – arboviral Sep 9 '16 at 9:05
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    In my naive worldview this would probably be good. One issue I can think of though is that some unethical founder could then pressure the publisher to prioritize accepting works founded by themselves, thus making the founder look better (and possibly get even more government money and so on). So there probably needs to be external controls in place, in this situation... – user9646 Sep 9 '16 at 9:26
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    In some cases, traditional publishers are able to use various laws to prevent what they present as an unfair competition (government-subsidized)... – Marc Glisse Sep 9 '16 at 13:41
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    @MarcGlisse is almost certainly referring to LIPIcs, an open-acess publishing effort of the Lebiniz Center for Computer Science at Dagstuhl. Dagsthul receives money from the German federal government, some of which they used to use to subsidize their publishing efforts, but the German government recently ruled that government support for academic publication was unfair competition with commercial publishers. As a result, the cost for conferences to publishing their proceedings through LIPIcs quadrupled. – JeffE Sep 9 '16 at 14:33
11

As you note, in a major sense this is actually already done on a large scale by the NIH in the US. The NIH requires that all publications resulting from its funding be made freely available on PubMed under an open access license within 12 months. While PubMed Central does not do peer-review, it does provide the other half of the functions of an archival publication, in providing hosting and curation.

By doing this, the NIH is accomplishing most of the goals you mention, because there is now much less pressure to subscribe to lots of high-cost journals. At the same time, however, this is better for the NIH than running journals itself for at least the following reasons:

  • Running journals does have a significant cost, even if that cost is often hidden in free society journals and overcompensated for in for-profit journals. Forcing compliance as a byproduct of funding is probably much cheaper.
  • If the NIH started running journals, it would be competing with traditional journals, and thus would obtain much less coverage than it does by just forcing public deposit of their articles.
  • Scientific publication is highly international, and even the biggest countries are a minority of the researchers in any significant field. There may thus be significant perceived or real conflicts of interest if a major government funder is running the peer review process for other nations.

In short, it appears to be currently much more efficient to accomplish such goals by using the compulsory power of contract clauses than by investing in competition with the existing publication ecosystem.

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    Well, a PubMed-type model doesn't fix the problem since publishing charges are still paid (I agree the saving on subscriptions is real but many journals are moving away from a subscription model to OA fees, making this less important). Regarding your first bullet point, the article I cited provides some evidence that although details are scarce the profit margin for commercial publishers is high, so a not-for-profit journal would be cheaper to publish in. And international projects like EuropePMC could solve your third point. – arboviral Sep 9 '16 at 10:42
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    I suspect you might have hit gold with point 2 though - in many countries I suspect bodies receiving funding from the public sector might get in trouble for competing directly with private publishing companies on this (under state aid laws and similar). Hadn't thought of that before. Not sure how this would apply to charities though. – arboviral Sep 9 '16 at 10:43
  • @arboviral the second point highlights the diluting effect of duplicating publication venues, not an issue of unfair competition. – Cape Code Sep 9 '16 at 11:13
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    @arboviral a low-cost open access journal family would immediately get a lot of submissions It already does, there is no shortage of papers to publish. The question is how do you get the good ones. Try to tell top researchers they have to start publishing in PLoS instead of Nature or Science... – Cape Code Sep 9 '16 at 11:37
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    @arboviral In which case, again, per my point #2, how large a fraction of the market could a funder journal actually capture, given that most reputable journals are still subscription-based or hybrid? The public benefit may be much smaller than investing a similar amount of effort in things like PubMed. – jakebeal Sep 9 '16 at 13:05
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This is more of an exception, but actually some funders do act as publishers. For example, the scientific journal Elife was established by Hughes Medical Institute, Max Planck Society, and Wellcome Trust. Another example is the HFSP Journal, which was established by the Human Frontier Science Program (however this journal no longer exists and recently the name was hijacked).

2

Some do. The National Institute for Health Research in the UK publishes a whole library of journals, covering most of its research programmes.

http://www.journalslibrary.nihr.ac.uk

If funded from a covered programme, publishing in the programme journal is essentially compulsory - some of the funds are held back 'til publication, and ultimately if a project fails to provide an adequate report the funds can be recovered from the host institution.

(Most investigators will also publish in a regular journal such as BMJ, NEJM, The Lancet etc - often more than one paper from a project)

It's thought the publication rate for patient based health research is about 50%. NIHR manages 98%

-2

They would be biased.

If you fund research you want/need it to be successful. Success in academia is measured in (metrics based on) published articles. That is, you could manipulate your (and your competitors') success ratings by accepting more research that you yourself have funded (and less of others).

  • Downvotes without explanatory comments are not really meaningful. – Raphael Sep 15 '16 at 10:47

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