How the business of academic journals stifles scientific research and penalises researchers with limited resources

While the majority of researchers are trained and work at public universities, the results of their work are disseminated by a small number of companies that not only charge for access to articles but also to publish them. (José-Joaquín Blasco/EC-Audiovisual Service )

The aphorism ‘publish or perish’ began gaining popularity in Western academia in the first half of the 20th century. By the 1980s, it had become unquestioned truth throughout most of the world. It is now a refined and institutionalised process in which researchers are subject to increasing pressure to publish in academic journals owned by a handful of companies. In 2013, publishing groups Reed-Elsevier (now RELX Group in the Netherlands), Springer (Germany), Taylor & Francis (UK) and the US-based Sage and Wiley-Blackwell accounted for more than 50 per cent of the research papers and 70 per cent of the social science articles published that year.

Researchers and university professors are obliged to fulfil a series of requirements or ‘merits’ each year, the most significant of which is the publication of academic papers. These papers are evaluated according to the ‘referee system’ or peer review in which two or more specialists are appointed to judge whether an article is suitable for publication. Public institutions such as Spain’s National Agency for Quality Assessment and Accreditation (ANECA) or Argentina’s National Scientific and Technical Research Council (CONICET) are responsible for overseeing the accreditation of the merits upon which researchers’ careers and salaries depend.

“The problem is that the obligation to publish a certain number of articles in a year is incompatible with the actual research work itself, which goes through phases of greater and lesser productivity. The criteria is more quantitative than qualitative, which is perverse,” says Pilar Pinto, lecturer at the University of Cadiz and candidate for a PhD in art and humanities. In addition to this pressure to publish, academics are also expected to have a good number of teaching hours.

According to Pinto, the evaluation system plays a significant role in the choice of research topics: “The journals propose topics for their dossiers, which influences what we decide to research and write about.”

This system also forces researchers to avoid more complicated – as well as more interesting – questions that cannot be resolved in just a few months time in a single paper. This is particularly concerning in areas such as mathematics and philosophy.

“In mathematics, the sowing process is long and you don’t know when you’re going to harvest. The more complex the problem the less certain you can be that it will lead to something you can publish. So the system pushes young researchers to abandon more profound topics in order to focus on something that can easily be resolved, taking something that is already published, for example, and simply improving some calculations,” explains mathematics PhD Mattia Perrone. “Researchers are rewarded for understanding how the system works rather than for their ability,” says Pinto.

The business of academic publications

The points that researchers receive for publishing articles depend on the journal’s ranking according to its index or ‘impact factor,’ calculated according to the number of times it has been cited compared with its competitors. The higher a journal scores, the more effort researchers will make to publish in it, which feeds into pattern that reinforces certain types of journals and topics. The highest scoring and most sought after journals ask as much as €1,500 to evaluate an article for publication, an amount usually paid by the university department.

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“The only people able to be part of the academic elite are the ones who can afford it. The system is designed for the interests of the United States and Europe. Paying such amounts would be unthinkable in Argentina,” says Alexandre Roig, lecturer at the Universidad San Martín (UNSAM) in Buenos Aires, academic secretary and former dean of IDAES. Moreover, the best-ranked journals are in English, which excludes many researchers who are not fluent in the language.

Originally designed as a guide for librarians in choosing which publications to acquire, the ‘impact factor’ has become an index of scientific quality and turned leading academic journals into profitable businesses.

They charge authors for evaluating a publication but do not pay the evaluators, who must settle for the compensation of adding one more line to their CVs. So while most researchers have been trained at public universities and work for public institutions, their work is subject to the standards of privately owned journals.

And universities provide a captive audience for these journals. University departments are forced to spend a significant portion of their budgets on subscriptions to certain publications in order to keep up to date with scientific literature. Reading a single article on the web can cost between €20 and €50, while an annual subscription to a journal costs between €2,000 and €20,000. In many cases, publishing companies require that subscriptions last a minimum of several years and that they include several journals. Faced with such abuses, Swedish and German universities decided to cancel their subscriptions to Elsevier’s publications in 2018 when they could not reach an agreement they considered fair.

In this model, public money invested in research is transferred to certain publishing companies. “Access to knowledge is being limited,” says Perrone, who says he had to pay €30 to access an article he himself had written. Another effect is that academics tend to divide their research results into as many articles as possible, a practice known as ’salami slicing’. The result is an increasing number of published papers that are of decreasing interest. And journals charge for evaluating each one of them.

In 2018, cOAlition S, a consortium supported by the European Research Council (ERC) together with national funding agencies from eleven EU countries and Jordan, Zambia, the UK and the US, launched Plan S (for ‘shock’) in Europe. The initiative will force researchers to publish their work in open access journals and repositories. Originally planned for 2020, Plan S is now expected to come into effect in 2021.

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However, it is unclear what impact this initiative will have. Some of the most influential journals are already taking their own steps in this direction, such as Nature, which launched an open access system to publish part of its content in a way that is compatible with Plan S. The catch is that publishing there will mean paying much higher fees, which can approach €9,500.

Creativity versus discipline

Another consequence, especially for developing countries, is the disconnect between research and local realities: “What is valued is publication in indexed journals rather than the possibility of applying knowledge locally. In Argentina, research has become increasingly professionalised while becoming less interested in applying scientific advances,” says Bruno Fornillo, PhD in political science, CONICET researcher and lecturer at the University of Buenos Aires. “The evaluation criteria to which scientists are subjected are unreasonable because their idea of excellence is measured in terms of publications in global journals with no link to realities on the ground.”

This, Roig believes, is one of the reasons for what he describes as a crisis of legitimacy in the social sciences: “Peer review is valuable, because it guarantees rigour of research. But if it becomes the only form of validation it excludes social validation, and science thus turns its back to society.” Roig proposes other forms of validating scientific knowledge: “Presenting results to the subjects of your research, participating in public debates, communicating the results not only through writing but also through drawings, audiovisual media and art.”

However, the current system is a long way from encouraging creative forms of research and communication: “It’s common to hear young researchers say that academia is not their place. But academia should be a place for critical thinking and creativity, not for reproduction,” Roig adds.

In the 1960s and 1970s, intellectuals were visible public figures, teaching at universities while being deeply involved in social struggles of the day. May 1968 and the French intellectuals are a perfect example. A few decades later, against the backdrop of an expanding neoliberal model, a system has been put into place at universities that generates huge profits for a group of companies.

But profit may not be the only motive: “My impression is that the model is designed to keep intellectuals from being a ‘nuisance’,” Fornillo ventures. “It’s a disciplinary system and, as such, it is contrary to knowledge. It’s about strengthening a certain hierarchy,” Perrone adds.

Meanwhile, the researchers immersed in this logic of productivity are losing the capacity for critical thinking and reflection on their own practices. As Roig puts it: “Today, Pierre Bourdieu’s book would not be called The Craft of Sociology, but The Craft of Someone Who Specialises in Writing Papers.”

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