Academic research publishing is a broken system that needs to be fixed

First_Printing_machineMany in the life sciences agree that academic research is a broken and dysfunctional system that has largely ceased to be a true meritocracy. The evidence certainly supports the broader consensus among researchers that the field is in crisis. At the heart of the problem is the current system of academic publishing. Well before U.S. life science research funding started to stagnate in recent years, the insidious  ‘Publish or Perish’  mantra has been progressively eroding the quality and integrity of academic research through its perpetuation of a faux aristocracy of elite journals and its emphasis on bogus and self-fulfilling metrics of academic success like impact factors.

By defining and measuring academic success in terms of the number of publications in these ‘elite’ journals, the research community has (perhaps unwittingly) ceded to the editors, executives and shareholders of  multi-billion dollar publishing corporations, enormous and undue influence in determining the direction of academic research. The leading academic publishing companies even have an indirect but significant influence over which research actually gets done, since it is largely an assessment of research publications that determines who gets funding and who does not.

With better research funding comes a better chance of having your research published in an elite journal. With more publications in elite journals, the better are your chances of getting research funding. This is the vicious feedback loop that sustains the status quo in academic research, creating something of an echo chamber in which the same few voices are increasingly and disproportionately represented.

Even the academic peer review process upon which the research community has always depended to eliminate bias and ensure the integrity of published research, is itself deeply flawed and at times, unequivocally corrupt.

That many of these elite journals also build their own lucrative paywalls around the results of publicly funded research has only compounded the problem. The eye-watering prices that these academic publishing companies charge for their journals play a considerable role in further draining public money from a research system that is already enduring a major funding crisis. By some estimates, the subscriptions that universities must pay for access to these journals swallow up  as much as 10% of the public research funding that they receive.  This public money is essentially being channeled away from research and into the coffers of private sector corporations.

In addition to paying for the wealth of materials and resources necessary to conduct scientific research – laboratory reagents, consumables, equipment, instruments and so on – these funds in most cases, must also cover the salaries of the researchers who are already woefully under-compensated for their experience and expertise. It is a testament to how expensive access to these journals has become, that even Harvard University, one of the wealthiest institutions of higher education in the world, recently sent a memo to its faculty members informing them that it could no longer afford the price hikes imposed by many large journal publishers.

The publishers have repeatedly tried to claim that the prices they charge scientists and institutions for access to their journals, are necessary to offset the costs incurred in their work to ensure the quality of the published research. In reality however, the major academic publishers have significantly increased their profit margins over the last few years while institutional libraries struggle to keep up with the rising costs. The University of Montreal has for example (much to the dismay of its research staff), started scaling back its journal subscriptions as its annual expenditure on academic journals has reached an unsustainable $7 million,  One of its own researchers in its School of Library and Information Science, summarized the situation very well:

The quality control is free, the raw material is free, and then you charge very, very high amounts – of course you come up with very high profit margins.

Vincent Larivière, University of Montreal

The economics of the current situation are not the only issue for academic research. The pressure to publish in order to have a successful academic career, has also given rise to a dramatic increase in the publishing of fraudulent results, and a corresponding and even more dramatic decrease in the reproducibility of academic research. To quote a 2013 report in the Economist: “A rule of thumb among biotechnology venture-capitalists is that half of published research cannot be replicated. Even that may be optimistic.” This observation by itself, is a serious indictment of the current state both of academic research, and of the peer-reviewed academic publishing process that is supposed to ensure the integrity, accuracy and honesty of published scientific research.

To be fair, there are undoubtedly other forces at work here as well – the government’s reluctance even to sustain current levels of public funding for research for example. Yet through their willingness to generate excessive profit at the expense of publicly funded research, and their inordinate and undue influence over its direction – the leading academic publishers have played a central and significant role in the steady deterioration of both the quality of academic research, and the professional lives of the scientists who pursue it.

New and better models of research publishing must of necessity, take center stage in any attempt to reform academic research.

Thankfully, researchers are increasingly starting to recognize that the current situation in academic publishing is untenable and there are already signs of a movement against it. Scientists worried about the future of their profession, have started to organize in order to give voice to their concerns. Researchers and research institutions are openly championing an end to the publication of publicly funded research in subscription journals. Interestingly and most recently, we have even started to see signs of dissent at the heart of the academic publishing industry itself. Witness for example, the spectacular mutiny of the entire editorial board of an academic journal owned by Elsevier, over the issue of allowing the journal to become Open Access.  Elsevier apparently refused to address the editors’ longstanding concerns with the result that the departing editors are now preparing to launch a directly competing Open Access journal that seems certain to reduce the readership of Elsevier’s own subscription-based publication.

In the effort to reform academic research, there are undoubtedly important battles to be fought on several different fronts, the most visible and easily understood of which is the public funding of research. In the U.S. at least, this has been an uphill battle in recent years as a result of opposing political forces and a seeming apathy in the court of public opinion, for the case to fund scientific research with public money. It is however, hard to imagine even given a windfall of additional public funding – that the quality and integrity of academic research or the lot of its researchers, could be significantly improved so long as the current system of academic publishing remains in place. Academic research can only flourish if it is able to function as true meritocracy, and that will mean (amongst other things) breaking its damaging dependence upon the current system of academic publishing for its validation.

© The Digital Biologist