As we discussed back in October 2018, the academic publishing world is in an ongoing state of crisis.
Academic publishers, outside of a few top-tier journals, which draw criticism for their high profit margins, are struggling to keep afloat and keep up with the ever-increasing amount of research being performed.
Likewise, researchers are facing an ever-increasing pressure to publish to maintain their positions, let alone earn promotions. For many, research has become more about quantity than quality, focusing on authorship gaming and breaking up single studies into multiple publications.
But even when high-quality research is published, it often can be difficult to find or access. Some disappear behind paywalls, which is especially frustrating with publicly funded research, others seem to languish in fake journals with no actual impact.
Though academic publishers and researchers are certainly trying to fix these issues. there’s no single model that addresses all the issues. Whether you go use traditional publishing or open access, you’re not curing the illness, you’re simply picking a different poison.
A Tale of Perverse Incentives
A perverse incentive is any unintentional incentive that a system creates that produces an undesirable result.
One of the most common examples as the British government placing a bounty on dead cobras in hopes to reduce to cobra population. However, citizens chose not to kill wild cobras but instead raised them to collect the bounty. Then, after the bounty ended, the cobras were simply released.
Academic publishing is full of such perverse incentives, both for researchers and journals.
The main problem with academic publishing is that the process of peer reviewing takes time and money. Even journals that are run as non-profits have to find ways to recoup that cost. To make matters worse, many journals are reporting a shortage of willing and qualified peer reviewers.
When deciding how to pay for this service, journals have fallen into two camps:
- Pay-to-Access: The journal itself is pay-to-access, often termed “traditional” publishing. The researchers pay nothing but those wishing to read the articles need to pay for access (either via subscription or paywall).
- Open Access: The journal is freely accessed, but the researcher pays an article processing fee to cover the submission and peer review costs. Some open access journals are subsidized, often by a university or non-profit organization, and do not charge processing fees.
The problem is that both approaches have perverse incentives built into them that can cause research to disappear.
Traditional journals are the most obvious. Though their motivation is to curate and publish high-quality research that encourage subscriptions, the research they publish usually disappears behind a paywall.
For open access journals, the incentive is to collect as many processing fees as possible. This has led to a rise in fake publications that will literally publish anything for a fee. Some have even hijacked the names of better-known and respected journals to dupe researchers.
The issue is often referred to as predatory publishing and it sees great research disappear in plain sight, getting published in journals that are not read or checked.
Sometimes researchers participate in this willingly, hoping to get additional publications under their name even if they aren’t particularly useful. Other times, researchers are duped into participating.
Neither model is perfect because both models have incentives that encourage bad behavior. Sadly, there are no easy answers here and the problem is likely to keep getting worse.
Treating Symptoms, Not Causes
The frustration over publicly funded research being hidden behind a paywall is understandable. However, it’s not the researcher that received the government grant that is hiding it, it’s the publisher.
When choosing where to submit research, publicly funded or otherwise, researchers have a lot of things to consider. The most important, however, is where will it get in front of the largest number of people that will benefit from it.
Sometimes, as strange as it sounds, a closed access journal will have a much greater impact than an open access one. This is especially true if the open access journals available are not as well-read or are not on topic.
In short, publicly funded articles disappearing behind paywalls is a symptom of the problem, not a cause.
In a similar vein, sites like Sci-Hub, which make paywalled research available illegally, are also a symptom. Even the staunchest supports of copyright recognize that research is different from music or movies. Immediate access to research can literally save lives.
However, when year hear about addressing the problems in research publication, these are the types of issues most want address. Users want access to research their tax dollars paid for, journals and publishers want Sci-Hub and related sites gone.
The problem, unfortunately, runs much deeper than those symptoms. The incentives in academic publishing simply do not favor, high quality and universally accessible research.
Sadly, there is no easy answer here. Though we’ve talked in the past about the importance of reducing the pressure to publish, decreasing the focus on the journal impact factor and focusing more on access, the truth is academic publishing isn’t built for a post-internet world where broad access is as important, if not more important, than curation.
This isn’t a situation where we can treat symptoms, but instead may need to rethink the entire system from the ground up.
2020 was a year in which the scientific method was on full display for the world. Though most journals opened up access to COVID-19 research, many of the bold bottlenecks remains and attempts to ease them, according to one study, led to a rise in substandard research.
There are no shortcuts here. High-quality research takes work and figuring how who will do the work, how we will identify quality work and how we determine who is rewarded is difficult.
However, what is clear is that the current system is not tenable. If the pressures and incentives keep escalating, the problem is only going to get worse and worse.
Instead of publish or perish, academic publishing is entering a change or perish phase. Hopefully, this is a task that academia is up for.