Elite journals and the defeat of science
Scientists are under pressure of not only doing good research, aquiring external funding, and teaching, but also to publish in elite journals. The situation seems to be getting out of control with fierce competition among scientists to get their work published in journals such as Nature and Science. These journals, Nature in particular, take advantage of this situation to create an elite system with large economic profit. The scientific enterprise has now shifted focus from a purely investigative activity, to a strategic approach to get scientific results published in certain journals. I do not only find this situation disappointing, but also dangerous in detriment of scientific quality and credibility.
I also think that we scientists are the only ones responsible for this situation. We give value to the name of the journals when we discuss the work of others, and make decisions in review panels based on these judgements. Meanwhile Nature-Springer makes millions in profit. They created the elite/boutique brand, make you compete to get in, and then send you down the ladder of their ‘family’ of journals so you end up paying large amounts of money to be a member of the distant family.
Take the case of Nature Communications and Scientific Reports, members of the Nature family of journals. They are viewed by many as high quality journals only because they are from the Nature brand. The journals are also Open Access (OA), a very profitable scheme that takes advantage of the situation. In 2016, Nature Communications published 3,686 papers, and Scientific Reports 21,057, according to their websites. Article processing charges (APC), depending on where you live, may cost you between $4000 (UK) to $6000 (Japan) US dollars (USD) using exchange rates for mid June 2017. Similarly, APC for Scientific Reports are between $1400 (UK) and $1650 (China).
|Country / Region||Nature Communications (USD)||Scientific Reports (USD)|
|UK and rest of the world||4,025||1,418|
Taking an average of APC for all countries/regions, and multiplying by the total numbers of papers published, one finds that Nature Communications got in 2016 approximately $17,836,554 (USD) in total income, while Scientific Reports $32,937,359. This is more than 50 million dollars in total income in 2016 for APC charges from these two journals only. This is a lot of money! For instance, the annual operating budget of a Max Planck Institute may be around 10 million dollars annually, so one could fund five separate research institutes from the income of two OA journals.
I find difficult to believe that the operating budget of two OA journals is so high to justify such a high price in APC. Probably, most of this money becomes net profit for the publisher. Nature-Springer is a private company owned by two private investors, who most likely will take most of the money that was originally intended for scientific research.
I feel this is a defeat to the scientific enterprise. Our own way to value each other’s work has created a system in which publishers make large economic profit, have strong control on scientists’ carriers, and even steer the direction in which we work by biasing their acceptance to specific ‘hot topics’.
What to do?
I believe this is a problem we scientsts created ourselves and have a responsability to do something about it. The elite journals are just oportunistic organizations that profit from our own behavior and scale of values for submission of quality research. I think there are a few things that we as individual scientists can do:
Reject review requests
One place to start is rejecting as much as possible request reviews from Nature. They constantly reject our work on the grounds of creating an elite, so I think
it is fair to also value our own review time. We do not make any financial profit from our review work, and only help a private organization to make significant profit.
I understand that in some cases it is not possible to reject a review request when colleages submit relevant and important work. However, we don’t have to review
everything that we get asked.
Here is a templeate of the answer you can give to Nature when asked about reviewing for them.
Dear Dr. Nature Editor,
Thank you for your request to review this manuscript, which I must decline on personal grounds.
It is my policy to decline a substantial proportion of the manuscripts that I get asked to review. Although this manuscript is potentially interesting, I receive many more requests than what I can review.
Send your best work somewhere else
Your scientific work should stand by its own and not by the name or the prestige of the journal that publishes it. Select journals that fit well within your discipline and use the opportunity of having more printing pages available to develop well your ideas. Be rigorous and avoid pompus language. You do not have to impress anyone, only state your findings. If your work is good, people will find it. And if it is excellet, you will get attention and the recognition your work deserves.
Journals from scientific societies are always good places to publish our work. They do not distribute their profit (if any) among investors or shareholders, but rather invest publishing profits in relevant scientific or educational programs.
Unfortunately, some scientific societies have moved in recent years to publish their journals under contracts with commercial (for profit) partners. Although this can lift the burden of the societies for managing their journals, it can also decrease income that could potentially be used to fund academic activities.
AAAS and the US National Academy of Science have also a share of responsability on all this. They run their own brand elite journals, and as non-for-profit organizations can chanel profits from OA journals to be reinvested in science and education. Unfortunately, AAAS new OA journal, Science Advances, has been already critized for its APC and open-access license restrictions. PNAS would likely make an OA move in the future, and hopefully they will do things better.
However, I do not think all this will change easily. People will keep sending mediocre papers to Nature, creating a false sense of status, and paying large amounts of money to be a distant member of the eilte.