Lacking any sense of proportion: Michael Eisen pushes back on The New York Times’ “dark side of open access” article

On Sunday, April 7, 2013, The New York Times ran a front page article written by Gina Kolata entitled, “Scientific Articles Accepted (Personal Checks, Too),” which exposed “a world of pseudo-academia [running parallel with legitimate scientific and scholarly communication], complete with prestigiously titled conferences and journals that sponsor them.”

The number of these journals and conferences has exploded in recent years as scientific publishing has shifted from a traditional business model for professional societies and organizations built almost entirely on subscription revenues to open access, which relies on authors or their backers to pay for the publication of papers online, where anyone can read them.

The article quotes several scholars, who as a result of their personal experience have come to call this parallel world the “Wild West,” or the “dark side of open access.” The article also refers to the work of research librarian Jeffrey Beall, who tracks what he calls “predatory open access journals,” estimating “that there are as many as 4,000 predatory journals today, at least 25 percent of the total number of open-access journals.”

The article is highlighting a real problem. But after acknowledging (barely, in passing) that “open access got its start about a decade ago and quickly won widespread acclaim with the advent of well-regarded, peer-reviewed journals like those published by the Public Library of Science,” the clear message is that scholars today ought to be skeptical and suspicious about open access. Though not stated—indeed no constructive response or course of action is really offered in the article—the impression is left that in the face of open access run amuck, the only safe harbor is the “traditional business model…built on subscription revenues.”

“The dark side of The New York Times” and of commercial journal publishers

This article was too much for Michael Eisen, biologist at the University of California at Berkeley and co-founder of the Public Library of Science. In an April 9, 2013 blog post, Door-to-door subscription scams: the dark side of The New York Times,” Eisen pushes back:

[Y]es, a lot of these suspect journals charge authors for publishing their works, just like open access journals like PLoS do. But suggesting, as the article does, that scam conferences/journals exist because of the rise of open access publishing is ridiculous. It’s the logical equivalent of blaming newspapers like the NYT for people who go door-to-door selling fake magazine subscriptions(link is in the original post)

Eisen chides The New York Times for running “science’s version of the Nigerian banking scams—something far more deserving of laughter than hand-wringing” on its front page. He goes on to suggest a more significant scam story the paper might rather cover:

[I]f Gina Kolata and the NYT are really concerned about scams in science publishing, they should look into the $10 BILLION DOLLARS of largely public money that subscription publishers take in every year in return for giving the scientific community access to the 90% of papers that are not published in open access journals—papers that scientists gave to the journals for free! This ongoing insanity not only fleeces huge piles of cash from government and university coffers, it denies the vast majority of the planet’s population access to the latest discoveries of our scientists. (emphasis Eisen)

Michael Eisen is responding to the lack of any sense of proportion in this article. He sees a gnat-straining attack on open access, while routinely (and historically) camels are being swallowed through the current commercial publisher-controlled system of scholarly communication. Astoundingly, Kolata’s article doesn’t even mention commercial publishers. The closest she comes is a passing reference to “the traditional business model,” but she suggests this exists only to serve “professional societies and organizations.”

Eisen reminds us that the “Wild West” and the “dark side” in journal publishing isn’t a new phenomenon.

Long before the Internet, publishers discovered that launching new journals was like printing money—something Elsevier specialized in for decades, launching hundreds of new journals with hastily assembled editorial boards and then turning around and demanding that libraries subscribe to these journals as part of their “Big Deal” bundles of journals. These journals succeeded because there are always researchers looking for a place to put their papers, and many of these new journals greased the wheels by having fairly lax standards for publication.

Commoditizing the scholarly reputation economy

We all know something of the “dark side” of commercial publishing when we see dramatic increases in subscription prices, especially after a reasonably priced society journal is acquired by a commercial publisher. But what about the way commercial publishers have commoditized the scholarly reputation economy itself?

When we go out to buy a car, flat-screen TV, or a bottle of laundry detergent at the store we are accustomed to the notion that these products are price- and quality-tiered in the market to sell to various economic classes of customers. A single company may create a diverse product line and branding based on price/quality in order to reach all sectors of the consumer market, and so maximize their profit potential. We have been conditioned to the notion that higher quality (as material craftsmanship, or scarcity) commands a higher price, and unless you are of a certain economic class, you can only aspire to higher quality.

Although we might understand that a “top-tier” journal purports to reflect publication of a certain level of research quality—that’s why we call it “top-tier” (though it’s probably more correct to say it’s a matter of reputation)—we do not commonly assume that the products of scholarly communication (i.e., journals and articles) function quite like cars, flat-screen TVs, or laundry detergent. In the current system, a scholar may aspire to have his or her article published in a top-tiered journal. But depending on the editorial and review criteria, and results of the submission, that scholar’s article may be rejected at the top-tiered journal. The scholar will then need to resubmit the article to other journals (though ethically only one at a time) before finally succeeding in getting it published. The journal where the scholar finally succeeds may be understood as a “second-” or “third-tier” journal because it lacks the same level of reputation (though not necessarily less actual quality) of the aspired top-tier journal. We tend to chalk-up the success or failure of the scholar getting published to a combination of factors, but it comes down to the scholar’s reputation.

We understand the academic economy in terms of scholarly reputation. And when we look at and rank journals for reputation we tend to focus on the journal, not the publisher. We may be aware that a given journal is published by a well-known scholarly society, but less-so if it is published by a commercial publisher. I believe this is a failure of appreciation that Eisen is bringing to our attention—and it’s another aspect of the “dark side” of commercial publishing.

What would it mean if the same publisher owned not only a top-tiered journal in a given discipline, but also several second- and third-tier journals in that same discipline? What would be the purpose of this? If the economy is based on the currency of reputation, why is a commercial publisher interested in any journal other than a top-tiered journal? There can be only one real answer. The publisher is creating a price/quality product line, much like cars, flat-screen TVs, and laundry detergent, in order to profit from all sectors of this particular consumer market. Who are the customers in this market? The customers are the scholars themselves looking for venues to publish their research. (See Who are the customers? section in my blog post “The open access journal as a disruptive innovation.”)

After we get over the sting that a commercial publisher views scholars first and foremost as customers, we might agree that the publisher is providing an important service. After all, every research scholar needs a venue to publish (as Eisen points out). Publishers are simply providing a segmented market to account for a full range of scholarly customers—not only those who can “afford” through their acquired reputation to publish in a top-tiered journal, but also “aspiring” scholars who only have a little reputation to spend. The problem in this context is that the publisher doesn’t care simply about assuring the quality of the reputation economy. The publisher is looking to profit from customers in all its market sectors.

I hasten to say here that the editor of a so-called lower-tiered journal will (or certainly should) aspire to improve his or her journal’s reputation by working hard to attract reputable editorial boards, reviewers, and high quality research articles from reputable scholars. But reputations require time to establish. This is the challenge facing many newer open access journals. The quality may be there but the reputation is still being formed because the journal is not yet well-known. I am not suggesting that a commercial publisher would interfere with the scholarly reputation economy to the degree that a given journal will remain fixed within a particular market tier. I am merely suggesting that the publisher has interests that transcend the journal level. It is in the publisher’s best interest to make sure it has and provides venues—both top- and lower-tiered journals—for all potential customers.

Remember, too (if you read my post above), that the publisher is also a customer. The publisher needs academic papers from scholars as the raw material for their journals. No papers, no journals. No journals, no business. It’s that simple. Of course, papers are pretty cheap. I mean, scholars are literally giving them away to publishers at no cost! But what to do with the relatively limited capacity (even in an online environment) of a given journal to utilize all the raw material that might flow to it? Editors and reviewers typically reject the majority (90%+) of papers submitted to top-tiered journals. So what happens to the rest? Wasted? No. These can be utilized at the lower product tiers. There is no guarantee, of course, that a rejected paper will go to another journal owned by the same publisher. But as there are typically plenty of papers being produced, it is inevitable that the publisher will capture enough to sustain their journals in the other tiers. But it has to have journals at the other tiers. Eisen describes how commercial publishers have assured that all journal tiers get profitably sold. They bundle the lower-tier journals with the top-tier journals and sell them as a package to academic libraries for tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars a year in what are called “Big Deals.”

“Personal checks, too”

The alarm generated from scholars in the Gina Kolata article highlights a basic problem—it’s right there in the title. The scholarly community can too easily believe it is operating in an idyllic and enlightened economy of reputation, untainted by “base commerce.” That is certainly how it can appear at the journal level, where typically there is no money changing hands. (Though I recently read Richard Poynder’s interview with Jack Meadows, historian of scientific communication, who reminded me that it has not been uncommon for authors to be charged “page charges” to get articles published.) Consequently, reports of unscrupulous activity at the fringes of a relatively new, dynamic, and alternative publishing model raise consternation and fear. “Can open access be trusted if it is so easily abused?!” Meanwhile, commercial publishers have exploited, segmented, and commoditized the scholarly reputation economy for years, and no one seems to mind. Indeed, the article insinuates most obliquely that the traditional subscription-based business model (which is now largely controlled by the commercial sector) is the scholar’s only reliable savior.

Why is this? Many scholars are (still!) not well informed about the costs their libraries are bearing each year to keep access to cherished journals turned on. If they are aware, the fact has yet to impress them. When someone else is paying the access bill, the problem (what problem?) seems remote, and the status quo holds the day. But more, when someone else is paying for access scholars are less apt to fully think-through the implications of research—maybe even their own research—being locked-up behind a paywall. Is it any wonder that stories of the unscrupulous demanding payment of scholars from their own pocket for the opportunity to publish sound so appalling? It seems scholars will only begin to fully embrace open access as a viable and beneficial alternative when they are awakened to the economic costs that have been borne and continue to be borne to keep the “traditional business model” in business. While it is not inappropriate to report on the darkness that lies at the fringe, this should not be used to distract scholars from the darkness that lies at the heart. A sense of proportion would seem to require as much.

Posted in "The Hat Tip", Book/Article Review, Commercial Publishing, Economics & Business Models, Open Access, Peer Review, Scholarly Journals
One comment on “Lacking any sense of proportion: Michael Eisen pushes back on The New York Times’ “dark side of open access” article
  1. […] the fact that traditional toll-access journals were not scrutinized. (I wrote about that article here.) Is this just another attempt to discredit, or at least cast doubt on the credibility and […]

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