The world of scientific, technical, engineering, and medical publishing (STEM) is a grey market where thousands of research papers are being restricted under hefty pay-wall by noted academic publishers of SCI (Science Citation Index). Researchers submit their work free of cost to these exploitative publishers. This is a discriminatory model of publishing where latest research work is not accessible to the general public.
It is important to note that the general public pays taxes to the government, which then allocates funds for research and development in academia. In other words, research grants are being funded by the taxpayers’ money. But in return, latest discoveries of science and technology are hardly accessible to the general public, thanks to the hefty subscription fee of each journal.
This is a debilitating scenario in which the so-called “scholarly poor” are unable to access the latest articles in noted subscription journals of Elsevier, Springer, Nature, Wiley, etc. The scenario is especially true for developing countries; most academic organizations in these countries are not able to afford the exorbitant fee of subscription journals. Researchers can join hands to make a concerted effort in shifting the gear from the current “exploitative publishing model” to “ethical publishing model.”
Recent outburst of problems in STEM industry
The publishing giant Elsevier was paid over 200 million pounds in total by over 150 UK universities in December 2016; these institutions had to pay such a hefty sum in order to read their own published research work. In general, all subscription SCI journals of science and technology have a hefty fee for reading/accessing a published research paper; this is known as “pay-walled article” whose average cost is usually 5000 $. With the advent of internet and digital publishing, it takes only 2–130 $ to post and save an article in the form of PDF files. In totality, academic publishing has now turned into “exploitative publishing” as charges levied to customers (public and academics) exceed the actual cost of publishing.
What are the real causes for exploitative form of publishing?
Researchers till today have to publish their work in prestigious journals in order to brighten their chances in academia. Prestigious journals are always SCI journals of leading English publishers: Elsevier, Springer, Nature, and Wiley. Researchers do not care about the latest business models of publishing industry: the cost and output. Academic career progression is based on incentives and grants, which are provided to researchers who are capable of publishing in prestigious SCI journals. This has led to poor research methodology and practices, statistical data fudging, and unnecessary pressure on young researchers.
In this article, I highlight current research trends that strive to break the monopoly of “exploitative publishing.” “Ethical publishing” is a model that serves best to everyone in academia: researchers, academics, and public.
Ethical publishing can boost research output, allowing access to general public
The objectives of ethical publishing are as follows:
- Most research grants are funded by the general public (taxpayers), so all research articles should be freely accessible by the general public; they should not be restricted by “pay-wall.”
- Researchers should be allowed to honestly present their experimental findings and results, without being pressurized to present “novel path-breaking results”
- Research grants must be utilized in an ethical way; research methodologies must be comprehensive and rigorous; this could be used for advancing discoveries, thereby earning the trust of general public.
Conventional “exploitative mode” of publishing: cultural prestige and academic stress
An exploitative nexus exists between publishers and academia.
Whenever a paper is submitted to an SCI journal, the researcher rejoices when it is accepted for publication. However, each published article is restricted by a pay-wall (The general public has to pay a heavy subscription fee). Although researchers do not pay anything for publication, the university has to pay a hefty fee of $ 5000/ article (These are known as subscription fees). This earns Elsevier an annual profit of 37%; its main goal is to maximize profits through subscription journals.
The goal of academia is to share knowledge among young researchers; this goal is completely antagonistic to the goal of corporate Elsevier, which is to maximize profits each year. Publishers never compete with each other to gain the subscription of different universities under the code of standard publishing practices: the products/services of each publisher are unique. Universities never seek out the most competitive bid of publishers.
Currently, scientific publishers do not pay anything for obtaining a research paper (the journal article); they have zero contribution to any of the research studies that take months or even years to complete; moreover, scientific publishers hire voluntary peer reviewers to provide a critical analysis of any paper. In other words, publishers do not pay anything for services involved in scientific development (peer review time, voluntary editors). The global network of academic institutions provides approximately 1.9 billion dollars per year, enabling researchers to work as peer reviewers: the scientific review process is critical for analyzing the authenticity of research.
In totality, scientific publishers gain everything from publically funded products and services, that is, research work/grants/honorarium of academic institutions. Publishers merely publish this research work and gain huge profits through subscription fees. This is complete violation against “ethical principles of publishing.”
Discrimination against scholarly poor: the general public and developing countries
Given the high paywall (5000 $) for each article, only academic institutions from developed countries can afford to pay the subscription fees of these prestigious journals. Thus, researchers from only developed countries are able to access the latest work in their field of study. This is an indirect form of discrimination because “science, research, and latest technologies” should be accessible to all, regardless of their geographical boundaries.
Research career and prospects of individuals in developing countries is severely sabotaged by these unethical practices. In other words, “exploitative publishing” not only discriminates against general public (the actual people who indirectly fund research projects in academia), the business model also blatantly discriminates against “scholarly poor” (researchers in developing countries, dentists, medical doctors, nurses, developing entrepreneurs, industry, etc.)
Academic progression seems to be of the rich and elite, which is an unsustainable model of development. Exploitative publishing completely violates the “anti-discrimination policies” that exist at many universities. It also violates the “principles of ethical practices” mentioned earlier. The United Nations and the World Health Organization allocate a significant proportion of their funds to academic institutions in developing countries. In this way, a vast proportion of resources are wasted in enabling researchers from developing countries to access subscription journals. These funds could have been utilized in humanitarian projects, involving the poor, hungry, and needy.
Bias against general science and humanities
Many general science papers are not accepted for publication in prestigious SCI journals; this is because whenever a science journal publishes a paper from lesser known fields, the journal’s impact factor decreases; this is because such paper s would not generate many citations. Researchers from the field of humanities also face similar dilemma: the final research products are books and the facet for knowledge dissemination are publishers, who are nothing but gatekeepers. Due to strong bias against general science (interdisciplinary) and humanities, the publisher is the only body that governs research trends in these fields.
Ethical route for publication
Money is kept inside academia
Open access (OA) journal have disrupted the “exploitative publishing model” that has been flourishing since decades. Whenever a researcher’s paper is accepted at an open access (OA) journal, the researcher has to pay an “article processing charge (APC)”. Some journals even allow the researchers to publish free of cost. These article processing charges (APC) is generally paid by the researcher from the grant allotted to the project. Many a times, institutions also pay APC for all the published work of researchers who work at the institution. The actual cost of publishing an article in a journal can range from $1.30–318; therefore, it is essential to know why OA journals charge a relatively exorbitant fee as APC: it ranges between 0–2900 $. Some OA journals charges high APC to incur all the costs associated with maintaining a publishing house: staff for editorial, publishing technology, content writing, marketing and promotion of the journal. In some cases, the APC also serve as a source of income for the shareholder/investors of the OA publishing house.
According to the “ethical principles of publishing”, there should be no exchange of money between the parties involved in publishing research papers; therefore, both subscription fees and APCs are not ethically valid under such conditions. The public has already paid (research grant) for funding these studies. Any further costs would create discrimination between the “scholarly elite” and “scholarly poor.”
A 100% OA journal is not really the solution to establishing an “ethical publishing model.” Researchers have to be acknowledged for their innovation, creativity, and labor; however, the OA model can adversely impact these efforts under exorbitant APC. When profits earned by publishing are diverted back to academia, researchers would easily gain more money for conducting extensive studies on various interdisciplinary topics. For example, grant funding would be available easily should publishers share their profits with academia.
Who exactly are ethical publishers?
Ethical publishers are usually non-profit organizations, which are geared toward developing innovations in academia. These non-profit organizations ensure that profits incurred by publishing research papers would be invested back in academia. It also includes “for-profit organizations” that levy minimal or now APCs for publishing research papers.
These organizations would also return back a huge chunk of profits and their main aim would be to bridge the gap between academia and industry. They are focused on inclusive, innovative development of academia. In other words, ethical publishers are trying to overcome the exploitative model of scientific publishing, which is sabotaging research and innovation.
Given the plethora of journals in scientific publishing, it is very difficult to determine the number of journals that comply with “ethical principles of publishing.” The Directory of Open Access Journals (DOAJ) is a good resource for determining ethical, reputable OA journals. However, the business model of the publisher must be studied further to determine whether it is “exploitative” or “ethical” in nature.
In exploitative publishing model, both scientific editors and peer reviewers are voluntary services; their goal is not to help the academia but to maximize profits given that publishing costs of journals has decreased dramatically in the age of internet and digital publishing. Peer reviewing efforts would be more valuable if the research work is open to critical review by the public through platforms: www.pubpeer.com. There are many ethical journals which also publish the peer review process along with the article.
Most researchers have this common misconception that academic societies always follow the ethical publishing model. This is not true as most journals published by academic societies do not follow the 100% OA model. In most cases, these journals are yet again published by “exploitative publishers.” For example, the journal “Animal Behavior” is a hybrid journal (not 100% OA), which is published by the no.1 scientific publisher Elsevier. The journal “Ethology” is owned by the Ethological Society; this is a hybrid journal that is published by Wiley. In other words, though these journals are of Academic societies, the exploitative publishers drain away money from academia and gain huge profits.
Remedies to the situation: researchers working for these societies can always ask the governing council to follow the ethical route of publication; they can make the journal 100% OA and allot the publication process to an ethical publisher. In the age of internet, there are many free tools for publishing: these are free open source publishing software.
Why research articles should be accessible free of cost
OA model of publishing definitely breaks the “discriminatory barrier” of science. This is because OA articles can be read freely by everyone, so OA model of publishing complies with the first principle of ethical publishing. Consequently, the readership and citations of OA articles are comparatively greater; OA articles receive more attention in science media and authors easily benefit from increased viewership and citations; they would receive more funds and jobs. Some of the additional benefits of OA research would be the fact that authors gain the copyright of their research work. Thus, they can easily reuse their work in terms of credit and content.
All open access journals are not equal in terms of quality and ethics
All OA journals do not follow the ethical mode of publishing. There are hybrid journals, that is, subscription journals that now follow the APC model of OA journal. In this case, researchers can pay APCs to get their article to be published in subscription journal and their published article becomes free for everyone to read, just like in the case of OA journal. Subscription journals came up with the hybrid model to tackle the growing popularity of OA model of publishing. The goal of ethical publishing was never achieved by hybrid journals as “exploitative publishers” continue to make soaring profits with this business model.
The APCs of hybrid journals are far more greater than the APCs of 100% OA journals. In other words, the hybrid publishing model also exploits the researchers working in academia. There are publishers who charge both APCs and subscription fees: this mean “double exploitation dip” to researchers preferring OA model in a subscription journal. Thus, the profits of “exploitative publishers” never really decline with the advent of OA journals.
How can ethical route of publishing flourish in academia
Academic culture can be changed by researchers provided they make wise publishing choices. Several prominent funders have come together to encourage “ethical mode of publishing” through OA journals. Some of the prominent funding organizations are as follows: European Commission, Research Council UK, and Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The drift toward “ethical OA model of publishing” can be brought about by encouraging and educating researchers about the benefits of this publishing model. Ultimately, academia is made up by individuals involved in higher education, research, development, and innovation. “Ethical practices” can alone prevent exploitation and promotion of bad science.
Academic culture can change provided researchers change their preference toward ethical publishing practices. Change of values and actions is the key toward inclusive development. The publishing landscape should be changed for the better and academics must realize that there is hope; the shackles of exploitative publishers. The so-called prestige of pay-wall journals or exorbitant APCs must be broken to direct money back into academia. Millions of dollars must be saved to revive the innovation in academia. With digital publishing growing exponentially, the cost of publishing has reduced dramatically; therefore, there should be a radical shift in science policy.