George Monbiot has launched an exceptionally dyspeptic broadside in the Guardian against academic publishing, and in support of the heroic/misguided data scraper Alexandra Elbakyan, who downloaded millions of papers, and made them available on a pirate server.

I agree with the headline “Scientific publishing is a rip-off. We fund the research – it should be free”, but disagree with most of the reasoning. Or, maybe it would be better said, from my perspective as an academic his complaints seem to me not the most significant.

Monbiot’s perspective is that of a cancer patient who found himself blocked from reading the newest research on his condition. I think, though, he has underestimated the extent to which funding bodies in the UK and US, and now in the EU as well, have placed countervailing pressure for publicly funded research to be made available in various versions of “open access”, generally within six months of journal publication. In many fields — though not the biomedical research of most interest to Monbiot — it has long been the case that journal publication is an afterthought, with research papers published first as “preprints” on freely accessible archive sites.

I don’t think it is inherently outrageous that there might be an additional 6-month delay before the public gets free access to the results of the research that it has paid for through its taxes. There are all kinds of expenses involved in conducting and communicating research, and some delays are unavoidable. Minimising delay is crucial when you are building on previous research and seeking to provide adequate recognition and minimise duplication of effort; when you are a patient trying to understand the range of treatment options available for your condition, a short delay is probably not so relevant, even if it might feel frustrating to feel like you might be missing the newest thing. (And the “we paid for it argument” is probably not entirely valid either, since I would suppose that by the time you get close to treating patients I would presume that a significant amount of the funding for the trials is going to be coming from industry.)

The real scandal, I would say, is not that there are delays in public access, but that delay seems to be an end in itself. It is now hard to imagine, but once upon a time scientific journals actually served the function of facilitating the communication of research results, rather than blocking it. In the eighteenth century journals were a step toward open access, away from the traditional method of circulating new results in letters that were hand-copied to a select circle. The function of selecting, typesetting, and printing scientific papers was a significant

Today, the typesetting is done by the researchers themselves, and printing is unnecessary. Selection could be carried out informally, and to some extent is, by online comments, blogs, websites, and a range of social media. What do the publishers contribute? Mainly, they have built up valuable prestigious brand names, for which they are collecting rents. The audience for this prestige is not the readers of the research papers — who would just as happily find them on an open archive, and would be much better served judging the quality by reading open online comments rather than the crude imprimatur of a journal — but the secondary market in scientific reputations made up of hiring committees, promotion committees, and funding agencies, who can’t be bothered to read the research, but much prefer a simple system of journal rankings.

That explains why the researchers want to publish in the journals. But why does anyone want to pay the publishers for the superfluous journals? To the extent that they provide a function of selection and review, that work is provided gratis by academics. To justify their rents they need to inhibit free circulation of research results, which is why the big-money fields with big-money journals forbid the publication of preprints, or the circulation of preliminary results. If you ask the publishers, of course, that’s not what they will say. They claim that they block preliminary publication to protect the public from research that has not been properly vetted by the holy peer review process.

I have written here about the absurd fetishisation of “peer review”, presented as a zero-one gold standard. Peer review is not a threshold, but a continuous process, and the now conventional method of a few selected individuals reviewing anonymously is minimally informative. The anonymous referees may have read attentively, or they may have passed on work that seemed superficially sound, because the authors were highly regarded, or friends. There is no record of the papers that were rejected, whether because of low quality or because of the self interest of the referees. And if the former, there is no way to know, when a paper finally appears, how many other journals already passed on the research, with the authors collecting helpful comments along the way.

(I say this as someone who has, personally, received mainly generous and helpful reviews, and almost never been blocked from publishing by referees defending disciplinary turf or displaying personal animus. This seems to be more of a problem in some fields, particularly in the humanities.)

I suppose I must conclude then by saying Monbiot’s article just reminds me that the imperative to destroy the scientific publishers and salt the earth is overdetermined.

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