We Can’t Trust the Market with Scientific Knowledge

Scientific publishing is currently a multi-billion dollar industry, forcing scientists to pay huge sums to access or publish publicly-funded research – it's time for a democratic alternative.

Credit: Thana Prasongsin / Getty

The multi-billion dollar scientific publishing industry has long been a thorn in the side of the scientific community. Publicly funded knowledge in the form of research articles, produced by publicly funded workers, is then peer reviewed, for free, by other publicly funded workers, and then sent to the publisher for their meagre contribution to the scientific community: copy editing, standardised formatting, and hosting web servers. After this absurd process, which has mostly been provided for by public funds, the publishers slap on an extortionate paywall on the articles. The publisher rakes in 100 percent of the subscription fees, and access to what is meant to be a public good is restricted thanks to intellectual property laws.

This has the farcical consequence of universities collectively paying private companies to legally access the collective output of their own work. And while this isn’t much of an obstacle for rich universities in the Global North, it presents a greater issue for individual researchers or those affiliated to a university in the Global South. As India’s Breakthrough Science Society put it: ‘Without a subscription, a researcher has to pay between $30 and $50 to download each paper, which most individual Indian researchers cannot afford. Instead of facilitating the flow of research information, these companies are throttling it.’

Opposition to the industry is difficult for individuals. While technically anyone can upload their research online without sending it to a publisher, career prospects are dependent on getting published in established journals. Universities want their researchers to be published in the ‘highest impact’ journals available, and they place great value in the peer review system that is supposed to weed out bad science. An individual choosing not to publish their work would be putting their livelihood at risk, making collective action the only viable opposition.

The scientific community has made its disdain for the current system clear. Grassroots movements such as The Cost of Knowledge, a campaign started by Cambridge mathematician Timothy Gowers to boycott the publishing giant Elsevier for its business practices, quickly garnered the support of almost 20,000 academics around the world. And Sci-Hub, a website started by Kazakh computer scientist Alexandra Elbakyan that illegally hosts and provides free access to over 85 million research papers, has served over a billion articles to users since its conception in an act of resistance to the profit motives of publishers.

This growing discontent paved the way for cOAlition S, a global coalition of funding bodies who agreed on a plan (known as ‘Plan S’) to mandate researchers they fund to make their work available freely upon release, i.e. as open access (OA). With the combined might of the world’s most influential funders such as our government’s UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) backing the plan, publishers were compelled to update their business model by offering OA options to scientists.

Unfortunately, this primarily took the form of ‘Gold OA’, a model requiring scientists to pay exorbitant publication fees. While publishers say these are commensurate with the costs they incur, the amounts demanded do not reflect this at all, with some journals charging scientists thousands—in the case of Nature, over £8,000—for every article they submit. The truth is that these egregious sums exist to maintain profit margins, with the burden now falling squarely on the shoulders of the scientists producing the knowledge in the first place. Ultimately, as before with the subscription and paywall model, it is public funding that ends up footing the bill.

There is an alternative to this model. Plan S stated that researchers should be allowed to make their work freely available via a ‘rights retention strategy’: making it a condition of funding that authors retain their copyright over the peer-reviewed manuscripts accepted for publication. These would then be released freely and legally under a Creative Commons license, as a substitute for the copy-edited, typeset, and formatted ‘version of record’ that the journal would keep behind a paywall. This work-around is referred to as ‘Green OA’, and it is this fee-free open access strategy that a substantial chunk of the scientific community see as the preferred option.

For obvious reasons, Green OA is strongly opposed by the publishing industry. In a leaked letter, it was revealed that Elsevier lobbied the government to ensure that researchers would be mandated to publish under Gold OA, with Green OA only allowed as a last resort. In welcome news, the newly released UKRI policy makes it clear that this lobbying was unsuccessful and publicly funded researchers are free to publish under Green OA as an equally valid route to open access.

However, for some scientists, the focus on open access is a distraction from wider questions around the control of science and profit extraction from knowledge-producing labour. Professor Fay Dowker, a theoretical physicist at Imperial College London, told Tribune that with Gold OA, ‘the public pays the OA fees via government research grants and the private companies cream off profit from that… Public ownership and democratic control of the publishing process would be more beneficial for the production of reliable scientific knowledge and its common ownership than OA within a profit-making system. A small step towards this would be for researchers only to publish in and do editorial work for journals controlled by not-for-profit organisations.’

In an encouraging first step in this non-profit direction, UKRI announced that it would be awarding a £650,000 grant to a project called ‘Octopus’, a ‘Diamond OA’ (i.e. free to publish, free to read) non-profit online platform that proposes an alternative way to publish science than the traditional article format. By breaking up science into eight different types of work (such as hypotheses, methods, results, and analysis, to name a few), it hopes to foster more productive collaboration, facilitate faster dissemination of scientific work, and incentivise better quality science.

‘It’s entirely right that UKRI are exploring other methods of dissemination other than simply arguing over who pays for the current system,’ said Dr Alexandra Freeman, an academic at the University of Cambridge and creator of Octopus.

While Octopus is still in prototype stages, Freeman is already exploring having alternative kinds of governance models. She is currently a self-described ‘benign dictator’ as the sole director of the community interest company that owns Octopus, but democratic governance is in her vision for the future. ‘I don’t want to recreate the hierarchical old-fashioned structure because one of the main things about Octopus is getting rid of gatekeepers… I want it to be a much more modern approach – a collaborative, community owned approach to the management structure.’

The grant awarded to Octopus should just be the start of funding similar projects. A bolder vision from UKRI and the government would be a comprehensive policy on publicly owned scientific publishing. With no profit motive, such journals could be run on a Diamond OA basis and the costs associated with copy editing, formatting, and hosting could be met by public funding. They will end up being much cheaper to run as public funds would no longer be going towards the pockets of shareholders. As these will be publicly owned, they will be free from the clutches of private companies and—like Octopus—would be able to experiment with innovative ways to present science and explore democratic forms of governance by the scientific research community.

Scientific knowledge doesn’t just need to be free to read – it needs to be owned and democratically controlled by the society it is meant to benefit. Publicly owned scientific publishing is the way to do that.