What’s wrong with scholarly publishing? How it used to be

While waiting for feedback (and there's a good discussion on Friendfeed) here's a (probably rosy-tinted) ramble through history…

I started my research almost 50 years ago and did my doctorate in 2 years (required for chemistry as we had a fourth year of research in my first degree). During that I did several crystal structures (it was becoming slightly mechanised but I had to measure up to 50,000 diffraction intensities by eyeballing photographic films *and typing them up*. I created a thesis (which did not impress my (very famous) examiners and I am told I passed on the strength of my viva). That thesis is in the Bodleian and – thanks to Sally Rumsey should be being digitized RSN. You will then be able to judge its quality (it is really not too bad – and would now simply require corrections.

The process of publication was technically much harder. It took 2 days to create a picture of a crystal structure. It needed the coordinates creating with sine tables and worse. Then drawing with a Rapidograph. When I got it wrong I had to scrape the errors off with a razor. All data had to be punched up and included. I went straight into an assistant lectureship at the then new University of Stirling. Straightforward benevolent nepotism – I was invited to apply by my college tutor, Ronnie Bell, who took up the chair of chemistry. I was in the right place at the right time.

Anyway during my DPhil I published my first paper – a rather fun structure – in Chemical Communications. This was a new (and I felt exciting) journal where you wrote a brief account of the work and (at that stage, I think) were expected to write it up fully later (e.g. with the data). There was a feeling of competition – only interesting chemistry was accepted. Not sure I got much feedback. After getting to Stirling and recovering from the DPhil viva I wrote up the other structures and sent them off to J.Chem.Soc (the Chem Soc – now the RSC – had only one main journal (I think there was also Faraday Discussions) – but it was really a single national journal.

There was a clear feeling that you published in your national journal – UK=> JCS, Scandinavia=>Acta Chem Scand, US=>JACS, CH=>Helvetica Chimica, etc. If you had particularly specialist crystallographic material it was Acta Crystallographica (or possibly Zeitschrift fuer Kristallographie). In 1970 the world was very simple.

And then it changed. I remember in about 1972 getting a transfer of copyright form (I think from Acta Cryst, but it might have been JCS). I had no idea what it was. It was explained that this was to protect the authors from having their papers ripped off – that unless we gave copyright to the publisher they couldn't act on our behalf.

At that stage we trusted publishers implicitly. Because they weren't publishers. They were learned societies that we belonged to – paid membership to. That represented our interests because they were composed of us. Why would you not trust them?

Turning over our copyright was the biggest mistake that academia has made in the last 50 years. Because we handed over our soul. We didn't even sell our soul – we gave it away. Was there an ulterior motive then? I'd like someone to tell me – I honestly don't know whether it was a genuine idea or whether it was a con.

If we had the internet we would never have been ignorant of the issues. OKF or ORG etc. would have made it immediately clear that this was not necessary and could lead to disaster (as it has). But there was little communication – where do you look? The THES? No email, no blogs, no twitter…

And then – in about 1974 IIRC seeing Tetrahedron (or maybe Tetrahedron Letters) – a Pergamon Press journal. Pergamon was run by Robert Maxwell. It had an appealing visual quality – higher than the society journals. And it concentrated on one subject only – organic chemistry (whereas JCS and the other society journals had all subdisciplines of chemistry). It was irrelevant to me that it was commercial – I didn't pay the bills and anyway universities had lots of money and could buy almost any journals they wanted. I've published in Tetrahedron and TetLetts. Why not?

And I remember going to Switzerland and when I go interesting and important results finding that the convention was to publish them in J. Am. Chem. Soc., not Helvetica. The first time that the choice of journal mattered. But that was because more people would read JACS than Helvetica. I didn't feel any sense of choosing JACS because it was "better", just that it would be better for my work.

The 1970s and 1980s had a strange step forwards and backwards – camera-ready copy. Not in most journals but in many monograph chapters. It was a quick, and I think honest, approach. We could say and draw roughly what we wanted as long as it kept within a square blue rectangle. You were responsible for your own diagrams and spelling. It wasn't pretty but it was rapid (relatively).

And I was involved in setting up a new society (Molecular Graphics Society, 1981) which had its own journal. It was free to members. The society subsidized the journal. Throught membership. And yes, we made money out of meetings by charging fees for exhibitors. I was treasurer. We were financially viable.

And then the web came – 1993. I thought it would transform publishing. It was an opportunity for the universities to show what their publishing houses could do. It was an unparalleled opportunity for a new type of scholarship. I ran the first multimedia course on the Internet (Principles of Protein Structure). They were heady days. A few people believed – for me Birkbeck and Nottingham. But generally academia was totally disinterested in the new opportunities. Why? Please tell me.

They could and should have taken charge of scholarly publishing. Instead they let (and encouraged) commercial publisher to dictate to them what publishing was and was to become?

  • Who asked for PDF? Not me and no-one I have talked to.
  • Who asked for double-column PDF? Not me and no-one I have talked to.
  • Who asked for the "paper" to remain fossilized as a paper image?
  • Who asked for the printing bill to be transferred from the publisher to the department laserjet?
  • Who asked for manuscripts to be submitted through inhuman forms and grotesque procedures?

No-one. Academia has supinely accepted anything that the publishers have offered them. And paid whatever they have asked. (Yes, you may occasionally think you have saved money, but look at the publishers' revenue – a monotonically increasing function (maths speak for something that increases year by year inexorably). In most industries innovation and scale have cut prices. …

…stop. I was meant to reminisce, not rant. I'll fondly remember up to about 1990. Then it all goes wrong.


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11 Responses to What’s wrong with scholarly publishing? How it used to be

  1. Jo Walsh says:

    Working on a JISC project currently, looking at linked data for pieces of scholarly infrastructure. It looks like there is an extra layer of proprietary software / services companies in the loop now - such as Ex Libris and their SFX package for networking catalogues.
    University/library/funder support for free software to do things like OpenURL, other publishing tools, that could help..

    • pm286 says:

      Thanks Jo,
      As you know we have to liberate the fundamental content before it gets wrapped in proprietary services, vendor lockin and DRM.
      Maybe we need Robin Hood... (oops)

  2. Bill Roberts says:

    As a non-academic but occasional reader of published academic papers, the current system of publishing actively deters me from reading the best work of scientists. If I was a researcher working in an institution and needing to read papers every week, then I suppose the journal subscription systems are workable. But for me, every time I hit a $30/article paywall, I simply go back to google and look for blog posts or preprints (or the one or two open journals) instead.

    As a researcher, then clearly there is advantage in professional status and an advantage for the institution in getting papers into prestigious journals, but this is at the cost of *actively preventing* a proportion of the potential audience for the paper from ever seeing it.

    I'm sure I could get some kind of 'affiliate membership' of a university library and so get access that way, but the marginal benefit each time isn't big enough to make me do that.

    The web ought to be the ideal medium for coping with 'long tail' people like me, but as you have so clearly pointed out on several occasions, the current system of academic publishing has conspicuously failed to take advantage of the possibilities offered by the web.

    • pm286 says:

      Thanks so much. Yours is exactly the sort of unsolicited message we need. It is people like you we are fighting for. I will highlight your post...

  3. Henry Rzepa says:

    My timescale corresponds to a period about 10 years later than Peter's, but the experiences are much the same. In the 1970s and 1980s (until Maxwell), publishing was a leisurely activity, often taking ~2 years (in chemistry) and I gather sometimes much more in eg Mathematics. Urgent communications grew up out of a scientific community that travelled and met on a regular basis to discuss breaking ideas face to face. But as that community grew ever larger, the need to communicate "urgently" and doing so by travel became more onerous; it became absorbed into the journal thanks to this new breed of publisher noted above. But we forget how impoverished conventional journals were in some ways prior to ~1970 or so. A week or so ago, I wanted to track down the history of Hafnium. I was astonished at how much crucial information was missing from journals of the period (this in fact during the 1920s). The authors rarely bothered to cite properly (probably on the assumption that since they all knew each other personally, there was no need). Some 90 years later, it makes for great difficulties in tracking how ideas developed.

    As Peter notes, the 1980s were the era of camera-ready copy, when much of the labour is transferred to the authors. I detested this with a vengeance, the horrors of transfer lettering, stencils and french curves are with me to this day. So yes, when ~1990 dawned, I was enormously excited that the technology of communicating science would rapidly progress. As Peter notes however, I did not take into account the built-in conservatism and vested interests of scientists (particularly chemists). Many of the built in practices of journal publishing actually suited them quite well (although arguably they were not in the best interests of science itself) and persist to this day. Much like the unholy PPP alliance between the press, the politicians and the police which is a hot topic at the moment in the UK.

    However, if one is determined, one can try to change the journal. But projects like this have not done much to change the hearts and minds of most authors (and I notice this most amongst the younger ones in my department). However, sometimes the blindingly obvious (and I allude to the unholy PPP alliance noted above) can rumble for years or decades, but then reach a tipping point. However, I have no idea, despite all of Peter's efforts on eg this blog, and my own modest contributions, whether we are even approaching a tipping point in scholarly publishing.

    • pm286 says:

      Thanks Henry,
      I think the stresses in the system are building. Every post like yours helps. The funders are getting their act together. The non-academic web is getting more vocal. Things fall apart?

  4. Barbara Fister says:

    The $17,000 a year (or $20,000 or $30,000) that libraries pay is not workable, and these profitable publishers are moving toward not allowing individual subscriptions because they can charge libraries so much more and don't want to jinx that market. I think they want a world where it's either all-you-can-eat for a few who can afford the full banquet or very expensive a la carte.

    Increasingly being affiliated with an institution won't solve the problem because so few institutions have access to everything you might need and may not be willing or able to purchase every article of interest at these a la carte rates.

    • Bill Roberts says:

      Thanks Barbara - seems it's even worse than I thought!

    • pm286 says:

      what are your figures? Per annum for your instituion for a single journal? or a bundle? (A "big deal"???).

      • Barbara Fister says:

        Sorry - that was confusing. I'm just quoting some big-ticket figures I've seen for particular journals like Tetrahedron Letters. To put this into perhaps a less heated perspective, according to Library Journal's annual periodical price survey the average annual subscription for a chemistry journal is $3,676. History journals average $363 a year.

        Big deals have a much, much bigger price tag. I'm at a very small institution serving undergraduates and we pay $37,000 annually for one of our deals. (It's based on number of full time students - we have 2,500.) Access to current ACS journals have been in the $20,000 range, but that was with state support that is going away, so it will be more when we renew (and had already gone up 14% from the previous year). We don't have any Elsevier titles except a few in print because their deal is out of our league, though they are now working deals where you can buy those $30 articles for personal use at a slight discount through the Copyright Clearance Center. I have seen the details, but I'm sad that libraries are reduced to buying disposable articles that can only be used by one person. And it certainly won't help the walk-in visitor.

        • pm286 says:

          Extremely useful info, Barbara,
          What you are saying is effectively that GAC is priced out of the market. That publishers don't care about you.
          (For those readers who don't understand, the $30 (or for Elsevier's Serials Review, $40) is a RENT FEE. 1 person for one day. That means (strictly , and I have to be strict) you cannot use it for teaching or even share it with a colleague. If two of you want to discuss it , it costs $80. (Did I mention that was for 1 day?). And even if it was a paper from a fake journal (I'll come to that later) it costs money.
          I am interested that you do not subscribe to Elsevier. That gives me an idea for why more people should do the same thing. Later...

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