The coming revolution in STM #scholpub

I have prophesied that there will be a revolution in STM #scholpub and now I can put some flesh on the bones.

If we look at current #scholpub – as the Finch report did – and ask how do we change it, we end up with a mess. The report is a mess and almost all small steps will end up with at least as much mess or even more. The universities have failed to give any sort of moral, organization or technical lead. Their repositories are failures – most have at best a few per cent of their output and academics either ignore them or regard them as a distraction or impediment. No-one uses them to discover scientific information because they are disorganised, have no useful search tools , and do not interoperate.

So STM publishing is probably the most inefficient information market on the planet. Compare it with Amazon, Google, Car insurance, Supermarket products, financial information and more.

Voluntary information resources are better than what the commercial publishers can provide. Compare Wikipedia or Figshare with SpringerImages. Tell me if you disagree.

So let’s get away from the details and see why there must be a catastrophic fracture.

  • Anyone who understands the modern information world – Open source/content, communities, open standards, interoperability etc. will look at current closed STM publishing (I’ll call this TollAccess – TA) and see how appallingly inefficient it is.
  • The market is very significant – perhaps 15,000,000,000 USD (15 billion). This is largely fuelled by governments (who fund universities), students (who pay fees), research funders (universities strip money off grants to pay for journal subscriptions) and endowments. Up till now this has been an infinite cash cow (yes libraries scream, but expenditure has continued to rise). So it’s worth newcomers coming to get a piece of it
  • There has been no change in the market of TA practice for 15 years. No innovation. The Scholarly Kitchen blog, the love-in for TA publishers recently asked itself what the biggest advance was in the last decade. “The Big Deal”. This is a marketing ploy to force libraries to buy more journals than they actually want to buy. (To be fair they also mentioned PLoS).
  • The market has failed to follow Moore’s law. This is not because the law doesn’t apply – it’s because it’s been artificially held back by company lawyers, marketeers, timid librarians, indifferent universities and arrogant academics. Even allowing (say) a Moore’s law of 2 years, you end up with a grossly overpriced journal article.
  • There is no change in the product (“the journal” and the “artickle”) but there is no restriction requiring this. Lawyers can restrict change in their function through their closed practices and communities. Publishers can’t
  • There is no love or respect for publishers. People queue when Apple opens a new store. Do scientists BUY “I love Elsevier” T-Shirts from the “Elsevier Store”?
  • There is serious friction between the aspirations of funders and the practice of publishers. Funders want their work made available to all. “TA publishers” base their business model on restricting access.
  • 99% of the world, including 99% of the rich world (#scholarlypoor) has no access to #scholpub. Only universities can read it. What other market is so hidebound that it only offers its products to such a restricted customer base? Academia compounds this by suggesting that no-one outside its ivory towers can benefit from #scholpub. This arrogance must not and cannot endure.
  • The costs of enforcing TollAccess are a very significant part of the total costs (paywalls, lawyers, etc.). And the hidden costs – to the consumers – are even larger. So much science simply isn’t done because of the TA friction

And the list is probably incomplete.

My point is that any entrepreneur can now see a 15 billion USD market which is ripe for exploitation. You don’t have to be an expert in science.

I can’t see the details of the new market. It will have radically different products. I can guess some. The “journal” will disappear because it has no pupose. There will still be a need for Glory and maybe Nature will still be selling that. Perhaps we shall have TV-based talent contests.

But the article – if it persists – will become a commodity. Here’s my thinking…

There is now mounting evidence that it costs about 100 USD to publish an adequate qualilty open peer-reviewed scientific paper. In total.

My evidence:

* IUCr publishes 3000 OA papers a year (Acta Cryst E), IN FULLY SEMANTIC FORM for 150USD which gives a useful “profit”. They do this because they have engaged the authors who willingly do much of the work for them. Authors do it because IUCr has built the authoring system and it’s far better than anything the main publishers have come up with.

* It costs 7 USD to put a paper in arXiv

* PeerJ charges 99 USD for an open peer-reviewed paper. I believe this figure makes sense.


Nature “has to charge” 10000 USD for an open-access paper because it is selling glory. Glory commands whatever price people are willing to pay.


Many publishers charge huge amounts for OA because they have an effective monopoly of the subdiscipline and because they are also selling glory.


Anyone can author and publish a scientific paper without a “publisher”. Every student’s thesis is a peer-reviewed piece of science. I know some universities opt out of the process by getting student to publish in closed access journals and then simply collecting the papers. These unievrsities are part of the problem.


Many scientists (particularly in CompSci) run peer-reviewed workshops for dissemination and merit and do the whole lot without publishers. Traditionally they may get the proceedings published through a publisher but this is not necessary.



* publishers are not necessary for top-quality peer review

* publishers are not necessary for the technical creation of high-quality documents


And to reiterate:


Traditional publishers now have exactly two unique selling points:

* they sell perceived glory to universities

* they “persuade” universities and authors to give them highly valuable material and then use the legal mechanisms of the last 200 years to control and resell content.


Both are very fragile. If either crashes then the publisher has very little to sell. If both crash so will the publisher.


If Green OA had been done properly – in 1995 – then I would be a supporter. Basically every university would have required its outputs to be fully posted on the web. Departments and  individuals would be judged on that. Instead of building repositories they should have built publishing systems. By now we would have the whole of STM on the web.


But Green has missed the boat and Gold is slow and expensive.



… what or who?


Read the next post.




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5 Responses to The coming revolution in STM #scholpub

  1. Walter Blackstock says:

    Having recently retired and joined the scholarly poor, I follow your blog with interest. I may as well be back in the era of the reprint request card with which I began my career. I spend money on some limited scholarly access, but I cannot afford to buy or rent a paper whose value is uncertain until I get beyond the abstract. I could seek a visiting fellowship to move inside the paywall again, but that’s playing a game and solves nothing. I hardly exaggerate when I say that the alchemical corpus is more accessible to me than the current chemical literature. (One jewel I have come to appreciate is the Wellcome Library on Euston Road). I make no special pleading: my colleagues in start-ups are also largely outside the paywall: as you rightly emphasise, something has to give.
    Solutions? Part of the problem is the locking-in of publication metrics to career advancement. I have every sympathy with younger PI’s trying to meet performance goals, write grants, teach and carry-out research. They are not going to eschew publication in Cell or Nature nor should they. But they should be disabused of the notion that publishers and researchers are ‘in it together’ to advance our understanding of the world. Publishers are obligated to maximise returns for shareholders, no more. Citation indices feed key-performance indicators at the personal level and assessment exercises at the department level. Such numbers are said to be objective and fair, but that’s arguable. Using surrogates for thought and judgement saves time but I see few other gains.
    I would like to see e-print arXiv equivalent(s) in the life sciences. The arXiv is respected and works well in physics and astronomy: that it evolved may be it’s strength. More boldly (and knowing it won’t happen), a concerted rejection by universities of all journal subscriptions for a year would have impact, and may even be good for research longer-term! In considering such a move academics might become aware of the strangle-hold publishers have on the back-corpus. Cancel the bundled subscription in whole or part and the e-back holdings may also disappear. In my experience, academics have no understanding of how libraries today are between a rock and a hard-place. Public transparency in subscription costs both for universities and industry would be a start.
    I don’t know what might push matters to a tipping point: recent publicity and selective boycotts have helped, but the publishers can afford to play a patient game (and have many lawyers) knowing that most researchers are not interested. Maybe there’s a role for a foundation (Soros, Gates), or an even an elaboration of Google+. Better minds than mine have wrestled with the problem.
    Finally, I’m sure you’ve noted that the Hargreave’s report is published today:
    Apologies for the length, I’ll go back to my alchemy!

    • pm286 says:

      Thanks very much Walter. No need to worry about length. Everything you write makes sense.
      I hadn’t seen Hargreaves, so thanks.

  2. Rich Apodaca says:

    This is a thought-provoking series of posts – looking forward to the next one. Could you give sources to the numbers you’re quoting?

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