Michael Eisen’s talk on why the current publishing model does not make sense

Michael Eisen posted the complete text of the talk “The Past, Present and Future of Scholarly Publishing” he gave at Commonwealth Club in San Francisco about science publishing and PLoS. It is a must read and a must follow.

Here is an excerpt from the talk that explains why the current science publishing model does not make any sense.

What the scientists do?

Take your typical scientist at my home institution – the University of California Berkeley. She draws a salary from the state of California, and works in a building funded by the state. When she has a new idea, she goes out and raises money to buy equipment and supplies and to pay the salaries of the students and staff who will actually do the work. In all likelihood this money will come from the US government – through agencies like the NIH or NSF. And if not from them, from a public minded non-profit or foundation like the Howard Hughes Medical Institute that funds my lab. This scientist and her students then spend a great deal of time – usually years – pursuing the idea, until they finally have a result they want to share with their peers.

So they sit down and write a paper describing why they were interested in the question, what they did, how they did it, what they found, and what they think it means.

What the publishers do?

And then they hopefully submit it to one of the 10,000 journals currently in operation – choosing based on scope and importance. With few exceptions, these journals work the same way. The paper is assigned to an editor – sometimes a salaried professional, but usually a practicing scientist volunteering their time. They read the paper and decide who in the field is in the best position to evaluate the authors’ methods, data and conclusions. They send the paper to these scientists – who again are volunteering their time as a service to the community – who read it and render their opinion on the paper’s technical merits and suitability to the journal in question. The editor looks at all these reviews and decides whether to accept, modify or reject the work. If the paper is accepted, the journal takes the manuscript, converts it into a publishable form, and posts it on the web. If the paper is not accepted, the scientists either go back and do some more work and rewrite the paper, or they send it to another journal, triggering a complete reprise of the entire process.

What the publishers don’t do?

I want you to note just how little the journal actually does here.

They didn’t come up with the idea. They didn’t provide the grant. They didn’t do the research. They didn’t write the paper. They didn’t review it. All they did was provide the infrastructure for peer review, oversee the process, and prepare the paper for publication. This is a tangible, albeit minor, contribution, that pales in comparison to the labors of the scientists involved and the support from the funders and sponsors of the research.

Why the publishing model does not make sense?

And yet, for this modest at best role in producing the finished work, publishers are rewarded with ownership of – in the form of copyright – and complete control over the finished, published work, which they turn around and lease back to the same institutions and agencies that sponsored the research in the first place. Thus not only has the scientific community provided all the meaningful intellectual effort and labor to the endeavor, they’re also fully funding the process.

Universities are, in essence, giving an incredibly valuable product – the end result of an investment of more than a hundred billion dollars of public funds every year – to publishers for free, and then they are paying them an additional ten billion dollars a year to lock these papers away where almost nobody can access them.

It would be funny if it weren’t so tragically insane.

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