There is a huge elephant standing in the middle of the scientific community. Everyone knows about it. Everyone sees it. The elephant not only takes an enormous amount of space and resources, but also forces scientists to spend a tremendous amount of time taking care of it. The elephant is the commercial publishing of academic articles. It is high time we remove the elephant from our community.
Let’s imagine the following farming scheme. The farmers receive money from the government to produce crops. They spend all the money on seeds, machines, workforce and their own salary. However, everything they produce, they have to give away to the crop bank. Additionally, each farmer has to spend a certain period of time working on the quality control in the crop bank without receiving any salary. In the end, all the crops from the bank feed the nation. Does it sound like feudalism? Well, it should. However, there is one huge difference in the system – the crop bank is a private company and it returns the crops back only if the government pays for it. Anyone presented with such a system would start to wonder: “why does the government pay twice for the crops?” and “what is the crop bank actually providing to farmers for their enslavement and to the government for taking all the crops it has already paid for?”. If you exchange the words ‘farmers’ for ‘scientists’, ‘crops’ for ‘scientific results’ and ‘crop bank’ for ‘commercial publishers’, you will basically get the description of the current scheme of scientific publishing. Let us remind you that the STM (Scientific, Technical and Medical) scholarly publishing industry was worth US$25 700 000 000 globally in 2017 . Taking into consideration the enormous profit of above 30% made by most commercial publishers , it will give us around US$7 700 000 000 that could have been spent on research instead. Therefore, it should not be surprising that scientists around the world have asked the aforementioned questions for years. However, the answers they wait for are long lost in time.
Peer review – a form of quality control and evaluation of the academic publications by other professionals from within the field of expertise.
Lost in time
Everything started in the XVII century when the first academic journals were published: Journal des Sçavans and Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London. Soon, the peer review process was introduced, but at the beginning, it was mostly the task of editors . In the 19th century, external referees started to be involved, but nearly one hundred years had to pass before it became a common practice. After the Second World War, science bloomed because governments started to heavily subsidize it . Nevertheless, better ways of scientific results dissemination were needed. Specialized journals provided an easy way of distributing research results worldwide, which was bringing fame to scientists and was facilitating scientific discussion. For publishers, it was a huge opportunity as well: academic libraries became heavily subsidized and could often subscribe to all new journals. Therefore, publishers quickly spotted their chance and scouted all specialized scientific conferences, with a proposition to start an “International Journal of (insert your favorite scientific field here)” . The demand was high as the culture of “publish or perish” was already on the rise. Scientists themselves took a fancy in becoming an “Editor of International Journal”. Everyone was happy, with only a few voices complaining, until the end of the 20th century and the birth of the Internet Era.
The Internet Era
The Internet provided the convenience of easy and free worldwide science distribution. People anticipated that publishers were doomed. On the contrary, they quickly adapted. They did not have to print numerous copies of journals anymore (cost reduction), while keeping journal prices (no value reduction). Libraries tried to outsmart publishers by canceling subscriptions for less popular journals, but the publishers adapted again. They introduced “journal packages”. As the access price of a single journal was highly reduced in the package, libraries fell for it, even if it meant subscribing to a number of less popular journals. At that point, publishers only needed to increase the price of packages steadily . Maybe they did it too fast or libraries’ budgets were increasing too slowly, but soon, people noticed what was happening. Universities had to spend a considerable part of their budget on journal subscriptions. Serials crisis had begun. Partially as a result of this increasing expenditure, partially as a way of removing the paywall for all, a new concept arose – open access . Providing free access to all new publications would not only reduce the cost of libraries’ subscriptions, but it would also provide poorer universities and people outside of academia with the access to scientific articles. However, as the non-profit open access publishers lacked sufficient external funding, they had to charge a publishing fee. Commercial publishers spotted their chance again – instead of charging universities for the access, they could now charge them for publishing. As you can see, we are in a vicious cycle. If we want to escape it, we need a better plan.
Serials crisis – the name for the constant increase of the subscription fees of regularly published academic journals, while the funding of libraries or institutions rise slower or stays the same over time.
Paywall – restricting access to academic journals only to those who purchased or paid the subscription fee.
Open access – providing research and scientific dissemination with an open license for copyright. The main concern is peer reviewed research literature.
Plan X postulates
1. Universities will become the primary publishers and copyright owners of academic articles.
2. Universities will publish only in a full open access (gold) mode.
3. Scientific articles should not be rejected, but allowed to hold unlimited revision, until the work is accepted.
4. Universities will allow additional improvements of the peer-review process such as published peer-review history, post-print peer review or updating articles.
5. Scientists will be forced to publish only under their affiliated publisher.
6. Scientific articles will be judged only by the citations and the scientific impact.
7. Universities will terminate access-agreements with commercial publishers.
8. All scientists will be called to share their previous works, published with commercial journals, with anyone interested.
Impact factor (IF) – the number of average yearly citations per published paper in a given academic journal in last two years. It is used to measure the importance of a journal within the scientific field.
Scientist are generally aware of the crisis in academic publishing, but not everyone sees the simple solution: the abrupt discontinuation of feeding commercial publishers with both money and content. Plan X posits that scientific articles are published directly by universities. Such a move will force every university to establish their own publishing department. Even if it would cost them more than the sum they spend on the access to private publishers’ portfolio, it will finally provide the publishing system with unlimited access and evolution. The most important point is that the principles of the publishing system will not change, only the publishing bodies will. Therefore, the peer review process will not change, but it will become as strict as the university would like it to be. One can quickly realize what would happen with the Impact factor (IF). IF will directly describe the university’s competitiveness. However, there is one requirement for this system to work. All the scientists have to publish only within their own affiliated university. It would additionally solve another issue – the pressure on publishing in high IF journals. Many granting agencies already require using papers citations as a measurement of one’s scientific success. However, this is just a tip of the iceberg of all improvements, which Plan X will bring. While discussing the concept, I quickly noticed a number of Frequently Asked Questions.
Although, Plan X provides a simple solution, not every consequence it brings can be predicted. Here I provide a list of potential follow-up effects and mitigation plans.
What will happen with commercial publishers?
They have four obvious paths:
- Becoming a database of old scientific articles. – As they will not be able to publish any new content, they will have to reduce the access fees. However, the running costs will include mostly data storage.
- Becoming a popular science journal. – There is a huge demand for translating complex and poorly accessible scientific articles to language understandable by specialists from other fields of science or to the general public. They will have to become what they actually aspire to be – commercial journals producing their own content.
- Becoming search engines. – With an increasing number of publications, more efficient search engines have to be developed, including highly specialized ones in a given scientific discipline.
- Preserving the old system. – They can attack any movement that may affect the current publishing system.
Scientists will try to publish with a higher ranked university by misusing their collaborators affiliation
Such a situation will not change much for the authors but it could affect the IF of the university. Therefore, in the interest of the universities the following rule should be established: the first author defines the affiliation of the paper. The first authorship is usually better defined and less prone to manipulation than senior authorships. If there are two equal authors from different universities, additional rules can apply. For example, the majority of authors or the senior author could help defining the affiliation.
The peer review process will be of lower quality
Again, it will not be in the interest of the university to publish low quality papers due to poorly performed peer review. The principles of the peer review process will not change. Besides, the current trend in publishing the whole review history can help other scientists to judge for themselves what the quality of the peer review was. Another perk of the university publisher should be that it will not need to artificially improve its statistics of the revision time. It will not force scientist to repeat submissions of papers, which required significant improvements, because the university could provide infinite revisions. Additionally, the increasing popularity of post-publication peer review platforms, which have documented scientific misconduct even in high IF journals, could be transformed into a novel tool. If universities allow for post-publication peer reviews, many scientific misconducts may be discovered earlier.
The universities will not agree to implement Plan X
We, scientists are the university! We are members of the university boards and committees. We are deciding on the university policies. Changing the policy of the university is within the reach for all academics, while changing the government’s policy is very difficult and changing the commercial publisher policy is practically impossible.
Sci-hub – a website that provides free access to millions of academic works by bypassing paywalls in semi-legal ways.
Preprint archive – online archive that allows submitting and accessing academic papers before they undergo peer review and publication process.
Why would we need Plan X if we have Plan S?
Plan S is the smartest move commercial publishers had in their sleeve. The theory behind Plan S is beautiful – open access to scientific publications for everyone . Commercial publishers mercifully agreed that they could allow everyone to access their content. For what price? The same as always. However, instead of collecting the money at the access level, they collect the money at the publication level. And if you have never tried to publish via open access, rest assured, the fees are enormous. Moreover, many organizations do not allow spending their grants on open access. This means that the open access fees are paid again by universities or sometimes by the researcher’s private money.
Shifting from commercial publishers’ dominance to Plan X will be too drastic
Transition periods are always scary as they are followed by the fear of the unknown. The only problematic period will be when universities establish their own publishing divisions, while still paying the access fees to commercial journals. Their expenses will increase and they will just start to gain the necessary publishing experience. The transition period should not last longer than 2-5 years, depending on the Plan X popularity. The most crucial part of the transition is to convince the biggest universities of the world, as they are the major source of income and content for commercial publishers. Again, the Plan X implementation time depends only on YOU and the pressure YOU can put on your own university.
How to prevent scientists from publishing in the high IF commercial journals?
First, universities can force all the academics to publish only with their own agency. Second, scientists are hungry for prestige. Therefore, the university can satisfy that need by highlighting the most significant articles. It will also help other scientists to read about major discoveries from other fields of science. Third, judging grant applications by the IF of the journals, where the project holder publishes, should be banned. It should become a common practice to measure the paper’s quality by its citation number (even if that also has its own flaws). Fourth, YOU are the scientist and it is YOU who decide where to send the paper.
Why would anyone want to implement Plan X?
Why would anyone oppose to Plan X? Plan X is not an option. It is a necessity. Commercial publishers are the construct of the pre-Internet era and they are not needed anymore. The advantages coming from Plan X (money savings, open access and publishing transparency) are overwhelming. The only obstacle in the introduction of Plan X are the commercial publishers who would fight as hard as they can to save their current business model.
If it is so simple, why has no one ever before tried to change the publishing system?
Oh, people have tried! There is even a Society for Scholarly Publishing, which continually writes about the matter on their official blog . Academic journal publishing reforms are constantly discussed since the beginning of XXI century . Two famous boycotting events have ended up with foundation of two popular non-profit open access journals: Public Library of Science (PLOS) and eLife. Preprint archives became an accepted and supported way of disseminating data. Open access publishing has incredibly increased. The expectations of scientific community are so high that it will be forced upon the grant-holders by the granting institution (Plan S). However, it is all not enough and the stubbornness of some publishing companies against adjusting to new trends is definitely not making it easier. The one thing that scientific community should have learnt from COVID-19 pandemic lockdown is that everything is possible as long as it is forced upon us. Maybe it is high time we force ourselves to implement changes that really matter?
What will happen with non-profit publishers?
Non-profit publishers were established to oppose the commercial ones. If commercial publishers cease to exist, we will no longer need non-profit publishers. The universities will take over their role. However, there is another option. Nowadays, many scientific societies publish under commercial publishers. As soon as the universities become the major publishing agencies, societies can publish through universities. Although, it is hard to judge if increasing the diversity of journals under Plan X will be necessary.
Scientists outside of academia will not be able to publish
There will not be any rule that a scientist from outside of academia would not be able to publish with their chosen university publisher. Most of the industry keeps extensive collaborations with various universities, so they could choose any of them. As the university publishing rules would not differ from the current ones, they would be subjected to the same process of peer review as any university affiliated researcher.
The university publishers will be less demanding to their own researchers
It will not be in the interest of the university to publish papers of poor quality. The better papers (and their citations), the higher the IF of the university will become. Moreover, it should be much easier to publish negative results or confirmation of other group’s results via the university than via commercial publishers. The pressure on publishing only papers of significant novelty might be lower, as long as, they are of high quality.
Universities from poor countries will not be able to compete with the rich ones
And now they can, can’t they? Plan X is not a plan for leveling the inequalities between universities. However, a successful application of Plan X will not only let all countries to spend more money on science, but also it will completely remove the paywall, providing everyone with an equal access to scientific publications.
Universities will outsource to commercial publishers
Indeed, there is such a possibility and it does not necessary have to be a bad idea. As long as the university will keep the commercial publishers compete for the contract, it would only reverse the current relationship at worst. However, it should be strongly advised that university establish its own publishing agency as it will allow it to gain full control over the whole process.
The publishers will not allow Plan X to happen
They would not have a choice. As soon as a few major universities will implement Plan X, the others will follow. When all the major universities in every country stop publishing in commercial journals, most of the novel papers will be open access. At that point, people will need commercial journals only for the archives. However, it is LEGAL to share your own work PRIVATELY. Therefore, whenever you need to access a paper behind a paywall, you could simply send a PRIVATE email to the authors, requesting the paper. Alternatively, you could use semi-legal sources like Sci-hub . Many papers are accessible on preprint archives like arXiv. If all scientists comply with these rules, the commercial publishers will lose their ground in any negotiations, which should force them to drastically reduce the access fees. They would not have any other choice than to restructure their business plans.
Plan S – an initiative of Science Europe to make all the scientists receiving money from state-funded agencies to publish only under open access.
Achieving Plan S is hard, why would achieving Plan X be any easier?
Plan S negotiates with funding agencies, assuming that the money provider will be able to force scientists to publish only in open access scheme. However, not all funding agencies around the world are willing to cooperate and scientists have only little influence on the funding agencies policies. Plan X is based on similar thinking. The universities have as much power as funding agencies to enforce on scientists new publishing customs. However, in contrast to funding agencies, we can personally force our own university to agree on new policies. Additionally, Plan X is not enforcing any unified policy. Each university can adjust to Plan X in its own way.
Without high-impact journals, scientists will not be aware of milestones achieved in other fields of science.
We have to be honest here. The only journals which we use as a source of information about major discoveries from other fields are Nature and Science. All the other journals are either too specialized or not considered to publish of highest novelty. That system is flawed. Therefore, as mentioned before, with increasing amount of published papers we need better systems of highlighting the significant discoveries. Platforms/journals selecting interesting/surprising/significant work of science have to be created. Better searching engines are needed. Citation rate can tell us the paper’s impact retrospectively. What about the present time? Altmetric can measure the social media buzz, but shouldn’t we rather judge the paper by the number of reads/downloads?
Plan X is not economically advantageous for small universities
No, it is not. I have no economical estimation of how much establishing a publishing section would cost. However, we can estimate how much publishing a single paper cost. In 2018 eLife published 1252 papers and its publishing expenses were £3 795 000 . It roughly gives a cost of $3713 per published paper. It seems quite a lot. But if we make a similar comparison with PLOS, the obvious pattern emerges. In 2018 PLOS published 22122 papers and its publishing expenses were $28 880 000 , which roughly gives a cost of $1305 per published paper. The cost of published paper is nearly three times lower, when publishing 20 times more. How does it fit with universities budgets? Let’s have a look at University of Oslo, which is an average size university. The whole University achieved 7531 publications in 2019 . To simplify calculations, we will assume that the assets, which the university can spend on the publishing sector equals to the assets, spend on the e-resources by the University library. Cost of the e-resources is basically the cost of subscription fees to commercial publishers. In 2019 this cost reached NOK95 800 000 (~$10 000 000) . If we divide it by the number of publications, we will get around $1273. This publication cost is very similar to that of PLOS, although PLOS published three times more. The conclusions are simple and obvious: universities should join forces to publish cheap.