Profiteering, Secretive Chemists and Open Access

Yesterday George Monbiot published a scathing piece in the Guardian about academic publishers, writing that they are the “most ruthless capitalists in the western world” and that “the racket they run is most urgently in need of referral to the competition authorities”.

I agree that journal pricing is absurd. Viewing a single article will cost you around $30–40. I’ve never understood how it can cost that much to publish and provide one-time access to a single article considering distribution is electronic and journals don’t pay for peer-review.

Libraries spend a large proportion of their budgets on journal subscription deals where they get access to thousands of journals, but are tied into 6% yearly price increases. One wonders why libraries agreed to such high yearly increases in the first place, well above the rate of inflation. Imperial’s library spends £3.8 million—43% of its budget—on journal subscriptions every year. However, Deborah Shorley, Director of Imperial’s Library, isn’t going to let this continue by trying to get publishers to accept payments in Sterling and reduce subscription fees by 15%.

My biggest gripe is that research funded by the tax payer isn’t freely available to the public. I agree with Monbiot that all research funded by the tax payer should be freely available to the public. It seems that private individuals all too often make vast profits from public investment.

Where’s the chemistry arXiv?

Nature recently published a piece about the pre-print server arXiv on its 20th anniversary. ArXiv seems like an excellent resource but chemistry has nothing like it. Why? Derek Lowe wrote today that he doesn’t know; nor do I. I think The Curious Wavefunction is on to something in that chemists are more secretive than physicists.

Perhaps it’s because cutting edge physics experiments are large and require lots of collaboration, unlike most chemistry research. A big development in chemistry could come from a small group working in a couple of fume hoods. They are much more easily beaten to publication by a competing group (and consequently lose out on any subsequent recognition) than physicists working on something like the LHC, so they are secretive until their work is published.

I hope that there will be a shift to open access but my feeling is there won’t. There’s no incentive for those in positions to bring about such a change to actually do so. Widely read, high impact journals are closed access and make lots of money from subscription fees, so there isn’t an incentive for publishers to switch to open access and charge authors to publish instead. Additionally, only well established researchers can afford to publish in a low impact open access journal rather than high impact closed journal.