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Academics should stop doing free peer-review for non-open-access journals. (timeshighereducation.co.uk)
551 points by MikeTaylor on Sept 29, 2011 | hide | past | favorite | 89 comments

I really like this idea. It has a major strength as a boycott -- it just involves me refusing to do work which I would not have been paid to do anyway. It was never going to be possible to convince people to boycott submitting papers to top journals, as that would damage their career and standing.

I also think journals as they currently stand serve an important purpose, of quality control. They are not perfect, but I have nightmares where the future of publication is just arXiv, or worse a wikipedia-style "the research anyone can edit". I'm not saying these don't have an important place, but I also want a way for the best papers to get exposure, and I think our current system is about the best way of doing that.

[Note: I am the author of the original article, so I have a horse in this race.]

I agree that the journal system provides a valuable filter. My beef is not with journal, but with locking up publicly funded research. Open-access journals are an unequivocal good.

But I am not convinced that all journals filter on the right things. I like the approach of PLoS ONE (http://www.plosone.org/), which assesses papers purely on the quality of the science, and ignores subjective notions of "impact" or "importance". The result is that everything they publish is good -- as reliable as articles published in any other journal -- but it includes articles that would never get into, say, Science or Nature due to the self-consciously super-selective approach those journals take.

Anyway, that's a side-issue. The real issue is that, whatever selection criteria a journal uses, it should make the resulting papers freely available to the citizens who funded them.

>which assesses papers purely on the quality of the science


1. Thank you for taking up the cause.

2. Trust me: Boycotting reviews is easy in my case. Unfortunately, this means no change because I stopped doing them -- it was just taking too much time for no reward.

3. wrt the above quote: I note that there is a market for selective journals. Much like reddit and HN, it is useful to have a crowd-source selection of interesting/important items. (Yes things get missed, but S/N is much higher than if I had to do it from scratch.

Good luck.

> there is a market for selective journals. Much like reddit and HN, it is useful to have a crowd-source selection of interesting/important items.

We don't need journals for that. They could be replaced by services like http://f1000.com/

I was more envisioning a reddit/HN segmented by science/engineering disciplines.

In the current journal system, editor-votes have absolute veto power, and reviewer votes have large upvote power. This has led to much progress, but it is unclear that it is the best system possible.

Then there is the whole segmentation question, which is a big tradeoff between S/N and coverage of the space. An example: Physical Review A, B, C, D & E used to be one journal -- Physical Review. Phys Rev had a green binder, and people would keep these dead-tree objects on shelves for reference. Well, the publication volume kept growing: Some wag calculated that rate of growth of the volumes on the shelf would cause their edge to exceed the speed of light. (He also pointed out that no information would be exchanged, so there was no violation of physics.)

Interesting idea to use something like a subreddit as a place to communally filter ("post-publication peer-review") published papers. The problem is, you wouldn't want one-man-one-vote. You'd want established professionals in the field to have a greater upvote/downvote weight than J. Random Ligger. You could imagine a sort of pagerankish scheme where people whose own publications have been upvoted get more more voting power as a result.

> The problem is, you wouldn't want one-man-one-vote.

I agree. Right now the reviewers (= designated experts) have all the votes.

As I think about it, the reviewers achieved that status because they wrote articles that got upvotes from previous reviewers. The first reviewers were historical and they set the standards.

You could end up with a situation where the reviewers were poorly chosen and so upvote complete bullshit (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sokal_affair), but fields of science have a reproducibility clause that provides good amounts of self-correction.

Hmmm. I didn't think your boycott post would lead to an examination of the way science and engineering is published, but the time might well be ripe. That said: My recommendation is to narrow the scope and focus on the boycott. It's enough to keep your plate full for a while.

You could use some kind of pagerank, in which a vote for a journal is a vote for the academics behind it, increasing their vote power.

This would give more sway to old, established academics, but that's already the status quo (and roughly what you are trying to achieve anyway).

>but it includes articles that would never get into, say, Science or Nature due to the self-consciously super-selective approach those journals take

I think the main issue of "traditional" journals is that they are artificially constrained to publish 10 to 15 articles per month (or issue), whereas electronic publication can get rid of this constrain (as long as they have enough peer reviewers).

Everything PLoS ONE publishes is good because they are less selective than the top tier journals? Seems an extraordinary claim to make.

Perhaps I wasn't clear. Everything PLoS ONE publishes is good not because they are less selective, but although they are less selective. The reason their acceptance criteria don't adversely affect the quality of their published articles is because they do select on quality -- if it's not good, it doesn't go in. But they don't select on impact.

Ah, my mistake, I see what you're claiming. However, let me ask a more substantive question. You end by stating:"The real issue is that, whatever selection criteria a journal uses, it should make the resulting papers freely available to the citizens who funded them."

The OA model largely involves shifting the cost from the user to the author. This will be paid out of the authors grant money, which in many cases is publicly funded as well. It's not at all clear to me that the end effect is as different as the proponents claim.

Reminds me a bit of how Google uses "open" as a competitive weapon to push Android. I wonder if OA publishers are not doing the same to push their business model...

It's not at all clear to me that the end effect is as different as the proponents claim.

Were you born in that ivory tower, or did you just move there before you could read?

Go get a job outside of research for a while (software companies are hiring!) and then take another look at this question. Those of us on the outside can tell you the difference between PLoS and, say, Nature. It's about $200 per year per journal, or $30 per article in small quantities. More importantly, it's the difference between being able to quickly skim an article in thirty seconds with one click and paying to skim each and every one of the hundreds of articles that are required to really get a firm grasp on a field. It's the difference between being able to simply link your most interested blog readers to the original research (complete with original data and figures) and having to tediously paraphrase everything you want to convey, a paraphrasing process that often goes awry.

Your response would have been much stronger without the condescending "ivory tower" and "get a job" jabs.

I was a graduate student for seven years and a postdoc for three. I still count many academics among my friends. I sometimes entertain the thought of once again working for a university. So I'm afraid I'm not very shy about potentially insulting my own social class. ;)

And I'm sorry the subject makes me angry. But it makes me angry! For example, the fact that most of my own published work is trapped behind expensive paywalls makes me very unhappy.

And I use the phrase ivory tower not as a mere gratuitous insult, but because it's the metaphor that seems to fit. Every time this subject comes up, a few people pop up to say that they just can't see the problem: Everyone who goes to school or works in science has one-click access to the whole literature, right? And if I happen to not be a college student or a scientist, can't I just physically travel to the nearest well-funded, publicly accessible university library? Doesn't anyone who matters have such a library at hand, and the time to visit it?

There was a time when printed journals in university libraries were the best we could do. But now it is 2011, and many people no longer read physical books or magazines. In less than a decade the idea of having to leave the house to retrieve written material will be as quaint as having to talk to a human telephone operator to place a long-distance call. In this era, if the attitude I described above isn't "ivory-tower", what is? What should I be reserving the ivory-tower metaphor for?

What exactly are those costs? Reviewers work for free. The only other thing that's needed is a web application and some hosting. These costs are negligible compared to the tax that closed journals are imposing on the scientific world.

I don't really know the details. But consider what open access journals charge per article: http://www.plos.org/journals/pubfees.php

This is not cheap, and I'm very glad I didn't need to cover this back when I was publishing papers.

If anyone knows a good article on the detailed economics I'd love to see it.

At a premier journal in my field, a "managing editor" is paid for the 25+ hours/wk of work assigning submissions out to the SEs/AEs (based on area of focus), and—more importantly—following up with them on their progress. As I understand, he's also responsible for managing itineraries and speaking engagements for the editor-in-chief, who travels regularly evangelizing (and getting feedback on) the top journal in our field.

We have a couple of EICs for major journals at our school, and I suspect (but do not know for certain) that the journal subsidizes their conference attendance too, so that the journal's senior editorial staff can meet in person at least annually.

My point is: don't constrain your cost focus to just distribution. There's more to running any organization than initially meets the eye.

Is all of that necessary? Would a model like the following work:

Have a web site where scientists can submit papers. Other scientists can then review the papers. The reviews are publicly (though optionally anonymously) published along with the papers, and the authors of the paper can submit revised versions of the paper.


The website would get far too many terrible papers.

Many papers would get no reviews.

Many reviews would be terrible, and done by non-trustworthy people.

The problem with the system you are suggesting is that it feels a lot like wikipedia, and who "wins" on wikipedia has little to do quality, and a lot to do with who is willing to spend the most time editing / wiki-lawyering.

Sadly, the evidence so far strongly suggests that you're right, and this idealistic approach won't work. That evidence is from PLoS ONE (which remember is the main example of how many innovations do work). They have had the ability for people to comment on and evaluate their papers for a couple of years now, and it's hardly ever used.

So can we get the incentives so that scientists do review in such a system?

The EGU journals work this way. Official reviewers are assigned, but third parties can comment. An example submission


A hybrid model with both assigned reviewers and public comment is being tried by a regional journal (Southern Association for Information Systems): http://knol.google.com/k/craig-vanslyke/jsais-review-process...

This would not work. Reviewers would not feel comfortable being completely honest if they knew their reviews would be published publicly. In any case, there should be no need for the reviews to be public.

Reviewers should be prepared to stand by their reviews. If they're not prepated for it to be known that they said something in a review, then they should not say that thing. Anonymity and secrecy in reviewing doesn't help the field.

Why should the reviewers feel unconfortable? In the current system, reviews are made available to the paper writers, and that doesn't seem to inhibit the reviewers, despite the fact that one often has a good idea of who the reviewers are, especially in the more niche fields of science.

Even today reviewers run the risk of having their reviews made public, since nothing prevents the author from disseminating it. They are however normally anonymous.

> It's not at all clear to me that the end effect is as different as the proponents claim.

There have been studies (arXiv used to link to them, maybe still does) that show that open access substantially increases the number of citations a paper receives. That strongly suggests that open access works better for distributing research even within the academy, which is just common sense — open-access papers are easier to discuss, find links to on Reddit and Wikipedia, and often simply obtain. Outside the academy, where it's even harder to measure readership, we can expect the effect to be much more extreme, since most people outside the academy actually have to pay to read non-open-access papers.

Good point: But the analogy may/may not hold if we look at actual numbers. My bet is on it not holding and PLOS style coming out better. Unfortunately, i have no idea of the balance sheet/economics of a journal publisher. Is there any such data that can be compared?

No, everything PLoS ONE publishes is good because they reject everything that isn't good.

The "less selective" bit manifests itself as a reduced average "impact"/"importance", rather than as a reduced average quality.

Exactly. Paradoxically, this policy has resulted in its getting a rather good impact factor for such a new journal (4.411 for 2010), which happily attracts more high-profile submissions in a virtuous circle.

The moral seems clear: other things being equal, freely accessible papers tend to get cited more often than paywalled ones. (Who would have guessed?)

Not less selective, less judgemental.

The arXiv and wikipedia are not the only alternatives to paid, publisher controlled journals. There are a growing number of open access journals which have the same quality standards as any publisher controlled journals. Additionally many publishers have gotten into the habit of mass producing really poor quality journals to include in packages that libraries are forced to purchase to get other big name titles. All of the quality of a journal comes from the academics who almost always but the editing, peer review and writing in for free (or technically university time). The only real service publishers ever offered was the ability to create print journals, but that is not longer necessary (or even desirable).

What you and several other people are missing is Journals don't spam reviewers with random studies. They put some effort into finding an appropriate group of people to review the research which both reduces the reviewer workload and prevents inappropriate people from reviewing things. Also reviewers gain an early look at research appropriate to their field of study, which granted is still mostly junk but far better than random.

I don't think this is going to be hard to replicate, but it's still reasonably expensive to do well for a for a large number of articles, so I suspect open access would require at a minimum a few hundred dollars per submitted article worth of work which can’t exactly be add supported.

The thing is there are already millions of dollar per university library going into paying for serials. Publishers make a huge profit. So the real issue is finding a model where universities can more effectively redirect that money towards open access. However I'll be the first to admit that getting universities cooperate even if it's in their collective interest is no simple task.

There is a problem in that it would encourage people to provide reviews as a service, and you then have a problem of filtering out who would be a good reviewer, which might be interpreted as bias.

I agree that something needs to be done though. I've been thinking of the similarities between publications and web pages a la page-rank. There are a lot of parallels, not just in content but also with respect to who has contributed and who has helped to review the paper. I've often wondered why Google Scholar doesn't take advantage of this. I do suppose though that there's no money in it. Who wants to see ads in/around their article? There's a viable non-profit model here maybe.

This is kind of chicken-and-egg problem. Today most established journals with high impact factors (= prestigious) are non-open-access. Publishing in or being a reviewer of a high impact factor non-open-access journal looks much better in a resume of a scientist than publishing in non-prestigious open-access journal.

For an open-access journal to become prestigious it needs high quality contributions. But at the same time an author of some important discovery will more likely to publish it in some high prestigious non-open-access journal. Of course for tenured faculty members it is not such a big problem because they have a secured position. But for their apprentices not having high impact publications may become a problem in their future career. And while tenured adviser may force a postdoc to publish in an open-access journal most of them will not likely do this because they understand that this puts members of his/her lab in a bad position compared to competing scientists.

I think that well known scientists should make the first move here and to start publishing in open-access journals. Their work has a lot of traction and will not suffer from being published in some not-so-well-known open-access journal. On the other hand this will help open-access journals to start building reputation.

In some communities open access journals are the most prestigious journals. In machine learning JMLR (http://jmlr.csail.mit.edu/) is (I think) widely considered the top journal. It was formed when a large group of top machine learning researchers grew fed up with the high cost of paid publication and together resigned from the board of a competing publication (http://jmlr.csail.mit.edu/statement.html). All of the top machine learning conferences (NIPS, ICML, UAI, AIStats, COLT) publish their proceedings online too. I think it's only a matter of time before all other communities follow suit, but some communities may lag behind longer than others. The machine learning community was lucky in that a large group of leading researchers decided to collectively make a clean break and support a new journal--the new journal became the premier journal almost over night so there was no slow transition phase.

Don't forget there are plenty of open-access journals with very healthy impact factors (for those who have to be ruled by that exceptionally stupid measure). For example, the top-ranked journal in the Biology category in the 2009 Journal Citation Reports was PLoS Biology, with 12.916.

This is the exception, rather than the rule. Also, remember that the question isn't "is there a open-access journal with a healthy enough impact factor/prestige?" (as if there was a threshold), it's "will I have take a noticeable hit in impact factor/prestige to publish open access?" It's hard to ask young researchers to do that latter.

Not if those young researchers want their stuff to be read (and therefore cited). Trends are, open-access journals are growing in impact.

A wonderful trend people could encourage by making the non-open journals pay for reviews. It'd help the open journals compete.

In there end there shouldn't even be journals, just articles you're pointed to by smart people. Maybe someone would start a ThesisHub for collaboration...

BTW everyone, please release papers in a more useful format than PS/PDF. HTML/CSS is intended to handle device independence and different user needs and would be a better choice. PDFs, which I always read on the computer anyways, are more of a burden than a benefit. In a browser I can run Aardvark or other live editor and make a page readable. With PDF I'm stuck dragging a too-small window over a perfect representation of a useless printed page.

That would certainly work for relatively small or close-knit groups where it is easier to collectively decide to move. I would expect that impact factor has a significant amount of gravity associated with it so even if the leaders in a field decided to move to open-access journals unless the (up and coming) majority also made the same move then the impact-factors of both journals may not change much.

Do scientists put being a reviewer on their c.v.? I am under the impression that mathematicians don't, at least I don't remember seeing it done.

Most people in the EE and CS areas I have seen do. The reason is that they don't invite just anyone to do the reviewing, you have to be deemed knowledgeable in your field, so it signifies that.

I always read it as: The candidate is well connected and has enough spare time to do reviews.

(FD: I've reviewed my share for IEEE. Now I have no time.)

You can put it on your CV, although it is not important. Being a reviewer counts as "service" for your annual performance reviews, which is slightly more important. But most importantly, nobody wants to waste time reviewing mediocre papers. Everyone wants to review the best papers, from which they can learn the most while still fulfilling their reviewer duties.

Yes, unfortunately, it is almost more important to reject the bad papers. The good papers will be published regardless of the reviewer. It takes more work when I get a bad paper, especially when it comes from someone famous, because I have to make a convincing case for rejection. I've even gotten the same paper multiple times from different journals (after rejection an resubmission). It's hard work to prevent flawed science from being published.

Although I'm in favor of open access journals for a handful of reasons, I think there are a couple of things working against the idea:

First, handling fees. As someone starting out in the field, there are a great number of journals that advertise (read:spam), and have handling fees. It feels very much like a scam, or a system were "success" can be bought.

Second, as one commenter on the article suggests, with a handling fee, the publisher is incentivized to print more. (There's an undercurrent of complain in my field that there isn't enough quality publication space, so this is two-sided, but is the cost of more outlets a lowering in quality?) However, with a subscription model, the quality must remain high to keep subscribers. (One might also argue that "closed" publishers want to print as much as possible to give more authors' schools reason to subscribe, but I don't know the level of this effect.)

Third, on a more personal level, living as a doctoral student—more particularly, with the budget of a doctoral student—even nominal costs can seem overwhelming. I don't see my institution covering "handling fees" in the near future, particularly with the amount of cost-cutting going on. The fees are less onerous for faculty, but present a slightly higher barrier for student entrants.

"However, with a subscription model, the quality must remain high to keep subscribers."

This is not how the economics of academic journals currently work. It is very standard for large academic publisher to produce a large quantity of really poor journals. These journals are then bundled into packages with the bigger name one and academic libraries are essentially forced to purchase the package (because pricing for the quality titles along doesn't make sense).

I made a mistake in the original article when I chose the phrase "handling fee", which suggests that the journal charges just for evaluating your manucript. That's not how it works (in the great majority of cases anyway) -- you pay only if your paper is accepted and published. (So I should have called it a "publication fee".)

This is an important difference because it means you don't have a situation where someone submits a manuscript, pays the handling fee, and feels the journal owes them positive reviews and publication.

Many open-access journals provide waivers for authors without institutional funding. Typically, editorial staff and reviewers and not informed whether or not the author took a waiver, so that can't influence the accept/reject decision.

you're assuming, that open access journals need a handling fee

distribution costs are marginal, it is possible for an open access journal that wouldn't take handling fees. it could be a non-profit organisation, or it could have other monetisation methods.

Yes, I'm making that 'assumption' because the article says, "... open-access journals, such as PLoS ONE, which charge authors a handling fee to cover their operating costs ..."

EDIT: Link from comment above shows fees for the PLoS family of journals start at $1350 per article and go up rapidly from there.


I absolutely agree. The pay-for-publishing model is heavily disadvantaging towards smaller research institutions, independent researchers or young researchers.

As someone who doesn't work in academia but who's job is dependent on research, I'm curious, can't you build publication fees into your research costs? I could be way off here, but I assume that most research is grant funded or university funded, can't they just make publication fees rather than subscription fees part of their calculus?

I let you in on a secret: In many research institutions the people that "do" peer-review don't do the review, they delegate the reviews to their underlings who are not in a position to refuse.

I've even been delegated a review by a researcher at a different research institution. (He didn't feel like he knew enough to properly review the paper.) But it seems like the guy the journal editor is talking to is still in a position to boycott, even if he's going to delegate the actual reviewing.

The guy the journal editor talks to has sometimes a different agenda. As he does not have interest in reviewing the papers, he isn't interested in the topics. He's often interested in advancing his career and building his network, and a move to do that is "review" papers for journals. Otherwise he would review the papers on his own.

Boycotting would run counter to his own goals (while the guy who got the task of actually reviewing the paper has interest in the topic and would like to boycott journals but is not in the position to do so).

The guy the journal editor talks to still has limited minion resources at his disposal, and he still has the option of caring about the future of academic publishing even if he isn't interested in the topics of the papers.

It seems like it should be governments who fund the publishing and peer review services, they are already funding most of the research. Having private corporations as middle-men just doesn't make sense, even if they are non-profits.

I love how this all came about because of a criminal action. No amount of protesting or discussion was succesful. Would it ever have been succesful? Possibly, but unlikely. However, the second we see some illegal activity (the guy from MIT who downloaded the JSTOR articles from that server), suddenly Pandoras box has opened and we see real change, real disruption and fast.

Does this justify his actions? Is the only way to disrupt entranched business to conduct borderline actions? Effectively pushing boundaries to the very limits of legality?.

Either way, this is the concept of "tipping point" in action folks.

Yes, the action was so powerful that it sent ripples backwards in time to provoke the founding of the PLoS journals years ago!

The surfer is not the wave.

What exactly is the cause/effect relationship between the JSTOR breach and this article? I don't quite see it.

The JSTOR incident shone a light on the practices of JSTOR and journal publishers in general and highlighted just how restricted access is for the general public to research we have all either fully or partly paid for and we fully expect to be in the public domain.

Further, it created a martyr for the movement of open-sourcing articles and to be quite frank about it, the journal owners are now very afraid of their monopolies crumbling to this movement. They knew this day would come, but the speed with which this is gathering pace is terrifying.

I disagree. There is no single incident that caused everyone to love Open Access. Instead, over the last years librarians and activists have been slowly but steadily been making progress in this regard - without breaking the law or contracts.

No doubt their slow steady pace laid the foundations, but let's give credit where it's due. That MIT guy broke the dam and now it's a torrent.

No, I think it's just that you personally were more exposed to this debate because of that incident. The debate and the uprising have been going on ever since Patrick Brown and Michael Eisen started a petition in 2001 which eventually resulted in PLoS. Many people have been slow to follow them, for many reasons, but the movement has been growing ever since.

I'm not denying that. What I am saying is the movement has picked up a significant pace since the MIT incident. FWIW I'm currently doing a PhD.

I agree that Aaron Swartz's actions have brought more attention to the issues, but I think MIT would object to you calling him "that MIT guy", since he was a fellow at Harvard, not MIT, at the time that he allegedly stuck his laptop in MIT's wiring closet; and the Institute has apparently at least cooperated in his prosecution, if not actively encouraged it.

What mechanical_fish said. This was a "tipping point" in HackerNews's coverage of this issue. It's been raging in academia for years, and progress has been slow but steady.

One of the reasons academics do peer review is to put it on their CV/evaluations that universities do to evaluate the amount of academic work they do. Voluntarily declining offers to do peer review would therefore have a negative effect on that person's ability to retain their job. (I'm talking about those without tenure, mainly.)

One solution would be for universities taking stands like this is to somehow "give credit" to their academics who are asked to do peer review for non-open-access journals.

It is certainly true that academic advancement is affected by publication in high-impact venues, and that some of those (incuding the ubiquitous Science and Nature) are not open-access. I can see why someone might feel obliged to submit to these journals.

But I have never seen anyone's career affected by which journals they review for. It might happen, but if it does then it's news to me.

(BTW., for academics who feel they must publish in one of the tabloids, Science is much sounder than Nature because all their papers become freely accessible one year after publication, which is much better than nothing.)

> But I have never seen anyone's career affected by which journals they review for. It might happen, but if it does then it's news to me.

Oh they absolutely are. Academic CVs are full of listings of which program committees you're on. You start being a member of a committee for a smallish conference (in programming language research, something like VEE or PLaS), then try to move up to a few medium size ones (CC, perhaps), and finally you make it to being on the program committees of the top top journals (PLDI or POPL).

I decided not to go down the academic career path after doing my PhD, but it was pretty plain even to a PhD student that being on good program committees is part of your career progression.

I used to be an editorial assistant at a small journal.

When I asked what motivates researches to volunteer their free time to do peer reviews, that was one of the answers I got. It's a small benefit.

A lot of conventional journals have an open access option available to the author for a fee (usually for about $3000). What about offering a no-cost upgrade after reviewing some number of papers for the journal?

Journal generally won't do this so long as researchers continue to do it for free. In addition, even if researcher's followed the OP's advice and the journals adopted this strategy, it get us where (most people think) we should be: all research article available free to everyone.

I'm a CS professor and for the last several years have refused almost every review request from a non-ACM/IEEE journal.

I'm also an associate editor of an ACM journal and often have a very hard time getting people to review submissions. My sense is that a lot of my peers have simply stopped doing (most) journal reviews at all.

A person can be totally overloaded just doing conference reviews, which are a lot more fun anyway. The papers are shorter and (at a good conference) the papers are a lot better than journal submissions.

Since most reviewers are probably from Universities or Companies, it is likely that their employment contract prohibits them from doing professional work not associated with their current job. It should be fairly simple for these Universities and Companies to start enforcing this and take away the supply of qualified reviewers from Journals that lock up knowledge.


Researchers at universities invariably do academic work for conferences, for journals, and for other universities — giving talks, for example. Often they get paid directly for these. This is a fundamental part of how academia works, and has been (in various forms) for centuries.

I worked in Silicon Valley as a sysadmin and programmer in 1996-97 and 2000-2006, at a total of seven different companies. I've also worked professionally at a professional services company, a defense contractor, and freelance for various clients (primarily in the US). I don't think I've ever seen an employment contract that purported to prohibit me from "doing professional work not associated with [my] current job". In some cases I have proposed modifications to confidentiality agreements with the explicit purpose of ensuring that I could moonlight safely (for previous clients, normally). The modifications were accepted.

Having an academic and industrial background myself, I understand that researchers currently do academic work for conferences, journals and so on

The point I was making was that employers could enforce the parts of the contract that allow them to control whom their employees work for. That would, at the very least, not be contributing brainpower to an industry that charges the very same companies / universities enormous sums for access to journals.

While you may not have seen such restrictions in sysadmin/programmer type positions, they certainly exist in several scientific and medical-related disciplines (though I agree that can be waived in certain circumstances).

This is a lovely idea but I'm afraid it's a pipe dream. Boycotts don't change profitable practices. (And there is little enough profit in academic publishing to begin with!) The author's heart is in the right place but his head is in the clouds. Too bad.

So why is the idea that science publishing should be free attributed more intellectual weight than the idea that music should be free, or movies, or software? I mean, we get it, everybody loves free stuff.

Because science research is funded by public interests, not private ones.

Not really true anymore.

A significant proportion of science research is funded by non-governmental organisations - for example the Gates Foundation.

Furthermore, most universities will charge the researchers who receive grants a cost known as 'overhead' that can often be 100% of the grant. Typically, the funding agencies pay for this separately.

When it comes to basic science, this is not true at all. Gleaning numbers from Wikipedia, the Gates Foundation seems to spend roughly $300 million a year on research. HHMI (Howard Hughes Medical Institute) spends $450 million a year. In contrast, the NIH spend $31 billion a year. Biology and medicine are the fields with the highest proportion of private funding, and even in these fields the government is dominant.

Overhead does not seem relevant to this point.

You need to provide a reference.

This page from Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Funding_of_science) suggests that over 63% of research is funded by private sources.

Overhead is relevant as it shows that even at 'public' universities, the funding agency must pay for the research to be carried out, countering arguments about the public paying for research.

Where it gets quantitative, the Wikipedia page seems to be talking about "R&D" in general, which is an accounting category that is much broader than "research". When Intel designs a new CPU or Boeing designs a new plane, for example, that's under the "research and development" rubric in these figures. But they typically don't publish much about it, and a lot of what they're doing doesn't have much to do with the kind of "research" we're talking about here.

Perhaps more relevant, though, very little research indeed is funded by subscription fees to scientific journals or conference proceedings or sales prices of academic books; journal and conference authors don't even get royalties, and neither do their institutions, and very few academic books make a substantial amount of money.

I don't understand why overhead is relevant; we're arguing about who the funding agency is, not how grants are structured. If the NIH has to spend 40% of their dollars on overhead so that their PIs have offices and library access, and so does the HHMI, how does knowing this allow us to more accurately compare the expenditures of the NIH and HHMI?

Ask a university or a library if they are the same thing as a music label or a film studio. They'll give you a list as long as your arm of the differences.

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