Any decent research institution's library will have archived paper copies of journals bound into books dating back 100 years or more, and that's basically the model for the future as well. Going 100% digital isn't such a great idea, due to bitrot and so on, it's still best to have paper archives stored somewhere.
Then, someone has to pay for the print runs on real paper, the work of organizing and publishing each issue, etc. So, how much does that cost per issue, what's the average size of a print run, how many staff have to be paid full time to keep the journals coming off the presses, what kind of profit margins are the publishers extracting from the copyrights, etc., how much do those glossy images on high-quality paper suitable for archiving for decades really cost, etc.
The overall benefits to human civilization of having all the information in research articles available to anyone with a terminal, however, that seems to outweight the other considerations. Maybe some kind of state-subsidized publication system is the answer? It's hardly a competitive market after all.
On a somewhat related note, small college libraries are utterly abused by journal subscription costs, but it actually varies significantly by discipline. The American Chemical Society is notorious for strong arming libraries into paying unreasonably high sums, and some library directors think of them more as racketeering syndicate than a professional organizarion whose purpose is ostensibly to help chemists. The odd thing is that american physical society journals are much cheaper, and many are open access (which the APS pioneered), plus there is ArXiV where everyone posts their preprints publicly. Physics research is no less costly to publish than chem research, so the difference must boil down to culture and/or incentive structures with these organizations. If one group believes that knowledge should be given freely, and another believes knowledge is a product worth whatever people are willing to pay, they will come up with different systems.
My point is that there are alot of wrinkles to the problem, and many avenues of possible attack. Personally i think if we could get all disciplines on the same page as the APS, we would be more than halfway there.
Edit: it looks like the ACS has softened its position on posting preprints!
I thought a bit like this until I married a historian and learned a bit more about how archives work. I assumed that digitizing everything would be a huge boon for the maintainability of the archive. But after now speaking with a bunch of archivists it seems like digital archives have a lot more problems than I originally expected and are way more underfunded than I expected.
If you truly think that hard copies are less likely to last 1000 years (assuming redundancy / tech rollover) over soft copies, you lack a complete grasp on technology.
This isn't a question of technology. This is a question of archives, funding, and businesses.
Last week I came across some random weird article that had a jounrla doi. $40 I was told. Fine but in India, minimum wage is ₹500 and $40 is ₹3360 which is like 7 days of minimum wage for a single article. Absurd.
We have "universities" paying through the nose for a "subscription" but as a commoner who is not an academic and would like access to 'something', this is bad.
And the argument of "poor authors" doest even come up in this discussion so I am all for violating the "intellectual property of publishers", regardless of that making me a criminal or not. Sue my pauper ass.
Scihub is magic. Doi paste, boom. Read.
Seriously. I’ve come across things and sent an email as a complete rando and got back way more than I was expecting, including unpublished background details.
this is just a reference point. Sure, any student who wants to do research "probably" already has access to "some" journals through their universities who pay through the nose for "institutional subscription", again, money that these third world institutions would rather use for actual work, as opposed to paying for elsevier. If instead of paying for a subscription, the university funds the research of a poor student? would that make more sense?
They impose an artificial bottleneck on how many articles can get published, so
"published in XXX" means "one of the top X papers in the area according to a reasonable metric".
We have all surely noticed how journalism turned to shit when we moved from printed physical copies (with bandwidth limit) to limitless clickbait-ridden "portals". Real decent journalism just cannot compete for readers' attention anymore.
There could be a reasonable middle ground - like mandated free access to individuals, or free access after a 3-year period or so, but completely killing the publishers would be throwing the baby out with the bathwater.
But a curator and a reviewer are pretty important roles. One for selecting and surfacing the important and high-quality, the other fir checking soundness and weeding out poorly done stuff.
Those are the actual paid services of, say, Elsevier. The rest us cruft and rent-seeking.
Now the question: how well are these services rendered by the publishers? Can this be done more efficiently, with higher quality? If so, how? Are there examples?
That is why there was hope for flipping journals.
The experience of Gowers and co with Discrete Analysis shows that high quality selective journals outside of publishers are straightforward, and that we are overpaying publishers by a factor of ~100.
I'd rather just upload a PDF and let the readers judge its credibility and let (positive) citations be the benchmark instead on trusting a handful of elite critics with unclear incentives.
It was only later when I was tasked with performing reviews that I realized that almost exactly zero work is done by the publishers. It is just "well there's one Strong Reject so see-ya."
I would also argue that "reasonable metric" in practice is more like "usually reasonable judgement by people with usually relevant knowledge".
The existing model asks volunteer academics to rate papers on three principle axes: novelty, importance, and rigor. The journals don't do much here except find these academics and send them a handful of papers to look at. Further, novelty and importance seem to be overshadowing everything else in reviews and they are both extremely subjective and can entrench existing biases in a subfield. Whether this metric is "reasonable" is a bit contentious.
I agree with you that a system of open publishing plus some post-publish evaluation would be nice. But you don't really need the journals for this. Or you certainly don't need journals making billions in profit to do this.
Why not a decentralized rating (and commenting/reviewing) system by scientists for scientists? Similar to how Twitter wants to be a news filter for the masses by the masses.
And apparently they're willing to pay quite some overhead just to have a separate third party gatekeeper perform that function for them.
Funding bodies also employ academics who are able to judge the quality of proposals or they solicit feedback from experts. You don't just write "I've got a bunch of first author papers in Science so you should fund my grant." This is important because if the only thing that funding agencies use is institutional reputation then we end up with an even larger percentage of funding only going to entrenched academics at a very small set of institutions.
They do not want to evaluate each publication separately or pay experts for a separate review of each publication (if they would, that could be a source of funding proper peer review instead of it being done by random volunteers) but rather defer to the existing ratings of the publication venues. They need a simple objectively measurable quantitative metric, not a complex qualitative one.
The proposal is to ensure that papers published by publishers are free (as in beer) to access by the public at large. Publishers can and should continue to curate the best papers after appropriate peer review and typographical review.
One interesting line would be to amend copyright laws, such that all publicly funded research (government grants or accredited universities) no longer has any copyright applicable, ex post facto. Private companies and private research institutions would still have copyright protection if they really want it (most I've read don't, I think they'd patent rather than charge for access).
Then sites like SciHub can not be blocked and even better ones can be built (UX wise) that rely on open source, donations for hosting etc without fear of extradition or anything. It could start out in one country and expand as others catch up in legislation.
I wonder how the response would be though from publishers. But realistically, if the public was informed that individual institutions are paying millions for simply prestige where journal editors are unpaid yet they make billions in net profit annually, funded by their tution fees and taxpayer money, I think people wouldn't stand for this. Especially as we've gone all digital, these publishers are selling journal names.
The first was the Baltimore Colts. After 6 losing seasons and extremely questionable management by owner Jim Irsay, attendance plummeted. Irsay had been considering moving the franchise in a bid to try and get financing for a newer, better stadium, and in exchange Baltimore threatened eminent domain seizure, and easily passed the measure in the legislature. Colts moved to Indianapolis before the seizure could become effective and left (literally) overnight.
The other was also in Maryland. The Netflix show House of Cards, which is of course "set" in DC, filmed quite a bit in neighboring locales of Virginia and Maryland because of DC's size and weird shape. The show was trying to angle for more tax breaks for filming, and the state responded with threat of seizure. The show briefly quit filming in Maryland in lieu of VA and DC scenes before the measure died in the general assembly.
There was another, relating to the LA Raiders, but I know that the California Supreme Court ultimately ruled against the state's efforts (despite finding that providing sporting entertainment was a legitimate function of government) and that's about all I know of that one.
Unless you at some point are willing to force people to do something at the point of a gun or money hose, people can just choose to wander off and do something else instead.
The publisher could almost be replaced by a torrent tracker with some PKI for peer review. Then a researcher could create his own slice of knowledge by choosing works endorsed by keys he trusts/considers relevant to his area of research.
We should begin with a broad understanding about the symptoms with the current dynamic as they impact various audiences. From there, we can work towards causes. After that, potential solutions can be weighed in terms of effectiveness, cost, and feasibility.
What do you think are the top 10 or 20 symptoms? From there, what are the 5 to 10 underlying causes? From that, what solutions are worth promoting?
I get that people hate paying for non free journal articles and they are way to expensive. Even if you have access through your institution the process is clunky and terrible. The review process has given us good feedback. Of course my bosses are on the hook have to review others.
even though our articles are free to read, the journals still make money as we have to pay the journals for the free access.
E.g. if I were Emperor and could tear it all down and start again, we'd have either some kind of peer-to-peer network that maintained the paper bodies, and a centralised, institution-funded library of links (like SCOPUS/WoK/Google Scholar/ResearchGate but singular and funded by institution subscription) that is a central go-to for finding papers.
Then the links from that link library go to the P2P solution. For P2P, along the lines of Napster/TPB - torrents essentially, with nodes hosted by volunteers, universities etc.
We could potentially host copies of our own papers instead - I do, and be damned to the copyright etc - but as a sibling comment suggests, this is going to be unreliable and not sustainable in the long-term as sites die etc.
In terms of centralised tools, Google are doing a good job with Scholar but issues I've found are an absence of many older papers (pre-60s is a nightmare to find) and of course Google being Google, they're apt to set light to it all on a whim. They aren't reliable long-term custodians.
A specific concern about distributed / decentralized storage and network technology —- it shifts. When it does, it is not as simple as one centralized org doing an upgrade or migration or transition. So WRT decentralized tech, what will it take to keep it accessible and maintained under realistic futures?
For long-term archival, technology choices are insufficient. They matter, like I said above, in the sense they shape the usage patterns and benefits and costs. But for permanence (or something approaching it), decades-long sustained support and resources are needed.
Some options include: a government program, a governmental funding stream, or some kind endowment. All can ensure a stream of resources into the future, with various tradeoffs. Are there better alternatives? (What exists now at the US federal level? / What combination of organizations might make an endowment happen?)
Volunteers are nice supplements to institutional support, but cannot be expected to be the backbone.
What is the Library of Congress doing in this area? The National Archives? Presidential libraries? Those old ’boring’ agencies and institutions tend to have a good number of folks that work towards better ways. It may be slow, but when the shift happens, it isn’t subject to the whims of capital markets or herd-following investors.
That said, a quick skim of the paper shows a breakdown of the market and profit margins of the big publishers of academic research (Elsevier et. al.) and how detrimental these parasites are. No big surprise to this audience, but nice to see the research.
That's the standard practice in the academia. Instead of linking directly to the pdf, you link to a landing page that shows the context the article was published in. You can then use the reputation of the publication venue to judge whether the article is what it claims to be and whether it's worth skimming/reading.
On the one hand, the important roles of journals (evaluation, archival, dissemination, etc) come at a cost (and are crucial to science). Running a journal costs time and money. That money must come from somewhere. Publishers don't have to be for profit, but if they are, they will naturally attempt to maximize margins. That is just capitalism. But, it doesn't have to be that way. Alternative, non-capitalistic business models for publishing science are possible. They should emerge and compete with for-profit models (1).
On the other hand, boycotts and illegal solutions (e.g. Sci-hub) are non constructive simply because they offer no solution. Sci-hub is made of 88 million published articles, "published", indeed, by those same publishers it is fighting against. What is the end goal?
I personally support an open, innovative, and transparent publishing infrastructure, but one that is sustainable in the long term and solution-driven. My two cents!
(1) Note: just being non-profit is not enough, if you don't have a scalable and sustainable solution. Also... if you are non-profit and your business plan is to be funded by charitable foundations created by billionaires via capitalistic means, what is the whole point of changing the system?
How do you want this change to come about?
Are you promoting a mandate? Incentives? A change in expectations? Better technologies or formats? Something else?
It's a valuable service to do this evaluation work for academics. It's just a shame that the way we pay for it is to lock up research behind a paywall. But "publishing a PDF" is just not a very hard problem to solve at all. That isn't the difficult problem that Elsevier is solving. They are solving the difficult problem of filtering out which academics to hire.
Excellent business model.
The analysis mentions the prestige of the journals as a (figurative) side note, but personally I believe that is the main part they sell to authors. It is also the reason why breaking the stranglehold is so hard and why the "just put it online" proposals/solutions I heard so often over the years didn't just magically dissolve publishers
The other part is the failure of an analysis in spoilage of public money. Comparing the margins to "giants like Google, Apple or Amazon" is meaningless, unless there is a reason to assume those giants have large margins for some reasons. First google result on high profit margin companies  goes from 42.9% up to 55% for the top 10, so even in a larger context the up to "close to 40%" is quite high. Although I am not sure how many of those top 10 are monopolies, which is implied by the conclusion from the 40%.
They also imply publishers don't really do anything anymore, while discussing those high margins. So what are they spending those 60% on?
Don't get me wrong, I am not a fan of expensive publishing and subscribing for scientific journals and I think every author should use their rights to publish their works on arxiv and their personal and university website. I think the current system is a waste of time for many scientists in many ways (god did I hate rewriting the same paper for multiple conference tempaltes/lengths because of minor issue-rejections) and to some degree also money! I was in the "favorable" situation of not having to care about my scientific career in the final years of my phd, so I could publish in places without much regards to their prestige. But I believe the discourse does need a different direction. The later sections might address these issues and some have already been put into action.
Journals have a 'monopoly' on Prestige: Scientist hurt themselves by not going for reputable journals. Big funding agencies must require open publications or arxiv use or whatever to force journals to make exceptions on copyright transfer and scientists from being too lazy to use their rights to make their papers available. (Something I heard from many researchers.)
Some copyright transfers already have exceptions because US public funding requires something similar to this (at least that is what I got from reading the copyright form, I never worked with US public funding). So there is leverage that works.
If you want me to hate publishers for wasting public money, don't just tell me their profit margin is oh-so-high and they don't do anything because they no longer perform lectoring and type checking. Tell me what they do do with the remaining money and then, if you can, convince me that it is not worth anything or why it should not be handled by a private institution.
edit: after reading some more, especially the recommendations, I still feel mostly let down. The recommendations seem to me, to consist mostly of wishful thinking and pushing on the wrong end or simplified so much that they become worthless.
If you bury the important parts in the middle of a sea of unhelpful ones, they will get lost. The state of things did not just happen to be that way because people hate open knowledge. Project based positions and time limited contracts are a huge problem created through the whole structure of academia and its financing and will not be changed by "try to create more long term positions".
Even the good recommendations suffer from these problems. E.g. "For universities, research institutions, research funders, demand the results of
research to be published in diamond open-access journals." I believe only one of those groups has the actual power to demand this in a meaningful way.
Finally the one recommendation I hate the most: "For internet service providers who are forced to block Sci-Hub, block in return the publishers who have sued Sci-Hub" no please don't. I believe ISPs should only restrict access when required to by law or courts and not insert their personal feelings about what those laws should be. But especially not as retalliation for lawsuits.
I belive that blog posts like this focus on the wrong part to be convincing: What do journals provide and why do they have expenses that are this high? If we ran journals as non profits, should we expect cost to come down by the 27-39% (for the three publishers chosen in the blog post)?
If they want to be convincing for me, I believe they should focus on those remaining 61-73%, and why I, as a reader, should believe a different organization would reduce that in a meaningful way and how that should be financed. Making researchers do even more of the jounral busywork is a bad solution as well, even though it provides implicit financing, as it wastes even more time of researchers.
Not that I actually need convincing that an open knowledge model is better, I just prefer hearing good arguments on my side instead of infinite repeating of bad ones.