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Elsevier journals – some facts (gowers.wordpress.com)
184 points by kanzure on Apr 24, 2014 | hide | past | web | favorite | 75 comments

Throwing this out there for anyone working on a startup in the academic journal space. I'm on the board of SAGE Publications, which is (depending on how you count), the 5th or so largest publisher in the space. See this diagram for where SAGE fits: http://www.oii.ox.ac.uk/vis/images/?src=4e3c02ab/journal_pub...

If you’re doing a startup in this space and want to reach out, please contact me. I live in SF and would happily take you out for coffee or meet up for a beer. My contact details are on my HN profile.

SAGE is a 100% family owned business. My grandmother is chairwoman, my dad and I are on the board. I'm a coder working in an unrelated startup for my day job, living in SF. We’re not dinosaurs trying to bleed the system dry until our business model collapses, but at the same time I wholeheartedly acknowledge the fundamentals of the journals business are antiquated and I believe they will radically change eventually. Academia is incredibly complicated and moves at a glacial pace.

So if you’re interested in seeing the world of academic journals from the inside, please get in touch. I can get you in contact with anyone in the SAGE organization at every level.

I like Doug a lot, and his family who run the business. His grandmother is terrific. She and her husband started the business several decades ago.

I have spent a fair amount of time over the past couple of years talking to Doug and others at Sage about the future of academic publishing. I've always enjoyed the conversations, and they have always been open to hearing my radical views :)

(I'm the founder of Academia.edu).

Hi Doug. Cool graphic. I'm one of the founders of https://publons.com. Our mission is to speed up academic publishing by turning peer review into a measurable research output. Would love to take you up on your offer to meet for a beer and have sent you an email.

When I tell people how important and how epically flawed the current system of academic journal publishing is I'm often met with blank stares. Can you imagine any other industry where the people doing most of the work aren't compensated financially and conglomerates make most of the profit.

You can try to make parallels to the record industry at its worse, but those people at least receive advances.

And with journal publishing, it's not some random niche. This is where "new knowledge" becomes validated. You're not hearing talking heads on television mentioning some new thing mentioned in a first year college textbook – instead you hear "a new study published in the New England Journal of Medicine."

Scholars need to and are adopting ways to take scholarly communication into their own hands. A sociology journal called Sociological Science, with an editorial board out of Stanford and Cornell has recently made a buzz by taking the process into their own hands: http://www.gsb.stanford.edu/news/headlines/group-sociologist...

(Full disclosure: this is a problem my startup works on)

CS academics have been slowly taking control of more of our own journals. It somewhat helps that there is already relatively little editing/layout work done on the journal's side, because computer scientists like to produce publication-ready PDFs straight out of LaTeX, and a journal is more or less just a concatenation of those. In some other fields it's more common to send a draft-formatted manuscript, which the journal staff will format into professional-looking magazine style; that requires more of a "real" staff, which then means you need a budget and source of funds and such. This is one reason some open-access publications in other areas are turning to charging the authors to fund the operations (although reputable journals will waive the fee for authors who don't have a source of funds such as a grant to cover the fee, so it's not fully "pay to play").

In AI, two of the top journals are now open-access and run on a shoestring budget by academics, so also don't have any publication charges: http://jmlr.org http://jair.org

Here was the 2001 letter that kicked off JMLR: http://jmlr.org/statement.html

Lots of fields primarily use LaTeX to typeset papers, e.g. physics and computational biology. Typesetting and hosting a PDF never justifies a $1500 publishing fee given that reviewers, editors and of course authors are all working for free. Hence even the good-guy (non-profit) publisher PLOS took about 20% excess revenue in 2012, primarily by charging $1300 odd dollars for publication in PLOS ONE.

Why do we even need the dated journal model? Push everything to a central arXiv, biorXiv like repo (funded as they are by small donations from institutions). Couple this with open post-publication peer review and endorsements. Millions of tax dollars saved around the world, research open to everyone.

The counter argument is the rubber stamp that accompanies a prestigious journal (and filtering the crazies) but if the repo was accompanied with a suitable array of article-level metrics and thorough categorisation the good science can continue to filter to the top, much like how HN and reddit work.

> Can you imagine any other industry where the people doing most of the work aren't compensated financially and conglomerates make most of the profit.

One that comes to mind, not coincidentally, is also in the academic world: College sports.

Perhaps both are due to the same cause, the misalignment of academic and market values: Academia is not profit-oriented; money is not their priority[1]. When they generate something of financial value (journal articles or football games), someone naturally jumps in (journal publishers, TV networks, NCAA), charges market prices for it, gives the academics producing it (faculty or student-athletes) the wages of academia (fame, status and pride), and keeps the cash for themselves.

[1] Next time someone tells you the free market is the one and only god that solves all problems and anything else is 'socialist', consider the many things that aren't market-oriented: Almost everything ever produced by academia, from relativity to the double helix to the Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire; the Internet, World Wide Web, email, LAMP, etc.; the U.S. Constitution, the work of Gandhi and MLK; everything every soldier has accomplished ...

> Can you imagine any other industry where the people doing most of the work aren't compensated financially and conglomerates make most of the profit.


Ironically, it also has the same bullshit lofty wording around why this is ok. I think this combination of research + vocational school + sport is going to have this kind of problem.

> Can you imagine any other industry where the people doing most of the work aren't compensated financially and conglomerates make most of the profit.

Every online company relying on user generated content?

Yeah, but with Facebook and Reddit, you're not paying a ton of money to have access to journal articles you need to study for your chosen profession. You're just looking at some advertisements in exchange for some funny cat pictures.

One of those may lighten your mood for the day, the other of those advances civilization and the human condition as a whole.

Also you don't pay a lot of money to post to Facebook or Reddit. You do when you publish (Cheapest publication I have was ~$500). Publishing a paper is expensive.

Varies quite a bit by field afaict. In CS, I've never paid to publish in journals, and I think it would be seen as weird. However we do often publish papers at conferences (big conferences like SIGGRAPH, CHI, and IJCAI are possibly actually more prestigious than journals to publish in), and in that case it costs money to attend and register for the conference.

I didn't know that:) In the Life sciences, we tend to pay. We also publish images which are very costly. We have one publication that is going to cost us around $3k to publish as it has a lot of microscopy images.

I don't work for them (in fact, they could be considered a competitor), but check out PeerJ. $99 per author for an article. PLOS ONE also has fee waivers if you really can't afford it.

Is there a legitimate reason why scientific journals still produce dead-trees versions? Why not just publish PDFs? The reader can print if he really must.

and they don't even do proofreading or formatting.

Quora springs to mind: they somehow get knowledgeable and articulate people to take the time and effort to write high quality articles for free.

> You can try to make parallels to the record industry at its worse, but those people at least receive advances.

Also, recording artists don't receive taxpayer money.

I'm ok with taxpayer money going on research, I'm less ok with those taxpayer money being used to feed company sitting on monopoly.

Musicians are extensively subsidised in nearly all countries that have a functioning economy able to subsidise stuff.

note that neither do record companies.

Actually, yes, record companies do receive taxpayer money:


let's talk about proportions and tax law here. I don't find my argument countered in any ways. 1) this is a collection that doesn't go to the general budget, it's a directed levy. 2) it's not as if the record companies main income and business model was to sell to public institutions. Whereas most of the scientific articles are bought by publicly funded laboratories, hospitals, universities (in the non-US world) etc.

> most of the work aren't compensated financially and conglomerates make most of the profit.

The "conglomerates make most of the profit" applies to most every content industry, music, movies, even fine art. Most of the money is made in controlling distribution. A few percentage points of the very top artists make crap loads. The other 99.x% is poorly compensated and routinely exploited.

I'm glad you have a startup working on it. I've long thought fixing this problem would be a true boon to humanity vs. the typical social fad focus of most tech startups. I've even debated doing it myself multiple times over the past couple of years. If your venture needs any help maybe I can pitch in?

Years ago when I was in grad school in chemistry I insisted that my work get published in a open journal. I actually got a very key step of my research from an open journal and I felt I should repay the act. This did not go over well since my PI was not yet tenured and ultimately it was his choice.

"Can you imagine any other industry where the people doing most of the work aren't compensated financially and conglomerates make most of the profit."


What is your startup? I used to work in the same space (albeit for a non-profit).

Ah right, I remember reading about you guys a couple of years ago. Glad to hear of your success! I used to work for the Public Knowledge Project and I think we learned a thing or two from your companies' attention to UX and design.

Cool! And thanks for the compliment :)

I just came here to say that accessing papers is a pain in the butt when you're not an academic. I've not been near an university in the last decade (I hated my time there as a student, I leave them alone now), but I need access to some papers for my personal projects. I resort to begging people in the academic field to send me papers, you can't pay 45€ a paper you don't even know if it will be useful, I read 10s of them. And, even worse, this high price doesn't even pays the authors. A music album costs 10€ and the author gets all his money out of it plus you can listen to it on youtube to decide before buying.

Academics tend to cite papers for completely different reasons than for implementation, but you don't know if a paper will be useful for implementation or not from the title.

edit: and I couldn't find an option in scholar.google.com to filter only the free to view articles.

Despite having what seems to be a reasonable level of access via my university subscription, I too sometimes have the same problem, especially for older papers.

Some online resources I quite like for this:

http://www.reddit.com/r/scholar - paper requests fulfilled by people who happen to have access

http://www.libgen.org/ - large collection of scientific articles (and other literature), searchable by DOI

http://www.sci-hub.org/ - proxy service for accessing publisher collections; very unreliable though

Hope this helps with your research!

See also the Twitter hashtag #icanhazpdf

I didn't find that method helpful, but I guess YMMV.


Well there are pirate proxies; the fact that they even exists is indicative of how broken things are

What are the names of these proxies?

> What are the names of these proxies?


Many thanks

Have you looked at DeepDyve [1]?

[1] http://www.deepdyve.com

nope it didn't turn up in my google search. I generally google the title, when I get desperate I google title+"pdf", it has never worked so far, but I keep being hopeful.

"We will begin billing your Payment Method for monthly membership fees at the end of the free trial period of your membership unless you cancel prior to the end of the free trial period". I guess I will not sign up.

That's only for the Professional Membership trial. Select the Freelancer Membership. Since the Freelancer Membership is free, they do not ask for any payment information.

That gives you free "5 minute rentals", which are designed to let you decide if you want to actually rent a given article. If you decide to rent some articles, and so need to pay for that, you'll then have to give payment information, of course.

The rentals are for 30 days, and are sold in packs of 5 rentals for $20. Yes, free would be better, but compared to the alternative of paying $20-40 per article to buy single article access from major journals, DeepDyve looks like a great bargain for the researcher who does not have access to a university library.

I personally have always found DeepDyve to be kinda pointless, as when you need to go back and refresh your memory before citing the article later, your access has expired.

Hi there, I'm an engineer at DeepDyve. I'm wondering how long your rental was for - was it a 30 day rental? And was 30 days too short to cite the article later? I'll talk to some people here, but we may be able to extend that period pretty easily.

Either the fees are hidden on the site or I need more coffee.

They are somewhat covered in the FAQ, linked to from the bottom of the page. Some excerpts:


The Freelancer Plan is a free plan with the option to purchase $20 packs which allows you to rent any 5 articles for up to 1 year from the start of the plan. Once an article has been rented, it can be read as often as you like until its expiration in 30 days. Any pre-paid rentals that remain unused after 1 year will become void.


The Professional Plan is $40 per month and entitles you to "virtually" unlimited rentals each month, i.e. you can rent up to 40 articles per month and/or purchase and download up to 40 PDFs per month for a 20% discount. If you need even more access, please contact us because you are extraordinary!


5-minute rentals are a great way to scan through any rentable article, for free. You get to read the complete full-text of an article in your browser for 5 minutes.

You can do as many 5-minute rentals as you want for free-- just not the same article twice in the same day. Rental tokens are available for unlimited rental access to the articles for 30 days.

Copying, printing, and downloading aren't included with 5-minute rentals.

I would gladly skim 40 articles a month. I guess I skim more like 400 internet pages a day, these don't include a lot of scientific paper because it's a pain in the butt to find them (you have to look for them, you never stumble on them), but there's no reason I would not skim 100-200 on month if they where as common as normal webpages.

after a bit of clicking, I had a banner saying $40/month for unlimited

wonderful, thanks

There's a filter in Mendeley's research catalog: http://www.mendeley.com/research-papers/search/?query=%22cat... for showing only open access papers.

(disclaimer: my employer)

Emailing the authors also works. They generally like to see humans express interest in their work and emailing you a PDF requires minimal effort on their part. Many publishing contracts will also let them publish a full article PDF on their personal website.

The problem is that (in the USA), most academic research is funded via taxpayers (either via outright grants or indirectly via student tuition and government tuition assistance).

The professors write and edit and referee the papers for free.

Then, that research is copyrighted and owned by a corporation, who is allowed to extract economic rent by charging for access.

Professors have to publish in the top journals (owned by these corporations), because that's how they advance their careers.

BUT, if all the professors switched AT THE SAME TIME, it would work. If you're the only professor who switches, you're just ruining your own career.

Or, if the funding body mandates the switch, as is starting to happen:


This is a long post, with a wealth of information that will take some time to digest. The comment section also has contribution from well targeted participants, and replies from Timothy Gowers himself, so it's probably best to comment anything substantial there.

However, I would just like to say that I am very happy to see Timothy Gowers is still on this case.

1. Build databases where scientists can enter their methods and their results only, preferably in machine-readable format

2. Make it mandatory for publicly-funded scientists to enter their data into said databases

3. Let them publish all their introductions and discussions to whichever ancient publishing house they want

4. do good science

p.s. It really pisses me off when elsevier's sites take 50 seconds to give me the damn pdf. or when their javascript doesn't let me increase the font size. Or to open references in another tab.

I'm working on something similar to what you mentioned right now @ stirplate.io

However, to "make it mandatory for publicly-funded ..." is the difficult part. I'm with you 100% (I'm a neuroscience PhD) and this needs to happen,but it needs to come from the financial groups such as NIH/NSF who really just aren't good at dealing with this kind of stuff. They do make it mandatory, but they don't provide real resources for scientists to access these tools. Either that, or they are insanely difficult to use, so people don't do it. I'm shooting for getting raw data from scientists, populating a huge f'in database that is linked and categorized, and if/when the group makes the data open, allow scientists to work off of that huge database of raw, unedited data. (this is specific to life sciences)

I've learned the following when talking about my company: 1. Investors don't want to hear about open science because they immediately get stuck on "what if they don't share". That tends to end the conversation. 2. Scientists themselves complain about the system, but are unwilling to change behaviors. So we have to address their fears in order to start making change (that is what I'm working on now) 3. Schools and funding agencies are using technology from 1996 and thinking that is sufficient. People need to be educated, and this is hard to do.

This isn't impossible and it's happening slowly...the mindset of academics just needs to change. (IMHO)

I too think it's impossible to make it work without giving an incentive to scientists. When so much of your career depends on where you publish, your whole career centers around how to publish and please editors, not how to solve problems. I am pessimistic that "if you build it, they will come". This needs to come from academia or in collaboration.

p.s. coincidence - i 'm doing a compneuro PhD myself

What you mentioned there is one of the reasons why I left to do this company. They won't come if you build it, and many of the science startups have felt that (Quartzy.com and ScienceExchange.com). Both are doing well, and run by awesome people, but academics need something to drive them to a site. Hence why I built data automation tools :)

Re: PhD, Cool, best of luck:) If you ever want to work on something outside of academic work, let me know. I'm always looking for people to work on Stirplate with me. Also,I'm always happy to help people getting started, so feel free to reach out if you have any questions keith @ stirplate.io

I'll checkout stirplate.io, but just wanted to point out that there has been a mandate on the books for years now that if you get funding from a federal agency (that does a significant amount of research funding), you have to deposit that article in a public archive, usually Pubmed Central or an institutional repository.

The NIH now requires you to include the PMC ID number on any reference you cite in a grant, so they're more or less forcing people to comply, after years of asking, pleading, and begging.

Your stirplate.io mail server is rejecting emails ("kgonzales" from your HN profile). I was going to invite you to irc.freenode.net ##hplusroadmap (we do some non-academic do-it-yourself neurophysiology stuff on occasion).

Are you using keith @ stirplate.io ? It should be working...sorry if messages are getting bounced.

Most journals now have a "supplementary content" section where authors upload their results. Anyone can download that without a subscription. Obviously, older results are still locked up in scanned PDFs that you can only download with a subscription, but your database idea doesn't solve that, either. As for making something mandatory... well, that's probably the best way to get scientists not to do something.

Practically speaking, papers probably won't look substantially different under your proposal than they do now, except that there is the extra step of uploading data to the "methods and data" database. Separating the body of the paper from the results and methods would be a pain in the ass to read, which means that you'll need to continue to include those things if you want anyone to cite your papers. As a result, I can't see anyone doing anything more than having an undergrad copy and paste the relevant sections into the database.

Frankly, I think you'd get better results by just declaring that the publishers have to give non-institutional readers free access.

Elsevier is just a symptom of the disease that is academic publishing. We need to get away entirely from the 17th century approach to disseminating scientific knowledge.

But as long as your chance to get a job in academia is proportional to (number of publications * exp(nobleness of journals)), most scientists will just continue playing the same game, and publishers will continue exploiting them.

Related: "No Copyright Law: The Real Reason for Germany's Industrial Expansion?[1] ", by Frank Thadeusz at Der Spiegel.


[O]nly 1,000 new works appeared annually in England [during the Enlightenment] -- 10 times fewer than in Germany -- and this was not without consequences. Höffner believes it was the chronically weak book market that caused England, the colonial power, to fritter away its head start within the span of a century, while the underdeveloped agrarian state of Germany caught up rapidly, becoming an equally developed industrial nation by 1900.

Even more startling is the factor Höffner believes caused this development -- in his view, it was none other than copyright law, which was established early in Great Britain, in 1710, that crippled the world of knowledge in the United Kingdom.

Germany, on the other hand, didn't bother with the concept of copyright for a long time. Prussia, then by far Germany's biggest state, introduced a copyright law in 1837, but Germany's continued division into small states meant that it was hardly possible to enforce the law throughout the empire.

I've posted a few more thoughts (and more on copyright) here: http://redd.it/23xrkd

> How easy is it on average to find on the web copies of Elsevier articles that can be read legally and free of charge?

It was quite a bit easier while CiteSeer still worked, and before Google started indexing stuff behind paywalls. Usually it was easy to find a draft or pre-print.

There's a article coming up at the TRUST workshop this year (co-located with PLDI) which addresses this issue:


(workshop: http://c-mind.org/events/trust2014/)

It describes a new dissemination model where journals are entirely dismissed (including open access), in favor of a true peer-to-peer network, open reviews, guaranteed timestamps, and free access to articles.

Hopefully the full text of the article will be online as the workshop date comes close...

Why are private universities subject to the FOIA? Or am I wrong in thinking that Oxford and Cambridge are private?

There are only four private universities in the UK (and I confess I'd only heard of one of them, Buckingham): http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Private_university#United_Kingd...

Oxford and Cambridge are not private.

Also: here's the a treatment of the post as an infographic: http://blog.scholasticahq.com/post/84136359198/an-infographi...

This is written like an academic paper. Shorten it. Seriously. I know it takes more mental processing to simplify things but you're limiting your feedback pool to people who have 30 minutes to read something.

Impressive work! I guess I ought to FOIA some Danish universities...

there is some kind of drug dealer spirit in the idea that the current price depends on the past price, and you can't really cancel.

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