The Science of the Tax-Dollar Double Dip

Much research is federally funded, but if you want to see what you paid for, that’s going to cost you—again.


March 30, 2016

Anyone upset about wasted government spending should take a look at for-profit scientific publishing, a $25 billion industry that double-dips into taxpayers’ pockets. In 2014 one of the largest firms, the Anglo-Dutch Elsevier, which publishes Cell and The Lancetmade a profit of £762 million (about $1.2 billion) on gross revenue of £2 billion (about $3.1 billion)—a margin of 37%. The problem is that much of the research in these journals is supported by federal money from the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health. Then the journals charge taxpayers for the right to see the research their money paid for.

For instance, the for-profit journal Nature published some of the seminal research that developed MRI scans, funded by the taxpayer. Yet my school, the University of Rochester, pays an annual subscription price for Nature of more than $10,000. Scientists and librarians are frustrated—and taxpayers should be outraged.

There are thousands of these journals across dozens of scientific disciplines. Because many are published only in digital form, meaning no printed volumes are produced, there is little cost to start a new title. Thus, academic publishing has been divided into increasingly narrow slices. Figures from Library Journal show that there are about 550 titles in biology alone, with an average price in 2015 of $3,000. A school that subscribed to three-quarters of these would pay annual fees over $1 million—for a single subject.

Librarians are under pressure to keep up. The University of Rochester, a medium-size research school, subscribes to more than 5,000 journals. Therefore, publishers cut “deals” whereby 100 journals, say, cost only 70% of their total list prices. A similar scheme is intimately familiar to anyone who subscribes to cable TV. I don’t want the Cooking Channel, but it’s part of the package, and I need my ESPN.

Academic publishing has been vital to scientific progress since the 17th century. But in the past decade, as costs have gone down and profits have exploded, it has begun to feel like a racket. How can we fix a system that charges too much and limits access to government-funded research?

One option is the Open-Access model, under which researchers pay “page fees”—around $1,800 to $3,000 per article in for-profit journals—to publish their work, which is then free for anyone to read. But this is still double-dipping: Research is supported by a grant from taxpayers, whose money then goes to pay a publisher to bring those findings to light. An intermediate solution is to go with Open Access, but rely on nonprofit university presses, which charge much smaller page fees.

Another option would be for university libraries to shift resources: take a portion of the money currently allocated to journal subscriptions, and use it to pay page fees for their faculty members’ work. If you do the math, this could be cheaper than the status quo.

Scholars are banding together to try to upend academic publishing. My colleagues and I recently launched Open Mind: Discoveries in Cognitive Science, a new Open-Access journal through MIT Press. Last October six editors and 31 board members of Lingua, a top for-profit linguistics journal published by Elsevier, resigned, citing “unsustainable” prices. They have since started a nonprofit Open-Access journal, Glossa. But these are piecemeal efforts.

The deeper problem is that scientists are judged by the reputations of the journals where they publish, and the legacy journals with the highest prestige are for-profits. Open-Access journals must boost their own stature to compete for the best scientific work.

No one begrudges a business making a reasonable profit. But taxpayers ought to be put out that they’re funding research, and then being asked to pay for the privilege of reading it.

Dr. Aslin is Professor of brain and cognitive sciences at the University of Rochester and Director of the Rochester Center for Brain Imaging.

COMMENTS: –––From an Anonymous Colleague on the GEITP List

This article from The Wall Street Journal does not help much.  Quite to the contrary, it is the new trend of “open-access online journals” that forces the taxpayer to pay more.

In the old days, the libraries at our institutions would pay for package deals with publishers, which they could deliver as hard copies, and more recently, as electronic subscriptions, of any chosen menu of journals––at a small fraction of the cost of single (personal) subscriptions.  These journals were then freely available to us, the researchers at that institution.  Publishing in those journals was free (except those few with the highest impact factors, and those reflected only a very small percentage of total scientific output).  Our publication budget of our grant was accordingly modest.  Moreover, indirect costs of our grants would supply our library’s budget to buy those subscriptions.

Then, two things happened:

(1) Budgets of libraries went down––even though the money was there.  See the attached graph from the Association of Research Libraries.  Librarians always complained, but nobody cared.  Now, nobody even mentions declining library budgets as one of the root causes of this change in paradigm.

(2) Certain politicians began to pontificate that “everyone, not just scientists, should have access to all scientific literature”.  As with all demagoguery, this makes little sense.  Personally, I have enough difficulty reading and understanding all the literature in my own field; and I barely understand even the titles of papers in other fields.  So, it is not condescending toward non-scientists to state that “access to all scientific literature is nonsense”.  Abstracts are free on Pubmed, etc.,  and, if anyone really wants an entire paper, he can write to the authors and receive a pdf file.  “Open-access” has one major consequence:  not education of the masses, but the political selection of absconding with small details (out of context) to fight the research establishment (or, to favor the creation of “alternative” hypotheses, based on selective reading of the literature).

 Therefore, what we have now is:  NIH (and many other institutions) mandate deposition of accepted manuscripts in the National Library of Medicine (at a cost); these articles are then  reformatted and archived.   Hence, the taxpayer’s research money is spent, and the results and other information of the research are available.  However, NIH does not publish the journals themselves, meaning that the authors still have to go through a publisher.

 Thus, we authors have two choices:

––Publish in an “open-access” journal and pay for each article to be published (at considerably higher prices than the classical library subscription would have been).  Or,

––Publish for free in commercial journals, as in the old days.  The larger publishers (Elsevier, Springer, Wiley, etc.) offer clean formatting, permanent archiving, and quick access to the literature cited in the article, etc

 The publication budget of our grants has skyrocketed, and now our libraries are even in more dire straits than before.  Yet––our indirect costs have not come down proportionately.  Therefore, the taxpayer certainly pays much more than before, and the benefit is nil.  The big names in publishing now all have the choice of “open-access” or “classic”, but you pay for both (directly when you publish open-access, or indirectly through your library subscription).  The big publishers also offer free access to research communities in 105 developing countries, whereas the shady publishers simply take your money and publish anything (as long as you have paid for it).

 In the old days, publications with page charges were marked “advertisement” in a small footnote.  Today, most of the mediocre science being published should be marked “infomercial” on top of the title.  Bottom Line:  Research is not cheap, but don’t blame the commercial publishers.  They only adapt to any new situation, in order to survive as businesses.  They would disappear overnight, if commercial publishers were no longer serving a useful purpose. “Open-access” (e.g. the ~30,000 PloS ONE papers published each year) do not contribute much to any beneficial increase in the quality of scientific output.



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