The Academic Journal Racket

I’ve had this potential rant simmering away at the back of my mind for a while now, since our last staff meeting to be precise.  In common, I suspect, with many other physics and astronomy departments, here at Cardiff we’re bracing ourselves for an extended period of budget cuts to help pay for our government’s charitable donations of taxpayer’s money to the banking sector.

English universities are currently making preparations for a minimum 10% reduction in core funding, and many are already making significant numbers of redundancies. We don’t know what’s going to happen to us here in Wales yet, but I suspect it will be very bad indeed.

Anyway, one of the items of expenditure that has been identified as a source of savings as we try to tighten our collective belts is the cost of academic journals.  I nearly choked when the Head of School revealed how much we spend per annum on some of the journal subscriptions for physics and astronomy.  In fact, I think university and departmental libraries are being taken to the cleaners by the academic publishing industry and it’s time to make a stand.

Let me single out one example. Like many learned societies, the Institute of Physics (the professional organisation for British physicists) basically operates like a charity. It does, however, have an independent publishing company that is run as a profit-making enterprise. And how.

In 2009 we paid almost £30K (yes, THIRTY THOUSAND POUNDS) for a year’s subscription to the IOP Physics package, a bundled collection  of mainstream physics journals. This does not include Classical and Quantum Gravity or the Astrophysical Journal (both of which I have published in occasionally) which require additional payments running into thousands of pounds.

The IOP is not the only learned society to play this game. The Royal Astronomical Society also has a journal universally known as MNRAS (Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society) which earns it a considerable amount of revenue from its annual subscription of over £4K per department. Indeed, I don’t think it is inaccurate to say that without the income from MNRAS the RAS itself would face financial oblivion. I dare say MNRAS also earns a tidy sum for its publisher Wiley

If you’re not already shocked by the cost of these subscriptions, let me  outline the way academic journal business works, at least in the fields of physics and astronomy. I hope then you’ll agree that we’re being taken to the cleaners.

First, there is the content. This consists of scientific papers submitted to the journal by researchers, usually (though not exclusively) university employees. If the paper is accepted for publication the author receives no fee whatsoever and in some cases even has to pay “page charges” for the privilege of seeing the paper in print. In return for no fee, the author also has to sign over the copyright for the manuscript to the publisher. This is entirely different from the commercial magazine  market, where contributors are usually paid a fee for writing a piece, or  book publishing, where authors get a royalty on sales (and sometimes an advance).

Next there is the editorial process. The purpose of an academic journal – if there is one – is to ensure that only high quality papers are published. To this end it engages a Board of Editors to oversee this aspect of its work. The Editors are again usually academics and, with a few exceptions, they undertake the work on an unpaid basis. When a paper arrives at the journal which lies within the area of expertise of a particular editor, he or she identifies one or more suitable referees drawn from the academic community to provide advice on whether to publish it. The referees are expected to read the paper and provide comments as well as detailed suggestions for changes. The fee for referees? You guess it. Zilch. Nada.

The final part of the business plan is to sell the content (supplied for free), suitably edited (for free) and refereed (for free) back to the universities  paying the wages of the people who so generously donated their labour. Not just sell, of course, but sell at a grossly inflated price.

Just to summarise, then: academics write the papers, do the refereeing and provide the editorial oversight for free and we then buy back the product of our labours at an astronomical price. Why do we participate in this ridiculous system? Am I the only one who detects the whiff of rip-off? Isn’t it obvious that we (I mean academics in universities) are spending a huge amout of time and money achieving nothing apart from lining the pockets of these exploitative publishers?

And if it wasn’t bad enough, there’s also the matter of inflation. There used to be a myth that advances in technology should lead to cheaper publishing.Nowadays authors submit their manuscripts electronically, they are sent electronically to referees and they are typset automatically if and when accepted. Most academics now access journals online rather than through paper copies; in fact some publications are only published electronically these days. All this may well lead to cheaper publishing but it doesn’t lead to cheaper subscriptions. The forecast inflation rate for physics journals over this year is about 8.5%, way above the Retail Price Index, which is currently negative.

Where is all the money going? Right into the pockets of the journal publishers. Times are tough enough in the university sector without us giving tens of thousands of pounds per year, plus free editoral advice and the rest, to these rapacious companies. Enough is enough.

It seems to me that it would be a very easy matter to get rid of academic journals entirely (at least from the areas of physics and astronomy that I work in). For a start, we have an excellent free repository (the arXiv) where virtually every new research paper is submitted. There is simply no reason why we should have to pay for journal subscriptions when papers are publically available there. In the old days, the journal industry had to exist in order for far flung corners of the world to have access to the latest research. Now everyone with an internet connection can get it all. Journals are redundant.

The one thing the arXiv does not do is provide editorial control, which some people argue is why we have to carry on being fleeced in the way I have described. If there is no quality imprint from an established journal how else would researchers know which papers to read? There is a lot of dross out there.

For one thing,  not all referees put much effort into their work so there’s a lot of dross in refereed journals anyway. And, frustratingly, many referees sit on papers for months on end before sending in a report that’s only a couple of sentences. Far better, I would say, to put the paper on the arXiv and let others comment on it, either in private with the authors or perhaps each arXiv entry should have a comments facility, like a blog, so that the paper could be discussed interactively. The internet is pushing us in a direction in which the research literature should be discussed much more openly than it is at present, and in which it evolves much more as a result of criticisms and debate.

Finally, the yardstick by which research output is now being measured – or at least one of the metrics – is not so much a count of the number of refereed papers, but the number of citations the papers have attracted. Papers begin to attract citations – through the arXiv – long before they appear in a refereed journal and good papers get cited regardless of where they are eventually published.

If you look at citation statistics for refereed journals you will find it very instructive. A sizeable fraction of papers published in the professional literature receive no citations at all in their lifetime. So we end up paying over the odds for papers that nobody even bothers to read. Madness.

It could be possible for the arXiv (or some future version of it) to have its own editorial system, with referees asked to vet papers voluntarily. I’d be much happier giving my time in this way for a non-profit making system than I am knowing that I’m aiding and abetting racketeers. However, I think I probably prefer the more libertarian solution. Put it all on the net with minimal editorial control and the good stuff will float to the top regardless of how much crud there is.

Anyway, to get back to the starting point of this post, we have decided to cancel a large chunk of our journal subscriptions, including the IOP Physics package which is costing us an amount close to the annual salary of  a lecturer. As more and more departments decide not to participate in this racket, no doubt the publishers will respond by hiking the price for the remaining customers. But it seems to me that this lunacy will eventually have to come to an end.

And if the UK university sector has to choose over the next few years between sacking hundreds of academic staff and ditching its voluntary subsidy to the publishing industry, I know what I would pick…

82 Responses to “The Academic Journal Racket”

  1. Rhodri Evans Says:

    Very interesting Peter. I know when I went to work in the US in 1992 and came across page charges for the first time I was shocked (the MNRAS in which I had previously published didn’t have a page charge). As a young researcher at the time who had just arrived in the US I had no pot of funds from which to pay the $140 per page charge that Astrophysical Journal were asking.

    As you say, most of the editorial and refereeing work is done for free by academics, so why on Earth journals should charge so much in page charges and for subscriptions is a mystery. The University of Chicago press publishes both the Astrophysical Journal and Astronomical Journal in Astronomy, as well as dozens of other journals in other fields. They must be making a killing, even more than they do from the $42,000 a year tuition fees the University of Chicago charges to undergraduates to study there. I suspect the University of Chicago press is a separate profit making business, but maybe it is part of the University of Chicago. Dunno.

    Maybe the School in Cardiff should start it’s own journal to make some money! 🙂

    • telescoper Says:

      Actually, Rhodri, the University of Chicago press no longer publishes the ApJ and AJ. Those are both now published by the IOP. The ApJ (including supplements) costs us around £1400 pa while the AJ is a snip at around £400. Interestingly, I can’t see any correlation between price and quality.

      I don’t know if the Journal of Crystal Growth is a good journal or not, but it would have to be bloody good to justify charging over £10K pa as it does.

  2. Mr Physicist Says:

    Its always seemed to me that the only thing missing from arXiv is some form of editorial control or peer review. Papers could still be available whilst they underwent any due process – and then only get removed if they failed.

    • telescoper Says:

      There is a limited editorial control on the arXiv in that obviously inappropriate papers are sometimes removed, but there is no refereeing as such and some crank articles do get through.

      I think it would be better to expand the arXiv so that it had an accompanying commentary (perhaps some form of wiki) to which readers could contribute. That would have to be moderated to avoid abuse but I think it would make the arXiv even more useful as a resource for keeping up to date with hot topics than it is now.

  3. Anton Garrett Says:


    Yes. Moreover, academics not only write and referee papers at no charge to publishers, but since the coming of PCs we are expected to typeset them into the journal’s own format, a job they used to do. To add insult to injury we have to sign away our copyright. Thankfully the internet is a new tool that is at last capable of getting these parasites off our back.

    Why do I say “at last”? Because the problem is nothing new. Please allow me to paste in a quote from my own website, about the history of science publishing:

    ****QUOTE BEGINS****
    In the early journals all depended on the skills of the editor and his team, who would publish not only original papers but digests of work done elsewhere, often taken from other journals. Henry Oldenburg, editor of Philosophical Transactions, was the head of a clearing house when he began publication. Journals also included accounts of newly published scientific books, which continued to be the medium for large bodies of research such as Isaac Newton’s Principia. Multiple publication of a piece by an author was commonplace and accepted. Journals usually published in the national languages of Europe, not in Latin – an irony, since at this time a truly international community of corresponding scientists had become a reality.

    Several dozen more scientific journals were published in the remainder of the 17th century, and hundreds more were launched in the next (especially in Germany); a survey has uncovered some 750 titles to 1800. Only fifty years further on there were (or had been, since few lasted long) several thousands, as the 19th century saw an explosion in their number. An impetus for expansion was the increasing interval between a paper’s reading to a learned society, and its publication in that society’s organ – up to five years later. Priority was always important. The new journals of the 18th century were often founded by individuals, and had to pay their way or go under; these commercial journals came to outnumber the publications of the learned societies. They led to a problem of access which has lasted to this day.

    Specialisation of the subject matter of scientific journals began in the mid-18th century, the medical sciences leading the way. Also, some journals came to concentrate on reports of original research; others on reviews of books, which might be extended into essay reviews of a field; and still others on the printing of abstracts, for already in 1789 a reviewer had complained that “one should seek to limit the number [of periodicals] rather than to increase them, since there can also be too many”…

    The printed journal grew because it was the best way of disseminating information. Today we have computer networks which can do that more quickly and cheaply. The purpose of primary research journals today is to act as a quality control on research, through the refereeing system. So the way forward, for primary research at least, is to create an electronic system while maintaining quality control. Such a system, properly set up, could be run for a fraction of the cost to the research community of journal subscriptions today.
    ****QUOTE ENDS****

    In the interim, is it legal for an academic to have a (discounted) personal subscription to a journal and to donate the issues to his or her university?


    PS Page charges make it essentially impossible for anybody outside a large company or university research group to publish. The excuse for these charges is to keep journal subscription charges low for 3rd world universities. Here is a question intended to challenge publishers who apply page charges: Do you apply page charges to papers submitted *from* the 3rd world? If not, how do you decide where the 3rd world begins?

  4. telescoper Says:


    Some universities have set up their own electronic publication repositories, so that papers can be accessed free of charge. I think that’s the wrong way to go. It’s better to have subject-specific ones. In physics we’re a bit ahead of the game compared to other disciplines. Some funding agencies require results to be published in an open-access database but this hasn’t yet led to the demise of the journal.

    Anyway, if we all have to prove the economic impact of our research then we can say that taxpayer’s money we’re supposed to do science with has been well spent propping up the commerical publishing sector. I’m sure this government things that is more important than doing head-in-the-clouds research.


  5. Anton Garrett Says:

    Do you remember? In 1997 there was rejoicing and everybody believed that a Labour government would not push academic scientists to justify their work economically, as the Tories had begun to do…

    Feynman was asked how he could justify Big Physics in terms of defence applications, and he replied that it helped to make the USA worth defending.

  6. telescoper Says:

    Yes, I remember that. And I won’t forget it either, along with many other things that turned out to be illusions.

  7. Tim Harries Says:

    The idea of being able to comment on arXiv papers in a wiki sounds
    appealing, although moderation could be burdensome (since the authors themselves couldn’t be moderators on their own papers). How about
    an Editor’s Pick, or “Rate this Paper” button? I think you’ve probably
    underestimated the value of good sub-editing though…

    • telescoper Says:

      Some papers are undoubtedly improved by copy-editors at the journal, but another hobby horse of mine is the dreaded “house style” of journals like Nature whose editors insist on mangling the text you spent ages getting just right.

      I’d be interested to see how a simple rating system worked, in fact. That’s probably worth trying first, before more complicated alternatives.

  8. Adrian Burd Says:

    The journal Biogeosciences has a “Discussions” section which is useful. Also, the reviewers comments become essentially part of that discussion. That journal, although open access, has rather stiff “service charges”. A second “open access” model is PLOS, but they also have stiff page charges.


  9. JHEP and JCAP I think were intended to be minimal-cost, arxiv based journals. And to a certain extent they have succeeded.

    Also Physical Review is a good example of value for money.

    Somehow astronomy is a bit buggered, though.

  10. My idea: Just allow anybody to peer-review papers on the arXiv. More than just provide comments, you would have to actually check calculations and such, and then say “I approve this paper” or “I don’t approve this paper.”

    Then when you want to see what’s new in your field, just check papers that were recently peer-reviewed by your friends, or other respectable scientists. It would be up to everybody to properly peer-review a reasonable number of papers.

  11. telescoper Says:


    Yes, JCAP is online only and should be cheap. It is part of the IOP physics bundle, however, and on its own the subscription is about £1000. It’s still a lot of money but it’s not as bad as some:CQG is about £2.5K; Phys. Rev. D is about £2K; MNRAS over £4K; ApJ about £1.4 K; Astronomy & Astrophysics about £3K.

    By contrast, Rev. Mod. Phys. is a bargain at a mere £400.


  12. […] 18, 2009 by Berian James Peter Coles has just written a post on what he terms the ‘academic journal racket’, and rather than add a lengthy comment, […]

  13. Nature experimented with open peer review – where anyone could review a paper – and the uptake was so low they stopped the experiment pretty quickly. Essentially the conclusion was that academics need a strong incentive to devote time to reviewing papers thoroughly.

    Using social networking in publishing definitely has potential IMO. A small example is Rob Simpson’s arxiv on twitter page, which aggregates tweets about papers from arxiv. This is a very simple idea and perhaps in its current form not hugely valuable. But the underlying idea that scientists themselves determine what is interesting, rather than publishers or PR people, is nice. This is also the idea behind companies like Mendeley, whose software is essentially a kind of social networking with academic papers.

    Frankly I feel our whole way of science communication is pretty outdated, and the persistently high subscription charges despite the fact that it’s all done electronically are part of that.

  14. Frazer Pearce Says:

    Surely the simplest solution is for academics to start charging an appropriate hourly rate for refereeing? Ideally the department could collect this and use the cash to pay the subscription charges. Of course journals would stop asking referees who demanded payment to do any refereeing for them, but is this really a significant problem?

  15. John Peacock Says:


    Agreed. I never read journals: I always go to arXiv, even for stuff that’s appeared “in print” and where my uni has a subscription: arXiv is quicker to download, and it’s a one-stop shop. If an author can’t be bothered to post to arXiv, or to post revised final versions, that’s their problem.

    I don’t worry about the lack of refereeing, which seems to exercise so many people. Most journals publish 90% of what they get sent, and with minor changes. So refereeing isn’t a useful filter in reducing the amount of stuff you have to wade through. And if you worry that standards will eventually slide if the pressure to satisfy the referee was removed, don’t: the market will decide. Crap papers won’t get cited, and good ones will. One of my more heavily cited publications is the final 2dFGRS data release description (Colless et al. 2003). We just stuck it on arXiv, and people don’t seem to have trouble finding it or using it.

    In the spirit of full disclosure, let me confess my hypocrisy: I am a journal editor (for one that actually pays editors). I hoped to find a way to make it useful, but I came in with a pro-arXiv bias and haven’t yet found a way of evading the argument that journals are dead but won’t lie down.

  16. Anton Garrett Says:


    You wrote: “Perhaps an academic with a discount subscription could donate the journals to his institute, but in order to get that discount, he has to prove that his institute has a fully paid subscription.” I hadn’t known that. In other words, a private individual outside a university has to pay a higher subscription than an official academic? If yes, that’s discrimination; if no, then why not pay the guy next door to subscribe and donate his copies to your institution’s library? Make no mistake, the publishers will use every trick in the book and we should do the same. All this is specifically about journal publishing; there will always be a place for the good textbook.

    For a further horror story about journals and their editors, by a man who wanted to correct an error in a published paper that referred to his own work and got an improper runaround, read this:

    and if you want names, go to

    Click to access ambiguities.pdf


  17. telescoper Says:

    Well, this seems to be generating a lot of discussion!

    Just a quick reminder to potential commenters that I do not accept comments from anonymous sources. Please ensure you have a valid email address that identifies who you are if you are going to post under a pseudonym…

  18. Anton Garrett Says:

    Phillip: Everyone else cries “discrimination” in today’s human rights-obsessed world; now, as a researcher who pays my own way by running a business, it’s my turn!

    Peter: Are you into pointless stats? What’s the largest number of written responses you’ve had to a blog entry; what’s the fastest to 10 and 20 responses; finally, of hits on specific entries, what’s the most popular?


    • telescoper Says:


      It would take me a long time to find the answers to your questions about the comment statistics. There have been 2430 published comments on this blog before this one and I’m not sure how to extract the number of comments per post information without going through all the posts individually.

      The answer to your final question is easy, however. Based on the number of hits the most popular piece on this blog is this, with about 11,000.

      More recently the most popular posts have been my two posts about the Mark Brake affair here and here which continue to attract a large number of readers every day (current total about 3000).


  19. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Alun, Matthew Pitkin. Matthew Pitkin said: interesting post on "the academic journal racket" […]

  20. Swimmingly put, Peter. But Phillip is spot on about arXiv.

    What’s in it for the arXiv if it bolts on peer review (a topic that was looked at by RIOJA, last year)? As far as I can tell there is no way for the community to access a backend – only via the gatekept web interface.

    So it’s not truly open, and if it were, a few of us would knock up a peer-review interface this week and sink the journals next week. And until access is truly open, the only pressure is via the route you’re taking, non?

    It would be nice for a referee, today, to be able to say to a journal, “I’ll only do this review if you use our new way of doing things. Otherwise, no thanks.” But without arXiv on board we have nothing new on the table – no other way for peer review, or blog-induced editing.

    Do you know how the academic publishing racket grew up? I would be interested to hear how it came to be like this.

    Who’s up for bursting the bubble? I’m sure the RAS can take a hit for the team.

  21. Bryn Jones Says:

    One slight oddity in all this is that the academic community complains constantly about journal costs, but many learned societies charge high journal subscriptions (the R.A.S. and I.o.P. were cited as examples by Peter). In effect, the academic community is choosing to play the same game through its societies as private publishers. The R.A.S. makes a significant part of its income from its journals as a matter of policy (which it then uses to support the research community with activities such as organising meetings). The R.A.S. is aware of the pressures against the current publishing system and is planning to reduce its income from journals over the next decade. In principle, the societies could choose to move to free electronic journals (subsidising the operations from members’ subscriptions), ending the current racket at one stroke.

    A concern I have over a potential move to use non-refereed archive deposition as a replacement for refereed publishing in journals is that researchers would be tempted to play the numbers game. They might choose to split one dull paper into a large number of mini-papers to fill out their lists of publications, even though they know the mini-papers would receive zero citations. The result would be a move to regard citations (rather than numbers of publications) as the only serious measure of a researcher’s merit, but it might be possible then to play the citations number game using self-citation. The disadvantage of this would be the dilution of the research literature with rubbish (things that would not get published in today’s journals), making it more difficult to find papers of value among the rubbish.

    I had a personal subscription to M.N.R.A.S. as a Ph.D. student: the rate was very cheap for students then. The rules back then were, if I remember correctly, that the journal was sold at a heavily discounted rate to personal subscribers on condition that it was for personal use only. This explicitly forbade personal subscribers donating their cheap journals to institution libraries.

  22. telescoper Says:

    Frazer: Perhaps, but I’d be quite prepared to referee things free of charge if it really was a contribution to a collective effort. What I resent is being hassled into doing it in full knowledge that my department is paying through the nose for the journal.

    Jz: I wasn’t really trying to argue that the arXiv is the future, just that in this field we have a model for how things could go. I have never had any contact with the people that run the arXiv so I don’t know what they would think of taking it in the direction that’s being discussed. I also don’t think the RAS would be likely to be in the vanguard of this revolution. They’re totally dependent on the income from MNRAS for survival, which is probably why MNRAS is one of the more expensive astronomy journals.

  23. Phillip:

    “Yes, but that interface is publicly accessible. So, someone could set up a web-based refereeing feature which links to ArXiv. As long as it is not commercial, I don’t think ArXiv could legally object. They might not like it, but any criticism is likely to make them unpopular. It’s not really that different than linking to a paper on ArXiv from any other web page. Of course, it would have to be well done to have a chance of becoming a de facto standard, but certainly something like that is possible (e.g. Google dominating the search-engine market to such an extent that they have become a verb).”

    Where is it? Let’s do it. Let’s get some people together and lash it up. But maybe we need to think quite hard about what the ‘community’ wants out of it. For example, do we operate in parallel with the journals or instead of? Is refereeing done in open or closed session, or both?

    Is anyone brave enough to submit their articles to a new system; Peter?? In fact he couldn’t – we’d need him to appoint the referees…

  24. Rhodri Evans Says:

    I didn’t know U Chicago press had ceased to be the publisher for ApJ and AJ. Why wasn’t I consulted 😉 Maybe the reason MNRAS is so expensive is because it doesn’t have page charges. What you are suggesting Peter is quite radical but doable. How to start the revolution is the tricky part.

  25. Anton Garrett Says:

    jz: for the history of science publishing, see

    from which the extract I pasted into a contribution above was taken. Prof AJ Meadows is the man who knows most.

    I think the fact that learned scientific societies were in the same racket was cited by publishers Gordon and Breach in their famous legal action against one of them a few years ago.

    If personal subscription journals are not to be donated to libraries, how about through a middleman?

    What we need is somebody rich to open an office with 10 or so permanent scientifically competent people to kick off this enterprise. The best chance is somebody with a science training who is looking to give something back to the academic community having made a pile.


  26. Rhodri Evans Says:

    Anton – What’s his name Kavli perhaps??

  27. As Peter points out, I don’t think we can leave it to the RAS, not if we want something before the SKA comes online anyway. Though actually wouldn’t we say we did get quite a lot out of the RAS, so maybe it’s not in our interests to kill it (cf the city)?

    How about splitting this project into two tasks:

    1. Building it. I am sure, given the wide range of coding skills kicking around the community, we could do this almost for free with a small body of volunteers. Firefox does fine 😉 We(‘d) need to make it flexible and give it to a bunch of people to test. Half-baked is just fine as long as people can change it. We need to make it as open as possible (properly open, not empire-building open).

    Now what about this API mullarky? Presumably it is downstream only, i.e. we can’t put stuff ONTO the arXiv using it??

    2. Persuading people to use it. This will be tough, but can’t happen without 1 (or money etc, which, let’s face it, won’t happen without some drum-banging from us). Might be best to try and gain a foothold in a particular sub-field, e.g. cosmology theory 😉 We(‘d) also need people like Peter to champion it. I can’t imagine big experiments going for it straight off (can you see Planck not using a learned journal?), but maybe theorists are easier to persuade? 🙂

    Or, Peter, why don’t you persuade Cardiff to put your spare £30k into a post designed to set this thing up? Even better, get other departments to join you. Sell it on what it will save us all. A no-brainer?

  28. The arXiv already has a trackback facility, so that blog posts etc. that comment on a paper are linked from the arXiv abstract. For example, CosmoCoffee has a discussion facility for arXiv papers – picking the most recent (from July!): discussion on arXiv:0907.2731, which is then linked from the arXiv abstract page (at the bottom-right).

    So the technology is in place, all it needs is for people to jump on a suitable bandwagon…

  29. All this seems to be financially illiterate. If you object to the MNRAS subscription charges, you should be able to post a breakdown of its income and expenditure, before you can say that the RAS is “ripping me off”.

    No one seems to have been near to doing that.

    One possible discussion point would be whether the paper version should be produced at all, and how much this would save.

    Of course, if you do not want refereed journals at all, then that’s another argument.

  30. “Save the trees?”

    Bah – – David MacKay still produces his energy book on paper, and you can look inside for the Google-query and book energy calculations..

    If people want to read on paper, they can print the PDF. Journals have never really been designed for flicking through, right? i.e., adjacent articles bear little relation to each other, and MNRAS for one has no editorial commentary a la Nature.

    Anthony – thanks, that’s interesting! But it sounds like people still want peer review in the journal sense, before making the leap to replacing it with ‘social’ review. Peer review for arXiv not currently possible, right?

  31. Anton Garrett Says:

    Until about 100 years ago there was post-publication peer review in the form of the Abstracting system. Abstracts are today written by the author (often rather badly), but before the 20th century they were writen by paid professional summarisers. Einstein was one, at the start of his career.

  32. That’s very interesting about the abstract.

    I still don’t think that, by itself, the ability to comment in a blog or on a forum is the same as peer hallmarking that is in use by today’s journals.

    Without a mechanism for that, there will be no shake-up in the system.

    So we need some organized functionality that we can put to people. Once that’s in place we need a system for appointing referees.

    Who’s in for mashing something up then?

  33. What seems to be unique about astronomy is that two of the main journals (AJ and ApJ) charge both page charges and subscription fees. MNRAS is at one end of the scale, with no page charges but with a subscription cost. One could start PLoS Astrophysics to provide an alternative with no subscription fee but with page charges (PLoS journals have a flat per article fee). Then you’d have the choice depending on whether you have funds for publications. This sort of approach seems more likely to me to be successful than throwing away the peer-reviewed journal entirely.

    While most submissions to astrophysics journals get accepted, one shouldn’t expect that to carry over to a system where people just post on arXiv. People don’t generally submit really crappy papers now because they know they’ll get rejected. If instead of rejection, crappy papers now just get low marks on some online forum, that seems like a much smaller disincentive to post bad papers. That’s if they get low marks at all—no mark seems more likely, given the limited success places like CosmoCoffee have had in getting a substantial number of people to participate in discussing papers.

  34. Jay, why need even page fees?

    You’ve hit the nail on the head about ‘social’ reviewing – for the time being at least, we still need anonymous peer hallmarking to keep standards up.

    Why not build a platform that starts with the current system, and take it in a more social direction once it’s gained a foothold?

    It is starting to sound, though, like no-one has time/can be bothered to start an alternative, in which case we cannot really complain about journal fees…

  35. Thanks for this. I posted something against journals along this line a while ago.

  36. Paul Charles Ledy Says:

    I could build out a website that would have all this functionality, and it would not be much effort. But the question is, how to get people to use it. Seems a chicken/egg problem. Would I need a large org behind me to even hope it got used? Why would people trust me w/ their assessments, what assurances would be necessary? Would making the code and database open to the public be enough?

  37. “I could build out a website that would have all this functionality, and it would not be much effort. But the question is, how to get people to use it. Seems a chicken/egg problem. Would I need a large org behind me to even hope it got used? Why would people trust me w/ their assessments, what assurances would be necessary? Would making the code and database open to the public be enough?”

    Hey Paul – that sounds wonderful! I’d be really happy to help on the ideas/discussion side if you are able to knock something functional up – maybe we can discuss offline? For now I’m pretty convinced we need current-style referees for assessments. Once we have something to offer people we can take soundings. Eventually making it public would be perfect.

  38. telescoper Says:

    One of the problems is that, at least in the UK, the whole paraphernalia of research quality assessment is tied to refereed publications. The journal racketeers have a vested interest in forcing us to publish things their way and we face big cuts in funds if we don’t play ball. I would be happy in future to publish everything I do only on the ArXiv, but if I don’t have refereed papers for the next RAE(REF) I’ll probably get sacked.

    It would have to be a mass rebellion across all academia if it is to succeed.

  39. “I would be happy in future to publish everything I do only on the ArXiv, but if I don’t have refereed papers for the next RAE(REF) I’ll probably get sacked.

    It would have to be a mass rebellion across all academia if it is to succeed.”

    Hmm. I had not realised this. Now is the most dangerous time for a rebellion in UK research, non? Or are you willing to lead the revolution..?

  40. The idea of moving away from journals and towards a system where publication can haoppen anywhere and scientists determine what is interesting to them is described in a recent blog post of mine:
    with some discussion on here
    and here

    Would be interested in an y feedback. Cheers, Chris

  41. Martha Murphy Says:

    I am an outsider who happened on this interesting discussion in browsing. I have no expertise in your field and some (limited) experience working in an academic library. Also, I am in the USA! I do belong to professional organizations my own field that provide professional journals. I’m not sure I understand all your points, but I do have an idea.

    It seems to me that, as an academic community, your main power is in the peer review of research. I know academics are required to publish to keep their jobs, but are you required to review the work of others as part of your university contract? If not, then perhaps the most power you currently have is to switch your peer reviewing services to an online organization that is more formal than a personal blog, and withhold them from the publishers that overcharge.

    In other words, continue (for the time being) to offer papers to journals for publication, but set up a system to do your reviewing online.

    Academic libraries (at least in the U.S.) have a commitment among themselves to keep up their runs of journals because of the interlibrary loan system. Different schools specialize in different subject areas, with the result of reducing the overall costs to all. Publishers charge (or overcharge) libraries with the understanding that library subscriptions will be used by large numbers of people, thus cutting out many individual subscriptions. There is also the understanding that students will make copies of journal articles for ease of use. (When I was a postgrad a few years ago, I made many copies of articles from microfiche. Do students now use their computers for comparable access?Subscription charges to libraries are increased accordingly.

    Peer review of articles is not so important to those working at your professional level (who should be trusted to recognize bunk) as it is to undergraduates and nonprofessionals. To us, it’s not so much what specific reviewers thought of the research that is important, but just that the journal can be trusted. There may be other ways to address this need.

    I may never pass this way again, so please don’t waste any time excoriating me! These are trying economic times and I wish you well.

  42. The smartest review of the peer-reviewing system I ever read. Nothing more and nothing less left to say about it.

  43. Mark Davidson Says:

    There is a problem as I see it relying on the arxiv as it currently stands as the sole repository for physics research. In order to publish there you have to have an endorsement or be and endorser. Not only that. If you have been an endorser for say the quantum physics section, you are not allowed to put articles in other sections without another endorser giving you endorsement. As more sections are added and the arxiv gets sliced and diced, this may be subject to abuse. For example, suppose that quantum gravity got sectioned into a string theory section and a loop quantum gravity section. Let’s suppose for argument that the loop quantum gravity people got control of the moderator function for the arxiv. Then they could restrict new endorsements for the string theory group. Even remove some string theorists from endorser status. Also they could exercise more stringent censorship of papers submitted there. They could start to label string theory as crackpot science. I’m just picking on loop quantum gravity as a fanciful possibility. It could happen in any field of physics. At least now with many journals there is someplace for everyone. With one global arxiv any theoretical group could be labeled crackpot by the moderators at any time and face censorship with no recourse except perhaps begging. We could have in effect a return of the Index Librorum Prohibitorum. Everyone agrees that crackpots should not be included in the arxiv until their own work is deemed to be in that category, then they change their mind. Being employed at a good institution helps greatly to get things published in the arxiv, but many who are employed at such institutions today may not always be there, and should they find themselves outside, the arxiv is not always particularly welcoming, depending on their interests of course. I don’t now what the solution is, but maybe multiple repositories are important. There is the new vixra site which might in time evolve into an interesting alternative. The current journal system does not seem viable or fixable.

  44. You are absolutely right, and no, you are not the only one who asks the same question. The solution for the problem might be in open access publishing. Yes, sometimes (or maybe I should say most times?) authors (or universities where they work) are the ones who have pay the publishing fee, but at least the product (journal, book) is free (open access) when published. That way the knowledge is available to everyone for free. One of open access publishers (or should I say OA distribution platform) is a website called Sciyo – There you can find thousand of articles and over 200 science books. Anyway, thanks for interesting article, you made us all think.

  45. S Jones Says:

    Just noticed Ben Goldacre mention this bit of news from the US-

  46. […] Here’s a nice practical description of the academic journal racket and the havoc it reeks on the dispersion of knowledge/information. […]

  47. […] I rather think that the strongest argument against  the scientific journal establishment  is the ruthless racketeering of the academic publishers that profit from it.  Still, I do think he has a point. Scientists who […]

  48. […] wholeheartedly agree. I’ve blogged already to the effect that academic journals are a waste of time and money and we’d be much better […]

  49. […] ranted before (and will no doubt do so again) about the extremely negative effect the academic publishing industry has on the dissemination of results. At out latest Board of […]

  50. Good to see George Monbiot catching up with you Peter.

    So nothing has happened for the last two years. Actually, I feel like we have been discussing this issue at staff coffee breaks for more like fifteen years … and nothing has happened. What then must we do ? as Vladimir Illyich would say.

    • telescoper Says:

      Yes, I posted a comment on the Grauniad article pointing to this piece, which has generated quite a lot of traffic.

      Of course what should happen is that we in the vanguard of the revolution should simply refuse to cooperate any longer with the bloated capitalist running dogs of the multinational academic publishing industry who are totally utterly and completely oppressing the poor and disadvantaged underclass (i.e. scientists) ensuring that they are kept in poverty by charging excessively high prices for academic journals. The one and only way to rid ourselves of this fascist patriarchal hegemony is to rise up like our brothers and sisters in the Dollis Hill Facebook Anarchists Against the Tory Cuts Collective and… (cont, p. 94).

  51. […] the extortionate cost and general uselessness of the so-called Learned Journals, i.e. precisely the Academic Journal Racket I’ve blogged about previousl. I agree with most of what Monbiot […]

  52. […] one — Monbiot’s piece echoed arguments laid out by academic blogger Peter Coles in 2009 (though the complaints go even further back)— which means of course that it is difficult. […]

  53. […] argument about academic publishing has been bubbling away nicely in the mainstream media and elsewhere in the blogosphere; see my […]

  54. […] Speaking of medicine, I’m particularly taken by the fact that so many academic open access activists work in the sciences (although there are, of course, exceptions). Not only […]

  55. […] of Number Theory, Topology, and Topology and its Applications. For many … I see that the Academic Journal Racket also applies to mathematics! I also see that WordPress has reinstated the “reblog” […]

  56. […] views about the academic journal racket are on record. Of all the profiteering outfits out there, the commercial publisher Elsevier  is […]

  57. […] up on the last few days’ activity on the Twittersphere I realise that at last the Academic Journal Racket has made it into the mainstream media. The Guardian ran an article on Monday reporting that the […]

  58. walkerjian Says:

    peer review – who does that serve? THINK about it… How much of the peer review process is about ‘quality control’ and how much is about shaping and subverting IP into the ‘right peoples’ hands. What happens when a reviewer ‘sits on a paper’ for months – come on don’t be so naive! Is it just laziness, diligence or is it something more sinister? So how much that is shaped into the peer reviewed corpus is merely chaff to distract from the real good oil, which is siphoned elsewhere… Bit like what hollywood does to euro movies perhaps?

  59. […] more… 543 more words Another illustration of how the Academic Journal Racketeers (in this case one of the usual suspects, Elsevier) have a stranglehold on research. As well as […]

  60. […] favoured solution is to dispense with the academic journal racket altogether, and for researchers just to put their results on publicly accessible repositories, like […]

  61. […] An APC of this size  is indefensible. Scientific papers are nowadays typeset by the author and refereed by other academics. The cost to the publisher is tiny. That they need such an extortionate amount to maintain their profit levels just demonstrates the extent to which they’ve  been ripping us of all these years. Worse, having to pay up front  excludes scientists who don’t have access to the funds needed to pay these charges. This isn’t open access, it’s just a slightly different form of the old racket. […]

  62. […] are concerned, and then the libraries pay through the nose for subscriptions. Many people, notably Peter Coles, think this is scandalous. George Monbiot, of The Guardian, also wrote this article about the […]

  63. […] I’m afraid this is yet another example of publishers putting their own profits before the needs of researchers. The fact that IOPP’s profits also support the activities of the Institute of Physics is beside the point. I hope before long that the IOP remembers what it is actually for and changes its modus operandi to support the community it purports to serve, rather than exploiting it. The days of the traditional publisher are numbered in any case, and the IOP along with the other learned societies will have to find a way of surviving that doesn’t rely on income from the academic journal racket. […]

  64. […] Lest we forget the Great Academic Publishing Ripoff… […]

  65. […] The Academic Journal Racket « In the DarkTelescoper explains how aca­demic pub­lish­ing works. The only thing that would improbe the post would be the theme from ‘The Naked Gun’ in the background. […]

  66. […] Academic Journal Racket – ‘the IOP Physics package … is costing us an amount close to the annual salary of a lecturer.’ […]

  67. […] it really six years ago that I first blogged about the Academic Journal Racket which siphons off millions from hard-pressed research budgets into the coffers of profiteering […]

  68. […] point is that the academic publishing industry is not going to change of its own volition. If the Academic Journal Racket is to be rumbled, it is we (by which I mean academics and our institutions) who have to take […]

  69. […] of the arXiv. With regard to open access publishing the way forward is to disrupt the existing Academic Journal Racket by developing alternative modes publication which demonstrate benefits in cost, reach and […]

  70. […] made my views of the academic publishing racket very clear over a number of years so I won’t repeat that rant here. I’ll just remind […]

  71. […] else it’s yet another egregious example of profiteering by the academic journal industry. The Academic Journal Racket strikes […]

  72. […] I’d add a more general comment. If you’re an academic who thinks academia needs the likes of Elsevier then you’re an academic who is not thinking. There are plenty of ways of communicating your results without shaking hands with the Devil. I find it completely mystifying why so many academics and their institutions are so willing to be fleeced in the academic journal racket. […]

  73. […] For myself, I abandoned the traditional journal system many years ago, as it is so clearly a racket. […]

  74. […] would abolish is not so much an industry as a racket. I’ve been blogging here about the Academic Journal Racket since 2009. It’s nice at last to see some real movement towards its […]

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