Re: Is the staggeringly profitable business of scientific publishing bad for science?

[Note:  This comment comes from friend Andrew Odlyzko.  DLH]

From: odlyzko@umn.edu (Andrew Odlyzko)
Subject: Re: [Dewayne-Net] Is the staggeringly profitable business of scientific publishing bad for science?
Date: June 28, 2017 at 11:03:31 AM EDT
To: dewayne@warpspeed.com

Dewayne,

It is a very nice article.  But it conflates several issues, and has
some serious distortions.  

High profits at Elsevier (as well as at other publishers, including
quite a few non-profit professional societies) are one issue.  They
provide an interesting perspective on the general evolution of the
economy, in which high profits are often attained with small investments
by seizing strategic choke points.  I wrote about this in “”Open Access, 
library and publisher competition, and the evolution of general commerce,” 
Evaluation Review, vol. 39, no. 1, Feb. 2015, pp. 130-163, preprint at

http://www.dtc.umn.edu/~odlyzko/doc/libpubcomp.pdf

Another issue is simply the unnecessarily high costs of scholarly
publishing.  Elsevier (as well as many non-profit society publishers)
collect about $5,000 in total on average for each article.  There is
plenty of evidence (see the article cited above) that 10% of that
would suffice to provide a peer reviewed journal system of quality
comparable to the present one.  (Just the distribution of articles
by themselves is almost trivial, the arXiv prepring archive operates
at a cost of about $10 per preprint.)  The main obstacle is the
intertia of academia.  Scholars could easily change the system,
but coordinating them (or even getting them to pay any attention
to the issues) is hard.

Yet another issue is the influence of the journal system on the
whole research enterprise.  But there it seems that journals (and
in this respect it is not clear Elsevier and other commercial
publishers are much different from professional society ones)
simply reflect the general sociology of science.  Even if Elsevier
gave away its journals, those problems would not change.  There is
a slew of publications on the problems with with current system, and 
just one example is the paper of Vinkers et al. in Br. Med. J. in 2015, 
“Use of positive and negative words in scientific PubMed abstracts between
1974 and 2014: retrospective analysis,”

www.bmj.com/content/351/bmj.h6467

with a popular writeup by Philip Ball in Nature,

http://www.nature.com/news/novel-amazing-innovative-positive-words-on-the-rise-in-science-papers-1.19024

A fourth issue in the Buranyi article is the role of Robert Maxwell.
There was much negative about his contributions.  But if one reads
the Buranyi piece carefully, one gets some glimpses of the positive 
effects that Maxwell had on scholarly publishing.  He did recognize 
the rapid expansion of the research establishment, and in particular 
the rise of new fields, fields that traditional professional societies 
were neglecting.  I have not heard of any cases where he tried to 
influence the scientific content of his journals (say, by suppressing 
articles about dangers of tobacco, or of pollution).  So yes, the high 
prices and high profits that he extracted were regrettable.  But he just 
exploited the opportunities that traditional scholarly publishers had 
left open.

Andrew

Is the staggeringly profitable business of scientific publishing bad for science?
It is an industry like no other, with profit margins to rival Google – and it was created by one of Britain’s most notorious tycoons: Robert Maxwell.
By Stephen Buranyi
Jun 27 2017
https://www.theguardian.com/science/2017/jun/27/profitable-business-scientific-publishing-bad-for-science

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