Monday, June 16, 2014

Scientific Journals: A Case of 21st Century Dinosaurs?

Out of California's Silicon Valley comes a stout prediction this month that a $10 billion business that feeds off government-financed research has entered its terminal stages.

The forecast was made by Dylan Tweney, editor-in-chief of Venture Beat, a technology news operation that not-so-coincidentally has no print arm.

He wrote on June 6,
“Imagine an industry where a few companies make billions of dollars by exerting strict control over valuable information — while paying the people who produce that information nothing at all.
"That’s the state of academic, scientific publishing today. And it’s about to be blown wide open by much more open, Internet-based publishers.”
He said that the leading companies in the field, Elsevier and Springer, have margins in excess of 35 percent. They subsist off research that is almost totally financed by public money while, at the same time, they do not pay scientists to review the research prior to publication.

Tweney noted that the industry's relatively new competitors, including Plos, Academia and Arxiv, offer free access compared to pricey journal subscriptions that cost Harvard University $3.75 million in 2012.
“Taken together, these online publishers represent a significant threat to traditional journal publishers like Elsevier because they reach more people and cost nothing. The only remaining value that traditional publishers offer is the imprimatur they provide: The articles they publish have been peer-reviewed and are thus presumably more reliable.
“But even that imprimatur is under attack. The 'reproducibility crisis' in academic publishing refers to the fact that a huge proportion of published research, particularly in medical fields, is based on results that cannot be reproduced by other researchers. In one study, a tiny 6 percent of scientific findings in cancer research were reproducible.”
Scientific publishing has also lured the California stem cell agency, which financed to the tune of $600,000 the start-up of a journal in North Carolina.

As Tweney alludes, the situation is not much different than that of the newspaper and magazine industries a few years back. For the most part, those businesses blundered along in a very profitable mode, ignoring the Internet until it was too late to do anything other than scramble for survival. It is possible that the academic journal business can find a new model. But given organizational inertia and the unwillingness to cannibalize an existing and still profitable business, it is unlikely.

(Disclosure: Tweney is this writer's son-in-law. He did not consult me prior to writing his June 6 piece.)

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