Researchers rise up angry against those darn publishers

In the calculated circle-jerk that is peer-review publishing, the lucky public gets to buy back the research they’ve already paid for. At least, that’s how the process is increasingly being seen

Said the medical researcher, to the government of Great Britain, “You know, you really have to hand it to Elsevier.”

To which the government replied, “No. Actually, no, we don’t.”

With that brief approximation of what may have been a longer discussion, a very comfortable, very long-standing arrangement came crashing down — and, at this point, it’s impossible to say if your job in pharma will still be there when all the dust and detritus settle.

Here is the background. The government of the UK, like that of many prosperous Western democracies, invests a substantial sum of public money each year in funding scientific research, including medical studies. The findings from these taxpayer-funded trials are submitted for publication as articles in peer-reviewed life-sciences journals. Such publications, measured by formal processes that determine the impact of each article, are usually instrumental in influencing the approval or denial of new therapies by regulators, and ultimately shape the prescribing judgments of physicians and health professionals.

(In the UK, as in most prosperous Western democracies, public monies pay for those therapies.)

This continues a cycle, whereby the peer-review publications assume a level of importance that requires the acquisition of a wide range of journals for the libraries of public institutions, such as medical schools and teaching hospitals. Naturally, public funds cover the cost of these journal subscriptions, as happens again and again whenever individual articles are accessed online. Beyond this, the publishers commonly instruct their authors to surrender additional fees for lengthy articles and for the use of color images. Publishers also charge premium prices to interested parties for article reprints.

So, to recap: the taxpayer funds research; the researchers hand their findings over to a publisher; the publisher sells it back to public institutions. This simple formula is the essence of a smashingly successful business model followed by the Anglo-Dutch publishing firm Elsevier, which, with Springer of Germany, Macmillan of Great Britain, and John Wiley of the USA, collectively controls nearly half the content of the world’s peer-review journals. Elsevier, largest of the Four Horsemen, has done exceptionally well under these circumstances, copping a 37 per cent profit of Cdn$1.2 billion, on 2011 sales of Cdn$3.3 billion.

Driving those rarified numbers are the exorbitant cost of purchasing the goods of that company, along with those of Springer, Wiley and Macmillan. An annual subscription to Elsevier’s journal Biochimica et Biophysica Acta fetches no less than US$20,930 a year, while the right to read a single article in Advances in Pediatrics or the Annals of Emergency Medicine requires a credit-card payment of US$31.50 per article. It adds up. The UK government spends Cdn$320 million annually on journal subscriptions, which consumes nearly 10 per cent of the country’s research grants to institutions.

Prof. Gowers, speaking at the University of Toronto in 2000, a decade before he stood up to tyrannical scientific publishers 

Numbers that large will often attract scrutiny, and on January 22 of this year, Prof. Tim Gowers, a faculty member at Cambridge University, singled out the largest of the Big Four peer-review publishers and decided that as a matter of principle he would no longer submit articles to Elsevier journals.

He announced his intentions on a blog post. A fellow academician immediately joined Prof. Gowers’ protest, and established an online petition (at to encourage others to boycott the publisher. As this edition of The Chronicle goes to press, approximately 12,500 academicians have joined the boycott, including around 1,000 physicians.

Things quickly snowballed. In April, Harvard University in Massachusetts, citing the US$3.5 million it spends each year on journal subscriptions, advised faculty and researchers to rise up against peer-review publishers. Harvard library director Robert Darnton explained to the Guardian newspaper: “I hope that other universities will take similar action. We all face the same paradox. We faculty do the research, write the papers, referee papers by other researchers, serve on editorial boards, all of it for free… and then we buy back the results of our labor at outrageous prices. The system is absurd, and it is inflicting terrible damage on libraries.”

Shortly thereafter, the UK’s Ministry of Universities and Science announced a radical restructuring of policies toward scholarly science publishing, with the aim of bypassing the Big Four ink-slingers, and placing all publicly funded research in “open access” online websites. Said the cabinet minister, David Willetts, “If the taxpayer has paid for this research to happen, that work shouldn’t be put behind a paywall before a British citizen can read it.”

Days following Mr. Welletts’ decree, the European Union, which is planning to spend Cdn$100 billion on a research and innovation economic stimulus program, also directed researchers to publish their findings in open access media. A EU spokesman offered his  common-sense conclusion: “Taxpayers should not have to pay twice for scientific research.”

This could be you, if your business model incites revolution

With that, observers began calling these developments the Academic Spring, likening the professorial uprising, and potential overthrow of an entrenched hierarchical order, to last year’s Arab Spring, the series of spontaneous protests that led to the ouster of the Egyptian and Libyan tyrannies. For their part, Elsevier seems determined not to end up sharing the unpleasant fate of President Hosni Mubarak, or Colonel Muammar Gaddafi. The company concedes: “While some of the facts about Elsevier are being misrepresented, the depth of feeling among some in the research community is real and something we take very seriously.”

Perhaps the peer-review publishers may find a way to adjust to the new Information Age realities. Come what may, it would be extremely short-sighted to think that the fallout won’t drift across to the pharmaceutical and biotech sector.

For this move toward open-source biomedical publishing can only serve to add impetus to the emerging movement toward open-source drug development, where intellectual property ownership of therapies may be held in the public domain. And just as institution-based researchers discovered that they no longer need the conventional publishing establishment to disseminate their knowledge, it is bound to lead some to conclude that Big Pharma, having staked out a lucrative toll-booth between brilliant ideas and their implementation, may represent one more legacy of the former economy that may be dispensed with: just another teetering domino waiting to collapse.

That depiction is wholly invalid, and must be refuted. Still, would you want to be the one tasked with getting out there, and explaining the distinctions to the pitchfork-wielding professoriate?

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