After weeks of long work in the happy company of two friends, we are now facing the decision of which journal to submit our manuscript to. It is not the very first time that also “economy” factors are taken into account, but the shortlist of candidate journals matching a reasonably good impact factor and a decent access price looks quite bleak. Discarding the over-ambitious top-tier, to which our work certainly does not belong, and the depressingly-low-tier, to which we would certainly hope our work shouldn’t belong, the so-called “open access” publication fees range from about 3,500 to 5,000 euro (or dollars, take it or leave it). The first question for me is, “open” to whom? I must say, modestly open to us for sure, given the chronic shortage of project funds for the average scientist. It is bitterly funny to see how major funding agencies (under the stiff pressure from the European Commission) while encourage us to a fully open approach to disseminating the results of our work to the wide public that (indirectly) pays for our work, systematically undercut “accessory” funding, including travel and publication costs. Publishing in a top-tier journal of the Springer-Nature mafia family ramped up to about 10,000 euro/dollars. When this was first announced, with a simple 140-words note on a popular social network, it spurred thousands of irate comments from the scientific community. It was not the first time, and it will not be the last…

In the old days (I am writing this for the benefit of the younger readers), journals were printed on paper. That is true, precious paper, which had to remain on shelf for ages without being recycled. On the positive side, that also meant a lot of healthy physical exercise. To search for somebody’s results about the melting temperature of nickel-zirconium alloys, you had to first get off your desk and walk to a library; then, muscle-up to lift huge volumes indexing all the published stuff in the world, search across, and take down precious reference numbers; finally, perform dangerous climbing on thin ladders hanging from walls piled with endless issues of The Physical Review, pick up two or three thick volumes, and climb down while holding two volumes under your armpits and one between your teeth. That was quite a physical feat. For such a bookworm’s pleasure, university libraries had to pay annual subscriptions to each and every journal on Earth. Moreover, a relatively small “page-cost” fee could be asked to the authors (which however could be waived in many cases). And there were also public-funded journals, some of which still exist, that asked zero publication fees.

Then came the internet, and journals (including science ones) started putting their contents online. Less paper, less work for the typesetters (which now could do all the composition on screen without ever touching a Rotring rapidograph), likely, less people to employ. Therefore, we could hope for journals to reduce their subscription fees, and ease the access to science also for the ones unable to pay (typically, developing countries). By the early 2000s, the steady increase in subscriptions (between 5-7% each year) forced any major university to allocate several million euros/dollars for general subscriptions. Thus, many universities started cancelling subscriptions to several major editors, I know of cases in France and in Germany. But somebody came up with a brilliant idea. Instead of paying to read, why not pay to publish? That could invert the burden, letting free access to science for everybody, while adding just some extra cost to the already huge bill that research institutes have to pay anyway to do science. Moreover, if the idea were to be put on (ethically) right tracks, there could have been even a positive balance for the funding institutions, considering the high cost of annual subscriptions for many journals of relatively scarce interest, or with minor readership.

The immediate objection was: what about the quality of research? If it will be enough to pay, in order to see your work published, how can the community avoid to get bad science published? Obviously, journals would have to publish more papers to support such a business model. Not only more articles in each journal, but split each journal into sub-journals, to increase the coverage. This is what happened, among others, with the famous Nature, which, after more than 100 years of solitary beaconry in all sectors of science, is now split into a few dozen different journals, ranging from Nature Neuroscience to Nature Gardening (that’s a joke). Then the question is: what is the minimum, reasonable fee that a journal should charge? Let us take for example eLife, the only journal published by eLife Sciences Publications, a nonprofit organization that still relies on funding agencies to a significant extent to keep revenues and expenditures balanced, and thus may be treated as a fair reference model for analyzing publication costs. eLife was a no-cost-to-publish, open-access journal when it was launched in 2012. But five years later, it  started imposing a 2,500 dollars fee per paper, which was further increased to 3000 USD in April 2021 (though authors may request a waiver). During 2015–2020, the number of articles published in eLife and the associated expenses steadily increased. A financial analysis over the five years  (adjusted for inflation) shows that open access journals similar to eLife can be self-sustaining with a publishing fee somewhere between 2,700 and 4,700 USD, if they publish around 2,000 articles per year. Large publishers that made their data publicly available, such as Frontiers (which published approximately 85,000 articles across 139 journals in 2021) and MDPI (about 240,000 articles in 386 journals that same year), typically charge fees within this range, or lower.

By taking a linear extrapolation of the above data, a journal with a high rejection rate that publishes no more than 200 papers/year, should set a publishing fee around 10,000 euro/dollars. That sort of explains the high fees of Nature or Science journals, although extrapolated from a non-profit database. But then, we should ask, what are we buying from the publishers in the internet age? Should we still seek to publish our findings in journals at all, given that file sharing is absurdly easy these days? I can post my manuscripts on a WordPress blog with a few clicks, or choose a more formal path by leaving them on arXiv or other preprint servers, without ever submitting a manuscript to a journal. Either way, there is no publishing cost or paywall at all, and anybody in the World can read my results with a cell phone. Even some journals are today “online-only”, so whats the difference? What researchers are actually paying for is a certification service: the credibility attributed to research when it is published in a peer-reviewed journal. This was maybe not financially clear in the ancient pay-to-read era, but such services include the journal’s branding/reputation, the editorial and review services, broader multimedia promotion, and others. Experimental studies in life or physical sciences are not easily reproducible by peers without considerable human resources and money. Therefore, rather than post-publication judgment, scientists need a certification of approval from a recognized, independent entity (the journal) to certify that their manuscript meets the novelty and quality requirements. At the same time, readers tend to choose references with a trusted reputation, so they do not have to verify each and every conclusion in their own labs. (The situation may be different for, e.g., computer science or theoretical physics, where readers can usually verify and build upon the results published by others via more standardized tools: programs should run in the same way on any computer, and equations follow the same norms in a chosen theoretical framework. Consequently, there is less need for a third-party authority, such as a pricey high-profile journal, to certify the quality of a study.)

Anyway, this is a major transformation in the way we do science. Besides the benefits eventually granted to a larger readership under the ethical requirement of opening science to “the public”, that is the official reason behind the switch to open-access mode, this way of controlling scientific results makes for an unprecedented shift in the quality of science. The scientific community is no longer responsible, at least in the first instance, for certifying the good science and rejecting the bad science. Under this new model, grant money is now used to certify and publish results of studies in a journal, whether it be society-run or commercial, meaning that funders and employers – not readers – are responsible for the cost of evaluating research. Of course, a bad result will be judged as bad from the community sooner or later, but the process can take years, and some bad results could escape and long remain in the scientific literature, accessible and reusable by other scientists, before being certified as bad science. We already have examples of scientists altering, or straightforwardly faking research, and going a long way before getting caught.

And we finally come to the little story that motivated today’s letter. I have refused to do peer reviewing for several years, after becoming associate editor for different science journals (including a long term when I served for Applied Physics Letters). I felt there was a kind of conflict between roles, and moreover I was bored. Especially during the APL term, I had to editorially screen about 5-10 papers per week, and having to do also peer reviews was definitely too much work. A few months ago, however, I finally accepted to review a manuscript for (what I then believed to be) a quite respectable journal. The manuscript was very much wrong, and I rejected it. A second version came in a few weeks later, very much different from the first one, so different that it looked like brand-new work. Still very bad, the typical work of people grabbing a public-domain software from the internet, running it on something without any critical sense of what they are doing, and spitting out whatever result your computer comes up with. Again rejected.

The same day, the editor asked me if the paper could be “saved”. Quite a strange request. But in my unperturbed innocence, I accepted to write him some suggestions the authors should follow, if they still wanted to try to improve their work. Then, a third version of the manuscript comes in this week, again almost completely different from the previous two (always different calculations, but always the same results… as if the authors wanted to prove some idea from the outset, and are switching gears to get there, one way or another). Again rejected, on the grounds that the authors are turning around a bad apple from all sides, and can’t see that it remains a bad apple no matter how many times they flip it. In my response to the editor (each time I wrote a three-page-long review, with lots of references in proof, and clear explanations as to why what the authors are doing is just bad science) I honestly suggested that, after reading for three times three differently-bad manuscripts, I could be a little tired, and my judgement might start to be influenced by the bad habits of these authors.

Here is the editor reply to my last negative review:

Dear Professor Cleri, thank you for your thoughtful review of this MS. I agree with you that the paper is not as thorough as one could wish, but in the end, I am persuaded that this is at least a new idea that these or other authors may follow up in the future. If the paper stimulates discussion without being objectively wrong, it is a contribution. I’m sure many readers will note the same problems you have, hopefully they will take away the idea that this is an interesting approach that needs improvement. Based on your confidential note, I don’t think a Minor Revision decision will come as a surprise to you, but I wanted to let you know personally that we take all reviews seriously. Yours, X.

And here my counter-reply:

Dear dr. X, thanks for your communication. I remain of the opinion that the authors of this paper do not have a clear understanding of what they are doing. Of course, the editor of a journal has the final word about publishing a contribution. However, where you write: “this is at least a new idea that that these or other authors may follow up in the future”, I sincerely hope nobody will, for they own good. But that’s my personal judgement. Best regards.

I will surely never send another manuscript to this journal again. They now publish opinions, not results. It is enough for a manuscript to be “not wrong” (which in fact that one was, very much), even if it contributes nothing, it can get published. I see the danger of the idea behind this. To keep an open-access journal going, publish more papers (even quite bad ones) if you want to support your journal with a publishing fee that remains sort of proportionate to your impact factor. 

The science of science publishing

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