By Olavo Amaral
Who would spend much more to have your article in Nature? Almost every
One of the most challenging situations in a scientist’s career is explaining the scientific publishing system to people in general. How can one justify the fact that researchers give their work free of charge to foreign publishers who benefit from charging for access to it? Or that they not only not top up, but sometimes also pay for it?
Before the Internet, commercial publishers were required to disseminate scientific work: funded by universities or governments, scientists conducted research and acted as peer reviewers. They delegated the job of printing and distributing paper items to a company that billed for the product and kept the business profitable.
The rapid migration of scientific online journals around the turn of the century seemed to usher in changes: In 1995, Forbes predicted that Elsevier, the world’s largest scientific publisher, would be the “first victim of the Internet”. After 25 years, the tech-scientific arm of the RELX group, a multinational conglomerate that the publisher has become, has annual sales of more than £ 2.6 billion with profit margins of between 30% and 40%.
Such costs are borne by university libraries and public bodies around the world, who are paying more and more money for items that their own institutions produce. In the case of Brazil, this corresponds to more than R $ 480 million that CAPES paid out in 2020 for subscriptions to Portal Periódicos.
The absurdity of a system that blocks access to research with public funds has led to growing support for the open access model, in which scientists pay a one-time fee to cover the cost of publication and availability of the article. The European Union recently announced Plan S, which stipulates that all research funded by the bloc must be published in this format – a policy that has already been adopted by other donors with varying degrees of success.
The result? A few months ago, Nature, perhaps the most prestigious scientific journal in the world, announced that the price to publish an open access article would be $ 11,390.
The value in Brazil is roughly equivalent to two and a half years of a PhD scholarship or the remuneration of two full Masters degrees. It’s even more stupid when you consider that the average cost of service for a scientific journal has been estimated at $ 200 to $ 1,000 per publication. Who in their right mind would spend dozens more times to have their item in nature?
The answer? Almost every. Not because scientists are not very eager to deal with their budgets, but on the contrary: Articles in renowned magazines are the engine that guarantees reputation, jobs and research resources in the academic world. Like those who pay for a Louis Vuitton bag, the writers care less about the product than about the brand.
The result is a prestigious economy that allows big magazines to demand what they want, and also gets freelance work from academics who want to bond with their brands as reviewers or editors. There is no room for renewal in this market: even competitors offering better services at lower cost would take decades to build a reputation for a nature or a science.
As a result, researchers from countries like Brazil are forced to choose between two ethically questionable alternatives: have their work blocked by paywalls for the benefit of others, or waste the country’s scarce research resources with excessive open access fees.
There are ways out of the impasse, but they are still shy. Boycotts from publishers like Elsevier have lasted for more than a decade, and entire editorial offices of publishing magazines have stepped down to produce independent publications. Sci-Hub, a pirate website designed by a student from Kazakhstan, practically solved the problem of universal accessibility to scientific articles. And the use of preprints – unrevised versions of articles published by the authors – has become a common practice in more and more areas of science. The cost is low enough – around $ 15 per item submitted to arXiv in 2020 – to be maintained by philanthropy.
All of this news would be positive if it were not invisible to the scientific evaluation processes. You will not find a field to include preprints in the CNPq Lattes curriculum. And with Qualis, which links the evaluation of scientific production with the publication magazine after graduation, CAPES obliges the researchers to submit to the publishers – and to pay for their subscriptions themselves – even if “the evaluation of articles in which publications are published be, “the main recommendation of scientific evaluation is manifesting itself for a decade.
Ironically, Brazil has also launched Scielo, perhaps the world’s most successful large-scale Open Access initiative, which uses publicly funded infrastructure to ensure that most national journals do not charge access or publication fees. However, a large segment of Brazilian researchers cannot afford to use it as they have to lower their college degrees by not using large magazines.
In short, we have a market where the taxpayer pays to have science produced, published, and subscribed to the journals that publish it. The result is that most of the research produced worldwide is only available to a few, while large publishers are seeping money from the public purse.
The sad thing is that the system could easily be reformed if it weren’t for the old scientists dictating their rules, so closely related to publications that led them to the elite, and the new ones so obsessed with it, the same path as that to go old. And while, due to habit and indolence, they give away knowledge and resources that are not even their own, RELX shareholders laugh in vain.
Olavo Amaral is professor at the Medical Biochemistry Institute Leopoldo de Meis at UFRJ and coordinator of the Brazilian reproducibility initiative.
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