The Price Is Wrong

February 10th, 2007 by Ben Goldacre in bad science, references, regulating research | 77 Comments »

Ben Goldacre
Saturday February 10, 2007
The Guardian

There are some things which are so self-evidently right and good that it’s hard to imagine how anyone could disagree with you. The “open access” academic journal movement is one of those things. It’s a no-brainer. Academic literature should be freely available: developing countries need access; part time tinkering thinkers like you deserve full access; journalists and the public can benefit; and most importantly of all, you’ve already paid for much of this stuff with your taxes, they are important new ideas from humanity, and morally, you are entitled to them.

But with old school academic journals, unless you have an institutional subscription, you have to pay to read them. Here’s a not-so-fun example: an article called “Impediments to promoting access to global knowledge in sub-Saharan Africa”, about how difficult it is to get access to medical literature in developing countries, and how lack of access to knowledge represents a barrier to economic development and a further advantage for the rich West.

Get your credit card ready, this single study costs $25 plus tax to read.

Two online, open access publishing organizations have led the fight against the absurdity: one is PLOS, from a Californian campaigning perspective, and the other is Biomed Central, run as a money making empire (relax, there is nothing wrong with making money from publishing). They both give readers access for free, but they’ve not had an easy time of it.

Firstly, they can’t get journalists to directly link to their studies. I suspect newspapers like to fantasise that they are mediators between specialist tricky knowledge and the wider public, but I wouldn’t be so flattering. In fact, if you have access to the original journals, you can see just how rubbish things can get.

Last year the Times had a piece on paroxetine and suicide risk. The opening line was: “ONE of Britain’s most widely prescribed antidepressants has been linked to a seven-fold increase in suicide attempts.” Complete and utter nonsense. Totally factually incorrect. The study was published in an open access journal, to which the paper did not link, online or in print, but you can go and read the journal article for yourself, and see if you can spot their error (clue: the placebo group was smaller than the treatment group).

I couldn’t write this column without my institutional login. Between medical jobs with academic affiliations I’ve had to hustle logins from friends. There are times when I’ve had to use the London Underground as a way of transporting information into my brain instead of the internet. Even in the 20th century this would have been ridiculous.

And a lot of this stuff is really interesting. You totally missed out if you didn’t read the recent “medicalisation and disease mongering” special issue of PLOS Medicine. Richard Smith’s article on drug companies and medical journals is cracking. Pay for his book, if you like books, but this is all free. In fact, I would say that plenty of academic journal “commentary” articles are a lot more interesting than intellectual glossies like Prospect that sit in your loo.

But meanwhile, the old school pay-for-access journals are so worried about OA that they’ve hired Eric Dezenhall, the famous American “Pitbull of PR”, and author of “Nail ’em: Confronting High-Profile Attacks on Celebrities and Businesses“, to aggressively promote their interests, and undermine OA.

And these closed journals are hardly the kind of people whose pockets you’d want to line. Reed-Elsevier, for example, is one of the largest academic journal publishers in the world – they even own the Lancet – and they are the same company that runs the DSEI international arms fair in London, selling vile weapons to murderous regimes for cash profit extracted from very real suffering and pain, in countries you will never visit on holiday.

These people do not deserve our charity, and I will be very pleased to see you outside DSEI later this year, 300th copper from the left: because when you’re so wrong you need police, security, wire fences, and the pitbull of PR to defend you, then you know you’re in trouble.

[I’d have liked to have written more about this, looking at self archiving vs OA journals etc, as two emailers have pointed out]

You can hear me talk (somewhat incoherently) about this at a colloquium on open access at the royal college of physicians, here:

The Richard Smith talk at the same event is particularly entertaining.

If you like what I do, and you want me to do more, you can: buy my books Bad Science and Bad Pharma, give them to your friends, put them on your reading list, employ me to do a talk, or tweet this article to your friends. Thanks! ++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

77 Responses

  1. stevejones123 said,

    February 12, 2007 at 11:28 am

    The problem lies with the fact there needs to be a model for paying for the peer review process. Even if the academic side of that is covered by probono work, there is still all the work of the facilitators. As there is nothing to stop you printing your own dead tree version, the costs of university presses can be severely curtailed by getting rid of this part of their Empire.

    Perhaps the solution lies in public or university funding, for all the professional associations and UPs.

  2. MattC said,

    February 12, 2007 at 11:31 am

    RS asked:
    “That is just crazy – what was your rationale for such a high rejection rate and such a low publication rate? What was the business model?” re Jenny Rohn’s comment that
    “When I was an in-house editor at BMC, the journal I worked on had a rejection rate of 97% and published only 6-8 research papers a year.”

    The answer here is that the flagship journal concerned Journal of Biology does not exist in isolation – it is associated with BioMed Central’s other, more specialist titles, such as the BMC-series. Much of the research rejected by J Biol on the grounds that it is not spectacularly ground-breaking, is nevertheless scientifically valid and significant. In many cases, rejected authors take up the option to have their research considered by one of BioMed Central’s more specialist titles.

    Genome Biology (Impact Factor 9.71) similarly ‘deflects’ many of the research submissions it receives to its more specialist sister titles.

    In this way, an open access publisher can have both highly selective and somewhat less selective (though still high quality) titles, while maintaining sound overall economics.

    Re: Agema’s comment that

    “having colour diagrams in a journal I sent a paper to was several thousand dollars. Now that’s no small sum. Bearing in mind that journal is financially backed by subscription fees, I can only dread what the costs would rise to if publishing authors were to bear the whole brunt of the financial cost.”

    One of the ironies of the current situation is indeed that many authors submitting to traditional subscription-only journals are already paying thousands of dollars in color figure charges – significantly more, in fact, than is needed to cover the entire cost of publication, if managed efficiently and online .

    BioMed Central is seeing open access online journals in highly visual fields such as developmental and cell biology really take off, since authors in those fields are tired of paying fees to cover the cost of printing color figures when in practice almost everyone is going to view their article online. Compared to those color figure charges, open access publication charges in the $1500 range seem pretty attractive.

  3. Andrew Clegg said,

    February 12, 2007 at 12:09 pm

    Agema @ 49:

    “I’m willing to bet journals will not accept papers from, say, Bangladesh for a lower price than, say, France.”

    I don’t know about other publishers but BMC don’t charge at all for developing countries with low GDPs. We have discussed this above.

    In fact, Bangladeshi researchers don’t have to pay at all. But there is a rather abrupt cut-off of all benefits if their GDP slips over US$100bn.

    “Offhand, I can remember that the prices for the luxury – or in the case of our paper necessity – of having colour diagrams in a journal I sent a paper to was several thousand dollars. Now that’s no small sum. Bearing in mind that journal is financially backed by subscription fees, I can only dread what the costs would rise to if publishing authors were to bear the whole brunt of the financial cost.”

    OA journals are all online-only, as far as I know, and thus don’t charge extra for colours or large figures!! Lack of dead tree consumption makes this much more feasible.

    ckeene @ 50:

    “it is not to hard to imaging that academics (or their department) could check and format their own work”

    Err, we do already.

    Every article I’ve submitted for a printed publication has had to be proof-read, formatted and basically press-ready.

    Ironically though, BMC do lots of reformatting in-house; the version you submit (and which is published as a provisional PDF if accepted) looks completely different to the final version produced by their editorial team. They could save a lot of time and money by having authors submit a ready-for-‘press’ version from the start, no idea why they don’t do this.


  4. fish_eyed_sam said,

    February 12, 2007 at 12:31 pm

    I am in the process of setting up an open access journal in my field (not its first, but the first in its own particular niche).

    While the issue of covering running costs is important, it may surprise readers to know that it isn’t always essential. David J Solomon set up an open access journal (Medical Education Online) in 1996 and writes here about his experiences: This article is of interest to anyone wanting to know more about open access journals.

    While it is extremely hard (as I am finding out) for an individual to set up such a journal, it is certainly within the reach of interested groups. Those who participate and don’t get paid can often benefit in other ways such as networking, exposure to the latest research, understanding the breadth of the field etc, as well as being able to make a genuine contribution towards research.

    However, the central issue seems to be money: first the assumption that it is absolutely essential (the case above falsifies that); second that large publishers, while fulfilling an important role, have their shareholders as their primary concern. In almost any other endeavour, content contributors (authors, reviewers) get paid. We don’t, and yet we are faced with increasing costs of access. We just want to know where the money is going because a lot of researchers are getting very annoyed with how this system operates. The large publishers are going to have to change their model or they will be out-evolved by smaller and more efficient organisations.

  5. RS said,

    February 12, 2007 at 8:47 pm

    “In this way, an open access publisher can have both highly selective and somewhat less selective (though still high quality) titles, while maintaining sound overall economics.”

    Ah, but then the journal isn’t really an 8 paper high selectivity journal but a sort of meta-journal with a “really good article” section.

  6. Dr Aust said,

    February 12, 2007 at 10:55 pm

    Jennifer Rohn wrote:

    “RS, is there evidence that people cite terrible papers just because they can access them easily? I’ve not seen that study – though would like to if you can get your hands on it. As a former author myself I would rather cite a higher quality, closed access paper that I’ve asked the author to email me rather than a bad one that I can get myself.”

    People will always cite the “big” papers – the ones in the high-impact journals – regardless of access, because those are the papers important enough to actually slog over to the print library and photocopy.

    I think what RS says is true for citing REVIEW references. Suppose I am writing a paper and I want a review ref for a statement like “similar phenomena are also seen in somewhat analogous systems such as peripheral neurones [ref]”.

    If there are two reviews I could cite, one I can get full-text access to from my desk, and another that entails a trot to the library and a hunt around, it will be the full online access one that gets cited every time.

  7. amoebic vodka said,

    February 12, 2007 at 10:55 pm

    As the job criteria for any academic research post seems to be total up the impact factor of the journal for each paper on the applicant’s CV and hire the person with the highest score, impact factors are a big deal.

    Mmm…there’s one of those science formula news stories in there somewhere.

  8. Grandpont said,

    February 13, 2007 at 12:47 am

    It’s worth stepping back a bit and taking a broader view. First, I see little evidence that the old journal model is dysfunctional – apart from the case of developing countries where special measures are used – access to articles has not inhibited research, unlike many other factors. Second, free access to output destroys the economic basis of article supply and removes competitive pressures to innovate and improve. Third, undeserving corporate entities – pharmaceutical companies let’s say – gain highly valued data at no cost.

    I agree that the public have a right to benefit from the research for which their taxes have paid, but that neither needs to be free nor unmediated. I contend that a patient talking to a doctor who has paid to read The Lancet or the BMJ or the NEJM gets on average more from his or her consultation than that same patient attempting to read the self-same papers him or herself.

    The fundamental issue is that scientific research and hence publications has risen exponentially in the 60 years, and library budgets have been more or less flat. That gap is systemic, but has been quite well-addressed by web access in the conventional model, because the article supply market is competitive.

    I also catch a whiff of US xenophobia about this. Groups like the staggeringly well-funded National Institutes of Health seem to be upset that the world’s major journal publishers – outside important US societies – are European – Elsevier, Springer, Blackwell, Taylor & Francis – with just Wiley representing the US. Throw in some Soros billions and you have a not-for-profit sector that can take on all comers and disrupt a previously efficient and effective market, all in a high moral tone.

  9. Andrew Clegg said,

    February 13, 2007 at 1:11 am

    Amoebic — I was discussing that with a colleague the other day. In this age of online publication, Google Scholar, ISI etc., we were wondering how long it will be before people start showing actual citation counts per paper on their CVs?

    I reckon it might still be as a bit, well, cheeky, until enough people do it and it becomes the norm. After all, popular journals publish really duff papers surprisingly often, and sometimes a really obscure publication can make it big.


  10. Andrew Clegg said,

    February 13, 2007 at 8:19 am

    Grandpont: “Second, free access to output destroys the economic basis of article supply and removes competitive pressures to innovate and improve.”

    As a researcher, how is there any less pressure on me to innovate and improve because people don’t have to pay to see my papers? I can’t for the life of me see how you got to that conclusion. If anything, the (theoretically) faster publication pipeline of online journals cranks up the pressure.


  11. tomrees said,

    February 13, 2007 at 9:41 am

    Personally, I don’t see what the controversy is. There are several models for paying for publishing – subscription, advertising, pay-to-publish, and government/society grant. All have different pros and cons, as outlined in the discussion above. There is, no doubt, a place for all of them in some shape or form.

    The pay-to-publish model is not a panacea – for a start, it gives industry a tremendous advantage over struggling third-world researchers (and I’m one of those evil medical writers you may have heard about, so I know whereof I speak!).

    One of the benefits of the subscription model is that the power is in the hands of the readership – the journal will aim to publish a selected number of papers of the greatest importance, because readers won’t pay to wade through mountains of flannel and third-rate research. There are a lot of downsides too, but at the end of the day subscription journals will only survive if they provide a service worth paying for – if you don’t think they’re worth it, then don’t subscribe!

    There is a case to be made that govt-funded research should only be published in open-access journals. After all, one way or another the government pays (either paying to publish, or paying for subscriptions. But in this case the target of your ire should be the funding bodies, not the nasty publishing industry.

    So the real controversy, as far as I can make out from Ben’s article in the Grauniad, is that the publishing industry has hired a PR agency to make its case. Whoop de do! Imagine that – a company hiring a PR agency to handle its public relations!

    If the pay-to-publish model worked out to be more profitable, then the publishers would take to it like ducks. The problem is that a lot of the criticism is naive and ill-informed – hence the need for them to make their case, before we all rush to judgement.

  12. Dr Aust said,

    February 13, 2007 at 11:21 am

    Andrew Clegg wrote:

    “Amoebic — I was discussing that with a colleague the other day. In this age of online publication, Google Scholar, ISI etc., we were wondering how long it will be before people start showing actual citation counts per paper on their CVs?”

    Have you come across the h-index, Andrew?

    At least one influential FRS I know has argued (in print) that this should be part of whatever metric assessment replaces the RAE, and our Head of Dept was going around about 6 months ago asking everyone if they knew what their h-index was.

    The phrase “Hall of Mirrors” springs to mind for some reason.

  13. Andrew Clegg said,

    February 13, 2007 at 1:00 pm

    Strangely enough, I came across that yesterday after posting.

    ‘The phrase “Hall of Mirrors” springs to mind for some reason.’

    Perhaps it should exclude citations from your mates…

    I know someone who was building an in-house search engine for a pharma company that could rank retrieved papers according to their impact. They discovered that when they excluded citations in papers that shared authors with paper X from the impact calculations for paper X, the rankings became much useful and realistic. Go figure…


  14. Grandpont said,

    February 13, 2007 at 1:58 pm

    Andrew Clegg: my comment that: “Second, free access to output destroys the economic basis of article supply and removes competitive pressures to innovate and improve.” Is about the relationship between buyer and seller (usually instiitutional library and publisher) not about you, as merely the poor sod who both creates and has to read it. If a library is paying heavily for a product they will expect and get – some may disagree – innovative products, good customer service and competitive pricing.

  15. Andrew Clegg said,

    February 13, 2007 at 4:05 pm

    But I don’t see any innovating or improving going on in the world of trad paper journals, just sticking to a business model that’s been basically unchanged for centuries now, with the exception of a few tweaks that they’ve been forced to do by the advent of OA (pre-print PDFs, pay-for-OA options etc.).

    All the innovation — unlimited space for graphics, no charges for colour, space to host supplementary materials alongside the article, reader feedback, transparent (signed) peer review, etc. — seems to be coming from the OA sector.


  16. Dr Aust said,

    February 13, 2007 at 5:30 pm

    “Perhaps it should exclude citations from your mates…”

    The phenomenon has recieved some attention, see:

    Lancet. 2004 Aug 28-Sep 3;364(9436):744. “As we said..” .Sharp D.

    Of course, some people cut out the middle man and cite themselves – a decade ago one group famously wrote a programme called Selfcite to insert references to one’s own work into one’s papers.

    I reckon a good rule of thumb is that if more than 20% of the refs in the paper are to the author’s own work, they are either a field-leading genius or a blinkered egotist, although I suppose they could be both.

    The phenomenon has also been discussed under the grand-sounding German term “Eigenlob” (“self-praise”):

  17. RS said,

    February 13, 2007 at 7:27 pm

    “I reckon a good rule of thumb is that if more than 20% of the refs in the paper are to the author’s own work, they are either a field-leading genius or a blinkered egotist, although I suppose they could be both.”

    If I say Prof. E.T.R anyone know what I’m talking about?

  18. physics bloke said,

    February 13, 2007 at 11:12 pm

    sorry if similar gripes have been made……..BUT…….this has been pissing me off a lot lately.
    i’m doin a phd in the really obscure (that’s sarcasm, btw) area of condensed matter physics and i STILL come across articles and journals that i have to pay for. (elsevier are some one of the worst publishers, not wishing to name names) even though my university library has online journals and i’m a full institute of physics member. you would have thought that someone like the iop would have the clout to make these journals publish free to their members but oh no – apparently not.

    not having published yet myself (keep a look out people!!!) i’m not up on the ins and outs of which journals to submit to etc, but i’m going to try and make sure that when i do publish it’s gonna be to one that people can read and access easily.

    glad i got that off me chest.

  19. Dr Aust said,

    February 13, 2007 at 11:14 pm

    Doesn’t ring any bells, RS, but my bedrock view is that every scientific field has its share of such folk.

    Another tendency which exacerbates “reciprocally citing friends” is the likelihood that those cited will be referee-ing your next grant proposal. This was always seen as one reason American papers in American journals tend to cite disproprotionately American papers in American journals, as those cited will odds-on be the NIH reviewers of their next grant.

  20. RS said,

    February 14, 2007 at 7:05 pm

    At my institution, until relatively recently, I periodically had trouble accessing Nature due to subscription issues!

  21. woodchopper said,

    February 16, 2007 at 9:37 am

    As a PhD student I would like to echo some of the concerns about researcher pays systems. While it would be great to be able to get hold of all the articles for free, I’m supposed to be publishing four over the next two years. I’m not sure it would be possible if I had to pay £500 to $700 each time. It would certainly be impossible for some of my friends based in Africa or South America.

  22. Andrew Clegg said,

    February 16, 2007 at 12:51 pm

    woodchopper — see the discussion above re. exemptions from fee for those from developing countries.

    But, as another PhD student myself, I agree with you that finding the money can be pretty hard or impossible even if you’re from a developed country.

    Fortunately for me, the only journal in my field that was suitable for the paper I’d written is open access, so I used those grounds to lobby the college to pay on my behalf. Basically because it would have been unpublishable otherwise, at least without some pretty serious decimation of the content.


  23. amoebic vodka said,

    February 19, 2007 at 10:17 pm

    As I’d mentioned before, the University of Cambridge couldn’t afford access to Elsivier’s online stuff for a while – and the Trends and Current Opinion review journals are extensively used for undergraduate study in the second and final year (in biological sciences anyway). And if Cambridge can’t afford it, then…well, they aren’t the poorest academic institution in the world 😉

    The open access after 6 months (or 3 months or whatever) would seem to be a compromise that would be good enough for the public (and undergraduates and academics) to access most things, while reducing the burden on researchers to pay to publish. However, would it be any use to someone like Ben, who would really need access to current issues (and the online early articles) to write for a national newspaper? Of course, most science reporting seems to be based on press releases rather than actual journal articles and even for research that is to be published, the press release normally pre-dates the publication date.

    As a reader (consumer??), open access would be great for trying to write a thesis, dissertation or paper at home – no need to go into work/uni because there’s one paper that requires an institutional IP address at 3 am the night before.

  24. Andrew Clegg said,

    February 21, 2007 at 2:30 pm

    Amoebic — that’s why Linux is great. The main reason I can work from home all the time is I can just log into my machine at college, run any program on it and have it display on my home PC. No restrictions then on getting into journals as the request is still coming from an academic IP address, and no need to have two copies of all the data and software I use.

    Sounds really impressive until you realise it’s 30-odd-year-old tech that MS and Apple have only recently started catching up with.

    Not that open source software is a reason not to have open access journals, though…


  25. michael hart said,

    February 25, 2007 at 1:41 am

    I’m broadly an OA supporter but with some reservations.

    This may raise some hackles, but with the number of journals/publications rising exponentially, does anyone actually think that paying to publish would be a good thing because it might actually restrict the amount published?

    During my PhD research I often found myself exasperated by the sheer amount of literature on some subjects. Many times I found essentially the same material published by essentially the same authors in several different journals. I presume this may be done cynically to increase the author’s papers-published count (although I understand the publishing difficulties of interdisciplinary research).

    Many academics admit they simply do not have time to keep up with the literature. In order to be able to “see the wood for the trees” shouldn’t a way be found to try and focus on quality instead of quantity?

    If all publishing was free OA and available electronically it would have been easier for me to quickly eliminate the dross and the irrelevant. If I had been paying for literature myself from my own pocket I would have thought much of it poor value for money, yet felt obliged to do it for the sake of academic rigour.

    Finally do people think OA might help contain plagiarism?

  26. Lave said,

    July 27, 2007 at 5:33 pm

    Reasonableman early in the comments said:

    “Right to knowledge: I think most people would agree people have more of a right to clean water, shelter and food than the latest academic knowledge. Yet you have to pay for these.”

    The difference is that whilst water, shelter and food are *finite* commodities, knowledge is anything but.

    The more people know, the more we all know. If you give away water you end up with less water, if you give away knowledge you end up with more.

    Reminds me of an old school hymn about a magic penny….

  27. diudiu said,

    December 21, 2009 at 6:03 am

    links of london links of london
    links london links london
    links of london jewellery links of london jewellery
    links of london sale links of london sale
    links london sale links london sale
    links of london bracelet links of london bracelet
    links of london charms links of london charms
    links of london necklace links of london necklace
    links of london bangle links of london bangle
    links of london earrings links of london earrings
    links of london ring links of london ring