Morality of academic publishing

10 minute read


When I was young naive aspiring scientist I did not comprehend all the aspects of publishing. To be honest, I did not think about it much, but for me it’s the same as the climate change, it’s harder and harder to turn a blind eye. The last drop for me was the announcement of Nature’s Open Access option, it’s shocking €9,500, (or $11,390 / £8,290)! How did we come to this? Are we really going to let a private company to drain the already poor scholarly funds by these obscure amounts? And the problem is not just Nature…

Fortunately, I am not by far the first or the only concerned academic. Almost everyone I have ever met agrees this is wrong and some folks actually worked their assess to fix the situation. We are not there yet, but there is a hope. Here, I would like to first talk a bit about my moral considerations and in the end I provide a hand-crafted list of journals with at least some moral value.

For the rest of the text I will assume a premise: Our publication system should fulfil the purpose of our job - to extend the knowledge base of the humanity. This is what we were given money for, this is was taxpayers asked us to do. The knowledge should be well organised, cross-validated and accessible to the people. Currently, papers are organised in journals, validated by pre-publication peer review and hardly ever easily accessible (the best people can do is to visit their closes university library).

Publishers’ interests

Papers are organised in journals that are published by plethora of publishers. All of them claim to have a mission to facilitate the communication, but that is however not completely honest. While some publishers indeed are non-profit organisations on a mission, all of the commercial publishers are here to earn money (by definition). Of course, earning money itself is not immoral, if there would be a fair market competition that would keep the publishing process efficient. But it’s not, journal names are important metric widely used to judge academic performance, which gives publishers of those “fancy journals” a great power to increase the fees (e.g. Nature’s announcement). Commercial academic publishers are practically turning academic lust for fame into a goldmine.

Therefore, number one consideration for me is the legal status of the publisher. I want to publish with non-profit publishers only. A list of legal statuses of individual publishers is linked bellow.

Besides the obvious cases, there are a bunch of society journals with editorial work contracted to one of the commercial publishers (e.g. Heredity - society journal, but published by Nature Research). I honestly don’t know how much of the revenue goes back to the society, and how much in control the societies are (e.g. Can heredity change a publisher to a cheaper one?). However, I will be faithful to these journals and consider them moral too.

I spend quite a bit of time last few days digging out legal statuses of all the publishers I could think of. At some point I started to store the data in an Google sheet and I will share it. However, the list is missing tons of publishers and I would like to disclaim that I have no law education and all the collection I did was with an honest intention. If there is something you would like to add or change, either add a comment to the sheet or email me. Here is the sheet with publishers.

In this research I was rather surprised to find out that Oxford University Press is just another commercial publisher, but they never write it anywhere explicitly. It’s confusing and contra-intuitive, other university presses usually have a non-profit status. For me this is extremely immoral, more than all the honestly-commercial publishers.

Another interesting case I found is Cold Spring Harbor Lab Press. If I got it right, the status of the publisher is commercial, but according to their webpage, all the profits are used to fund Cold Spring Harbor, a non-profit private research facility. Therefore, I did consider Cold Spring Harbor Lab Press the only officially commercial but trustable publisher.

Peer review

Morality of peer review is somehow more tricky. It’s sensible that we publish and trust peer-reviewed work, even though there is not that much evidence about its efficiency. Furthermore, paper rejections in journals generate a lot of redundancy. Peer review process is estimated to cause 15,000,000 wasted working hours a year. For example, my recent paper was reviewed by 10 different reviewers in the three submissions attempts. I do think most of the reviews improved the manuscript, some of them actually quite a lot. However, no major conclusion has changed. The paper was not rejected because it was wrong, it was about how fancy it sounds… Is there a way to reduce the need for so many reviews?

Of course, the obvious solution would be sharing the reviews between journals. However, that is problematic for bunch of reasons. More flashy journals require more flashy reviewers to approve the study, therefore they don’t really want to share the reviewers. Furthermore, reviews are for free for the publisher - organised by volunteering academic editors and preformed by volunteering researchers. Sharing the reviews between journals of different publishers would require talking to each other and investing in infrastructure. None of that would sound appealing to any commercial publisher out there.

Fortunately, there are some efforts. Recently, several nonprofit organisations stepped in to tackle this problem. “Peer Community in” (PCI) is a community driven effort to provide completely open, transparent and free review process to preprints. Authors are allowed to publish the manuscript afterwards in a more traditional journal. PCI provides a solicitation of the manuscript after all the issues are resolved in the review process, and can be subsequentially submitted to a journal. According to their webpage

the Editors-in-Chief of Ecology Letters, PLOS Biology, Evolution, Oikos, Evolutionary Ecology, Evolutionary Applications, Molecular Ecology, Journal of Biogeography, Global Ecology and Biogeography, Frontiers of Biogeography, BMC Evol Biol, Genetica, Journal of Evolutionary Biology, Evolution Letters, Trends in Ecology and Evolution, Trends in Plant Sciences, Avian Biology, Ecography etc. (see the list here) have indicated they will consider submissions of recommended articles and that they may use PCI reviews and recommendations for their own review processes, if appropriate.

However, there is no formal guarantee the reviews will be accepted. Another non-profit organisation, Review Commons, provides the first platform to cross-link 17 journals with a single transparent review process (check this seminar for more info).

It is a big paradigm change to “publish, then review”, because the only condition for a manuscript to be considered by Review Commons or PCI is to be available as a preprint. Notably, all the 17 journals in the program are published by non-profit publishers (Coincidence? I don’t think so…). Funny enough, this month eLife announced new “publish, then review” model of publishing. From July 2021 on the journal will review manuscripts only already available as preprints. The reviews are intended to be shared on the preprint servers too, but as far as I know, the two efforts were not merged for now (I asked this explicitly on a Review Commons seminar!).

Here I should also mention for completeness that a commercial journal F1000 is propagating “publish, then review” publication model for a couple of years now. Furthermore, currently the article processing fees are much lower than in the case of most of the nonprofit publishers. Let’s just not forget what happens if a commercial publisher gets a high prestige that would allow them to rise prices…

Finally, here I discussed only the labour part of the problem, but there are other issues in traditional peer review. I am talking about problems as sex bias in peer review, or geographical discrimination (don’t have a good ref besides my personal experience). These problems desperately need open review process to be even studied. The review behind closed doors is what propagates mischief and scientific misconducts as scooping. We desperately need an increased transparency of peer review.

Open Access

The final, but also a major consideration is the accessibility. Some of the papers are locked behind a paywall for more than a century.

Practically preventing any non-academic, and less wealthy university folks to read it. It’s actually quite crazy to consider that it was actually taxpayers that paid us to do the job and now they are not even able to see the outcome. However, there are sooo many blogs about that, that I won’t even bother discussing this more.

What are the moral publishing options?

I created a list of 57 biological journals that I consider to have at least some moral value. I tried to collect all the journals of non-profit publishers and all society journals. I am pretty sure I must have missed some, I am happy to take suggestions and update the list accordingly.

DISCLAIMER, I refuse any liability for correctness of the sheet. I tried my best to be accurate, but I could have made a mistake. If so, please, let me know and I will fix it. Here is the sheet with journals.

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