Printed Journals are now Obsolete and Hold Back Science and Public Education in Science

A revolution has occured that is as earth shaking as the Gutenberg invention of the printing press.  Since you are reading this over the web and not in a printed media, you are part of this.  Newspapers are being decimated by this and are adapting to this.  The same with book production and dissemination.  Yet scientific journals, where copyrights are given to the publishers, and the media is still restricted by print, are still slowing progress in scientific fields and in public education in the field.

This week’s Nature Vol. 494 p. 414, Feb. 28, 2013, has an article about this titled “US science to be open to all”, and subtitled, “Government mandates that taxpayer-funded research be freely available within 12 months.”  That pretty much is the gist of the article.  They also show that about 11% of research is currently published in Open Access, and that about another 6% is available in some form.  Even if you have a personal or institutional subscription, you cannot copy figures or make quotes for use in a classroom PowerPoint presentation or in a blog to inform the public of the important research that they paid for and which is relevant to current policy decisions and to their future.  The public also often paid the University or Lab salaries of the researchers, as well as the costs to the Journals for publication.  They may also have paid the Journals the fees that authors pay for Open Access to their articles.  The leading Journal publishers also make between 32% and 42% in profits.

What I wanted to add to this is the inside account of a former researcher about the restrictions of the print publication system and its restraints on science and on public education.

The journals and journal publishers take over the copyright of a research paper in order to be published.

We have often heard that if scientific knowledge keeps increasing at a fixed rate, the number of published articles will also increase exponentially, and no shelf could hold this infinite volume.  Well, clearly their are limits.  But the journals have ways of imposing limits that hold back science.

Turgidity is actually a word, which means excessively complex.  I was going to propose the turgidity index.  Journal articles are kept short and designed only for experts in the sub-field of the research.  This is why many of them only have a handful of citations.  There is no space to explain the work to a wider field, and to define parts of the special languages used in the field or sub-field.  In on-line versions authors can add supplementary material, including perhaps a public version.  The letter Journals in a field publish articles of more general interest or those that need to be published rapidly or are of very great importance.  But they may be limited to four pages.  The turgidity index is even higher for these.  Some historically well known papers often were not appreciated immediately, because their writing was too advanced technically to be well understood at the time.  None of these should be a problem in on-line publication, where length and multiple versions as well as public descriptions is not a problem.

As far as subscribing to printed editions and lining your office with old, useless volumes, where maybe only one out of 20 or one out of 50 articles is of use for a limited time, this is a ridiculous waste.  For those few important articles to a researcher, a printed copy can be made from the web in seconds.  Since many researchers travel, or younger graduate students or post docs move around, having online versions travel with you carrying only the weight of a tablet or cell phone.

Universities have a large budget for procurement of Journals.  Every few years librarians and faculty are confronted with rising journal costs, and have to cut out ones that might only be useful to one or a few faculty.  In order to have the journal in their office, faculty often have to pay the individual subscription costs themselves.  The UC system, utilizing the “Power of Ten” campuses, as it is called, has a university wide on line journal library, which we can access directly from our offices or anywhere on campus.  We can also access it from home by VPN or Virtual Private Network software, using our university web login.

The keys to the journal system are prestige and peer review.  Evaluating peer review is itself a complicated task.  It is necessary to maintain the quality of published articles, but often good articles are delayed or rejected to be published elsewhere, both of which delays good research becoming public.

The real hero to the internet revolution is Paul Ginsparg, who founded the on-line preprint system called arXiv, which now covers many science fields, and publishes preprints overnight.  The research money he has saved governments is probably worth billions, and the speedup in science is probably already a decade.  He certainly deserves a Presidential Medal of Science.  Wouldn’t Gutenberg have deserved one?  He did this at the start with a single computer under his desk, without venture capital, a business plan, or government grants.

I don’t know the flow of funds or money involved, but the government or foundations pay for the research, not the journals.  Refereeing is done by volunteers in the field, supplied by the Professional societies.  The cost to the journal may be editors, typesetters, and people to run the web presentation.  The journals get paid many times over.  Researchers who want to publish in them pay by government grants.  Universities and professionals have to buy subscriptions.  People who want to use figures from articles or reprints have to pay royalties.  Journal profits are not limited.


About Dennis SILVERMAN

I am a retired Professor of Physics and Astronomy at U C Irvine. For a decade I have been active in learning about energy and the environment, and in lecturing and attending classes at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI) at UC Irvine.
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