On the future of scientific publishing for sustainability research

When I was introduced to industrial ecology about ten years ago, I never came across anybody substantially questioning the publishing system. Impact factors were considered but did not matter too much, Nature Climate Change and Nature Sustainability did not exist yet, open access was not an issue, and scholars were rather modest in their choice of journal, as a close match between the topic of the manuscript and the assumed readership of the journal was a main criterion for journal selection.

This has changed quite a bit ever since. Notably, there has been a surge of industrial ecology publications in upper tier journals such as the ones mentioned above, which clearly has made our research results more visible and demonstrates the maturity and relevance of our field. But it also creates some pressure on both the community and individual scholars to continue that trend, and that pressure should never compromise scientific integrity. Also, the need to publish open access is now seen by many. I was quite shocked, when I say the price tag of a typical journal paper for the first time (30-40 EUR). Some funders now mandate open access publishing, and most of my colleagues are in favour of it as well.

In practice, however, not much has changed. The prestigious closed access journals still range high on the wish-list of aspiring and established scholars, as they give broad visibility to some of the highly relevant research that’s being carried out. On the other hand, the selection of reasonably priced, open access, and sound reputation journals for sustainability research is very limited. Environmental Research Letters clearly ticks the latter two boxes, but with a publication fee of ca. 2000 USD, it is not exactly cheap. Even MDPI’s Sustainability currently has a publishing charge of 1400 CHF (1700 CHF from 2019 on) [1]. Resources publishes for 350 CHF already [2]. The only visible change I have noticed over the last years is that a certain fraction, maybe 15-20%, of the articles that I am interested in is now available open access, both in dedicated open access journals and as open access papers in other journals. (Elsevier typically charges 3000 USD for making a paper open access, in addition to the money they collect from regular subscribers!)

So, what are the problems?

First, the service offered by major publishers is in a bad relation to the costs they charge to university and institutional libraries [3, 4]. Many actors in science management now think that society is paying way too much to the publishers and want to change that. The editors of most journals do not receive financial compensation for their work, neither go the reviewers. Publishers also offer a lot of fancy data visualisation and impact tracking tools but I know hardly any colleagues who use them. As scientists, we do not see the cost university and other libraries have to pay for access. As a consequence of the package deals may university libraries have entered, cost structures have become even more opaque.

The questions are: What is a fair price/cost for a scientific paper to be published? And second: How does a system/market need to look like that allows for determining these costs? The current publishing system is apparently not able/willing to do that.

Second, when research is hidden behind paywalls, the general public and many of our colleagues in less privileged institutions all across the world do not have access to the main results of our work. There are a number of more or less legal workarounds, including Google Scholar, ResearchGate, interlibrary loan, personal communication with authors, Unpaywall (haven’t tried it yet), or Sci-Hub, but the question remains:

How can scientific insight, the very foundation of modernity, be shared across the world, based on the principle that all humans are equal and should have equal access to information and material that science ACTUALLY GATHERED FOR THEM?

Third, I have strong objections against transferring the copyright of my writing, illustrations, and figures/plots to a publishing company. For nothing! (Actually, for that my own institution can buy the right to use it back from them…)

Why do I have to do that? Why can’t I keep the copyright and instead licence the publisher to do whatever they want/need to do with the work (like it is the case with all Nature journals)? In my opinion, these types of copyright transfer agreements are immoral. Why does every minute piece of work need copyright [4a]?

Fourth, there are many so-called predatory publishers out there, who ride on the open access wave but give a d*** f*** about scientific rigour and credibility, and who constantly try to lure honest researchers into their payment schemes [5]? Fortunately, a white list of quality open access journals exists [6].

How can we make sure that these organisation will never succeed in undermining the global scientific enterprise?


What to do?

I now consider open access options for all the work that is done at Industrial Ecology Freiburg, but the limited choice of reputable open access journals and the lack of fund for publishing open access in otherwise closed journals often leads to a fall-back into the conventional publishing pattern. We also try to avoid submissions to Elsevier journals until they offer a much better subscription model to the German research community [7, 8, 9]. Still, an important argument for keeping the status quo in academic publishing is that the prestige trickling down from the publication in established journals is important, maybe even crucial, for all group members. It serves as proxy for high quality, highly relevant, and high impact research in evaluating both the PhD candidates’ work and my own tenure and funding applications, especially in times were many reviewers are too time-constrained and detached from the actual work that is presented so that they resort to incumbency as a quality indicator.

We should dream of, discuss, and eventually fight for a different system. Here’s a few ideas of how this publishing system could look like and what the benefits and costs of change could be. Please read this section as a collection of ideas rather than as an agenda for concrete change. The items below don’t exclude each other but can also be combined. I would appreciate if you could share your ideas and your experiences in publishing industrial ecology research in open access journals with me!

Option: Journal subscribers ally and successfully push down prices, negotiating country-level and regional deals for lower subscription fees and open access by default. That could be a major breakthrough but a one that requires bargaining power, patience, and possible setbacks as the DEAL-case demonstrates [9], and which may not be present in smaller countries or research institutions. That outcome would be the most convenient one for scientists, as it leaves the current journal landscape, including the diversity regarding sustainability subtopics and visibility, intact, while still allowing for broad access.

Option: Since sustainability research is often interdisciplinary, one can consider getting rid of journal altogether, and just publish articles. Review would be organised not by journal editorial offices but by academic societies, who receive funding and incentives to do their job efficiently, both of which would strengthen them. Publishing and copy-editing is done by private companies, but since all papers are the same, this job can be done competitively at market prices. All papers are categorized in a meaningful keyword system, allowing disciplinary and interdisciplinary clusters of papers to form. Scholarly societies can organize topical groups, resembling today’s special issues, and can award papers of particular relevance and quality. Papers of public interest are highlighted by science journalists, academic societies’ press offices, or by researchers themselves.

Option: ‘Authors pay publishing fee’ becomes the norm. Researchers are allocated budgets to see true costs of publishing and decide accordingly. Scientific communities or large national research funders should offer reputable ‘backup’ journals or other recognized publishing channels to help determining fair publication prices. To me, a publication fee of 1000 EUR per manuscript sounds reasonable for researchers in the richer countries, where annual personnel costs are between 50000 and 100000 EUR/researcher per year.

Option: A preprint publishing system with transparent peer review, as common in a number of disciplines [10], could be established to share new insights quicker and allow for better feedback on submitted work.

Option: Higher recognition for data gathering and tool development: Sustainability research is becoming more collaborative and multi-author publications are the norm. It is difficult to assess the contributions of individual authors and only once authors have written and contributed to a larger number of publications they become visible as independent scholars. Are there better and more accurate ways to identify and credit the different contributions of individual scientific pieces of work, such as research framing, data gathering, model development, tool development, and analysis of results [11]? I think that there are such ways, and some trends, like the possibility to reserve DOIs for datasets [12], and the semi-automatic publication of software descriptions [13] are pointing in that direction.


Conclusion: Given how easy copy-editing and publication has become in time of the internet, a solution that leads to more openness and lower prices should not be too much to ask for. When finding and negotiating a solution one should not take the present state as reference but consider also the following questions: How can we increase the quality (data quality and method transparency) in general? How many publications do we expect in the future, and how are they organised along or across topical and disciplinary boundaries? How to facilitate the publication high quality research from the developing world and not so well-endowed institutions? How to incentivise publications with substantial content and avoid fragmented publication for the sole purpose of increasing quantitative output? How to include other activities, such as data gathering, software and method development, or dissemination to the public into scientific track records? It should be easier and more rewarding to share data, methods, and software in addition to results, which would also foster cumulative science and thus speed up progress, especially in model-based sustainability science.



Access date: 2018-07-14

[1] http://www.mdpi.com/journal/sustainability/apc

[2] http://www.mdpi.com/journal/resources/apc

[3] https://www.theguardian.com/science/2012/apr/24/harvard-university-journal-publishers-prices

[4] https://www.projekt-deal.de/about-deal/

[4a] http://www.spiegel.de/international/zeitgeist/no-copyright-law-the-real-reason-for-germany-s-industrial-expansion-a-710976.html

[5] https://www.universityaffairs.ca/features/feature-article/beware-academics-getting-reeled-scam-journals/

[6] https://doaj.org/

[7] https://www.universityaffairs.ca/opinion/margin-notes/elsevier-journal-boycott-first-skirmish-in-a-longer-battle/

[8] https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-018-05754-1

[9] https://www.hrk.de/presse/pressemitteilungen/pressemitteilung/meldung/verhandlungen-von-deal-und-elsevier-elsevier-forderungen-sind-fuer-die-wissenschaft-inakzeptabel-440/

[10] https://arxiv.org/

[11] https://www.nature.com/articles/s41893-018-0085-1

[12] https://zenodo.org/

[13] https://www.theoj.org/

6 thoughts on “On the future of scientific publishing for sustainability research

  1. Thanks for the thoughtful comments on the current problems (and confusion) in scholarly publishing. I have many thoughts to share, but need to digest your comments a bit more before responding. However, there is one detail I’d like to note. Some publishers have arrangements with libraries to refund a portion of the subscription fee paid by the libraries to compensate for the funds the publishers receive through open access fees. This reduces the problem you mention above (sometimes called “double-dipping”) where publishers get paid twice–once through subscription fees and a second time (for the relevant articles) through open access fees. I know that Wiley provides such “refunds” to libraries. I am not sure which other publishers do so.

  2. Hi Stefan, interesting blog even though I read it 2 years late. Afraid as long as publishing houses like Elsevier and Springer make 30% profit with the business model they have developed, they will defend this model. It is fully based on playing the prestige card. It is not a coincidence that the whole thing started in the 1960s or 1970s when media tycoon Robert Maxwell changed the somewhat dusty practice of scientific publishing catering on the prestige (and if you want: vanity) scientists pursue. ‘If you want to have a career, you have to publish with me in my super-selective journal, and pay that 3000 Euro open source fee’. In the last decade the Nature family was expanded with 20-30 spin-off journals. Great marketing trick – virtually all scientists I know value publications there higher as in other established journals simply since the word ‘Nature’ is in the title. Never mind the spin-off is so recent it hasn’t yet an impact factor! It’s power at its worst. The counter play of the EU and others obliging open access of papers published from their projects only makes things worse – you are forced to publish open access and the most reputable publishing houses can ask what they want. There is no mechanism in place that brings down profit margins in this business to levels which are healthy for the academic community. See for an insightful analysis https://www.theguardian.com/science/2017/jun/27/profitable-business-scientific-publishing-bad-for-science

  3. I agree with what you write on your blog. Most people today want easy access to research, regardless of the copyright of the original author.
    I really appreciate the contents of your thoughts as in this blog 🙂

  4. Excellent read, I just passed this onto a friend who was doing a little research on that. And he actually bought me lunch because I located it for him smile So let me rephrase that: Thanks for lunch!

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