Why do we advocate open access publishing outside of the commercial publishing ecosphere?

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At Publisher Pro, we advocate independent open access publishing because over the last 40 years, we’ve watched commercial journal publishers extract free labor from academics, make obscene profits, and give almost nothing back.

When the oldest of our staff completed our PhDs in the 1980s, journals were mainly published by departments, universities, and professional organizations. Subscriptions were cheap. Most scholars subscribed to a few journals, while libraries ordered subscriptions to those most useful to their users.

But academic funding tightened in the US and UK during the Reagan & Thatcher years. Many journals found themselves strapped. Publishers offered what seemed a ready solution: they would manage journals, pay editors, distribute & market, while journals kept control over content.

The publishers’ offers seemed like a good deal. Most academics were naive about electronic rights and never imagined the system the publishers quickly set up: charge absurd prices for individual articles; set up huge electronic databases; charge massive sums for access to the databases.

By the time academics realized what was happening, it was too late. Commercial presses had locked almost all published articles behind their paywalls, interfering with the free exchange of publicly funded scholarship & gouging libraries for ever more expensive bundles of journals.

Instead of allowing libraries to subscribe to the individual journals their users wanted most, publishers locked them into “bundles” that forced them to pay for many journals they didn’t need in order to get the journals they did need.

Academic publishing had become a multi-billion dollar industry, but almost none of that was trickling back to academia A few years ago, the libraries rebelled and governments started seeing the benefits of ensuring open access to scientific results for research they’d funded.

At the same time governments & libraries rebelled against publishers, Alexandra Elbakyan and her colleagues raided commercial publishers’ archives and freely shared previously gated back and current issues via sci-hub. Publishers lost their greatest source of profit and their monopoly.

After sci-hub and the library rebellion, commercial publishers identified new ways to make up billions in lost income and retain their immense profit margin to please their share-holders. Several new practices arose as a result.

Open source publishing fees were the first of the rapacious commercial publisher practices to arise after they lost their hold on their archives. Publishers are never transparent about costs for publishing an article, but we’ve seen little to justify their immense fees.

Fees for open source publishing may reached their current height of ridiculousness with the Science/Nature’s declaration that their publication fee would be over $11,000 for publishing an open source article, with a non-refundable $2500 just for the (uncompensated) review.

But gouging universities and funders for open access fees is just part of commercial publishers’ new profit-generating strategy. We’ve seen a huge increase in recommendations for “English language editing” from editors and reviewers and many of these requests are not justified.

Many major publishers are now telling every scholar who submits from an institution outside an English-speaking country that they need “English language editing”… whether or not they do. We decided to look into this further, starting several years ago.

We found several editors who had tried to get on the recommended lists of the major publishers. These editors requested anonymity because they were afraid of retaliation, but told us that they would have been required to kick back 15% (!) of their take to the publisher.

The ethics of “suggesting” editors to those who submit papers to your journals, and then getting kickbacks is… questionable. We’ve never seen this relationship openly declared. And now kickback editors are offering “editing certificates” to prove that papers were edited, again trapping academics in a closed ecosystem.

We see commercial publisher kickbacks and editing certificates as a predatory practice designed to extract money from academics, especially in low-resource countries. We also note that some of these recommended editing firms do shoddy work and could be called predatory editors themselves. Many well-written papers have received editing requests, suggesting this is a rote practice, not based on paper quality.

Predatory editing is not the only new commercial publishing tactic. Publishers are starting to offer “format free submission” and transfer to other journals within their ecosystem as if it’s a gift. But it’s really a ploy to lock authors and papers into their system and make it hard to escape.

If commercial publishers use “format free” to entice you into their system, and if papers in the system are hard to export and easy to resubmit to lower and lower impact journals in their system, then publishers steeply increase their chance of extracting value from your labor, and they also have a strong interest in eventually publishing your article, no matter its quality.

It’s bad for science when publishers benefit from publishing every paper submission, though it may seem a gift to young scientists in the short term. The “publish it all and let God decide” strategy harms science by overburdening reviewers and increasing the noise-to-signal ratio for researchers who search the literature.

We think the time of the large academic publishers is over. They should and will fail under the immense burden of their own weight. Technology has massively reduced the cost of publishing & archiving. Publications should move back to their natural homes in academic settings. Manuscript production should remain independent of presses, and we advocate supporting non-profit, scientist led open source journal publishing efforts. The big publishers don’t care if they destroy science in their pursuit of profit, but the public interest is clearly in the other direction.

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