Peer-review journals monopolize research, hurt students and faculty

Jacob Schmidt

The world of peer-reviewed journalism seems noble. Researchers submit their findings to academic journals for peer review, where experts in the field evaluate the work for experimental soundness, and the journal chooses to publish for the benefit of society. Take a moment to revel in the simple beauty and power of what appears to be a mutually empowering and supportive system.

Unfortunately, we live in a world where such altruism often conflicts with capitalism, and in the case of peer-reviewed journals, the money talks over the science.

The journals — documenters and disseminators of humanity’s scientific progress — collectively charge billions of dollars worldwide for publishing rights to the research they largely receive for free from researchers. Publication is exclusive, meaning each journal is the sole source of its research articles: there is no direct market competition. This makes each journal a miniature monopoly, allowing them to charge whatever price they like for the research articles they receive for free.

The markups are shocking. A single subscription by an institution, such as UT, to The Journal of Chromatography costs $18,863. And with profit margins at a hefty 37%, Chromotography publisher Elsevier can only shrug its shoulders and offer a guilty grin at the outrageous price. While not all journals are as expensive, the fact that the publishers share none of their profits with the research authors is heinous.

“Researchers are basically slaves to the journals,” said Dr. Timothy Loving, a UT professor in the School of Human Ecology and head of the Loving Lab, which publishes multiple research papers annually in various peer-reviewed psychological journals. “Journals are for-profit industries that are riding the backs of the scientific community for their gain.”

To make matters worse, research authors rely on publishers to advance their careers. As Professor Frank Whigham of the English department (yes, the problem extends to the humanities) said, “if untenured, an academic’s promotion depends on publication. If you don’t make it into prestigious journals, you lose your job.”

As students, why should we care? UT purchases all the journal subscriptions for its students and faculty, so most of us never encounter a single journal subscription charge in our academic careers. But, the budget for journal subscriptions is often among the first to be cut at the University, which harms its academic reputation and its students because the journals keep professors informed within their respective fields.

Thankfully, a solution to the publishing problem exists. Open-access journals, which maintain the same peer-review rigor as traditional journals, return the “for-profit” model to a “for-science” model by placing their research articles in the public domain. The Public Library of Science, a pioneer in open-access publishing, allows anyone to read its millions of research articles for free. Open-access journals are still the minority players in the market for a number of reasons, but the publishing landscape is shifting.

“We’re in the midst of a revolution,” says Dr. Loving. It is only a matter of time before open-access journals phase out the traditional, monopolistic Elseviers of the scientific publishing community. This transition is necessary for the academic and personal success of our students, our professors and our university. “Science belongs to everybody. It helps us understand how the world works. Nobody should own that."

Schmidt is a physics sophomore from Austin. Follow him on Twitter at @heyjakers.