The Guardian on the Scientific Publishing Biz

Having grown up in the science biz, the business models seemed a little iffy to me.  But I’ve never heard the scientific publishing models so clearly critiqued as this Guardian article. Below are excerpts.


But Elsevier’s business model seemed a truly puzzling thing. In order to make money, a traditional publisher – say, a magazine – first has to cover a multitude of costs: it pays writers for the articles; it employs editors to commission, shape and check the articles; and it pays to distribute the finished product to subscribers and retailers. All of this is expensive, and successful magazines typically make profits of around 12-15%.

The way to make money from a scientific article looks very similar, except that scientific publishers manage to duck most of the actual costs. Scientists create work under their own direction – funded largely by governments – and give it to publishers for free; the publisher pays scientific editors who judge whether the work is worth publishing and check its grammar, but the bulk of the editorial burden – checking the scientific validity and evaluating the experiments, a process known as peer review – is done by working scientists on a volunteer basis. The publishers then sell the product back to government-funded institutional and university libraries, to be read by scientists – who, in a collective sense, created the product in the first place.

It is as if the New Yorker or the Economist demanded that journalists write and edit each other’s work for free, and asked the government to foot the bill. Outside observers tend to fall into a sort of stunned disbelief when describing this setup. A 2004 parliamentary science and technology committee report on the industry drily observed that “in a traditional market suppliers are paid for the goods they provide”. A 2005 Deutsche Bank report referred to it as a “bizarre” “triple-pay” system, in which “the state funds most research, pays the salaries of most of those checking the quality of research, and then buys most of the published product”.


  1. In theory, the Guardian assesment is correct. In practice, not so much, unless your goal is to sell government-funded research back to the government. If, on the other hand, your goal is to educate the public, funding is a constant struggle, in part because most forest products manufacturers believe forestry education is a waste of time and money. In fact, it should be viewed as the annual cost of maintaining one’s social license

    • Jim- I’m not sure we’re talking about the same thing. This article is about people funded by governments, who volunteer their time to review articles or are paid by the government, and who are charged (through libraries at their university or through US government libraries) to access the information that they themselves produce.
      The problem to those of us who want to access scientific info is that unless we have access to the right libraries, or pay $$$ we may not be able to access the paper that our tax dollars have paid for.
      I think that this is a separate question from public education.

  2. Well most of these journals do page charges, so the typical journal article costs the researcher, i.e., USDA or NSF about $700-$1500. The real problem, especially the R&D types in USDA, DOI, DOD and DOC natural resources work is that the expectations for full RGE promotion to 15 or SST “super scientist” is to have a national and internationally recognized research program as exemplified by publications in top-tier journals. A fine model for physics perhaps. However, as a result, 3/4th of what USFS R&D scientists do therefore has very little applicability to national forests and/or research answering a specific question or need in the field as those studies do not merit journal publication. If the government would go back to a system of matching promotion with problems solved and real-world answers/solutions provided, we would all benefit. USDA ARS is a bit better, but if anybody can tell me how this USFS NRS work really needs to be done or how it really benefits the agency, I am all ears!

    • Seeing the link to this paper is a reminder that, at least for the Forest Service, that all of the papers published by FS scientists, even in scientific journals are usually available for free on TreeSearch. This is usually just for more recent papers. Also, many universities are starting to make published research from their employees (and students) freely available online – such as the Oregon State University Scholar’s Archive. And, FS employees, if they conducted the published work on government time using government funds, cannot copyright the work. There are also venues like Research Gate where scientists can post their publications so they are free of charge, and many of them also publish them on their personal web pages. Google Searches on the publication title generally uncover these. And, many scientists who are cognizant of the need to get their research out to a wide audience, also favor using Open Access publishers such as PLOS and other Open Access journals.

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