The idea of personal legacy is bizarre enough to be almost meaningless. In the hands of the ultra-wealthy it’s capable of building multi-national businesses and organisations that can do exceptional good or wield exceptional power. Yet, those things tend to have only a reasonable chance of dictating the legacy of any one individual. Even within the general population, this vague idea often dictates personal goals and professional paths despite our wild lack of control over its final outcome.
It’s unlikely Jeff Bezos is going to leave a sparkling impression on the globe despite having unparalleled reach, impact, and political power. On the other side of the coin, there are those that have impacted the world in a very major way yet remain largely unknown.
Fritz Haber, for example, invented a method of synthesising fertiliser that has provided food for billions of people. Maurice Hilleman developed more than 40 major vaccines in his career, saving millions from diseases such as Measles and Rubella. Neither one are an easy answer to a trivia question.
Similarly, notorious media tycoon Robert Maxwell — known primarily for large-scale fraud, embezzlement, and a life of excess luxury — may well have had the single biggest impact on modern science that the world has ever seen. Conversely, a young unknown researcher, Alexandra Elbakyan, may be about to overturn some of its longest-lasting impacts and end the tycoon’s highest-grossing long-con.
The Road to Modern Scientific Discovery
Go back 120 years or so and science is only just beginning to emerge as a commercial driving force. The early 20th century saw industrial research labs grow at a breakneck pace to turn scientific discoveries into a fast-moving industry. Within the span of just a few years flight, internal combustion, relativity, and electricity developed almost in parallel. During this time photography, music, and radio all emerged in a form that would survive relatively unchanged for at least the next eight decades. Things were happening fast.
Rewind another hundred years before that and science was merely a hobby pursuit that belonged exclusively to the wealthy and curious. The steam engine and the Jacquard loom were only just beginning a shift towards industrialisation.
Among many inventions attributed to Thomas Edison today, the most impactful may be the way he transformed industrial research in the late 1800s. In pursuit of new ideas to bring to market Edison pioneered an approach to scientific discovery that would ultimately shape the modern world.
The world that emerged from this paradigm shift in science raised a new kind of problem. With mirror-image labs springing up worldwide, the process of discovery, trial, and error was deeply siloed and shared rarely and selectively in cliques and clubs difficult to access.
With few publishing opportunities and a dire lack of available information, the same avenues of research were unknowingly re-trodden time and time in labs and institutions that didn’t benefit from discoveries in neighbouring labs. Without being able to share in the successes and failures in research — progress in every field was slow, stilted, and rarely even linear.
The first half of the 20th century was plagued with a clear and urgent need for change. It wasn’t until the post-war boom of the late 40s and early-50s that an opportunity for one would come along.
Modern Science Publishing
Fast forward to today and institutions are facing the exact inverse problem. There are now more than 30,000 journals available to choose from. Far from lacking options, science publishing is now spectacularly niche with dedicated outlets for every imaginable avenue of research. Despite this gluttony of choice, each of these journals can still make high demands of their contributors, editors, and subscribers.
What these publications need to stand out from the crowd are flashy, new, and groundbreaking results. To merely get the attention of an editor is a minor academic achievement in itself and the bar for what is required to do so seems to rise year after year.
The cure for cancer, Alzheimer, or Parkinson’s are headlines we regularly see broadcast on mainstream news with selectively chosen snippets from well-respected journals. It’s only on reading the ‘fine print’ (the paper itself) that we find out these results are seen not in medical practice but in cell cultures or mouse trials at best.
Such results rarely follow on to success in practical studies, but who can be blamed for inserting a slice of clickbait to muster up interest? The editor, the reporter, or the researcher?
Publish or perish has turned into the leading motto of academic accomplishment. A strategy that requires the pursuit of eye-catching, popular, and lucrative veins of research in the pursuit of headline-grabbing results — even if it is at the expense of more mundane, necessary grunt work.
As a direct result, modern research is now siloed in an entirely new way. Huge amounts of studies are going under-reported and under-researched because the hot topics such as stem-cell gadgets or crypto-engineered somethings are more commercially appealing for publication. Simply obtaining the necessary time and funding to investigate dryer areas of research or repeat earlier studies can be all but impossible.
Remarkably, this accounts for only a small part of a much larger problem.
A Big Fish in a Big Pond
Largely unseen in day-to-day life, it’s easy to imagine that academic publishing is small enough or niche enough to get by unnoticed. Yet, it’s an industry worth close to £20 billion per year. In context, academic publishing revenues are comparable to both the music and film industries. The academia industry does, however, excel in one area that leaves its competitors firmly in the dust — profit margins that are genuinely astonishing.
Elsevier, one of the largest academic publishers today, can boast of profit margins of nearly 40% in a good year. With the company’s nearest competitors close behind, academic publishing turns out to be one of the most uniquely profitable industries in the world. For comparison, tech giants such as Apple and Google can barely hope to reach 25% in their best years. So, what’s so unique about publishing dry academic science?
What the academic publishing industry has built is something that’s unique, exceptional and arguably in desperate need of change. One leading academic from Berkley labelled the system as both “perverse and needless” nearly 20 years ago. It’s only grown in size and revenue since.
The system starts at the research phase. The day-to-day work of doctors, scientists, and institutions that lead to real-world results and advancements in understanding and technology is almost universally funded through government grants and public funding.
When a project is finished, or at least begun to yield interesting results, the researchers conducting the investigation write up their results for publication. Ideally, if done well, this would solve the biggest issue plaguing 20th-century science by allowing external teams to replicate noteworthy results, avoid pitfalls and dead-ends, and generally build on top of previous work.
The role of the academic publisher, like any other publisher, is to edit, print, and distribute this content amongst academic institutions, libraries, and anyone who wants to purchase it.
While traditional publishers pay writers for their content — academic journals have built a system where publication itself is the sole reward. The prestige, acclaim, and career necessity of having work published in notable journals is the driving force behind the ever-present ‘publish or perish’ mentality.
Similarly, when it comes to editing, verifying, and understanding the work that contributors are donating to their journals — publishers have managed to outsource that at no cost too. The process of peer review allows experts in each niche field to check and review the work of others to ensure it meets rigorous academic standards worthy of publishing. Of course, like authors, these editors are also unpaid by the journals they work for.
If you eliminate both content and editing costs from the balance sheet of any publisher, their accounts are likely to look all the healthier for it too.
In the last 10 years, even distribution costs have been successfully slashed as printing and shipping has been largely replaced with online subscription services sold to libraries and institutions in place of physical print journals.
The question might well be re-framed from asking how the industry achieves such stellar 40% profit margins to what exactly are they spending the other 60% of revenue on.
Government funds pay for research time in producing, editing, and submitting work for publication —making the raw material used to fill academic journals close to free from the publisher’s perspective. Perhaps more ingeniously still, the same academic institutions that paid to fill the journal are duty-bound to buy a subscription to it from the publisher for future research.
While there’s little admirable about the system — the ability to make academic institutions both the producer and customer of the very same content is at least ingenious.
A 2005 Deutsche Bank report called the scheme a “bizarre triple-pay system”, where “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”.
The true cost of this triple-dip scam is more than just billions in profit.
Modern publishers have become acutely aware of the kind of research that grabs headlines, attention, and notoriety. New findings, bold claims, and exceptional results are sexy and exciting. Failed studies, negative findings, and unremarkable progress are not. This has a direct effect on what is accepted into journals and consequently what work is pursued by academics too.
Of the work that is undertaken, studies that result in a dead-end are often quietly dropped without publication. Despite more than 70 years spent on the problem, the issue of stumbling in the dark into repeated negative results is still a major waste of time, effort, and valuable data.
The problems of unreported study results have grown so large and so significant that legal mandates are being introduced worldwide to ensure publicly funded research is published regardless of its outcome. Yet, despite this, as many as 40% of clinical trials are still going unreported in the United States while in the EU almost half of trials fail to report results within a year of conclusion.
Putting aside the immense value of negative data in itself, the over-reporting of positive results is its own issue. It’s easy to convince yourself of the effectiveness of a drug, technology, or technique when the only studies available align with a positive outlook. Quietly shelving studies with no effective or negative outcomes can distort the picture of what’s working well and what’s failing at best.
Origins of a Broken System
Remarkably, the entire academic publishing industry can trace its origins back to one man. Robert Maxwell, a notorious media tycoon known for embezzlement, and fraud, among various other high-profile controversies.
Maxwell was hired in the post-war boom to overhaul academic publishing and bring together a collection of fragmented and largely ineffective publishing houses. Recognising a golden opportunity, Maxwell built Pergamon Press throughout the 1950s to bring the tycoon’s famous sense of luxury and glamour to a world that was entirely unaccustomed to anything like it.
Maxwell was the first to catch on to the captive market available for exploitation — something his closest competitors were still years away from realising.
Knowing that each field, author, and paper was both distinct and irreplaceable Maxwell understood that for every new journal he could spin out from Pergamon there would be an audience of institutions and libraries duty bound to subscribe to stay up to date on the latest work in the field.
When closest competitor Elsevier had 10 journals in 1960 Pergamon had more than 40. By 1965 they had created more than 150 English language science journals. Both inventing and building a market for science communication all at once Pergamon made it trivially easy for researchers to reach the wider community — all they asked in return was copyright to previously untapped content.
The model Maxwell build soon became the standard for the industry. Publishers caught on to a great idea and grew at an astonishing rate. As journals grew in size and reach, their ability to dictate what and how they could publish began to change too.
Throughout the 1970s journals began looking for headline-grabbing questions, spectacular results, and blockbuster papers. For academics, where you published and how many papers you had contributed to were becoming important metrics to secure future funding and career progress. Journals weren’t just publishing scientific results, they were starting to generate them too.
Institutions had little choice but to add each new journal to their subscription list if they were to keep pace in the field.
Maxwell had built a captive market from scratch and locked the academic world into hundreds of small monopolies; more than half of which he owned himself. Eventually, Pergamon was sold to Elsevier for £440m (£919m today) as the tycoon’s other businesses and habits began to catch up. The effects of the model Maxwell built, however, are still being felt today.
Now, in the online age, large academic institutions are paying more than $1 million a year for all-you-can-eat access to scientific journals. For individuals, access to a single article of interest or a collection of studies to facilitate research is absurdly expensive. Access to a single article on a course of medical treatment, for example, can easily be £40-£70 each. Searching through the 5-10 articles that might be relevant and available is simply out of reach for most people. Such studies wouldn’t be any less available if they were guarded under lock and key.
It was long predicted that the internet age would obliterate the monopoly these publishers hold over institutions. The opposite has proven to be true. Overheads have been slashed and each of the five major publishers has profited highly from the availability of online access.
Making a Change
There have been consistent efforts to bring open-access journals to the forefront of science. These outlets would remove the commercial element of publishing entirely and make publicly funded research freely accessible to everyone. Yet, despite backing from philanthropic funds, less than a quarter of papers being released today are being made available through open access.
Fundamental flaws in open access make it difficult for the model to impact publishing in a more meaningful way. As it is today, open access is placing an undue burden on authors. Funds for peer review and publication, often more than £1000 per paper are often expected to come from the funding that supported the project in the first place. Add to this copyright restrictions and rights grabs from some of the biggest publishers and it’s easy to see why the model is in need of assistance.
Remarkably, similar to the foundations of the industry 75 years ago, the biggest impact on its £20 billion monopoly has come from the efforts of just one individual.
Young Kazakhstani researcher Alexandra Elbakyan created the academic piracy site Sci-Hub out of the frustration of inaccessible research articles. In the decade since the site’s initial creation, it has quickly grown to host more than 88 million articles — the vast majority of all articles ever published.
Of course, such a massive effort has caught the attention of publishers. Elbakyan has been sued repeatedly and often by each of the publishing giants in addition to a number of smaller organisations.
While Sci-Hub routinely loses cases worth tens of millions of dollars in court, Kazakhstan sits well outside the jurisdiction of primarily U.S based civil cases. As a result, publishers have turned to internet service providers to demand that Sci-Hub be blacklisted and made inaccessible to users.
These provisions create a cat-and-mouse game where Sci-Hub switches providers every few weeks and users turn to VPNs and proxies to continue accessing the site.
Depending on your point of view (and, most likely, your profession) Sci-Hub is either an awe-inspiring altruistic effort or a large-scale criminal enterprise. Whatever your view there’s no doubt that it’s a big part of promoting positive change in an outrageous profiteering industry.
In Europe, research agencies have banded together to form ‘Coalition S”, an effort designed to ensure publicly funded research is published in open-access journals. Predictably, publishers have been vocally opposed from the outset, dragging their heels on mandatory changes, and insisting on authors signing away licensing rights in return for journal publication.
Combined, these efforts are marking slow and steady step changes to science publishing that now feels inevitable. Finally, in the next few years, the 70-year grip that Maxwell’s model has had on science and progress may well be coming to an end.
For the first time in decades, institutions have the option to turn down the most outlandish offers that publishers make and negotiate deals that move the needle, just a little, in a fairer direction. As a result, the legacies of information activists such as Alexandra Elbakyan and Aaron Swarts are going to be well-secured for a long time to come.