The Cost of Knowledge

This Kat sometimes wonders whether there is anything new under the sun, or whether history is simply a series of endless recapitulations.

The IPKat has just noticed the campaign The Cost of Knowledge, which calls for a boycott of Elsevier according to the following manifesto:
Academics have protested against Elsevier's business practices for years with little effect. These are some of their objections:
1. They charge exorbitantly high prices for subscriptions to individual journals.
2. In the light of these high prices, the only realistic option for many libraries is to agree to buy very large "bundles", which will include many journals that those libraries do not actually want. Elsevier thus makes huge profits by exploiting the fact that some of their journals are essential.
3. They support measures such as SOPA, PIPA, that aim to restrict the free exchange of information.
The key to all these issues is the right of authors to achieve easily-accessible distribution of their work. If you would like to declare publicly that you will not support any Elsevier journal unless they radically change how they operate, then you can do so by filling in your details on this page.
This reminds this chemical Kat of a story he heard when he was at Oxford.

An organic chemistry journal called Tetrahedron was founded in 1957 by, inter alia, Professor Sir Robert Robinson, Waynflete Professsor of Chemistry at the University of Oxford.  It was originally published by a commercial publisher Pergamon Press, famously founded by Robert Maxwell.  Ironically, the publisher is now Elsevier.  This Kat recalls that the journal was an early pioneer of rapid publication by use of the submission of manuscripts in camera-ready format, avoiding the time and expense of typesetting.

Prof Robinson's successor is rumoured to have been less than impressed by Mr Maxwell.  He also, so the story goes, believed that the journals that should be supported are those which are published by learned organisations such as the Royal Society of Chemistry.  By what must be the purest coincidence, these journals apparently tend to be cheaper than their commercially published counterparts. Therefore, there was formulated an opposition to Tetrahedron which consisted of a departmental policy that the academics in the department must not publish in commercially published journals, and, if they did, then the department would not reimburse the cost of journal reprints.

This Kat cannot personally vouch for the truth of this story, although his source is impeccable.  However, he certainly remembers that in the departmental coffee lounge, in the line up of photos of the Waynflete Professors, a certain successor to Prof Robinson was depicted featuring  prominently Perkin Transactions, then the RSC organic chemistry journal.

And so now, decades later, the same issue has arisen again.  It seems to the IPKat that the decades-old solution is still available - learned society journals, such as those published by the RSC, are still going strong.    Those opposed to the role of commercial publishers in scientific publishing have alternatives available.

In fact, one thing has changed since those times, providing a further alternative to the disgruntled.  Merpel points out that academics now have the option of publishing their works themselves, for example via the internet.  Social media and other internet means can be used to promote these publications.  Peer-review can be included in such online publishing schemes, which can be organised by groups of academics as well as individuals.  This Kat, however, is a traditional moggie (perhaps more so than his fellow felines) and therefore reminds Merpel that the traditional title publications tend to have more academic cachet.

[Thanks to blogmeister Jeremy for teaching Merpel a thing or two on this subject].

As usual, over to you, dear readers.

The Cost of Knowledge The Cost of Knowledge Reviewed by Darren Smyth on Friday, March 09, 2012 Rating: 5


  1. I've never understood why peer-reviewed internet publication didn't take over from these expensive journals long ago. There is, however, a perceived 'prestige' bias that must be overcome. Oddly enough, the perceived value of research is dependent on the journal of publication. I've never understood this either, but then I've never been a part of the 'established order' in this country. Never rock the boat and you too can feed at the establishment trough.

  2. Anonymous hits it on the head. I was a chemist many years ago before turning to patent law, and it was well known that there was a hierarchy of journals: taking only the American Chemical Society ones, the Journal of the American Chemical Society before any of the specialist ones such as Journal of Organic Chemistry, and so on. In chemistry, I believe that the learned society journals still rate at or near the top of the pyramid; however, I believe that in other fields, such as molecular biology, commercially published journals are at or near the top. There seems to me little doubt that the major learned society journals don't publish dross and there are commercial journals that do, but this is of little significance if the leading journal in your field is a commercial one and you are an academic, particularly a junior one, working towards gaining tenure and needing publications in "credible" journals. The problem is exacerbated by the consolidation of commercial science journal publication as big publishers (Elsevier) swallow up small ones; and this leads to the pricing and bundling complaints mentioned in the article. Law seems a little different - in the US there are innumerable law journals published by law schools, but who wouldn't rather be published in one from Harvard rather than one from the University of Podunk? Perhaps internet publication will take over, PLoS is trying in science, but it has not yet.

  3. One problem with peer review is simple theft of ideas. Some may think it is uncommon and any accusation stem from bitter, paranoid academics. The truth is however more straightforward. Peer reviewers are known to hold back publication of an article that they see as competing with their own work, especially if it is ahead, and then going away and doing the work themselves (or rather, getting one of their many postdocs to do it for them. Or they can just like the idea and decide to steal it.

    It isn't obviously an everyday occurrence, but is more frequent than people may imagine. There are also documented examples rather than mere unsubstantiated speculation. One was a famous and highly respected US chemist.

  4. Holding back publications is a well known problem. Regrettably it seems too many scientists use their intellects towards questionable goals. Interestingly more than one can play this game and counter trickery on the part of the scientist against the reviewers is known.

    The most important part is, as for patents, to get the priority date. These days arXiv plays an important part, and before that certain fields had their own prepublications, such as High Tc Update.

    All in all inertia seems to be the leading cause for not using peer reviewed internet publications.


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