Scientific publishing is big business. More than half of scientific papers are published by just 5-publishing houses: Reed-Elsevier, Springer, Wiley-Blackwell, Taylor & Francis and Sage. And they make big money, turning in profits of a $billion or more is not unusual.
There’s nothing wrong with business making a profit. I have a one-person business that turns in a profit, although not quite on the scale of publishing houses. But there’s a difference. If I use the expertise of others, then I am willing to pay for their time, it’s all part of doing business. Scientific journals however, rely heavily on the good will of scientists as editors and peer reviewers. Without this highly qualified voluntary army of people, the scientific publishing industry just could not survive - or at least make the profits that it does. Publishing is the life blood of science in that we all need our research published and we all need access to the published research of others. The first part of that equation is covered by the aforementioned voluntary scientific army but the second part is where profiteering gets very much out of control.
A scientist publishing a paper has to sign over the copyright to the publisher who then puts the research behind closely guarded paywalls. And these are expensive paywalls at that. As an example, I recently purchased a paper from Wiley. It was just one page published in 1983 and it cost a staggering $45.60 (£29.63). Just to reiterate - a 32-year old single page for $45.60 (£29.63). On that basis Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone would cost around £7,000 and at least that would only be 14-year’s old!
There is a growing trend towards open access journals where the papers are free to access but there is a charge - often of a thousand pounds or more, for its publication. The bigger organisations and well funded academics might be able to afford this but the rest are compelled to publish behind the paywalls and add to the profits of the publishing houses.
The scientific publishing business model can be summed up as one that exploits unpaid workers and then charges exorbitant prices for the product. This may have been an acceptable business plan in the days before William Wilberforce but today it just gives capitalism a bad name. Recently scientists have been forced towards online piracy, which although illegal, who can really blame them?
I have no problem with the publishing houses making a profit but the current business model is almost psychopathically one sided. The profits need to be commensurate with the reliance on a voluntary workforce and papers need to be taken down from the paywalls - say after 10 years. It’s simple business ethics, although I think any publishing house reading this might have to reach for the dictionary and look up the word ethics.
In the meantime, I will continue writing papers and peer reviewing on a voluntary basis because that’s what scientists do. I do it to assist the progress of science and my fellow scientists, even though I know I am being exploited.