Peer review provides £209,976,000 public subsidy to commercial publishers

The Open University's Martin Weller looks at the Peer Review Survey 2009's numbers on free participation by UK academics in the peer review process for commercial science journals and concludes that 10.4m hours spent on this amounts to a £209,976,000 subsidy from publicly funded universities to private, for-profit journals, who then charge small fortunes to the same institutions for access to the journals. And so:
Now that efficiency and return on investment are the new drivers for research, the question should be asked whether this is the best way to 'spend' this money? I'd suggest that if we are continuing with peer review (and its efficacy is a separate argument), then the least we should expect is that the outputs of this tax-payer funded activity should be freely available to all.

And so, my small step in this was to reply to the requests for reviews stating that I have a policy of only reviewing for open access journals. I'm sure a lot of people do this as a matter of course, but it's worth logging every blow in the revolution

The return on peer review (via Memex 1.1)


  1. Whilst I agree broadly with the sentiment of this, I think it’s too simplistic to “only review for open access journals”.

    I work for a not-for-profit charity, which publishes one of the premier journals in my discipline. The journal is our principal source of income by a long way – income which is distributed back to the scholarly community in the form of grants, bursaries, scholarships and in the advocacy and training we provide. We’re not “open access” but our journal is available at cost price to members of our charitable association.

    1. Does your organization do all the publishing in-house, though? The premiere journal in my specialty is for a non-profit association and its main source of income, but it’s actually published by Informa Healthcare, which is definitely not a non-profit. I wish I could convince my colleagues of how bad such relationships are for us as researchers and as people who want to advance the state of the art and promote best-practices.

  2. Yeah it is rather weird that the results of publically funded research are not publically available. People in academia are only vaguely aware of this because they all have easy access through their institutions. but you when you step outside the bubble you realize how elitist this is.

  3. This post struck a very raw nerve. I’m constantly coming up against web searches that yield promising abstracts and a $30 paywall for actual article access.

    The peer-reviewed work of any scientist receiving public money should be freely accessible online. At the moment researchers are stuck in a trap of needing to publish in certain “high impact factor” journals to ensure funding (okay, part of it is pure ego). The publishers themselves have no motivation to make content free. It falls to national granting agencies to require this of their researchers. Perhaps the simplest approach would be requiring the researcher’s university to make the manuscript available online.

  4. I suppose you did not mean 10.4m hours as in just over 37 seconds but rather 10.4M hours—as in over 1186 years. :)

  5. I’m the managing editor of a society-owned peer-reviewed journal.

    The results of publicly funded research are largely available for free. It depends a bit on who funded it. At least in my field, the overwhelming majority of U.S. based research is NIH-funded, at least in part. That means free access six months after publication. Increasingly, other countries, recently Canada, are imposing similar mandates on publicly funded research.

    Unfortunately, products cost money. I sincerely wish we could give away our content for free to everyone, but my children need to eat. What Dr. Weller and the open access advocates refuse to acknowledge is that someone, somewhere, needs to fund the publication of scientific research. BioMedCentral’s model is to charge authors (almost $1,200 per article). Ours is to charge readers. We receive zero dollars in advertising revenue.

    And the “small fortunes” is disingenuous. Very, very few academic journals are profitable, and for those high-end journals that are, the difference is display advertising, not reprint royalties. In our case, and we’re not uncommon, our society subsidizes our operating costs. Without this subsidy, the “small fortune” that we charge for immediate access to our content would not cover the cost of publishing our journal. I never see any appreciation for these kinds of subsidies from open access advocates.

    1. Thank you for your input, you shined some light on this that I was obviously blinded to. Our two publishing concerns are obviously very different. I retract my theft comment.

  6. This is slightly off topic, but there is a congruency in that it is about publishing and the possibility of government subsidies of newspapers, much the same way they bailed out the auto manufacturers and banks. The COO of a privately owned newspaper chain, of which we are the flagship, addressed us last week and this subject was broached. His view was that any viable industry should not take public funds in order to stay afloat. If it has to, then it is not viable and should wither. This, of course, was before issuing a call for greater effort on our part, but we are not in the same boat as other newspapers. We still make advertising budget each month and we don’t have to respond to stock holder pressure. The question of pay walls was brought up immediately thereafter and rejected out-of-hand. It was determined that people will not pay for this content, not when they can pay 35 cents for a paper or just go to Yahoo! for the headlines. And people shouldn’t have to pay for it when logging on to our website. They can buy on online subscription just like anybody else, but having to pay to access our website would simply drive them somewhere else. We all agreed with this. It made sense and installing a pay wall would derail all the inroads we have made in our online efforts, both with readership and advertisers. That these abstracts and peer review papers that are publicly funded are in turn being sold at an exorbitant rate is pure greed, in my opinion. The people that do this should be ordered to return the public funds or charged with theft. This is only causing knowledge to be closeted and interferes with the free exchange of ideas to the detriment of everybody and the enrichment of the few. This is not a new idea, naturally, but is still despicable. It reminds me of the $300 “dealer documentation fee” on new automobile sales. I could process and file the papers on a new car every 15 minutes. If I did that as a private business, I would make $12,800 a day. That is obviously not value driven.

  7. Relatedly, we are currently investigating a potential case of academic fraud in which an author submitted the same article to both our journal and an open-access pay-to-publish journal. We attempted to involve the open-access journal in our investigation, but they apparently have no prohibition against duplicate publication. As long as you pay your author fees, they’ll review and publish whatever you send them.

    The reason pay-to-publish hasn’t been adopted by more journals is that it creates ethically dubious situations such as this.

    So again, who pays for open access? It’s not free.

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