Science publishing holds us back. We need to do better.

This is an issue of my newsletter focusing on the psychological and technical aspects of the Internet, particularly remote work, online economy, and cognitive load.
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This issue of Deliberate Internet is one of those deep dives fueled by curiosity. This time it’s about science journals, Sci-Hub, Open Access, and the ugly underworld of academic publishing.

I don’t recall much from my psychology studies. I have some vague notion of what I learned over the 5 years, but one of the strongest memories was a feeling of utter frustration over accessing the research papers needed to write my thesis. I would find a perfect avenue of research only to be stopped by a science journal paywall.

My research on a quirk of human memory called “source monitoring error” probably would not advance the COVID vaccine, HIV cure, or the hunt for clean energy sources. But others working on those problems may be missing a key breakthrough because their university may have not purchased access to that particular journal.

The dizzying progress of humanity over the last 500 years is all thanks to the scientific method:

  1. Come up with a hypothesis about the world
  2. Test it rigorously, trying to disprove it
  3. If it still stands, invite others to disprove it
  4. If they cannot disprove it – it’s accepted as fact
  5. Upon this foundation, new, more complex hypotheses can move the understanding of the world forward.

These few principles ushered a new age dubbed the Scientific Revolution. Humanity was able to advance technology to the point beyond any imagination. As Yuval Noah Harari writes in Homo Deus:

During the Scientific Revolution humankind silenced the gods too. The world was now a one-man show.

Despite what your uncle may believe, the canonical unit of disseminating science is not Youtube.

The research paper is the “deliverable” of scientists’ work. But it’s nothing without a research journal to publish it in. Science and Nature are the most prestigious ones.

Amongst scientists, there is the mantra “publish or perish” – they need to earn points (quite literary) by publishing papers in journals. The system is designed in theory to incentivize sharing results, discussing them, and subjecting them to peer review.

It’s a system where everything comes under scrutiny – except the journals themselves. Science itself became a feudal system where scientists have to fight to get published AND pay the journals to access their peer’s research papers. As the aforementioned Science quotes in “Who’s downloading pirated research papers – everyone“:

“Publishers give nothing to the authors, so why should they receive anything more than a small amount for managing the journal?”

The article opens with the story of Amirkabir from Iran. His experience closely mirrors my own:

To read a 2011 paper in Applied Mathematics and Computation, Rahimi would have to pay the publisher, Elsevier, $28. A 2015 paper in Operations Research, published by the U.S.-based company INFORMS, would cost $30. (…) Purchasing the papers was going to cost $1000 this week alone—about as much as his monthly living expenses

A group of science journal publishers – with Elsevier as the biggest one – has monopolized the science publishing industry, with universities as their captive customers. They need to buy access for their staff and students so that they can do their research – and of course – publish the work themselves. From the same Science article:

(A statement) (…) university recently issued about the impact of journal subscription rate hikes on its library budget:

“Scholarly resources are not luxury goods,” it says. “But they are priced as though they were.”

Why don’t scientists just release their papers in other journals?

Scientist incentivized to publish research papers present demand. It’s no wonder that the supply side has popped up – and is serving stuff that is not up to snuff:

Spam email inviting me to publish in a research papers mere 15 hours ago. Mind you – I am not an acadamic.

A whole crop of “predatory journals” is publishing any paper – for a fee.

Predatory publishing has been a real problem. In 2013 John Bohannon submitted a paper called “Who’s Afraid of Peer Review?” with purposefully deeply flawed methodology and got published in 60% of journals he submitted it to – including those backed by Elsevier and Wolters Kluver.

If you need a stronger proof that something is not right – a team of researchers annoyed at an email just like the one I received submitted a paper called “Get me off your fucking email list”, and got published:

Possibly one of the best research papers ever published.

These journals want to “prop themselves up” with established names and are eager to get scientists on their “editorial team” to serve as figureheads. A Polish team of researchers has submitted a blatantly fake resume of “Anna O. Szust” (from Polish: Anna F.raudster ) and of course – in many cases, they (or Anna) were invited to lend the name (Time magazine).

In this cesspool of fraud, spam, and lies, scientists are desperate to get their names into at least a half-decent journal, so they buckle up and pay.

Enter Sci Hub

Frustrated like everyone else (except Elsevier execs), but much more resourceful and determined – Alexandra Elbakyan created Sci-Hub in 2011. The site is online “exchange” for Science Papers.

Here is how it works:

  1. Scientists with legitimate access to articles (and frustrated by the current situation) are lending their credentials needed to download research papers
  2. You search a paper by the URL or identifier number
  3. If it’s in the database, you can download it
  4. If it’s not – it will be downloaded using credentials from point 1.

Saying that Sci-Hub is big is an understatement. It’s now THE science article database. And no wonder – from the same Science article:

The numbers are just staggering,” one senior executive at a major publisher told me upon learning the Sci-Hub statistics. “It suggests an almost complete failure to provide a path of access for these researchers.” He works for a company that publishes some of the most heavily downloaded content on Sci-Hub and requested anonymity so he could speak candidly.

Researchers can now find all the papers they need in one place, without tracking down for weeks that elusive obscure paper that they really need. God, I wish I had something like this during my studies.

Wait, isn’t that illegal?

Yes, it very well may be. But I also think it’s ethical.

I am a fan of subscriptions, I build subscription tools for a living, and have written about them, but my excitement is predicated on the fact that they let the creator pursue bigger risks to make more art (or science).

Paying the science journals helps noone (except, again, Elsevier execs). Consider following facts:

  • WE are paying for the research and the work of the scientists (in the form of grants). They receive no compensation from the journal,
  • Journals provide no additional value. They are being paid because they have been paid in the past
  • Paper authors are ecstatic that their papers get downloaded more. It’s not only more fame and citations (the academia currency), but more peer review as well. They are in this game for science after all.

The cost of the current situation is not the $9.8 Billion that Elsevier is able to rake in yearly. It’s trillions in opportunity cost due to scientists not being able to pay and access the paper that they needed for their next breakthrough.

Open Access.

Scientists themselves recognize that something has to give and see the same obvious solutions that we do. From the Berlin Declaration of Open Access:

The Internet has fundamentally changed the practical and economic realities of distributing scientific knowledge and cultural heritage. For the first time ever, the Internet now offers the chance to constitute a global and interactive representation of human knowledge, including cultural heritage and the guarantee of worldwide access.

Berlin Declaration of Open Access has been published in 2003. The progress of adoption hasn’t been that rapid, so we need Sci-Hub in the meantime.

But despite technological progress, Science itself has been known to move slower at times. The above link to the Open Access declaration is published on Max Planck Society, and it was Max Planck who said that “Science progresses one funeral at a time“.

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