Tipping Points, For-Profit Scientific Publishing, and Closed Science

Was there a tipping point?  When had this all started?  This uncomfortable sensation in my gut.  This nagging thing rolling around inside my head.  It had all been brewing for a while, bubbling a little below the surface. But what was that defining moment? The straw that broke the camel’s back, that pushed all of it up?

Dear Dr. Craig McClain.  

I am contacting you on behalf of [A Major Textbook Publisher]. [The Publisher] seeks permission to use your material in the upcoming text book [Name of commonly used freshman text book but a long line of authors].  Please see the attached permissions request letter which formally lists the rights we are requesting. I am also attaching the copies of the materials we intend to use in the book along with the letter for your easy reference.  I would really appreciate it if you could kindly review the request and return the signed letter to me via e-mail at your earliest convenience. Or, you can indicate via email that you are granting us permission to use the material by agreeing to the following terms:

“Following rights to the licensed material specified herein are granted to [The Publisher], its worldwide subsidiaries and affiliates, authorized users, and customers/end-users: Use of the licensed material, in whole or in part, in the [Textbook], and in subsequent editions of the same, and in products that support or supplement the [Textbook], and in products that use, or are comprised of, individual chapters or portions of [Textbook], and in-context promotions, advertising, and marketing materials for the same; Territory (World); English; Formats (print and electronic, and accessible versions); Term (Life of the Edition + Future Editions); Print Quantity (No Limit); Electronic Quantity (No Limit).”

I look forward to hearing from you. Please feel free to contact me if you.

Thank you! Regards,

[Person from Major Publisher]

 Yeah…that was the tipping point.  So I responded back.

Dear [Person from Major Publisher]

My image is not free for use.  I can send you an invoice for usage if the [The Publisher] is interested.

Dr. Craig R. McClain

Apparently, they were fine with me invoicing them so I responded.

Dear [Person from Major Publisher]

Given the current cost of your textbook of is well over $200 for an undergraduate, I don’t believe I can support the use of my image in your textbook.  The only way I will allow usage of the image is if the company agrees to donate 30 free textbooks to the Louisiana College or University of my choice.

Dr. Craig R. McClain


From this, I received this response.

Dear Dr. McClain,

I passed your request to the Development and Managing Editors and after some consideration [The Publisher] is electing to decline the request.    We appreciate your response and will search for a replacement image to be included in the book.

Kind regards,

[Person 2 from Major Publisher]

Here’s the thing. How can I support a textbook that students will need $214 dollars to buy?  I cannot.  Not as a scientist committed to the tenet that information should be available to all, an educator who believes education is a right not a privilege, a mentor who needs to remove barriers for my students, and lastly someone who came from a lower socioeconomic family, struggled to purchase textbooks, and is now committed to reaching back and pulling others up.  I. CAN. NOT.

Even more, the landscape of Louisiana represents one of considerable struggle. The poverty rate in Louisiana’s poverty rate is 19.6%, well above the national average of 12.4%.  Child poverty nationally is 21.9% while in Louisiana’s is a shocking 27.8%. Twenty-four of Louisiana’s parishes are considered persistent poverty parishes with more than 20% of the population falling below the poverty line consistently since 1970.  Thirty-two parishes are classified as black high poverty areas.  These poverty rates place Louisiana number one among the 50 states in both poverty and child poverty levels (WorldAtlas.com 2016).  The ramifications of this poverty are seen in higher education in Louisiana.  The adult population with a bachelor’s degree or more nationally is 32.5% while in Louisiana is 14.7% and among African Americans, the national average is 14.7% compared to the 13.4% in the state.

I am, and need to be, personally committed to providing educational opportunity to all those in this state, especially those from lower socioeconomic backgrounds.  The high costs of textbooks are prohibitive for students in Louisiana. Indeed, the Louisiana Board of Regents through the LOUIS system is also committed to addressing the textbook issue including purchasing eBooks that can be substituted for required course textbooks.  This program has saved 40,000 students around $4.8 million dollars.  Also, consider that,

 college textbook publisher Cengage conducted a survey titled, “College Students Consider Buying Course Materials a Top Source of Financial Stress”. The results revealed that, “about 43% of students surveyed said they skipped meals because of the expense for books, about 70% said they took on a part-time job because of the the added costs, and around 30% said they had to take fewer classes” 

All of this has occurred on a backdrop of textbook prices rising almost 1000% in recent years — more than three times the rate of inflation (Bureau of Labor Statistics).  And instead of the publishers admitting there is a problem, they deflect.

Marisa Bluestone, spokeswoman for the the Association of American Publishers, called the BLS data “misleading” because of the “law of small numbers” where a small item that increases from $100 to $200 will appear as a 100 percent increase whereas if tuition increases from $10,000 to $11,000 it’s only a 10 percent increase. Further, the BLS data is “not the reality today” added Laura Massie, spokeswoman for the National Association of College Stores (NACS), as it doesn’t count buying used books or renting.

The prices for academic institutions to access the scientific literature has also gotten out of hand.  Despite scientists volunteering to both serve as editors and reviewers for journals and often paying to publish in these journals, many for-profit publishing companies continue to rake in profits while choking out access to the very scientists and scientific institutions they expect to volunteer and read their publications.

John Jones, Row of Books in Shelf https://toolstotal.com/. Available as 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)

Last week the marine lab (the Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium, LUMCON, where I serve as Executive Director) received the notification for renewal for a major journal, now published by a for-profit publisher. The cost for the publication next year is $9,545. The average inflation rate since we first subscribed to this title (starting in FY2010) is just over 20% annually. The number of issues has not changed (12 per year), nor has the size of the issues in terms of pagination, so it’s not a matter of getting more for the money.  Another way of looking at it is that one journal subscription would have eaten up 25% of the journals budget that we allow for LUMCON’s small library. It is hard to justify spending $10,000 a year for a single subscription for less than a dozen faculty.

So a couple of weeks ago, LUMCON made a bold move.  We canceled all of our paid journal subscriptions. Every. Single. One. Of. Them.  These funds will remain with our library, reinvested into other initiatives.  We have set aside some of these funds to purchase hard volumes without electronic versions, pay for singly purchased articles from the canceled journals, investing heavily in LUMCON faculty to publish in Not-For-Profit, Open Access Publishers, new library printers, and variety of other smaller library upgrades.  Needless to say, the amount LUMCON spent on journal subscriptions was considerable and freeing up those funds is actually allowing us to be able to provide BETTER support to our scientific teams.

You read that right.  I feel that even though we are losing journal access and the burden on the faculty and librarian to find needed articles may be higher, the funds that LUMCON now has available to invest in other library projects will provide a greater depth and variety of support for scientists and students at LUMCON.  Our journal access simply prevented us from affording these programs and infrastructure before.

I am in a position of leadership and have an amazing, supportive, and forward-thinking faculty to work with.  We are able to accomplish things that may not be possible in a larger university system.  So what can you do?

I am going to take a hard stance but here we go.

  1. Do not require textbooks for your courses. Provide other materials and make them freely available to your students.
  2. If you absolutely need to use a textbook, teach out of older editions. Provide in your syllabus a variety of links where that textbook can be purchased at a reduced fee. If you ever come across a good deal on that textbook, purchase it yourself.  Give or loan the book to your students in need.
  3. Work with your university and state on ebook programs that purchase electronic rights to textbooks that are made freely available to your students.
  4. Through your departmental and university committees, and your faculty senate, start working with your university (or putting pressure on them) to replace the antiquated and overpriced book model at your institution.
  5. Do not serve as editor, reviewer, or author of a paper in a for-profit journal. Support the innovative models you want to see.  I recognize the commitment will be dependent on your career stage.  But you the senior faculty need to step up to the plate and be an example. Create safe places for junior faculty to be able to pursue this.
  6. Change evaluation policies for faculty that reward open science models and decrease value on publishing in and with for-profit journals and publishing houses.
  7. Do not grant interviews to journalists that work for these for-profit publishing houses and/or limit access to the materials behind a paywall. If we believe that scientific information should be available to all, then the public discussion and public translation of that work should also be freely available.
  8. Educate yourself on open-access publishing standards. Here is a directory of all open-access journals.  Read about the difference between gold, green, and even copper open access standards.
  9. Lastly, make sure you retain copyright over all your own work and make sure it is available for free on the web. I have been woefully poor on this front.  But as of today and moving forward, I will be posting all my preprints on https://arxiv.org/.  I will research all of the copyright and sharing restrictions on all of my published articles and try to find solutions in making them all more available.

I realized that this is a tremendous amount of burden on all us all.  Indeed, many times in science what is for the benefit of the scientific community is not for the benefit of the individual scientist.  These are big standards to follow, and depending on your career stage, opportunity, current funding, etc., you may not be able to follow all of these or follow them all of the timeThis does not make you a bad person or scientist.  But with all of us trying to make small decisions in the right direction, working toward this goal, we will move the field in total to the right place.

UPDATE: A colleague and friend asked this…

Great piece but genuine question, does open access = not for profit? Who are the not for profit publishers? Is there a list somewhere? I am all for open access and detest the pay wall system. But the problem with the current open access model is it places the burden of publishing cost on the individual scientist as opposed to the pay wall model where costs are met by library subscription and it is “free” for the individual researcher to publish. There must be another way to do this? I would like to see more societies running and profiting from journals. Then the profit goes back into science.

So open access does not always equal not for profit.  These are not mutually exclusive categories.  A journal can be

  1. Completely open access, hybrid open access (papers are open access if the author chooses to pay additionally), or closed access
  2. For- or non-profit
  3. Society or not  (profit can be completely applied to the society or shared with a large for- or non-profit publishing house).

For example, PeerJ or PloS are open access and not for profit (UPDATE: Ok, ok people…PeerJ is technically for profit).  Nature Communications is an open access and for profit.  Unfortunately, I am not aware of a list of not for profit or non-profit journals.

My colleague does raise another issue which I’ve been burdened by for a while, the movement of paying for publishing of articles from the institution to the scientist.  The switch does not really address the real money issue and ultimately the taxpayer is footing the bill, the conduit of the money is just different.  I am not sure what the right model here is to solve this dilemma.  I am a fan of the PeerJ model that limits the publishing cost to a one-time fee for authors with each author of the paper paying this fee.  But the fee is negligible and spans an entire career.

Pricing for Lifetime Memberships is (from October 1, 2016):

  • Basic: $399
  • Enhanced: $449
  • Premium: $499

Memberships allow for one, two, or five peer-reviewed publications per 12-month period respectively, counting from your last publication to your next first-decision.

7 Replies to “Tipping Points, For-Profit Scientific Publishing, and Closed Science”

  1. See also, Open Education Resources

    Open educational resources (OER) are teaching, learning, and research resources that reside in the public domain or have been released under an intellectual property license that permits their free use and re-purposing by others. OER include full courses, course materials, modules, textbooks, streaming videos, tests, software, and any other tools, materials, or techniques used to support access to knowledge.

  2. Well done! Speaking of good deals for books, as a student I often bump into good deals on AbeBooks for titles required by my course, and I donate books to my library. The Internet Archive is preparing to do this at scale, by acquiring and digitising millions of books (including textbooks) which can then be borrowed online by one user at a time:

  3. So, so much agreement on all of this! Thank you for posting, and for taking such a bold step as to straight-up cancel ALL subscriptions. This is much-needed leadership.

    On your point 5, “Do not serve as editor, reviewer, or author of a paper in a for-profit journal.”: I often get pushback from colleagues on this one, as some feel that by refusing to review others’ papers in non-open journals, I am harming the authors. I take this criticism seriously enough that I wrote a post explaining in detail why I think it’s nevertheness the right thing. You might find it interesting or useful: https://svpow.com/2011/10/17/collateral-damage-of-the-non-open-reviewing-boycott/

    You do conflate open=non-profit and non-open=for-profit, as your colleague noted. Specifically, your point 5 is aimed at for-profit publishers when I think it should be aimed at non-open publishers (and I suspect that’s what you meant?) Note for example that PeerJ is a for-profit operation — but like you, I use and recommend it, because it’s fully open and provides a good service at a good price. That it’s also (potentially) enriching individuals is not a major negative in my view.

  4. Dover also has a lot of golden oldies, particularly in more mathematical subjects, that go for less than $20. I had them assigned in undergrad and grad programs.

  5. Dear Craig McClain, I´m a librarian from National Research Institute in Fisheries in Argentina, I take note of your comments by IAMSLIC our Library Assoc. in Mar.Sci., is very interesting your point of view. Since Libraries we start working in that since 2000 supporting Plos, working in open acces repositories and so one… I think the are two important points, first is related with : “6. Change evaluation policies for faculty that reward open science models and decrease value on publishing in and with for-profit journals and publishing houses.” When start to change the ‘evaluation policies’ many things will change. The second and important one is the ‘sustainability’ of open acces sources/resources, OA is not ‘free’, some one has to pay people, servers, technology, etc…and ensure access to the future. This movement start around 20 years, and is not easy but not impossible move to a real change (maybe an hybrid profit-not profit way to communicate since in a ‘razonable cost’), I agree with you if “all of us trying to make small decisions in the right direction, working toward this goal, we will move the field in total to the right place”
    THANKS so much for your initiative, congrats for your work in Marine Science!!

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