The Loss of An Art to Business

Journal des savants was the earliest academic journal published in Europe in 1665. Prior to the formalized system of academic publishing, scientists commonly announced new discoveries using anagrams often unready to present all the facts or in fear of the church. This system led to conflicts in the scientific community and academic publishing was introduced to successfully reduce the number of these disputes.

Transitioning to a very different present, the Huang Fellows looked on in reserved bewilderment as Dr. Misha Angrist described the burgeoning changes that transformed an art into a business. In the 1960s and 1970s, commercial publishers began to acquire prestigious scientific journals from non-profit academic societies. Because the demand for these scientific journals was unvarying, commercial publishers could significantly raise the price of their product with a marginal loss of the market. This led to near monopolistic control over the scientific publishing process and unchecked control over prices. Dr. Angrist described it elegantly: “Science publishing is a good business to be in.”

A ripple of disbelief swept through the Huang Fellows’ expressions. How could life-saving research be incentivized into a highly lucrative business? Dr. Angrist went on to reassure us that the recent development of the Internet as a medium of information exchange and collaboration has challenged the traditional control of scientific journals over scientific information. In 2011, from the recesses of the Dark Web, Alexandra Elbakyan created Sci-Hub, a digital repository of over 64.5 million scientific journal articles. This was a direct challenge to traditional publishers that filed lawsuits against Sci-Hub, claiming that it was unjustifiably taking proprietary scientific information.

From her throne on the Dark Web, unfettered by US legal demands, Elbakyan raised the issue of open-source publishing or making this scientific research publicly available to further scientific knowledge. This led many to question why publicly funded research in the United States was monopolistically controlled by a selection of scientific journal companies. Publishers claimed that they provided the service of peer reviewing research and encouraged researchers to submit to their publications to further their careers. There is truth in the adage “publish or perish” as aspiring PhDs are left with no choice but to publish their work in a prestigious journal to receive grants or positions in more acclaimed labs and universities. Consequently, the incentives that publishing companies have developed to perpetuate their business model are significant barriers to reform.

Despite the overwhelming obstacles, proponents of open-source publishing reason that scientific articles are analyzed in context of other research versus on their own. In the mid-1990s, work on the human genome required a new form of data analysis that was not compatible with analysis of individual journal articles. Scientists were now required to peruse a plethora of data points from dozens of sources—challenging the journal article publication model that had been in place for years. As a result, the inefficiency of traditional scientific journals was brought to attention and demands for open-source publishing emerged.

The revolutionary cry for open-source publishing is, unfortunately, stifled by the chains of wealth, influence and power. Seven billion dollars of annual profit accompanied by a flock of unrelenting lobbyists place the staff of power squarely in the palms of publishing companies. The largest publisher of medical journals, Elsevier, has won its legal case against Alexandra Elbakyan and her vigilante empire on the Internet. A recent ruling against Sci-hub has even demanded internet service providers—including search engines—block Sci-Hub from users. The implications of such a ruling change the role of internet service providers and search engines from gateways of information to law enforcers.

Efforts for open-source publishing stem from improved data sharing and furtherment of scientific knowledge free from monetary incentives. Nevertheless, the reality persists that publication groups currently have the wealth and influence to influence the law. Consequently, the chance for successful political change that favors open-source publishing in the near future is feeble at best. Dr. Angrist made his concluding remarks with resounding insight.While revolutionary change like open-source publishing may not lie in the near future, preprint services—scientific articles prior to publication in a journal and yet to undergo peer review—are gaining traction. These sources gave us hope in the struggle against the industry of science research.

Aditya Santoki, Huang Fellow ’18

Aditya SantokiAditya is studying Chemistry and Global Health. After graduating, he plans on attending medical school and becoming involved with national healthcare policy reform.