Scientific Publishing: Letter to An Editor

Here is a letter I just sent to the editor of a prestigious journal. I follow it with some links to the general debate about scientific publishing and publishers’ business models.

Dear Editor,

On 8/2/12 4:22 AM, SCP Editorial Office wrote:
> Ms. Ref. No.: SCICO-D-12-xxxxxxxxxxxxxx
> Title: XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX
> Science of Computer Programming
>
> Dear Prof Peter Ladkin,
>
> On May 12, 2012, I sent you the abstract below, which has been
> submitted for consideration for publication in Science of Computer
> Programming. I would be most grateful if you could find the time to
> read the paper and comment on its suitability for publication.

Yes, you did. Here is my view.

SCP is a premier journal in theoretical computer science. Unfortunately, my university had to cancel its subscription a number of years ago because of the expense, with only two groups (mine and one other in the faculty) consulting it regularly.

You are asking me to work for free for a journal which our university library can’t afford. What are you offering in return for my work? Maybe a free subscription for a couple of years?

As you know, the business model (including profit margin) and dominance of the publisher of SCP (and another company) in the field of scientific publishing has been a matter of international concern for some time. The British government has recently announced plans to reject such models in all cases in which research is publicly funded.

Besides the cost, the business model includes that authors transfer essentially all rights to their own work to the publisher. In 2011, I engaged with the other company twice in negotiations to retain my right to publish two invited talks on my WWW site, and include one in a book I am preparing. One of these negotiations was successful, the other not; the paper was not included in the conference proceedings.

I do think the progress of science depends on work being made widely available to all scientists, and such restrictive practices hinder that. The work whose retention I could not negotiate is widely disseminated within the German standards body and the IEC, where it is serving to help negotiate the next revision of the E/E/PE functional safety standard IEC 61508. Had I signed my rights away, this would not have been possible.

I have strong objections both to the price which SCP charges in an environment in which the publisher makes considerable profit but my university cannot afford to subscribe, thus hindering the availability of the work in SCP to us, and to the transfer of publishing rights from author to publisher without consideration of availability issues.

For these reasons, I am somewhat reluctant to work for you for free without a counter offer which gives my university something we want. Besides which, I doubt whether I have the time at the moment.

I do know the work. A shorter version was submitted to the SAFECOMP conference this year, and I reviewed it as a member of the programming committee. I think it is very likely you will end up accepting it for publication.

> Please let me know whether you are able to carry out the review
> by logging onto the system at

I am letting you know by sending you email, which for me is a far preferable communication medium. I much prefer a system whereby I am sent the paper by email by a real person and submit my review by return email. I have pages of notebook full of login names and passwords for various WWW-based systems I was asked to use or wanted to use, and this collection was growing too fast. I am aware of all the mental algorithms people suggest for managing such collections. But this device has become a very unsatisfactory system of authentication, to the point at which personal email is a better system in most respects (for example, you have a number of ways to ensure, if you wish, that the person writing this email is really me, whereas since you sent me your email in plaintext, I bet there is a half dozen script kiddies around the world that now know how to log in to your system as me; our university backbone net was first demonstrably compromised over a decade ago). Besides, the software behind such WWW-based systems is often painful to negotiate.

I do hope you appreciate my concerns about the situation with some scientific publishers, even if you do not agree with them. I have laid them out, because I am not alone with these concerns, as the situation in Britain has shown, and I and others would like to see your publisher make different arrangements which enhance the availability of scientific work.

Regards,

PBL

I think there is a crisis in scientific publishing. It was highlighted by the columnist George Monbiot in The Guardian last year as well as by Professor em. David Colquhoun in his blog Improbable Science, which is archived by the British Library. There are some interesting studies of the economics of scientific publishing by Professor Ted Bergstrom of UCSB, who has a “journal pricing” page and has also has made available a study by financial services company Morgan Stanley’s European division. Some measures to change this situation were recently reported by The Guardian newspaper , concerning general British government plans for publishing publicly-funded research following a report by Professor Dame Janet Finch, as well as imminent measures for publishing work funded by the UK Department for International Development.

I am not the only person declining to participate in SCP’s publisher’s business model. There are some 12,000+ more.

I note that there are some universal concerns, such as subscription or individual-article costs, the profit made by commercial publishers mostly at public expense, including the effort provided for free by authors and reviewers, and the availability of the result, but that different branches of intellectual endeavor have their own unique concerns, such as in the area of safety-critical systems the difficulties working industrial engineers encounter in having their companies sign the existing publishing contracts on offer. Thus my colleagues at SCSC Newcastle were unable to publish all invited papers this year in the proceedings volume of their Safety-Critical Systems Symposium 2012. This has got to change. Not being able to publish papers by working industrial engineers is an unacceptable situation.

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