December 2021 Issue Table of Contents
A verbatim conversation with a new PhD student of mine, as they prepared to submit their very first paper for publication:
Student: “Hey Rich, why does it say I have to pay $2,750 to submit my article?”
Me: “Don’t worry, these are publication fees, not submission fees!”
Student: “So, we have to pay to get published? Wow, this is ridiculous!”
Me: “Welcome to the wonderful world of academic publishing—we do the research, write the papers, review them, edit the journal—all for free – then pay the journal to publish it and pay them again to read it…”
Student (angry face emoji): “I am seriously shocked…”
Having this conversation with a generation of students that have grown up in the social media era, where every waking thought and emotion can be posted and consumed instantly at no up-front cost to either the writer or the reader (glossing over, for now, the cost of handing over your personal data to a glorified advertising company, later to be bombarded by adverts for that random thing you happened to search for that one time), brings it home that they have every right to be shocked. Whilst there are both good and bad examples of academic publishing practices out there (and Elements is, of course, one of the good ones!), the fact is that we—the academic community—are complicit in perpetuating a system that works primarily for the financial benefit of the major publishers and not for the community that does most, if not all, of the work. Despite many of us working in institutions that are signatories to the San Francisco Declaration on Research Assessment (DORA)—which promotes the idea that it is what you publish, not where you publish that really counts—how many of us still succumb to the reflex reaction of considering submitting to Science or Nature the moment we get an exciting result we think may be deemed “worthy” of a “glamour journal”? As long as we (myself included) continue to attach value to publishing in certain places, and we continue to use where something is published as proxy of its scientific merit, then we will continue to get the publishing system we deserve.
One might hope that, if we were to design a publishing system from scratch, we would not choose to do it this way. However, as the global pandemic has forced the other major cornerstone of our community—scientific conferences—online, the evidence suggests that we are destined to repeat the same mistakes all over again: we do the research, record the carefully crafted video of the conference talk, pay to submit it, pay to register for the conference, and in the process ensure that our all our hard work is hidden behind a giant paywall so that only a limited number of people can see it for a limited amount of time (and usually at 3 o’clock in the morning). As I gloomily enter my credit card details into yet another major online conference, I can’t be the only person to wonder why I don’t just upload it to YouTube for free and tweet a link to my (admittedly rather modest number of) followers?
But there is hope! A new generation of Earth scientists has clearly had enough with the business-as-usual approach to academic publishing and are taking matters into their own hands. This editorial was inspired by a remarkable response by Dr. Jamie Farquarson (see figure) to the announcement that Nature journals would be charging authors €9,500 to make their papers open access:
Dr. Farquharson is one of the founders of Volcanica, a community-led “diamond” open access journal that authors can publish in for free and that readers can view for free (Farquharson and Wadsworth 2018). Such initiatives have become possible thanks to the widespread availability of cheap web hosting and archiving services: to the greater use of LaTeX software to aid the preparation, submission, and typesetting of manuscripts; and to an army of volunteers who have realised that, since they do all this work for free anyway, they might as well work for the benefit of themselves and their community, rather than line the pockets of “big journal”. The extraordinarily low cost of their operation exposes the lie at the heart of much of academic publishing. If we truly believe that it is what you publish, not where you publish, then it does not have to cost anywhere near €9,500 to publish our science in respected, peer-reviewed, international journals. This realisation has already sparked other initiatives within the Earth sciences, with efforts underway to create Seismica, a diamond open access journal for the seismology community (https://doi.org/10.31223/X5304V). Perhaps the direction of travel is now clear: in the future, the only question my PhD student will have to ask is, What audience do we want to reach?” and not, “What can we afford to pay?
So, shine on you crazy diamonds—free to publish, free to read—it’s an idea that’s crazy enough, it just might work!
Farquharson JI, Wadsworth FB (2018) Introducing Volcanica: the first diamond open-access journal for volcanology. Volcanica 1: i-ix, doi: 10.30909/vol.01.01.i-ix