Science - October 18, 2018

Dumb scientists

Guido Camps

I reviewed three articles last week. It doesn’t matter how busy you are, how much teaching you’re doing, or even whether you are on holiday: emails from journal editors come when they come. ‘Dear Dr Camps, might we invite you to review…’

Reviewing articles is part of being a scientist, and it’s nice to see what your colleagues submit for publication, so I always try to say yes to publications within my subject area. The funny thing is, though, that it takes a lot of time to review an article well, and that time is actually intended for education or research. So the university or a grant-awarding body is in fact subsidizing your reviewing time.

Scientific editors (often professors) spend even more time on these kinds of journals, and the same goes for them: they often get a nominal fee, whereas the work takes up a lot of time that comes on top of their job.

Meanwhile, we scientists have to pay to publish an article. And we pay – through a university subscription – to be able to read the work. In other words: scientists are the editors, reviewers, writers and readers of academic journals, but spend time or money at every stage of the process.

So does anyone make any money out of all those publications? Well, Elsevier, the academic publications branch of the RELX Group, had a turnover of 2.5 billion pounds in 2017, and a profit margin of 37 percent. Higher than the profit margins of Google, Apple or Amazon. We scientists are pretty dumb to go along with this. Plan S, the intention of European research financiers to make open access compulsory from 2020, is a step in the right direction. But it only solves one small part of the problem.

Guido Camps (34) is a vet and a postdoc at the Human Nutrition department. He enjoys baking, beekeeping and unusual animals.