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Academics are paying to have their studies published


Robust is an adjective that was once reserved for stout hiking boots but has recently been weaponized by middle-brow bureaucrats as a cudgel to beat down alternative thinking.

As a dog returneth to its own vomit, bureaucrats spout the word in their demands that evidence is robust, while the mainstream media looks for robust research, as do those who patrol the outer perimeters of conventional medicine to protect it from incursive forces.

When it comes to medical science (an oxymoron, I accept), nobody has defined the word. Is a medical procedure robust if it’s been supported by one trial? Or three perhaps? And that new drug—how many people need to have taken it before we’re happy its effectiveness and safety are robustly ensured?

Although nobody has a clue, let me put forward a definition.

Robust (adj.): any plausible theory that concurs with current paradigms and is supported by at least one study published in a medical journal.

Sound watertight? Not a bit of it, and that’s because of the scurrilous state of academic journals.

A few weeks back, the entire editorial staff of Journal of Economic Surveys walked out over the pay-to-publish policy of the publisher, Wiley. Along with most academic publishers, Wiley has adopted the model that requires researchers, or their academic institutions, to cough up. In essence, if you’ve got the cash, they’ll publish any old rubbish.

It’s the second walkout at Wiley; most of the editorial board at another of its esoteric titles staged a month-long strike over the policy, while a thousand academics signed a non-cooperation statement. Meantime, Wiley is counting the cash, recording $422 million (£331 million) in earnings in the last financial year.

But Wiley is a boy among men. The king of the cash-for-publication model is Dutch publisher Elsevier, which published around 600,000 articles across 2,800 journals in 2022. The jewel in its crown is top medical journal The Lancet, but the vast majority of its titles lurk in the long, dark shadows of anonymity.

It’s a publishing model that works a treat: Elsevier’s turnover is around £8 billion ($10.2 billion), and it has posted a profit of £1.6 billion ($2 billion), making it the eighth-largest company operating in London.

The pay-to-publish model has a murky beginning that goes back to Robert Maxwell, the man who plundered the Mirror Group pension pot before disappearing off his yacht, The Lady Ghislaine (named after his daughter, the enabler of pedophile Jeffrey Epstein). Back in the 1980s, he established Pergamon Press to publish thousands of niche scientific journals that university libraries were press-ganged into subscribing to, at a cost of thousands of pounds.

After Maxwell disappeared into the dark waters of the Atlantic, Elsevier stepped up to buy Pergamon, making it the world’s largest scientific publisher. But the wheels were coming off Maxwell’s original vision: libraries just couldn’t afford to buy all those scientific journals.

Step forward “open access.” In this new era of scientific publishing, anyone can read a paper for free—but it isn’t free to the researchers who prepared the study. They have to pay for its publication, and the going rate is $2,000 to $4,000 (£1,570 to £3,130) per paper.

The new model immediately precludes any academic or institution that doesn’t have the funds, but it’s open-access season to anyone who does. In the age of web-only publishing, which requires no outlay on print and post, hundreds of journals—usually based in India or China—have popped up. They promise that papers will be “peer-reviewed,” which means absolutely nothing beyond a blind rubber-stamping of anything that is submitted.

Imagine you work at the back of a laundry in Mumbai. You dream up some vaguely impressive title and alert academics around the world to its existence. Charge around $3,000 per paper and aim to publish 15 papers in each issue; that’s $45,000 a month, or $540,000 (£423,000) each year with almost zero cost. Create a few more titles, and you have a very profitable business.

But open access isn’t the gravy train for only the small publisher: the big boys have been busy filling their boots, too, as Wiley, Elsevier and others are demonstrating.

So, we finally do have a definition of robust: it’s around $3,000.

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